Rebuilding in Atlanta and the young players who might be the building blocks.

Placeholders, A Young Star, and The Future in Atlanta
by Jim Silva

    So Braves fans, you got a new stadium, some new starting pitchers, and you are already watching some fun new youngsters run around on your new field showing what they can do. How are you feeling? I hope you aren’t  thinking about the playoffs because you are highly likely to be disappointed. For a team still in the midst of a rebuild, your GM did some weird things, like picking up three guys over 35 to play prominent roles on your club. Moving into a new ballpark probably is the main reason why the Braves acquired some seriously old veterans to put a smiley face on their attempts to be competitive in 2017, but seriously it won’t change the fact that your club is still bad, albeit young and improving. Aside from these moves to put some lipstick on the pig, the Braves made a lot of great moves to build a club that will be ready to compete in a couple of years, and none were bigger than the deal in which they acquired their starting shortstop, so let’s take a look at the infield now, and the infield of the future for the Braves of Atlanta.
    Chipper Jones was the face of the Braves for quite some time and only retired after the 2012 season as the last holdout from the great Braves teams of the ‘90s. Star shortstops aren’t just lying about in the okra fields waiting to be harvested. The Braves drafted Andrelton Simmons who developed into a star with the glove but not with the bat – although he was not a black hole at the plate. But the Braves flipped him for some young arms and a stopgap shortstop – and they were just getting started. The trade was a bit shocking at the time – trading away the best defensive shortstop in baseball – and I wonder if it would have happened now, just a few years later, as defense has become more valued. So why did they do it? Simmons is playing this year as a 27 year old so really he is still on the upward part of the development hill and the Braves traded him in 2015. He had a 17 home run season under his belt and has already contributed 131 defensive runs saved (DRS) in his young career. He is off to a hot start with a wRC+ of 137 – yes it is very much a small sample size, but interestingly he is hitting the ball harder than he ever has as measured by exit velocity and his hot start is not due to luck – his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is only .316 so far. So why do you trade a guy like that when he is young? Wasn’t he looking like a nice piece to build around? Well, not compared to Chipper Jones. The Braves vision of a star shortstop around whom one builds a team was the power hitting variety in the mold of Chipper Jones, not the slick fielding type like Andrelton Simmons. Is that why they traded him? Who knows really, I mean they got a top 100 pitching prospect in Sean Newcomb in the deal and another arm they flipped in a later deal, but when the trade raises eyebrows like that one did, you have to wonder.
One of last season’s biggest swaps was the Braves deal that netted them a couple young arms and their new star shortstop of the future, Dansby Swanson. Nabbed with the very first pick of the 2015 draft, only 83 at bats into his professional career, and finding himself already traded must have been a head-spinning beginning for Dansby, but then he found himself in the majors in 2016 with only 411 minor league at bats under his belt. That whooshing sound you heard was the speed of Swanson’s ascent and the potential for his undoing if he finally falters, as unlikely as that is to happen. Very few position players rocket so quickly through the minors these days and when they do they are usually supremely talented and in possession of great make-up (or their club is desperate). Position players take, on average, approximately 2000 plate appearances to work their way up to the big club – about five times what it took Swanson. So is he ready? He certainly appeared to be ready with the bat during his debut last season when he slashed .302/.361/.442 in 145 plate appearances as a 22 year old. He also played about league average D at shortstop as evidenced by his warring UZR and DRS which were both around zero – one over and one under. Swanson is already a solid major league player who can handle shortstop and hit some, but the Braves are hoping that he is their new star who will be the face of the franchise as they move into their nifty new digs. While it is unlikely that Dansby or really anyone can be Chipper Jones, when you have a young shortstop who comes up and immediately hits, and hits with some power, the comparisons are inevitable. It is unclear that Swanson will be the kind of hitter that a team can build around, like Chipper Jones was. What Swanson is right now is a solid – not flashy – shortstop with an excellent hit tool but not much speed or over the fence kind of power. It is very early in the season, but so far Swanson is popping up more, his exit velocity is down, and he is hitting more fly balls with fewer of them (by percentage) leaving the park. He is seriously struggling with the bat but looking better in the field. Players can certainly develop power, and if Swanson maintains his ability to rap out base hits and adds five to ten home runs, over the next few years, then he can be that guy. If he is “only” a .270 with 10 homer power who gets on at .320 clip (about where his projections predict), well then the Braves will have a good shortstop who is not a superstar. Will they be tempted to move Swanson for more young moving parts to their rebuilding machine because Dansby isn’t Chipper? We’ll see how that plays out. In the meantime, they have excellent depth and high value talent, so even if Swanson is only good and not great the Braves will be fine although they might have to find another face of the franchise.
    Last year, Jace Peterson showed possibly once and for all that while he might have some value as bench player, he is not a starting second baseman. Peterson does a few things well, like getting on base at a decent clip and playing multiple positions (albeit not very well). He also does several things that drag down his value. He is not strong defensively at any of the multiple positions he plays. On the offensive side of the ball, he doesn’t hit for power or a high average, and for some reason last season, he didn’t run the bases well, in spite of his speed that was enough to swipe 52 bags for the Padres A league team in 2012. As this was his second season playing full time in the majors and he will be 27 in a few weeks, it appears that Peterson is what he is – a guy who can play second on a second division team or who can provide some positional flexibility and draw a walk on a team with some depth. The Braves apparently agree because they went out and traded for a 35 year old second baseman to take his place seemingly ending the Jace Peterson “era”. The guy they traded for, Brandon Phillips, has been around long enough to have been drafted (in a different millennium) by a team that no longer exists – Les Expos de Montreal – and to rank 25th all time in games played at second base.
    Middle infielders are not usually known for their longevity (yes, yes, Cal Ripken Jr.) so just walking out to that spot between 1st and 2nd as a 35 – soon-to-be 36 year old is an accomplishment all by itself. But Phillips put up a 3.5 WAR season as recently as 2015 and is off to a nice start for the Braves having already bagged four steals without being caught. Obviously, Phillips is not the long term solution for the Braves who are only paying $1 million of his $14 million contract – a contract that ends this year. The Reds were ready to move on from Phillips for a couple years now, but he had veto rights over all trades, so until it became apparent that they were willing to eat his contract and have him become a bench player in 2017, the veteran chose to block all trades. Perhaps the new environment has refreshed his joi de vivre on the baseball field, the impact of an inflated average on balls in play (his BABIP sits at .350) or perhaps we are seeing the effects of a small sample size, but right now he is providing offensive value for the first time since 2012 and he has always been an excellent defender (except last season – cue ominous music). Don’t expect him to get on base much or to hit more than ten homers anymore, although he will steal you a handful of bases. In short, he should do a solid job of keeping second base warm for the first wave of Braves prospects to hit the infield some time this year or next when his contract is up.
    Speaking of guys unlikely to be on the roster when the Braves next make the postseason, their current third baseman, Adonis Garcia is 32 and was signed as a 27 year old once he left Cuba and became eligible. The lure of striking gold with Cuban ballplayers is MLB’s version of playing the lottery, only your ticket costs millions of dollars. Garcia made it to the majors with the Braves in 2015 and became the starting 3rd baseman last season proving to be the type of lottery ticket that gets you a free lottery ticket instead of allowing you to quit your job and move to Hilo to grow coffee on your farm you bought with your winnings. The Braves are starting the season with Garcia at the hot corner because, like Phillips and second base, the youngster who will man 3rd base for the future Braves needs more time to develop (and Garcia is dirt cheap by major league standards). In the meantime Garcia will provide some power, but not cleanup hitter power like the Braves might have hoped. His glove work is mediocre enough that the Braves tried mid-season to send him down to convert him to left field – and then brought him back to play third again. Garcia might turn into a corner outfielder/corner infield bench guy who can hit the odd home run and fill in nearly adequately when injury strikes the starter, but I am getting ahead of myself. Like many baseball players who have some offensive talent but also possess a fatal flaw that keeps them from being a long term starter, much less a star, Garcia eschews the walk and relies on his ability to put the ball in play. The man with the great name just flat out makes too many outs and doesn’t do anything else well enough to make up for it – you know, like belting 40 home runs like Kris Davis or stealing 50 bags and playing elite level defense in center field like Billy Hamilton. Both of those players I mentioned are starters in spite of their flaws because of their elite talent at other aspects of the game that make up for their flaws. If only having a cool name were one of those skills.
    The Braves lone legit position player star is their first baseman, Freddie Freeman and while alliteration in one’s name is cool, it is far from Freeman’s only virtue. Only 27, Freeman has been the starting first baseman for Atlanta since 2011 and he appears to have found 5th gear if last season is the new normal. Freeman has always been an excellent hitter with good power. He draws walks (about 80 a year) which make up for his career 21.5 strikeout %. A few important things changed in his game last season that portend happy days ahead to match the happy days he experienced in 2016 – his best season so far. 83 extra base hits have to be due to something, and that something might just be a spike in both fly balls hit (up almost 5% to just over 40%) and a jump of around 4% in the percentage of fly balls that left the park. Freeman also increased his hard hit ball rate by right around 5% so it wasn’t just home runs that increased but balls that were just plain hard to snag. After starting his career as a doubles hitting, good batting average first baseman with just enough home runs to avoid being labeled the next Mark Grace, Freeman has become the prototypical power hitting first baseman who also gets on base making him either a three hole hitter or a cleanup hitter depending on who else you have on the roster. People who watch Freeman play say that he is an excellent defender at first and happily the defensive metrics agree, making him one of the most complete first basemen in baseball and the best player on the Braves – the cornerstone of the next Braves playoff run assuming they can get there in the next couple seasons.
    To really understand where the Braves infield is going – indeed, where the entire organization is going – one needs to consider their top prospects because with one of the best minor league systems in baseball that’s really what the Braves are all about right now. They are still building for the future and stockpiling youngsters. Three (if we still include Swanson as a prospect) of the Braves top 10 prospects are middle infielders which ultimately means they have three guys coming who could play 2nd, shortstop, and third. Their number one prospect still in the minors is one of the top 25 best prospects in all of baseball. Ozhaino Albies is a shortstop who is playing a lot of second base because of Dansby Swanson. At the tender age of 20 he was pushed to triple A Gwinnett and had his first experience of not hitting over .300. Albies game is about getting on base mostly through his high batting average. He still needs to learn patience if he is to become an elite leadoff hitter, which is his top end projection. He has excellent speed that he still needs to learn to unleash against pitchers and catchers. He has stolen 86 bases in the minors at 77%, but hasn’t been one of those guys who swipes 80 bases yet – his highest total is 30 which he accomplished last season. Braves fans are clamoring for him to arrive already, but at least a half season at triple A would do a lot to insure that once Albies arrives in the majors, he sticks. With an elite speedster who is an excellent defender at shortstop, the Braves would be wise to bring in a great base stealing coach and to push him to control the strike zone better. If Albies can maintain his high average and add 70 walks (he has improved each season and walked 52 times in 2016) he would be a star, creating a ton of runs for the Braves for the next decade. If the young infielder appears ready at mid-season it is highly likely that the Braves will try to trade Brandon Phillips for something young and install Albies at second base. Braves fans will get the vapors and possibly faint watching their exciting pair of middle infielders – the future of their team moving forward.
    The other young shortstop is 17 year old Kevin Maitan –  and yes, at 17 he has a very long way to go before he is anywhere near a known quantity. That said, he has already received a top 100 ranking by Keith Law, a top 5 Braves prospect ranking by Eric Longenhagen, and the undying love of several scouts who compare his offensive potential to Miguel Sano and (gulp) Miguel Cabrera. Of the three shortstop prospects, Maitan is the guy most likely to grow out of his shortstop pants and get pushed to third, thus completing the infield picture for the 2021 Atlanta Braves. He is a switch hitter with power, a good hit tool, and a strong arm so Braves management is understandably excited at the prospect of Maitan developing somewhere close to his potential. The Braves have guys who might develop enough to play third in the bigs while they wait for Maitan, but nobody likely to turn into a star, so they might end up signing a series of stopgaps while they wait to see what they have in Maitan. It’s hard not to get excited about a guy considered one the best international signings in this decade, but the Braves will be patient while rubbing a hole in their worry stone.
    It’s a good time to be young and in love, or a Braves fan with some patience – either works really. But for the patient Braves fans your time is coming soon. Love is unpredictable as are young prospects, so here is my advice to you young lovers. Find as many excellent prospects, be patient with how things develop, then don’t hesitate to commit to the right one when you find them, unless they run afoul of the PED rules or something like that. Pretty sure my wife would agree with me in this even if we disagree about the relative importance of pitching. Oh, you thought I had digressed from baseball.

Are the Braves latest moves sending a message that they are ready to challenge for a playoff spot in 2017?

The Braves Sign Two Pitchers and Father Time
by Jim Silva
    Wow! The 2016 baseball season sure ended in spectacular fashion with two teams who hadn’t seen a World Series victory for either 70 or 108 years, depending on your choice of poison. So I would like to welcome you to the 2017 baseball season as one of my favorite parts of the year is Hot Stove League season, when everyone is tied for first place and the pain of the last season fades into glorious optimism. The Atlanta Braves had jumped quickly into the fray signing two starting pitchers to bolster their rotation of the future as they continue their rebuilding process. But wait! Did they find two youngsters to match their baby-faced starters? They finished the season with five hurlers in the rotation who were between the ages of 23 and 25 – you know – like a rebuilding team usually would. So you would think they would grab more youth to continue their move toward Cubs-like youthful fervor, but no. Not only did they sign two veterans, they signed two veterans of the Revolutionary War! Ok, not really (French-Indian War?), but they are long in the tooth for professional athletes unless you are one of those people who think of chess as a sport. Let’s take a look at what the Braves just did with $20 million – a question I ask about my checking account on a weekly basis (uh huh) and what it means for their rotation moving forward.
    Like a lot of other teams over the last decade and more, the Atlanta Braves chose to tank in order to rebuild for the future. You know the story. So the Braves got really young by dumping their older players and picked up young prospects that they could build around for the future. In that vein, last year, they made a huge trade with the Diamondbacks when they sent their ace, Shelby Miller, to pick up a treasure trove of prospects that included the first pick of the draft, Dansby Swanson, starting pitcher Aaron Blair, and center fielder Ender Inciarte. While Miller pitched so poorly for the Diamondbacks that he was sent down for a stretch, Inciarte and Swanson showed that they were both well suited to start, while Blair, as do many young pitchers, struggled in his first exposure to major league hitters. At the time of the trade, many analysts thought Blair was ready to jump into the rotation now, which would have meant that the Braves had picked up 20% of a starting rotation and a stellar glove man (Inciarte) to be their starting center fielder, plus their shortstop of the future (Swanson) for a starting pitcher with one good season under his belt. As it turned out, Inciarte had another great year after a horrendous first half. The future came much sooner than expected for the shortstop as Swanson came up for the final 38 games of the season (in his second season as a professional) and put up a wRC+ of 107, meaning he created 7% more runs than the leaguers average player did in the same number of plate appearances after adjusting for the park and the league. And Blair proved that he needed more time cooking in the oven of triple-A putting up an xFIP (a measure similar to ERA that measures a pitcher’s expected runs allowed based on what they actually gave up that was under their control) of 5.66 – again, think ERA for scale. His actual ERA was 7.59. So enough about the trade – back to the Braves options for the rotation for 2017.
    Aside from Blair, who many think has top half of the rotation potential, the Braves two signings have, uh, a lot of experience at the major league level. It is an interesting gambit signing two pitchers who have already passed their 42nd birthday, but with only one year of commitment, it’s really just money and the possibility of holding one of their youngsters back for one more season – unless this is a Billy Beane type of move and the plan is to trade them both by the deadline. In Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey, the Braves have added 85 years of life experience (they are 43 and 42 years old respectively) and $20.5 million worth of contract of the 2017 season. Colon had a very good 2016 and on the surface appears to be getting better as he ages. But there are a couple of red flags that indicate the possibility of troubled waters ahead for the stocky Colon. His home runs per fly ball rate has increased from 6.0% in 2013 with the A’s to 11.5% last season with the Mets. His walks per nine (1.50) and strikeouts per nine (6.01) both went in the wrong direction last season, and his xFIP increased to 4.17. On a more positive note, Colon has registered at least 190 innings pitched in each of the last four seasons. If he can maintain last season’s numbers, the Braves will benefit greatly from the stability that Colon would provide in the middle of the rotation.
    R.A. Dickey has declined since signing a huge contract to pitch for the Blue Jays for the 2013 season. As a knuckleball pitcher who stays fit, there is no reason to believe that he can’t at least be a solid back end of the rotation innings eater with the possibility of being somewhat more as he has now escaped the power packed AL East for the friendlier pitching atmosphere of the NL East. Dickey’s xFIP has been over 4.00 ever since he left the Mets for that big contract. In 2015 and 2016 he tallied xFIPs of 4.72 and 4.76 respectively. His home run per fly ball rate spiked to 14.7% last season as his walk rate also increased (to 3.34) – a bad combination – leading to his ugly xFIP. Last year was clearly a down season for Dickey. Prior to 2016 he hadn’t failed to work fewer than 208 innings since 2010, and even with that his 169.66 innings pitched would have ranked second to ace Julio Teheran’s 188. If Dickey can rebound even part way, he will be a valuable addition, taking a huge burden off the bullpen. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about improvement for Dickey including the fact that his xFIP was under four for all three seasons that he was in the National League and his home runs per nine rate was under one. The AL East is full of launching pad parks so expect Dickey to look like he has discovered the fountain of youth upon his return to the NL.
    The ace of the Braves has to be Julio Teheran who at the age of 25 has 47 wins and a career ERA of 3.39. He has been the target of trade rumors now for a couple of seasons, but the Braves wisely held onto him, even while they cleaned house. In 2016 Teheran’s walks per nine dropped under two (to 1.96) for the first time in a full season in the majors, while his strikeout rate inched up to 7.99 per nine, and his home run per fly ball percentage dropped back to his career rate of around 10. It was a good comeback season for Teheran who has notched between 185 and 220 innings in each of his four full seasons in the majors. The Braves hope he has another gear left because he is the closest thing they have to a true ace at the major league level, but has looked more like a second or third starter so far. Think back to what you were good at when you were 25 and you can see that the Braves hopes might have some chance of coming true.
    I am struggling to understand why the Diamondbacks chose to release Josh Collmenter in the middle of their collapse last season. Obviously there is a lot I wasn’t privy to, but with a pitching staff struggling to survive, having a pitcher who had succeeded as a starter and reliever would warrant some patience. It isn’t surprising that the Cubs who claimed him didn’t hang onto him considering how deep they were. So the Braves took a chance, and in a small sample size of starts – three – Collmenter delivered big time with three solid starts covering 19 innings. There is a prejudice against pitchers who don’t throw hard – Collmenter’s fastball averages around 88 – so it’s possible that he fell victim to the fear that the soft tossing guy had finally lost his ability to fool hitters when he struggled out of the pen. Whatever it was, the Braves took a gamble and won, and having re-signed Collmenter for a year, they aren’t committing too much money to see how their gamble pays off. With two starting pitchers joining the team, once again Collmenter’s versatility might be a blessing and a curse. Since he CAN pitch out of the pen, he probably WILL pitch out of the pen until inevitably someone gets hurt or repeatedly bombed and Josh gets to grab a rotation spot until the next shiny thing (young, hard-thrower) appears. No matter what the Braves choose to do with Collmenter, he is a valuable arm out of the pen and in the rotation who is a cheap tool to have on your team. It would be interesting to see what Collmenter would do with 32 starts after that tantalizing three start audition, but I would bet money that it doesn’t go that way because soft-tossers get no love.
    Mike Foltynewicz finished his second season with the Braves after coming over from Houston in the Gattis trade, and if you look at the entirety of the year, it looked like he made some solid gains. What “Folty” managed to achieve in his second turn with the Braves was an excellent first half where it looked like he finally had learned to command his hard stuff and a second half that has to have the Braves worried that he is still a work in progress. Dude throws hard, and while there is some comfort in that, unless he knows roughly where it is going, throwing hard just isn’t that useful in and of itself. With a first half ERA of 3.67 and a strikeout to walks ratio of 4.09, Foltynewicz looked like a number two or three starter. While his strikeout rate didn’t drop significantly in the second half, he looked more like a fourth or fifth starter as his ERA jumped to 4.72, driven in part by his strikeout to walk ratio dropping to 2.75. And while he gave up four fewer home runs in the second half in more innings, his lack of command just put more guys on base for free. You can’t do that and expect to be near the top of the rotation for long. His control issues may have come in response to his higher home run rate from the first half or just a return to old habits as Folty had seen walk rates in the mid-fours in the minors. Whatever it was, if the Braves can figure it out and address it this spring, the Braves have their number two behind Teheran for years to come as the 6’4 righty from Minooka, Illinois is only 25 and under team control until 2022 when he can try free agency.
    At 24, Matt Wisler already has 45 major league starts – a bit surprising from a 7th round pick especially when you consider that he has a career xFIP of 4.87, a WHIP of 1.38, and a home runs per nine rate of 1.42 in the majors. Usually guys who get this kind of leash (long) throw really hard or project to throw really hard, but while Wisler’s fastball is good, he doesn’t possess the kind of arm that makes batters quiver as they stand in the on-deck circle. His heater tops out at 96 – good stuff – and he also possesses a slider, change, and a curve so he’s got the full arsenal. It’s just that Wisler hasn’t found a pitch that he can get hitters to regularly miss. He fills the strike zone, only walking 2.8 batters per nine last year, but he only fanned 6.6 per nine. What is really causing him trouble is that he leaves his hittable stuff where batters can pound it to the tune of 9.1 hits per nine with 1.5 home runs per nine. Interestingly, many of Wisler’s peripherals improved from 2015 to 2016. He gave up fewer fly balls (although more of them left the yard), struck out more batters while walking fewer, and reduced his xFIP. Unfortunately – and this probably has the Braves a bit worried – his hard contact rate went up from 28.2% to 37.6% which means batters are figuring him out and squaring him up. It’s hard to say what the Braves will get from Wisler in 2017, but he will almost certainly be the fourth or fifth starter, so the Braves will be praying for some development.
    The Braves have a slew of pitching prospects in their top ten prospect list, but only two, ok, maybe three are close to being ready. Tyrell Jenkins actually made eight starts in the majors last season at the age of 23. They were mostly awful starts, but still, they were eight major league starts. Looking at his minor league numbers it doesn’t look like he really dominated anywhere, so one would have not looked at his numbers and said, “Oh yeah, he’s ready”. Sean Newcomb did a little dominating at double-A but still walked over four batters per nine so he needs to figure that out before being turned loose in the bigs. Lucas Sims pitched at triple-A Gwinnett to start the season but got axe murdered so was sent back to double-A where he got his act together. Touki Toussaint is only 20 and pitching in full season A ball and looking like he belongs so he is probably two to three years away.
    What it all amounts to is that the Braves have young quality pitching coming but not in 2017. Signing two geriatrics like Colon and Dickey means they can let Blair, Jenkins, Newcomb, and Sims figure it out at a more reasonable pace instead of having to cover innings and get hammered for a year hoping that they don’t lose all their confidence. The Braves rotation will be better in 2017 than it was in 2016 and they will likely win more games, but signing the two veterans wasn’t a sign that the Braves think they are ready to compete for a division title next season as much as it was a statement acknowledging that they are at least a season away from fielding a starting rotation that they can move forward with. Colon will not be on the roster when the Braves next make the playoffs, and while Dickey could be because he throws his knuckleball 85% of the time so he could be pitching with his AARP card in his back pocket, that’s not why the Braves signed those two pitchers. It was a smart move designed to protect their valuable young arms. Look for the Braves to improve every year as they move into their new stadium and start making the playoffs around 2019 or 2020. Buy your rubber tomahawks now – beat the rush!