AnalysisNL East

2020 Atlanta Braves Season Preview

After two consecutive NL East titles, the Atlanta Braves enter 2020 once again in the thick of a tight NL East division race, this time compounded by a schedule of just 60 games to decide who earns a playoff spot. While the core of Braves players, having proved itself in the regular season, has failed to advance to the NLCS in each of the last two seasons, it still consists of Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr. Ozzie Albies, Max Fried, and Mike Soroka, likely the team’s best five players, through 2021. Even beyond 2021, after which Freeman is a free agent, all of the other four players are under team control through 2024. Still, beyond these five players there are some questions regarding the upper limits of the performance of most of the rest of the team. As a result, they’re less than favorites to win a third straight division title, especially considering the maintenance of the reigning World Champion Nationals’ roster and the strength of the Mets’ roster. The Braves surely won’t go down without a fight, though, and here’s how they stack up headed into the shortened season:

PECOTA projections (Full season from February):

82.8-79.2 record

3rd place in NL East

12.3% Chance to win division

38.4% Chance to make playoffs

PECOTA projections (shortened season from 7/14/2020):

30.4-29.6 record

3rd place in NL East

13.0% Chance to win division

30.2% Chance to make playoffs

The Braves’ chances at a playoff position have gone down with the implementation of a shorter season, but remain solid at just under a one in three chance. Even in the worst case scenario where two other teams in the NL East are multiple games ahead of the Braves, they will still be in contention for a wild card position, and there’s no reason to believe they shouldn’t be right in the thick of the division race.

Notable offseason moves:

Signed SP Cole Hamels to a 1 year, $18M contract

Signed OF Marcell Ozuna to a 1 year, $18M contract

Signed SP Felix Hernandez to a 1 year minor league contract ($1M)

Signed C Travis d’Arnaud to a 2 year, $16M contract ($8M AAV)

Signed RP Will Smith to a 3 year, $40M contract ($13.33M AAV)

Signed RP Chris Rusin to a 1 year minor league contract

The Braves were one of free agency’s most active teams over the course of the past offseason, continuing their pattern of signing free agents coming off low years to one year contracts, giving them the opportunity to reclaim their form and provide the team with great value. Last year, the team notably gave Josh Donaldson a contract of this type, paying him $23M to play one year in which he posted a resurgent 4.9 fWAR and boosted the Braves considerably at the hot corner. 

Now, the Braves capitalized on the opportunity to grab veteran starters Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez, both former aces who they hope have something left in the tank after Hamels struggled with injury last season and Hernandez missed significant time in the last season of a brilliant career with the Mariners that fizzled after an immense workload of 2,178 innings over the course of ten years from 2006-2015. Hernandez opted not to participate this season due to the COVID-19 virus, so he will not be available, though he may still have the opportunity to contend for a roster spot in Atlanta if there is still mutual interest in future seasons. With a shortened season, Hamels should be able to hold his own without having the strain of a typical 162 game season, and if he can demonstrate any of the same excellence that he has in the past, his deal will pay off for the Braves. 

Similarly, the team has taken a flier on outfielder Marcell Ozuna, who’s several years removed from his career best seasons but is still just 29 years old, hypothetically an age at which baseball players are still at their peak. While Ozuna’s defense made headlines in a bad way last season, his bat justifies his contract: despite his best season coming three years ago in Miami, in each of the last two seasons he has upped his hard contact rate so that he is among the best in the Major Leagues in hard contact, ranking in the 91st percentile in average exit velocity and the 92nd percentile in xwOBA last season. While some adjustments, including accounting for the slice that results from his swing, may prove beneficial, Ozuna is certainly a prime candidate to have a great year, and it makes all the sense in the world for the Braves to bet on him (and for him to bet on himself) with a one year deal.

The big signing here is the addition of reliever Will Smith, the veteran reliever who has excelled over the last two seasons in San Francisco and now hopes to anchor a Braves bullpen that has been far from stable as they’ve risen in the past couple of seasons. Smith has posted an ERA under 3.00 in each of the last two seasons while throwing a total of 118 ⅓ innings, marks of consistency that led the Braves to invest in him as a strong bullpen option with the three year deal. Beyond the aforementioned deals, the Braves are mostly filling out their roster with the signing of d’Arnaud and providing themselves with one more depth option in the bullpen with the signing of Rusin.

Notable player losses:

3B Josh Donaldson (.900 OPS, 132 wRC+, 4.9 fWAR in 2019)

OF Matt Joyce (.858 OPS, 128 wRC+, 1.2 fWAR in 2019)

SP Dallas Keuchel (3.75 ERA, 4.72 FIP in 112 ⅔ IP in 2019)

All three of these losses will undoubtedly hurt the Braves moving forward, as Joyce and Donaldson were two strong bats when they were in the lineup and Keuchel, while he joined the team late and pitched just over 110 innings, still provided valuable pitching that was just better than league average, even if his underlying stats indicate that he may not be the same pitcher this upcoming season that he was before. Still, though, Donaldson would have been very expensive to keep around: the Twins signed him for $21M each year through at least his age 37 season with a team option for $16M to play his age 38 season in the Twin Cities as well, and this would have been a very expensive contract for the Braves to commit to for the foreseeable future considering Donaldson’s age and the money that will soon be involved with paying many of their young players. While the team does have Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies both signed to very team-friendly contracts, they will have to pay several of their young pitchers, including Max Fried and Mike Soroka, and while Donaldson will very likely warrant his contract, the desire to maintain financial flexibility is understandable for a team that is still in the prime of a window of competitiveness. While the Braves hope to make up for the loss of Keuchel with Hamels, Keuchel still would have been a solid, slightly above-average innings eater for the Braves, and something they will miss.

Projected starting lineup (Roster Resource)

C: Travis d’Arnaud

1B: Freddie Freeman

2B: Ozzie Albies

3B: Johan Camargo

SS: Dansby Swanson

LF: Marcell Ozuna

CF: Ender Inciarte

RF: Ronald Acuña Jr.

DH: Austin Riley

Projected bench

C: Tyler Flowers

1B: Yonder Alonso

INF: Adeiny Hechavarria

OF: Charlie Culberson

OF: Adam Duvall

The Braves have a lineup with as many legitimate threats as any team in baseball, and it’s also exceptionally young. Having heard the names of Acuña and Albies for a couple of years now, it’s easy to forget that they’re just 22 and 23 years old, respectively, with former top prospect Austin Riley also checking in at 23 years old this season. Some pieces of the lineup, including d’Arnaud and Freeman, are over 30, but ultimately age is not a concern whatsoever for this lineup. This also means that it’s very likely that some parts of the lineup continue to take steps forward, especially those players that are still not yet 24 years old. One change from seasons past is that Dansby Swanson’s window for offensive improvement is likely near closed at this point, and while he will still provide defense at shortstop making him worthy of a starting role, he may never produce offensively at a level higher than league average. Even beyond Swanson, though, Freeman, Albies, Ozuna, Acuna and Riley, who raked all the way through the minors and posted a 146 wRC+ in triple-A last season, should be legitimate threats in the lineup. Camargo is a bit of an enigma as well, having posted a 116 wRC+ with plus defense in 534 plate appearances in 2018 for 3.3 fWAR and immediately regressing for a rather poor season in 2019. Especially if Camargo can return to that 2018 form, the Braves lineup will regularly feature six players with above average offense, a very deep lineup that is characteristic of a competitor.

Positional depth is one place where the Braves are relatively weak; Flowers is 34, and while he is an excellent pitch framer who will likely challenge for the starting role, he has a poor bat. Alonso struggled immensely in 2019, costing his teams over one win, Hechavarria has played for six teams in the last three seasons, Culberson is a slightly above average defender with a poor bat, and Duvall hit fairly well in 130 plate appearances last season but has been highly inconsistent throughout his career. Outfielder Nick Markakis was solid in 2018 but did his best impersonation of a league average player in 2019, and will miss this season after opting out due to the COVID-19 virus. Ultimately, it will very likely benefit the Braves to stick to their starters as much as possible, and if there’s one reason that they benefit most from a shortened season it may very well be the opportunity to have their starting lineup remain fresh throughout the season without having to utilize their bench too much.

The team also came close to a deal for outfielder Yasiel Puig, who would in many ways be similar to Ozuna, before the deal fell through in part because Puig tested positive for COVID-19. Still, it sounds like there remains mutual interest, so Puig could still join the team at some point during the season. If the Braves are able to add Puig at some point, it will help considerably with their current dearth of positional depth.

Projected starting rotation

RHP Mike Soroka

LHP Max Fried

RHP Mike Foltynewicz

LHP Sean Newcomb

RHP Kyle Wright

Projected bullpen

RHP Mark Melancon

RHP Shane Greene

RHP Luke Jackson

RHP Chris Martin

RHP Darren O’Day

LHP Grant Dayton

RHP Chad Sobotka

RHP Jacob Webb

LHP A.J. Minter

RHP Bryse Wilson

RHP Josh Tomlin

The Braves pitching staff already looks stronger now than at the beginning of seasons past, even considering that Hamels (triceps inflammation), Touki Toussaint (COVID-19) and Will Smith (COVID-19) are all currently on the injured list, with Hamels being the only one that will certainly not be ready by opening day. These are all pitchers with the ability to make a serious impact this season, and the Braves hope that they will return to health soon so that they have the opportunity to play and help the team. Still, Soroka and Fried anchor a rotation that is very young outside of Hamels, with Foltynewicz being the oldest at 28 years old and Soroka entering his third season at just 22. Still, Newcomb and Wright are still uncertainties at the back end of the rotation, with Newcomb having spent most of his time in the bullpen last season and Wright having struggled in short stints in the Major Leagues in each of the last two seasons. In a short season, the Braves will undoubtedly do well with the continued performance of Soroka and Fried from last season, and especially if Foltynewicz can post statistics more similar to his career best 2018. The rotation will look formidable even before the addition of Hamels. Toussaint is also an exciting young option that may start if necessary, and while he struggled at both triple-A and in Atlanta last year, he was downright dominant at triple-A in 2018, and at 24 there’s no reason for concern due to one down year.

As mentioned before, Smith is an important addition to this bullpen, and it will certainly miss him if he misses any time recovering from COVID. Still, the Braves made moves to acquire veteran relievers Melancon and Greene last season, and their presence will be an important part of anchoring the bullpen even without Smith. While Martin is now 34 years old, he and Jackson also posted solid seasons out of the pen last season and should be solid contributors again. Even regardless of the rest of the bullpen, that gives the Braves five solid, experienced relievers, something that cannot be said for many other bullpens in the Majors. O’Day brings in great bullpen experience as well, though at age 37 his best days are behind him and he may not have much to give, having pitched under ten innings across four different levels last season. Beyond them, the Braves have mostly younger and/or more unproven options, and they should find some solid value from these guys as well. Dayton, Wilson and Sobotka each have limited Major League experience and weren’t great last year, but at the very least will be able to cover some innings and keep other pitchers fresh. Josh Tomlin is now 35, but still pumped out almost 80 innings pitched last year and projects to be a viable option again this season, though last season was a bounceback from a disastrous 2018. The most interesting bullpen option is 26 year old A.J. Minter, who was great in 76 ⅓ innings across his first two seasons at the big league level but faltered last season. Still, the lefty has a solid three pitch arsenal with an above-average fastball that continued to rack up strikeouts last season; Minter’s issue was walks and home runs. He had his walks under control much more in time at triple-A last season, but still suffered slightly at the hands of the long ball, and will need to have put in some offseason work to get himself ready once again for 2020.

Other notable players in the 60-man player pool

C: Alex Jackson, William Contreras, Shea Langeliers

INF: Bryce Ball, Yangervis Solarte

OF: Cristian Pache, Drew Waters

SP: Tucker Davidson, Huascar Ynoa, Jasseel De La Cruz, Ian Anderson, Kyle Muller, Jared Shuster

RP: Chris Rusin, Tyler Matzek

Prediction

The Braves are a team with some of the strongest (and youngest) main contributors in baseball. Still, especially on the position player side, depth is a nagging question, albeit one that the team can escape from more in a shortened season. If I had to take a guess, I would peg the Braves for 33 wins, good for second place in the NL East and one NL Wild Card spot. They carry with them a combination of the momentum of winning seasons of years past and a lack of postseason success that leaves a team hungry for more. Still, they have to run the gauntlet of their own division combined with the formidable AL East, where there will hardly be any easy wins. The Braves match up well with many of these great teams even if they don’t have the top-tier weapons of the Yankees or the depth of the Mets, and will certainly play some great baseball in 2020.

Ryan Ruhde

Cubs, Royals and general analysis writer. Emory University Psychology/Music Performance Major and Pre-Med, class of 2023. Find me on Twitter @ruhdolph

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