freeman-swanson

The guys over at FanGraphs have projected and ranked each team’s expected performance at each position. The rankings are not only about just the starter, as they factor in the replacements if a starter were to get injured. To say the least, FanGraphs does not expect the Braves to be too great this year. Below is their ranking of where the Braves stand at each position. If you are looking for a positive post entering the season, this one is probably not the one for you.

Before you get to the analysis, I will give you the highlights of where the Braves are ranked at each spot. Keep in mind there are 30 teams in the league.

C: 28th
1B: 5th
2B: 26th
3B: 30th
SS: 15th
LF: 29th
CF: 16th
RF: 29th
SP: 27th
BP: 29th

Catcher: 28th

They project Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers to have about the same amount of playing time this year, which I think is fair. In addition, Anthony Recker would get about 100 plate appearances which I also think is fair. Neither Flowers nor Suzuki project to be above average at the plate or defensively, and together the group projects for a 1.1 WAR.

The concern to me is that this is the most glaring position that lacks the minor league depth. There is nobody waiting in the wings at catcher, so this is the group we will be rolling out there unless they perform far above expectations and make a midseason trade.

On the positive side of things, Flowers is supposedly a very good pitch framer so hopefully that correlates to the pitchers having better than expected outcomes this season. I suspect Suzuki will be the personal catcher for Dickey, and the two of them will alternate day after night games each week.

First Base: 5th

There is a case to be made for Freddie Freeman currently being the best first baseman in baseball. Most will not agree, but there is certainly a case to be made. Freeman led the National League in extra base hits last season, had the highest WAR for a first baseman in all of baseball (6.1 to Anthony Rizzo’s 5.2), and has the fourth highest WAR for a first baseman since his rookie season in 2011 (21.0).
However, I understand why the ranking for the Braves at first base would be fifth rather than first. The Cubs come in first because if Anthony Rizzo were to get injured, they would move MVP Kris Bryant over to first base and have Javier Baez fill in at third. There is little question about them having the best first base situation given that kind of depth. FanGraphs went with the Diamondbacks at second basically because they feel that Goldschmidt is a better player than Freeman. As mentioned, Freeman was better last year, but Goldschmidt is one of the players ahead of Freeman in WAR since Freeman’s rookie season. It is defensible to put the Diamondbacks second despite having Daniel Descalso as the backup. Third is the Reds, who have Joey Votto starting and Adam Duvall (33 HR in 2016) behind him, and fourth is the Tigers with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.

I think if Sean Rodriguez did not get injured in that car crash in the offseason that the Braves would have been second in this ranking. Freeman is just as good as Cabrera at this point in their respective careers and Rodriguez is an adequate backup. Unfortunately, right now if Freeman got hurt I honestly do not know what the Braves would decide to do. They auditioned Nick Markakis there last year very briefly, but they would just be creating another huge hole by moving Markakis from right field to third base. FanGraphs guessed Rio Ruiz would get plate appearances if Freeman were injured, which I probably would not expect to be the case. It is possible that Adonis Garcia would move to first though. Regardless, this brainstorming process highlights the fact that the Braves have no insurance policy for their most valuable asset.

Second Base: 26th

While picking up Brandon Phillips was a very nice move considering the loss of Sean Rodriguez to injury, keep in mind that he was given up for basically free for a reason. He simply is not the player he once was. His bat has been hovering at around 10% worse than league average for the past four years, but his defense has declined in each of the past three years according to UZR and DRS. FanGraphs expects Phillips to be the same player he was last year, so they do not even expect a decline, and the Braves would still come in at 26th among all teams at second base if they give Phillips 550 plate appearances.

Filling in for Phillips on his off days will likely be Jace Peterson with a touch of Chase d’Arnaud. In the long term and potentially in September, Ozzie Albies could come up and produce better than any of them. He is young but is more talented at this point in his career than any of the options previously mentioned. As the list states, next year the Braves will likely be much higher in production due to Albies likely being the regular second baseman in 2018.

Third Base: 30th

The best thing you can say about Adonis Garcia is that he has a little bit of power. On a good team there is no way that he is a starter. On most teams he is either a bench bat or minor league depth. Unfortunately, the Braves lack quality at this position and will be rolling him out as the regular third baseman for the second year in a row. He is poor defensively, so much so that the Braves tried moving him to left field at a point last year, and his offense is projected to be worse than each of the past two years.

Garcia’s lack of plate discipline is a big culprit in his lack of offensive prowess. His free swinging ways saw him swing the bat in the 89th percentile of all baseball players. He would probably do better to pull the ball more to utilize his power, as he had a pull percentage of just 36% which is a big reason that his ISO dropped from .220 to .133.

Rio Ruiz will likely get a shot at some point this year. When prospects get closer to the majors, if they are quality enough they usually start moving up prospect lists. One of the main reasons is that they have already done the work at the minor league level and have avoided injury. They likely have a higher floor than many other of the newer or younger prospects do, simply because they are at least – specifically in Ruiz’s case – going to reach the majors in some capacity. Keep this in mind when valuing Ruiz. Ruiz appeared on no Braves top 10 lists (which is a very competitive list, but it still speaks to what we should be expecting of Ruiz) and came in as the 25th best prospect on FanGraphs. Ruiz has good plate discipline, but he projects to be about as good as Garcia. It would not be a bad idea for the Braves to eventually platoon the two, but unless Ruiz drastically improves this year he should not be expected to be a long term answer at third base.

Shortstop: 15th

In a normal era the Braves would be much higher than 15th solely due to Dansby Swanson projecting for a full season worth of plate appearances. Unfortunately for Dansby, this is a prime era of shortstops. Not only is there Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Addison Russell, Xander Bogaerts, and Trevor Story as very young shortstops, Swanson and fellow prospects Gleyber Torres, Amed Rosario, and JP Crawford round out four of Keith Law’s top 5 prospects in baseball (along with outfielder Andrew Benintendi). This looks like a golden age for shortstops. Some of these players will move off of the position, but Swanson will have his work cut out for him to be able to get to the top-5.

Even though there are some incredible talents ahead of Swanson, I would think he can end up ahead of number 15 at the end of the year. The teams I think the Braves may be a bit better than at shortstop include the Yankees, Mariners, Athletics, Cardinals, and Angels.

Keep in mind if Swanson to succumb to some type of injury, there’s a non-zero chance that the Braves could bring up Albies if they determine that he is ready and if the injury is long term.

Left Field: 29th

Over the past two years combined, Matt Kemp has been a 1.1 win player. This year, FanGraphs expects him to be a below replacement level player for the second time in his career. They think he will hit for power with a .189 ISO, but with low walk rates and terrible outfield defense. It is difficult to expect anything other than very poor defense from Kemp, even with the weight loss, so I am in alignment there.

Where I somewhat disagree is with the wOBA projections. He was at .333 last year despite playing half the season in San Diego. It is a better hitter’s park than previously, but it’s still not a hitter wonderland. He fared much better in Atlanta and part of that has to do with Freddie Freeman. Most people look at “protection” as a driving factor in the player being protected’s success. What really occurs is that players perform better with men on base. Freddie Freeman had a .400 on base percentage last year, and the fact that teams are not able to shift as much and that pitchers have to come out of the stretch almost always leads to better numbers for the hitter with men on base rather than with the bases empty. I think his wOBA will be somewhere closer to .340 or .350 than the .326 projection.

Sadly, that will still mean likely lower tier production. The Braves also have no depth behind Kemp. There is no quality fourth outfielder to spell him against tough right-handed pitchers, there is no minor league talent waiting in the wings to fill in at a corner outfield spot, and there is no infielder quality enough to adequately fill in if Kemp were to get hurt.

Center Field: 16th

Consider that the Braves are ranked 16th in center and 15th at shortstop and both are a part of the same trade for one single player. Man, what a trade. Inciarte’s value is very tied to his defense which is arguably best in the league quality. It is nice to have him patrolling center when you have 30+ year old players in both right and left.

Ender hits for enough average to keep his offensive production up and he is valuable on the bases as well. His style of hitting, which I profiled earlier this offseason, will never allow him to produce much power. He knows the type of hitter he is and the expectation is that he will continue to be consistent because of his own understanding of his skills. He knows he can make contact with basically any pitch and he will hit the ball the other way a lot more than the average player will. The high average will make up for a decent on base percentage for a leadoff man. The projection systems have him at roughly .333 in unision. Last year he was at .351, so hopefully he is able to replicate his output last year in front of Swanson, Freeman, and Kemp.

Much like Kemp, though, there is no adequate back up for Inciarte. After trading Mallex Smith, there is really no back up at all. Emilio Bonifacio is currently the fourth outfielder, so unless someone else is brought in, Ender will be expected to play basically every single game. Eventually Ronald Acuna could be ready to assume the mantle in center or right field, but that will not happen in 2017.

Right Field: 29th

Perhaps the most debated topic among the old school types and the analytics who follow the Braves is what to make of Nick Markakis. The peripherals point to a very weak offensive player who is in decline mode. This correlates with his age as he is now 33-years-old. He provides very little on the bases, was rated highly defensively last year but it may be an aberration as his previous three years were all below or at average for a right fielder, and his strikeout rate last year was as high as it has been in almost a decade.
The old school types will point to his 89 RBI, the .296 average from 2015, the gold gloves he received in the past, and his “professional,” “veteran” presence. But the truth of the matter is that he is just not that good anymore.

Over the past two seasons in Atlanta he has amassed 2.6 total WAR despite playing all but eight games. He is at best a league average hitter and is likely going to be worse than that moving forward. The fact that the Braves are stuck with him for two years is a big negative in terms of moving up their competitive timeline. Much like the other two outfielders, the Braves have no depth behind Markakis.

Starting Pitching: 27th

Here is the projected WAR by picher:
Julio Teheran: 2.4
Bartolo Colon: 2.0
Jaime Garcia: 1.8
Mike Foltynewicz: 1.6
R.A. Dickey 1.4
Matt Wisler: 0.8
Aaron Blair: 0.2

To begin, I added Wisler and Blair because the Braves will absolutely be receiving starts from both of them (unless Blair absolutely tanks in triple-A). Two of the Braves starters are north of 40-years-old and another is one of the most injury prone pitchers in baseball. So expect to see Wisler and Blair combine for 20-30 starts this season. It would be silly not to include them into the analysis of the team’s rotation due to that expectation.

On the top end, Teheran’s poor 2015 season holds him back in projections. In three of his four seasons he has had an ERA of 3.21 or lower. But he does have that one 4.04 season that was recent and pulls back his projection totals. Most projection systems weight the most recent seasons pretty heavily and the three most recent are frequently used to build a framework of expectations. Teheran’s ability to out-perform his FIP is also something projection systems also often worry about. He is projected for a 3.90 FIP, so if he continued to hold his 0.5 gap between his ERA and FIP, then his ERA would be close to 3.40 which I believe would be fair.

Foltynewicz is the wildcard here. He has looked solid this spring and has all the tools to excel. I think he is ready to break out and become a legitimate front of the rotation starter, but it is understandable that projection systems are a bit more bearish than I am.

Colon, Dickey, and Garcia all seem fair when you factor in Garcia’s injury risk. Garcia could have the best ERA of any of the starters, as FanGraphs projects, but his low inning total would hold back his WAR. Wisler and Blair just are not that great, with Wisler being the better of the two.

Bullpen: 29th

FanGraphs thinks that Arodys Vizcaino and Jim Johnson can be okay-to-good and that the rest of the bullpen will basically stink. There are some upside arms in Ian Krol and Mauricio Cabrera, but Cabrera is already hurt and despite his 100+ mile per hour fastball he has difficulty missing bats. The rest of the group is pretty rag tag.
Eventually, the Braves will move some of their starting pitching prospects to the bullpen. Those pitchers will tell the Braves who they are via their performance. Lucas Sims is likely one of them, so hopefully he can come up and outperform expectations as a bullpen arm. Other than that, the Braves will have to hope one or two of the relievers perform very well and that Brian Snitker puts them in the right positions to succeed on a frequent basis. If not, this could be the worst bullpen in the league.

Conclusion

Before the spring I was optimistic that the Braves could find a way to sneak into the playoffs. It sounds a bit outlandish, but Sean Rodriguez to me was going to be a big part of that. The Braves could likely stomach below average production some places, but being able to plug in Rodriguez to fill in at basically any of those positions if an injury occurred was a great insurance policy. I cannot say he is the one reason I feel skeptical about the Braves chances this year, but the lack of depth across the board is concerning. The only places the Braves have depth are third base, second base, and catcher. It might be a long season in Atlanta, but remember the prospects are starting to move up in the system and the system is still ranked number one overall. Also, baseball is a crazy sport and projections do not mean everything.

  • Baker

    A question for CAC or anyone that might can help. It’s been well documented that the Braves corner OF situation is in a very bad spot due to bad defense and lack of power (Markakis) or lack of OBP (Kemp). What if the Braves took the best in house option from the minors (Ray Patrick Didder) and played him 162 games? Obviously we have no idea how he’d hit. He was fine in Rome (129 wRC+), but lets say he has a 34 wRC+ as Steamer shows on his 2017 portion of his Fangraphs page. He is no doubt a MLB RF defensively and a great baserunner. What kind of WAR would you have if you gave him Mookie Betts’ defense and baserunning combined with a 34 wRC+ (or possibly Ryan Goins 2016 numbers… 38 wRC+) over 162 games?

    Would this be better than Kemp or Markakis?

  • StephenC

    I have a question that is not relevant to this post, but is also too long for me to post on Twitter. Would love anyone who could point me to some responsive information:

    There’s been some talk in recent years about what we know about aging curves, whether things are changing, etc. I think a lot about players like Justin Upton and (to this point) Jason Heyward who put up some of their best seasons in the first couple of seasons of their career. That, along with impatience and irrational hope, gets me wondering if there’s any concern about wasting potentially productive years in the minor leagues. Basically, has there been any significant research into the possibility that teams, in general, keep players in the minors for too long?

  • Ben Duronio

    @disqus_YULhOT7dl7:disqus I’m of the opinion that WAR at least slightly overvalues outfield defense in the corners. Guys like Brett Gardner have done very well defensively in left field and been slightly better than league average hitters with extraordinary WAR’s. So I think a defense-first player would be valuable in terms of WAR but may not actually be as valuable to a team as the number would suggest. There was an article on the WSJ about outfield defense on the best and worst end only accounting for around 15 outs per year.

    • Baker

      Thanks Ben

  • Ben Duronio

    @southernaggression:disqus It depends on if they are ready or not. There’s a chance that some players may be wasting their best years in the minors, but if a player got drafted out of high school they almost always need some time to season up their game. There are so many intricacies that they need to sort out as they become major leaguers. I think Jason and Justin are extremely rare talents in that they were probably ready prior to their debuts, with Bryce Harper being another guy who flew through the minors in a quick debut. But most need a lot of experience against quality talent, which is either in the minors or against college players.