We are getting into the thick of Spring Training and the Braves Opening Day Roster is taking shape. While some pitching injuries may alter the 25-man the first week(s) of the regular season, the roster seems pretty close to set with exception being the 5th starting pitcher and last 2 bullpen pieces. Today’s Walk-off Talk will discuss each aspect of the team, it’s strengths/weaknesses, and each writer will pick its MVP from each group. From there, we will talk lineup construction and best guess on the Braves record for the year.
As per normal, we have 3 Walk-off Walk writers in Tommy, Michael, and Ryan that will chime in on the topics at hand, but for this particular piece, we have coerced Dylan Short and Doc Herbert, the co-hosts for wonderful Braves podcast known as “The Platinum Sombrero” to add their takes! Thanks, you guys! We love listening to you all and interacting on Twitter, so this is icing on the proverbial Braves baseball cake!
Let’s get started!
Atlanta Braves Catching
Braves stick with the idea of keeping 2 veteran catchers on the MLB roster, and now have the flexibility to call up a player from Gwinnett in Raffy Lopez or Alex Jackson without designating said player from assignment due to being out of options. What type of production do you foresee from the Braves backstops?
Dylan– I’m probably the low man on the Braves catching situation. Flowers and McCann are excellent framers and most definitely help pitchers steal strikes. So in that sense, the catching position will be better than a season ago. Unfortunately, that’s where the improvement ends for me. I don’t particularly believe in Tyler Flowers’ offense. His best attribute is his willingness to take a walk, not any particular prowess with the stick. McCann may be able to turn the clock back a bit, stay healthier, and provide some real offensive value, but I would be lying if I said that that was my expectation. Overall I think the Braves catching situation takes a step back in terms of overall WAR, but I don’t necessarily think it insurmountable.
Michael– I’m more bullish on Tyler Flowers and less optimistic about Brian McCann. While it’s a nice story that McCann has come home for possibly his final season, it really doesn’t seem like he has much left in the tank. I know he was hampered by injuries for much of 2018, so perhaps he can rebound a bit but it’s hard to imagine him ever being a reliable hitter again.
Flowers on the other hand had some encouraging peripherals despite an underwhelming 2018 statline. He hit the ball much harder and got it in the air more in 2018, but without much luck. He had a .340 batting average and a .660 slugging percentage on balls he put in the air, which may sound great but his expected batting average on such batted balls was .386 and his expected slugging percentage was a whopping .797. These are big money batted balls that often go for extra bases and Flowers had unusually bad luck with them. I would also consider his uptick in walk rate to be a positive as it gives him a high floor regardless of his batted ball luck. Given some better health and some better luck I would expect Flowers to have a strong season in 2019.
Tommy– I’d love to bring the level of optimism that everyone expects of me, but I too have my concerns about the catching tandem. McCann’s exit velocity has been in decline in each of the last three years, leading to a hard-hit rate of 25.8% last year. He’s supposed to be healthy, but expecting a 35-year-old catcher to suddenly find his way is a bit far-fetched for me. As for Flowers, he goes the other way, hitting the ball extremely hard but as Michael said, he seems to have bad luck. If he can have some better luck, he could be a pretty solid all-around catcher, but one .800 OPS in his career is problematic. But who knows? The catching situation looked dire heading into 2016 and then baseball happened.
Doc- The biggest value this catching tandem will be provided is unlikely to be seen on the offensive side, though I am arguably more bullish of the idea of a decent season for McCann. Between Flowers’ well-publicized framing abilities, and McCann’s ability to call a game and lock in with his pitchers, the young pitching staff stands to outperform its age. Anything that comes alongside this offensively is a bonus. I think between the two, it wouldn’t be outrageous to assume a .230/.310/.390 slash line with 22 HR. Brian McCann’s knees are the biggest wildcard in this situation, and if he’s even close to healthy, he will get the lion’s share of the playing time.
Ryan- More so that anything else, I think we see a step forward in our pitching aided by the veteran catcher tandem and that will surpass what offensive loss sustained from losing Kurt Suzuki. Tyler Flowers was incredibly unlucky last year and Brian McCann was a different hitter after surgery. I’m hoping for an .800ish OPS catching tandem, but expecting a .720-.750ish result with immeasurable tutelage. I’m also getting a little excited thinking about the possibility of Alex Jackson catching some MLB innings.
Atlanta Braves Infield
With the signing of Josh Donaldson, the Braves have a legit infield that can both swing and pick it. Obviously the health of Donaldson is the major concern, but there’s also other questions around the infield concerning 2 young players up the middle. What type of production do you foresee from the Braves infield?
Dylan– Here is where I believe the Braves have a decided advantage over the rest of the division. While I have exactly zero faith in Dansby Swanson’s bat, I’m a big believer in Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo. Should Donaldson provide even 130 games worth of his typical production then Atlanta should have the most valuable infield in the division by a wide margin.
Michael– The Braves should have four to five above average or better infielders in 2019 with the possibility of 6 or 7 if you include Charlie Culberson and Austin Riley. This really is the most stacked unit on the team’s roster and the ultimate ceiling of this group could go a long way toward deciding how competitive the team will be this year. Josh Donaldson and
Freddie Freeman are bona fide MVP candidates, while Ozzie Albies, Johan Camargo, Dansby Swanson and even Austin Riley all have the potential to put up 3-4 win seasons. If all of these guys are performing at the same time, Brian Snitker’s willingness to play some of them in the corner outfield may go a long way towards the team’s success.
Tommy– As I wrote before (https://thesportsdaily.com/2019/02/22/the-most-important-brave-in-2019/), Ozzie Albies is the most important Brave in 2019. If he takes a giant step forward – like Dylan, I believe he can – he gives the Braves the type of dynamic hitting threat this lineup really could use in addition to their Big Three. The corners are great if healthy. Can Dansby put it together? I’m not exactly going to believe in him just because of a nice start to last season before his injury. It’s why I’m not sure why the Braves aren’t considering more the idea of Camargo being the starter over Swanson. I get the defensive argument and I like Camargo at second and Albies at short, but it’s not like Swanson should be an unquestioned starter.
Doc– For all of the hullabaloo that came along with the Josh Donaldson signing (particularly amongst the Johan Camargo loyalists), it gives the Braves fantastic insurance against a number of scenarios. Dansby’s wonky wrist has the chance to throw a wrench into any perceived level of success up the middle, but if he needs to be pulled due to injury or ineffectiveness, having Camargo step into the role would not only buoy the offense, but could also prevent a massive step down for the defense. I think Albies performs closer to what he was in the minors – a speedy .300 hitter with 12-15 HR – and continues to make hard plays look easy. I’m rather bullish on Josh Donaldson’s outlook as well, and think he helps make the top of this order quite dangerous. Somehow I made it almost 140 words without mentioning Freddie Freeman, who should be stellar as usual.
Ryan- If used appropriately, the infield has a chance to be the best in the league, but the man at the helm cannot give into his players and should stay strong on scheduled off days around the diamond. With Johan Camargo’s ability to carry an .800 OPS while playing all over the infield, there’s no excuse for the 2nd half swoons brought on by fatigue.
Atlanta Braves Outfield
A full year of Ronald Acuna Jr is giving Braves fans all the feels and bringing back Nick Markakis has provided enough fire on Twitter to burn Suntrust down with pure spite. What type of production do you foresee from the Braves outfield?
Dylan– I know it may be kitsch to say this here, but I do believe that Ender can be a productive offensive piece. He has a good feel for the barrel, has good speed, and can provide a decent return if viewed in the right context. Led by his exceptional defense I think a 2.5-3 WAR season is easily achievable. Acuna is obviously the guy. Normally I’m a big believer in sophomore slumps (see: Ozzie Albies), but in this case I really don’t see that happening. Acuna is simply dynamic. There isn’t anything at the plate that he can’t do. As insane as it is to say this, I fully expect a season above 7 WAR, potentially approaching 9 WAR and an MVP. As for Nick Markakis: I’ve counted him out before and been proven wrong. I do not expect that trend to continue. If he provides a WAR of 1.5 that should be considered a good return on his 4 million dollar salary.
Michael– Is it too dramatic to say that Acuña has to be a top five MVP candidate in 2019 for this team to return to the playoffs? I know a lot of other
things could and need to go right as well but it seems like this team doesn’t go anywhere without a big year from their 21-year-old phenom. Ender is an other-worldly defender in center field and Nick Markakis is… yeah, but this outfield will live and die with the performance of Ronald Acuña Jr. A 5 win or better season from him seems like an absolute must.
Tommy– Acuña is going to do Acuña things. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to expect a .400 wOBA and 150 RC+ from him in 2019. So, it comes down to Inciarte and Markakis and here is where I think the Braves really are holding their breath. Three years of Inciarte in Atlanta and he’s posting wRC+ of 97, 98, and 90. Last year was an anomaly, but even if his luck returns to normal and he doesn’t post another .293 BABIP, his limited offensive game is an issue offensively if only because of the Braves’ questions elsewhere. I think he’ll settle back into the .290’s, on-base over .340, and have an ISO in the .110ish range. It’s consistent and with his defense, it’s easy for him to post a 3-win season.
As for Markakis, like Dylan, I’ve counted him out before and been wrong. But there’s a reason why a Silver Slugging All-Star Gold Glover was available for so little in January. Other teams counted him out, too. His Steamer projection is .274/.350/.402. Some people balk at that, but it’s a better season than we saw from Markakis in 2016 and ‘17. I think he’ll be good for a win in 2019 and depending on just how awesome Acuña Jr. is, you could see 10 fWAR from the outfield. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns.
Doc– I appreciated Nick Markakis’ service to the team for four years, and like most of us, I was hoping the Braves would elect to deploy a RF with a slightly higher upside for 2019. But even for as bleak as some are viewing his return, I still think he can play a valuable part of this team especially if he is not used in the cleanup spot every day. Ender Inciarte’s defense should carry him to a 3 WAR season, and the truth about his offense lies somewhere between his first and second halves of 2018 – which I think could be said for most of the position players on this team. I try to refrain from hyperbole, but I actually expect Ronald Acuña to be one of the best offensive outfielders in all of baseball next year, and flirt with 35 HR. I also think Adam Duvall stands to be a great fourth OF – I never believed his skills deteriorated the way they appeared to after his acquisition last year.
Ryan- I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that Acuña is going to the the starting LFer, not CFer for 2019. Ender seemed like a great trade chip to a CF needy team. I thought this would be the year the Braves become an elite lineup again and destroy the division with their bats while the young pitching adjusted to MLB. I’m high on Acuna, but I expect more of a 4-5 WAR campaign in his 2nd MLB year, not 7-9. From there, I just don’t have a lot of hope and it’d surprise me if Markakis and Ender combine for 5 WAR. I hope that Snitker sees the value in resting both Markakis and Ender against tough LHP and we get to see Adam Duvall and Johan Camargo show their true worth out there.
Atlanta Braves Bench
Removing a 3 WAR 3B from a regular gig to sign Donaldson seemed like a luxury rather than a need, but it has provided flexibility on the bench that the Braves haven’t had since the days of Omar Infante and Martin Prado. What type of production do you foresee from the Braves bench?
Ryan– I’ve been a big pusher on the need for depth on the bench. Charlie Culberson was the saving grace of Atlanta’s bench last year and now there’s Johan Camargo to add to that list. I love the bench as currently constructed as it should provide ample opportunity for rest around the diamond, as well as ideal matchups for pinch hitting.
Dylan– More depth is never a bad thing. Having a versatile, 3+ WAR 25 year old with the ability and the availability of receiving starter’s PA while also
providing rest for others? Even better. My only concern re: Camargo is that he won’t be used correctly. He needs, and deserves, a starter’s full complement of at-bats. One can (and frequently does in my case) argue that Swanson should be viewed as a utility piece rather than a starter on this team, but as long as Camargo is handled correctly, and not buried on the bench, this is nothing but a good thing.
Michael– While the bench has definitely been improved from a year ago, I still don’t think it’s where it needs to be. Camargo is absolutely a championship caliber bench player, and Adam Duvall could be that if he can regain some of his previous form. However, Charlie Culberson and Brian McCann just don’t do it for me. There’s no doubting Culberson’s value to the 2018 team, but I don’t see him repeating that level of production going forward. Culberson strikes me as a good 26th man on a championship team, the kind of guy that spends big chunks of time in AAA but can come up in a pinch and be better than replacement level. Of course the bench will be a fluid unit throughout the season, and the influx of guys like Austin Riley, Alex Jackson and perhaps even Cristian Pache late in the season may make the depth look much better.
Tommy– It comes down to Brian Snitker. I mean, the bench could be deeper and we all know that, but it’s not enough to build a good bench if they aren’t used enough. Johan Camargo should absolutely be starting 60-80 games. Maybe more. If that happens – without needing a major injury to make it happen – I’m going to give Snitker a huge pat on the back. If it doesn’t, Snitker didn’t use Camargo appropriately. As for the rest of the bench, Charlie Culberson reminds me of guys like Brooks Conrad, Nick Green, Darren Bragg, Pete Orr, and others. Bench players who have a career year and then disappear back into irrelevancy. I’m sure I’ll get trolled hard for that and I hope I’m wrong. Adam Duvall’s power is a plus if he is able to use it. Plus, his defense make him a good option to platoon with Markakis. I still would have liked to add a more established hitter (Derek Dietrich?). The bench is improved, but still lacking in my opinion.
Doc– This area is ultimately still TBD for me. After noted prior, I liked the Donaldson signing because of the length it provides to the bench (see the 2018 NLDS for proof of how dismal the Braves bench was last season), but I think of all the different areas that could see a late Spring Training signing take place, this is it. Having Culberson and Camargo being able to fill in for a number of positions is huge, and having a plus defender with power in Duvall is already an upgrade. But for as many free agents that are still out there, I think somebody who could still stand as a serviceable piece might be added late in ST.
Atlanta Braves Lineup
There’s always a lot of talk about the lineup. People get really worked up about the construction of the lineup and, while Tommy has shown us that lineup construction doesn’t matter that much, is there something that you would like to see in terms of lineup order for the 2019 season?
Ryan– I like the idea of batting Acuna leadoff for the same reason I liked seeing Mookie Betts destroy pitching in the first innings of 2018. We as passionate fans like to study analytics, but I want the best chance to destroy a pitcher’s confidence right out the gate, and Acuna provides that. Also, Ozzie Albies is my cleanup hitter against LHP and Nick Markakis is my cleanup hitter against RHP.
Dylan– This shouldn’t be overthought, but it’s Spring Training, so of course it is. Teams have evolved away from the traditional “best hitter bats 3rd, best power bats 4th” type of thinking. The leadoff hitter receives the most at-bats. Ronald Acuna is Atlanta’s most dynamic hitter. Therefore Ronald Acuna should hit leadoff. While Tommy is right in saying that lineup optimization doesn’t ultimately affect much over the course of a season, I would argue that the batter’s comfort is paramount. If Acuna, Donaldson, and Freddie all say they are most comfortable hitting 1,2,3, then that should be that.
Michael– It’s hard for me to look at the lineup and not characterize it as incomplete. The Braves needed a big bat that could slot into the clean-up role behind Freddie Freeman, and they didn’t get it. You could say they signed
Josh Donaldson to fill that role, but he’ll likely be batting second. The team failed to go out and get that big thumper to hit in the middle of the lineup which might force Brian Snitker to move Acuña behind Freeman and use everyone’s favorite lead-off hitter, Ender Inciarte, at the top of the lineup. I don’t condone this move and I will rip it to shreds when it happens, but it’s the front office’s fault for not giving Snitker the pieces he needed.
Tommy– All things equal, I give it to the players as far as comfort goes – which Dylan rightly pointed out – but I also agree that the Braves really needed another dynamic threat. J.T. Realmuto made a lot of sense and as did Mitch Haniger, but the Braves were unwilling to pony up the pieces to make those deals happen. Also looking at this lineup is why I am such a proponent of Camargo starting. I do think Acuña Jr. should stay in the leadoff role with Donaldson and Freeman following. So, who bats fourth? For me, Camargo. Sorry, Dansby, but I need the offense. And then you’d follow with Markakis, Albies, the catching tandem, the pitching spot, and Inciarte in the nine-hole. Of course, that won’t happen. I will say, if Albies breaks out like I think he can, I want him hitting second with Donaldson and Freeman following in whatever order you may want.
Doc– Ronald Acuña proved last year he has the ability to be one of the most dynamic leadoff hitters in all of baseball, but I also think that if Inciarte hasn’t struggled so mightily during the early part of the season, we would have never known this. Snitker likes to rely on his traditional roles where he can, so I will not be surprised whatsoever to see Inciarte – the prototype leadoff hitter in past generations – get the first crack at the leadoff spot and have it relinquished only if he fails gloriously. Even if Acuña does wind up spending a lot of time in the cleanup spot, so be it – he’s a better option than Markakis in the four-hole. RBI’s are situational-dependent, and deserving of a lot of the mockery they receive, but when the situation arises and you need a guy to bring some baserunners home, you could do a lot worse than Acuña. If Albies returns to who he was in the minors, I’d love to see a Top 4 of Acuña, Albies, Freeman, Donaldson – but a number of dominoes would have to fall for that to happen (especially with JD’s stated preference to hit second).
Atlanta Braves Breakout Candidate: Hitter
Who is your breakout hitter for 2019?
Dylan– I’m not sure that I could really classify any of the players as “breakout candidates” because most have hit very well for at least large portions of their careers, but I’ll say Ozzie makes the necessary adjustments and evens out his 1st half/2nd half splits. For the sake of projection I’ll say .285/.325/.450 with an OPS around .700-.750
Michael– I’m going to make Dylan very happy and say that Dansby Swanson is going to be the 2019 breakout hitter. I don’t have any fancy peripheral stats to back this pick up as he was actually a little fortunate last year to have as good of a hitting line as he did. However, I am going to buy into the hurt wrist narrative a bit because as a prospect his wrist strength was one of his calling cards. With his biggest strength becoming a weakness, it’s no surprise that he struggled. He also has to start hitting this year if he wants to remain a
starting player moving forward in his career. He may even only have a few months to figure it out at the plate before he’s relegated to the bench for the foreseeable future. While I’m not saying he’s going to breakout into an MVP candidate or anything, I do think he’ll be able to improve with the bat enough to produce something in the neighborhood of 95-105 wRC+. Which coupled with his strong defense should make him a 2-3 win player in 2019.
Tommy– It’s hard not to pick Albies, but since Dylan grabbed him and Michael went with Dansby, I have to get creative and I’ll go with Alex Jackson. Sure, this is a shot in the dark, but Jackson has always had the potential to do big things. I don’t think the hit tool will ever be a plus, but if he can show a bit more patience at the plate, he could mimic what Tyler Flowers did in 2017 but with less average and more raw power. Basically, take Flowers’ .281/.378/.445 triple slash and drop it into the .260/.330/.450 range. It’s not All-Star level, but it’s going to get you a .330 or so wOBA and above-average production from a catcher. Jackson has been the product of some hype this spring for better bat control and his typical hard-hit exit velocity. And as our buddy Ben Chase would quickly point out, Jackson has already worked hard to be a decent receiver and framer behind the plate. Would it be shocking? You betcha. Do I expect Jackson to breakout in 2019? Not really. But could it happen? You bet your butt it can.
Doc– Truthfully, I don’t think there’s anybody on this team other than Dansby who hasn’t already experienced some level of breakout in his career, so he almost takes this by default. I think he’s got that breakout season in him if the wrist is healed. He showed massive promise at the outset of 2018, but wasn’t able to sustain it. Even a season of .260/.330/.430 with 15 HR and his standard level of defense would give the Braves another offensive weapon at the bottom of the lineup. He’s shown his ability to do it incrementally, now it’s just a matter of staying healthy.
Ryan- Brian McCann had real success after surgery last year and, while it’s not a real “breakout” per se, I could see McCann finding a little extra in the tank after a healthy offseason and coming back home to play. If Snitker can keep McCann away from LHP, the end result could be downright delicious.