2016 MLB season preview: Atlanta Braves
This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 30: the Atlanta Braves.
2015 Record and Finish:
67–95 (.414), fourth place in National League East (28th overall)
2016 Projected Record and Finish:
61–101 (.376), fifth place in NL East
The Case For
Deep at the bottom of a rebuild, the Braves are a near lock to post a losing record for the third straight season, forcing them to re-define success for the coming year. One possible positive outcome for 2016—most paradoxically but perhaps also most obviously—would be posting the worst record in baseball, thereby securing the top pick in next year's draft. That would give Atlanta top-three picks in three straight years, as the team traded this off-season for 2015's No. 1 selection, Dansby Swanson, and holds the third pick in this year's draft. That would represent a tremendous influx of elite talent for a farm system raising the expectations for their eventual return to contention in the years to come.
The Braves don’t necessarily need to get the top pick, either. Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant and Twins centerfielder Byron Buxton were No. 2 picks; Orioles third baseman Manny Machado was a No. 3 selection; and there are those who believe that last year’s third pick, high school shortstop Brendan Rodgers, is a better prospect than Swanson (Baseball Prospectus has Rodgers seven spots ahead of Swanson on its Top 101 prospects list for 2016). Three straight top-three picks would fast track Atlanta back toward a meaningful and potentially lasting contention.
Taking a more conventional approach, the Braves could measure success by the progress made by the players they hope will be a part of that next winning team. On the farm, that means a successful jump to the high minors by Swanson. Sean Newcomb, the potential front-of-the-rotation lefty acquired in the Andrelton Simmons deal, needs to show improved command at Triple A. Slick-fielding shortstop prospect Ozzie Albies needs a good showing at the plate at high A ball, and top 2015 draft picks Austin Riley and Kolby Allard need strong full-season debuts.
At the major league level, righthander Aaron Blair, who came over from the Diamondbacks with Swanson, must make a solid big-league debut. Hector Olivera needs to make a smooth transition to leftfield and prove his ability to hit major league pitching. Arodys Vizcaino has to take over the closer job, likely in the wake of Jason Grilli being dealt at the non-waiver deadline. Julio Teheran must bounce back from a disappointing 2015 campaign. Ender Inciarte needs to improve against lefthanded pitching and establish himself as a quality everyday centerfielder. Freddie Freeman has to turn in a healthy and productive season. If all of those things happen, the Braves may win a few too many games to get that elite draft pick, but they won’t need the consolation prize nearly as much.
The Case Against
The worst thing that could happen to the Braves is that they have a surprisingly successful major league season due to some fluky, last-gasp performances from their veterans. Winning roughly 77 games could drop them out of the top ten in the draft, and their pick subsequently wouldn’t be protected, limiting their ability to make free-agent upgrades for their move to their new ballpark next season.
Winning games because some combination of shortstop Erick Aybar, righthander Bud Norris, catcher A.J. Pierzynski, Grilli, utility man Kelly Johnson, third baseman Gordon Beckham, reliever Jim Johnson, centerfielder Michael Bourn and utility infielder Emilio Bonifacio—all of whom will be free agents at the end of the year—had surprising seasons would be a total disaster for Atlanta. Fortunately for the Braves, that’s extremely unlikely to happen.
Of the players projected to make the Braves’ Opening Day roster, Olivera is the biggest unknown. Signed to a six-year, $62.5 million contract by the Dodgers last May, the Cuban defector (who has five years and $32.5 million remaining on his contract) was acquired by the Braves last July in the three-team,13-player trade that sent lefty Alex Wood and infield prospect Jose Peraza to the Dodgers. Primarily a second baseman in Cuba, Olivera played third base exclusively in his first major league opportunity with the Braves last September but is being moved to leftfield full time this season.
Red flags abound. For starters, Olivera will turn 31 on April 5. Concerns over the state of his right (throwing) elbow prompted the Dodgers to include language in his contract adding a $1 million option for 2021 if he needs Tommy John surgery at any time prior to that season. He has no experience in the outfield, and his bat is unproven. Early scouting reports suggest that the move to left will be a rough one for Olivera and that, while he does have good hand-eye-coordination and the ability to make contact at the plate, he does not have a ton of power and is overly aggressive at the plate; he's unlikely to add to his value by drawing walks. Given that the Braves gave up four years of control over Wood and six over Peraza, they need Olivera to pan out for that trade not to look like a massive blunder, but his ceiling seems limited.
Number To Know: 20
This will be the 20th and final season for the Braves at Turner Field before they move into the new, suburban SunTrust Park next year. That’s significant for many reasons. They will become the first major league team to abandon a stadium built during what can roughly be described as the Bud Selig-era stadium explosion. It also marks the shortest tenure for a major league team in a steel-and-concrete, baseball-only stadium in which they were the initial tenants—not counting the many newer ballparks still in use, all of which are expected to remain in use past their twentieth seasons. After the Braves’ final game in Turner Field on Sunday, Oct. 2, Turner Field will be converted into a football stadium by Georgia State University, which bought the rights to the stadium and the surrounding land in December.
Most Overrated: Nick Markakis, RF
“Markakis was such a good player with Baltimore, but with his neck, his shoulder, he has really battled injuries. He can rake some doubles out there, but he doesn’t drive a ton of balls. He has no power left. He has lost some speed. He has lost some arm strength in rightfield. You’re not getting typical rightfield production. He can still hit a little bit, and he’s really good in the clubhouse, but his body is definitely trending down.”
Most Underrated: Freddie Freeman, 1B
“I think this guy can be an MVP candidate if he gets some guys around him in the lineup. He’s still only 26 years old, and you watch him and you see bat speed, you see power, you see leverage. This guy has some kind of thunder in that bat. If he can stay healthy, this guy’s got a chance to hit 30 home runs and hit close to .300. When he gets pitched so carefully, he really has to be selective at the plate and have some discipline, but if they start building around him [and] getting him some protection, he has a chance to be an impact bat.”