- The Braves weren't expected to win the NL East last year. They'll need a young core to succeed to do it again.
2018 finish: 90-72, lost in NLDS to Los Angeles Dodgers
SI's 2019 prediction: 83-79, Fourth in NL East
Key additions: 3B Josh Donaldson, C Brian McCann, OF Nick Markakis (re-signed)
Key departures: C Kurt Suzuki, RHP Aníbal Sánchez, RHP Brad Brach
1. CF Ender Inciarte
2. 3B Josh Donaldson
3. 1B Freddie Freeman
4. LF Ronald Acuña Jr.
5. RF Nick Markakis
6. 2B Ozzie Albies
7. C Brian McCann
8. SS Dansby Swanson
UTIL Johan Camargo
INF Charlie Culberson
OF Adam Duvall
C Tyler Flowers
1. RHP Julio Teheran
2. RHP Bryse Wilson
3. RHP Kyle Wright
4. LHP Sean Newcomb
RHP Arodys Vizcaíno (closer)
RHP Chad Sobotka
RHP Dan Winkler
LHP Jonny Venters
LHP Jesse Biddle
RHP Shane Carle
LHP Sam Freeman
RHP Luke Jackson
Injured List: RHP Mike Foltynewicz, Kevin Gausman RHP, LHP A.J. Minter, RHP Darren O’Day
Movin’ On Up! Newcomb didn’t have a sterling 2018, walking too many (4.5 per nine) and posting an ERA near 4. So why believe in him? It helps that the lefty has a knee-buckling, super-high-spin curveball against which batters hit just .139 last year. If he can figure out his control and command issues, he has true ace potential.
Sell! He’s still young, but Swanson hasn’t shown much in his brief career. The former No. 1 pick hit a grisly .238/.304/.395 last season, struck out in 22.9% of his plate appearances, ranked near the bottom of the league in average exit velocity, and was eaten alive by breaking balls (a .152 batting average and 35.3% whiff rate on those pitches in 2018). With Camargo shining last season, Swanson needs to impress early and often to keep his starting shortstop gig.
Appreciate This Man! Owner of a career .239/.319/.390 batting line across 10 seasons, Flowers won’t scare you at the plate. But the 33-year-old veteran backstop is one of baseball’s best behind it, ranking fourth among catchers in Baseball Prospectus’ Framing Runs stat last year. He steals strikes with aplomb, and as the man tasked with leading Atlanta’s young rotation through the season alongside fellow graybeard McCann, he’ll need to be on his A-game with the glove once again in 2019.
A Modest Proposal from Joe Sheehan: After winning their first NL East crown since 2013, the Braves mostly sat on their hands this winter. One addition, Brian McCann, will share catching duties with Tyler Flowers, and carry minimal expectations at age 35. The other, Josh Donaldson, was signed to the biggest one-year deal in baseball history, $23 million, and is expected to be a linchpin of the offense. We’re just a year removed from Donaldson getting MVP votes while hitting .270/.385/.559 with 31 home runs for the Blue Jays. His 2018 season was ruined thanks to shoulder and calf injuries that limited him to 52 games, just eight homers and his worst season since he was a rookie. When healthy, and by all accounts he is this spring, Donaldson has been a superstar. The Braves may well have gotten another MVP candidate, to go with Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuña Jr., for just a one-year commitment.a
MLB.TV Rating: 8.2
Acuña alone—the closest thing we have to Young Mike Trout—is more than enough reason to tune into Braves baseball. A bevy of highly talented kids in the rotation and the potential of Donaldson turning back the clock to 2014 adds some extra flavor. So, too, will a bullpen that will have Atlanta fans watching through their fingers most nights.
Keep an Eye Out For…: Third baseman Austin Riley is Atlanta’s top position prospect. He’s unlikely to see the show in 2019, but injury or poor performance from Donaldson could accelerate his timeline. Mike Soroka got a brief taste of the majors in 2018 before right shoulder trouble shut him down. He impressed when healthy and should get a chance to do so again for a thin rotation. The Canadian lefty is one of many highly touted pitchers in the Braves’ system: Keep an eye out too for Kyle Wright (the No. 5 pick of the 2017 draft), Kolby Allard (the No. 14 pick in ’15) and Bryse Wilson (a ’16 fourth-rounder) as potential second-half impact pieces.
What is the key question surrounding this team in 2019?
Whether the young pitchers will step up. So far they have in spring training. Kyle Wright, Max Fried and Chad Sobotka have all pitched well. Somebody’s gonna have to take the five-hole. They’ve got some injuries already. If the young kids step up, this is gonna be a very deep and talented team, ’cause that lineup is very good.
Who is the most overrated player on the team?
Dansby Swanson. When he originally signed, he was gonna be a much more productive hitter than he’s shown so far. He’s got power. He’s got ability to hit. He just hasn’t done it yet.
Who is the most underrated player on the team?
Ender Inciarte. He’s a tremendous defender and a much better hitter than people think. He’s one of the few guys left in big leagues willing to bunt for a hint. He’ll never hit for high average, but he’s a very good situational hitter and he plays a Gold Glove centerfield.
What young player(s) is/are on the cusp of stardom?
Ronald Acuña is already there. Maybe Johan Camargo or Ozzie Albies. Ozzie started very strong last year but tailed off in the second half. He has to learn how to translate that to 162 games. I think he just wore down. He plays with such excitement that it may have gotten a little ahead of him in the second half.
What young player(s) is/are the biggest bust candidate(s)?
Kevin Gausman. I don’t see the tiger in him. He’s got great stuff, but he’s kind of Louisiana cool. He’s got second-starter stuff, but he’s a fourth starter. He doesn’t step up.
Who gets the most out of his talent?
Freddie Freeman. He is one of the few guys in baseball that understands that you use the whole field. He’ll take base hits to leftfield, he’ll drive the ball out of the ballpark in left-centerfield. They stack three infielders on the right side and he breaks shifts all by himself. One of the reasons Atlanta won the division is he’s a great situational hitter. He’s a solid defender who throws well and can pick the ball out of the dirt well.
Who gets the least out of his talent?
Who has the nastiest stuff on the team?
Mike Foltynewicz, when he’s healthy. He throws hard with good offspeed stuff, and he commands it. He’s not an ace yet, but he’s getting there quick. He needs to be more consistent.
Who has the best baseball instincts/IQ?
Nick Markakis is very steady in the outfield. He’s a great situational hitter. He knows what he has to get done. He drove in 93 runs on only 14 home runs, because he knows how to score runs from second with a base hit, from third with a flyball. He’s very comfortable in Atlanta. That’s why he took less money to go back there. He’s a pro’s pro. He’s a guy that is respected throughout the game for the way he plays the game.
Whose batting practice makes your jaw drop?
Once Acuña realizes he can go out the other way consistently, he’s got a chance to be a great player. He’s got great bat speed. He can turn around anybody’s fastball. He’s still gotta learn the strike zone better, but he’s a kid.
Name two guys on this team that you would immediately trade for.
Freddie Freeman and Acuña. I want Freeman ’cause he’s a winning player and he plays a premier position. Acuña’s got more skills than Bryce Harper.
Whose effort could use a jolt?
I can’t think of any of them, really. This team plays hard. This club’s got a good, solid major league coaching staff.
Who do you want at-bat or on the mound in a season-defining moment?
Freeman. He’s such a professional hitter, he’s gonna give me a good at bat every at bat.
Who don’t you want in that situation?
Tyler Flowers. He’s pretty easy to pitch to. He can hit anything on the inner half where he can extend his arms. He’s a mistake hitter. He doesn’t hit good stuff very well.
Which under-the-radar prospect/non-roster invitee could make a splash this season?
Kyle Wright has a great arm and great feel for the mound. His stuff is crisp. He throws hard, big velocity, good breaking ball.
Is the current manager one that you would hire to run your club?
[Brian Snitker] has managed forever. He’s a big league veteran with a good feel for young players and for getting coaches to teach the game the right way. Ron Washington is the same way. He should get another shot somewhere, but he hasn’t yet because he’s old.
What is the ceiling for the team this year? What about the next three years?
Because of their pitching, their ceiling is win the division and be a World Series contender this year and the next three years. They’re on an upward trajectory.
Emptying the Notebook: Julio Teheran was a big velocity guy who lost his velocity. He’s getting it back. He’ll be an innings guy in their rotation. He’s fallen from ace to innings-eating middle-rotation guy. His health is the question. If he can stay healthy, the club will have a very deep rotation. … I am concerned about Foltynewicz a little, too. I doubt he’ll pitch Opening Day. I think this elbow thing is worse than they want to mention, and Sean Newcomb has pitched well, so it’s not as much of a concern. Gausman’s problem is he aims to please. He wants to please everybody. He’s not soft, but he’s leaning soft. … They have a kid catcher, Alex Jackson, who did nothing last year. He’s swung the bat great in camp. He may make the Opening Day roster as the third catcher. He shouldn’t, because he hasn’t proven himself in-season—he hit .200 at Double A and .204 at Triple A—but he’s caught well and swung the bat well in spring training. … They’re in the playoff hunt for sure.