Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Atlanta Braves.
68–93 (.420), fifth place in National League East
RHP John Gant, RHP Tyrell Jenkins, LHP Eric O’Flaherty*, C A.J. Pierzynski*, RHP Williams Perez*, OF Mallex Smith, RHP Chris Withrow
RHP Bartolo Colon, RHP R.A. Dickey, LHP Jaime Garcia, LHP Luiz Gohara, 2B Micah Johnson, IF Sean Rodriguez
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
A year after tearing down their roster as part of a dramatic rebuild, the Braves spent the winter before they move into their new home—the suburban SunTrust Park, another successful attempt by a sports franchise to bilk the public out of millions of dollars for a stadium that it didn’t need—by making some veteran additions to their young roster.
The main focus was on a rotation that was a complete disaster in 2016. Atlanta's starters finished in the majors' bottom 10 in ERA (4.87; third), strikeouts (684; fourth), innings pitched (880 1/3; eighth) and home runs allowed (135; tied for ninth). Julio Teheran was the unquestioned ace, posting a 3.21 ERA, 129 ERA+ and 4.8 WAR in 188 innings, but he was the only Braves pitcher with 10 or more starts to finish with an ERA under 3.50 or an ERA+ above 100. The motley crew of Aaron Blair, Mike Foltynewicz, Bud Norris, Williams Perez and Matt Wisler ranged from mediocre to downright putrid, registering a 5.20 ERA in 474 innings.
Blair (24), Foltynewicz (25), Wisler (24) and top prospects Sean Newcomb (23) and Touki Toussaint (20)—as well as 2015 first-round picks Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka and ’16 No. 3 pick Ian Anderson—are the future in Atlanta, but the rotation of the present needs arms, and those youngsters aren’t ready for primetime. As such, the Braves went in the opposite direction in free agency, locking down the league’s two most senior statesmen in the 43-year-old Colon and the 42-year-old Dickey, along with veteran lefty Garcia, a 30-year-old who was picked up in a trade with the Cardinals.
Of that trio, Colon is the most likely to give the Braves value. Inked to a one-year, $12.5 million deal, he has been defying age and the odds as a strike-throwing machine since returning from serious arm trouble in 2011. Over the past three seasons, he was a superb innings-eater for the Mets, giving New York nearly 600 innings and posting a 3.90 ERA, including last year’s 3.43 mark in 191 2/3 frames. Colon’s heat is long gone, but his impeccable control and pitching savvy have helped him survive despite his sub-90s fastball. As long as he stays healthy, Atlanta should be able to pencil him in for 190-plus above-average innings.
The knuckleballing Dickey is more of a wild card. Signed to a one-year, $7.5 million contract, he's just five years removed from winning the NL Cy Young Award for the Mets, but he struggled in four seasons with the Blue Jays, putting up a 4.05 ERA in 824 1/3 innings. In 2016, he failed to reach 200 innings for the first time since 2010 and both his walk rate (3.3) and home-run rate (1.5) were his worst since being traded to Toronto. That said, a move back to the DH-less National League (and out of the AL East especially) might provide a boost to the rubber-armed maestro of the knuckler.
Garcia has the most upside of the three additions, but the injury-prone lefty was far too hittable in 2016, getting touched up for a 4.67 ERA, a 4.49 FIP and an 88 ERA+ in 171 2/3 innings for St. Louis. He has the stuff to dominate (for proof, see his 2.43 ERA and 161 ERA+ in 2015), but he too frequently misses starts due to persistent arm troubles (for proof, see the fact that he managed just 20 turns and 129 2/3 innings in that great '15 season). Last year, he was burned by the home-run ball, giving up 1.4 per nine. Atlanta didn’t give up much for him, and he’s a free agent after the season, but a healthy and productive Garcia would be a big help to a rotation in need of it.
Aside from that trio, the Braves added a pair of infielders in Rodriguez and Johnson and an intriguing arm in Gohara. Rodriguez, 31, emerged as a jack-of-all-trades in Pittsburgh over the last two years, playing every position but catcher and pitcher and providing power off the bench (18 homers in 342 plate appearances last season). Signed to a two-year, $11.5 million deal, he should fill that same utility role in Atlanta and get plenty of work given the team’s holes at second and third base. The 26-year-old Johnson, picked up from the Dodgers, is an all-glove, no-hit infielder who will provide bench depth and could push Jace Peterson for time at second base in a competition where whoever wins will eventually cede the spot to prospect Ozzie Albies.
Gohara is an unexpected addition. The 20-year-old Brazilian lefty entered the off-season as one of Seattle’s top prospects but was sent to Atlanta in an early January trade. Gohara has electric stuff: He’s struck out 228 batters in 204 1/3 innings in the minors and hits as high as 100 mph with his fastball. But according to Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, there are worries about the health of Gohara’s shoulder—concerns bad enough to scuttle a deal last summer that would have sent him to Cincinnati for shortstop Zack Cozart. Braves general manager John Coppolella is no stranger to picking up highly touted yet risky arms, however, and Gohara represents a terrific bet on his part. He was acquired for Smith, one of the pieces that came to Atlanta from San Diego for Justin Upton; he was subsequently flipped from Seattle to Tampa Bay. The speedy Smith is a strong defender but showed little power in his 72-game rookie debut last season (a .365 slugging percentage in 215 plate appearances).
Joining Smith on the way out of Atlanta are a number of relievers. Gant, 24, struck out 49 in 50 innings but gave up home runs by the bunches en route to a 4.86 ERA; he was sent to St. Louis as part of the package for Garcia. Fellow righty Withrow was superficially solid in a late-inning role, posting a 3.58 ERA, but injuries (including Tommy John surgery in 2014) have robbed the former Dodgers first-rounder of velocity (from 96.1 mph in ‘13 to 93.6 in ’16), and his strikeout rate plummeted from 11.8 per nine in ’14 to 6.7 last year. He was non-tendered in early December and joined the Royals in early January. Situational lefty O’Flaherty was rocked in 28 2/3 injury-plagued innings, giving up 22 runs, and was jettisoned in November.
Young starters Perez (6.04 ERA in 53 2/3 innings) and Jenkins (5.88 in 52) were also given their walking papers, with the latter briefly getting caught in transaction purgatory; he went from Atlanta to Texas via trade, was waived, claimed by Cincinnati, waived again and finally scooped up by San Diego. Elsewhere on the roster, veteran catcher Pierzynski is gone after a season in which he hit a meager .219/.243/.304 in 259 plate appearances as the backup to Tyler Flowers. The 40-year-old reportedly considered retiring in late September but apparently wants to play a 20th season, should anyone want him.
Unfinished Business: Third base, bullpen
The Braves’ infield is set: Freddie Freeman at first, either Peterson or Johnson at second and Dansby Swanson at shortstop. Third base, meanwhile, belongs to Adonis Garcia, who is both a poor defender (-10 Defensive Runs Saved in two seasons at the hot corner) and a bad hitter (.273/.311/.406 in 563 plate appearances last year)—and he’ll be 32 in April to boot. At this point, he’s likely a placeholder until Atlanta promotes Rio Ruiz (who hit .271/.355/.400 in Triple A last year at the tender age of 22) for good, but a better fill-in alternative would be welcome. That could be Rodriguez, or perhaps the Braves could kick the tires on the free-agent market. Former Astros cornerman Luis Valbuena would be a good option there.
Beyond third base, the bullpen could also use some attention. The Braves’ best reliever last year was Jim Johnson, and while the veteran righty had a bounceback year with a 3.06 ERA and 20 saves in 2016, it’s unwise to bet on a repeat performance given his struggles of the previous two seasons. The same goes for expecting journeyman lefty Ian Krol to duplicate his good 2016 season. Atlanta has plenty of arms to pull out of the minors to fill spots and should have flamethrowing righty Arodys Vizcaino back at full health, but a veteran reliever or two would go a long way toward providing some security for both the bullpen and the rotation.
Preliminary Grade: B
The Braves are still at least a year away from contention, but this winter’s additions should help pick up the pace toward that goal, and Atlanta didn’t sacrifice anything but cash and spare parts to get that much closer. This isn’t a playoff team, but with a bolstered rotation and still more prospects on the way to the majors via a loaded farm system, the Braves should be notably better than last year.