Shortly before the beginning of their series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the National League East Champion Braves announced their roster for the best-of-five game set. There were a few surprises – players who were relied on throughout the year were left off. Meanwhile, guys who barely played a notable role during the season will be in the mix. I guess this should have been expected considering the roster was in flux for most of the year.
The big (and expected) news is that Dansby Swanson will miss the NLDS. While he could return to the team should Atlanta advance against the Dodgers, the torn ligament he suffered in his left hand late in the season will keep Swanson from trying to help the Braves win their first postseason series since 2001.
While Swanson hit just .238 with a .293 wOBA during 2018, he had a knack for making his hits count with a wOBA slightly over .330 in medium-to-high leverage situations. That’s roughly 75 points higher than his low-leverage situation production. But where his loss will be felt the most will be in the field. A year after being a defensive liability, Swanson finished 2018 with 10 defensive runs saved, good for sixth among major league shortstops. He’s not Andrelton Simmons out there, but he’s still a fine shortstop.
For Charlie Culberson, it’s not too dissimilar to last fall. The former Dodger was pressed into a starting role in the NLCS after Corey Seager missed the series following an injury in the NLDS. Culberson, who had a mere 15 PA during the regular season, responded with a 5-for-11 NLCS, including a pair of doubles and a triple. Of course, this season, Culberson has been a big part of Atlanta’s success. He hit .270 with 12 homers and .335 wOBA. He was even better than Swanson in high-leverage situations with a .478 wOBA. But where Culberson is not nearly as good at shortstop as Swanson.
That said, Culberson’s not completely inept at shortstop so don’t get too worried about another Brooks Conrad postseason. Further, the Braves will help him out with their excellent defensive positioning, which can help make up for any range concerns.
The Starting Rotation
Atlanta has not announced their full rotation for the NLDS and part of that may come down to a desire to avoid having to bench a starter for Game 4 should they want to come back with Mike Foltynewicz. The right-hander was an easy choice for Game One. Foltynewicz crossed the 200-K plateau, the first Brave to do so since Javier Vazquez in 2009. He will be followed by Anibal Sanchez, who, like Foltynewicz, finished with an ERA under 3.00. Sanchez is also the only Braves pitcher with more than one start in the postseason. In fact, Sanchez has even started a game in the World Series.
The Braves kept the other four starters they utilized late in the season on the roster in Kevin Gausman, Julio Teheran, Sean Newcomb, and Touki Toussaint. However, it’s likely that we see the latter two in the bullpen. Each made an appearance out of the pen during the final weekend.
As Game 3 and 4 come closer, we’ll know who gets the start. Again, if the Braves are in an elimination game for Game 4, I wouldn’t be surprised if they opt for Foltynewicz on short rest.
The Braves went with a 12-man staff, which leaves room for at least eight relievers. The first thing that jumps out about the bullpen are the guys who aren’t there less so than the ones that are. Dan Winkler (team-high 69 games), Jesse Biddle (60 games), Sam Freeman (63 games), Shane Carle (53 games), and Luke Jackson (35 games) all finished in the top eight in games pitched for the team. Outside of Carle, all were used regularly in September. None will be on the NLDS roster.
Winkler, who was often dominant early, wavered in the second half with a 4.22 ERA. Biddle was solid in his first 38 appearances, but had a 5.21 ERA over his final 22 games with a high walk rate. It was still a bit surprising to see both lose out on a roster spot in the NLDS, but it’s hard to argue with it considering how much they faded late – likely a result of more stress on their surgically repaired arms than in recent years.
While it’s easy to see why Carle and Jackson were left off the roster – Carle was never the same after a trip to the DL and Jackson simply is just a guy – it is a bit surprising to not see Freeman’s name. Unlike Biddle, Freeman seemed to flourish after returning from the DL on August 20. He pitched 10.2 scoreless innings with 15 K’s to close out 2018.
In addition to Newcomb and Toussaint, the eight-man bullpen will include A.J. Minter and Arodys Vizcaino. Both struggled to retain the closer job through either iffy pitching or injury. By the end of the season, it was Vizcaino’s spot once more, but Minter has the ability to be a difference maker. Trade additions Brad Brach and Jonny Venters will also be in the mix and as will Chad Sobotka and Max Fried. Sobotka wasn’t a surprise after his late-season performance. He could be counted on for some high-leverage moments this offseason despite just 14.1 innings of major league experience.
Fried might be the most surprising addition. It gives the Braves four lefties, though Fried did fair better against righties. Fried benefited from a late September audition in which he threw four scoreless innings with seven strikeouts.
All told, the choice to change course is a bold one. Riding the hot arms make sense, but it also made sense to go with the guys that got you there in the first place. Without Winkler and Biddle, the Braves might not have a chance to play in the postseason. Now, both will be sitting and supporting their teammates. Like in the case of Swanson, Atlanta could bring either or Freeman back should they advance and feel the match-up looks better.
The old Bobby Cox adage of having a third catcher in the postseason rarely mattered outside of 1992, but it’s back with the decision to keep Rene Rivera around. Rivera only appeared in three games with four plate appearances during the regular season, but the 34-year-old who was acquired at the end of August can catch and that’s important. With Culberson moving into a starting role, having Kurt Suzuki or Tyler Flowers available in a pinch-hitting role became an important consideration.
In addition to the two catchers who will be on the bench, the Braves opted for a bench that includes Ryan Flaherty, Lane Adams, and Lucas Duda over Adam Duvall or Rio Ruiz. It’s not hard to see why with Duvall’s struggles following the trade with the Reds and Ruiz’s inability to take advantage of a late season audition. That said, where the Swanson injury hurts even more is the bench. Duda is a fine option against right-hand pitching and Flowers owned left-hand pitching this season, but Flaherty really struggled after April. If Culberson was in the mix, the bench would look quite a bit better.
The x-factor of the bench might be Lane Adams. Expected to be a fourth outfielder this season, he struggled in camp and was the forgotten man after Preston Tucker flourished in April. He was given his release and he played briefly in the Cubs’ organization, but didn’t hit there. The Braves brought him back for Triple-A depth and later as a pinch runner after rosters expanded. Over the final week, he added his first two hits in the majors since April. Adams can fly and be a difference maker on the base paths. He’s also been known to deliver a big hit and did so frequently in 2017.
Overall, the Braves bench looks pretty weak like it has all season. It puts more pressure on the starters to do their job and score some runs against the Dodgers’ talented pitching staff.