If The Season Started Today…

Let me start by saying that yes, I understand there is plenty of time to make changes to the roster before the season actually begins. Ultimately, looking at the roster before it’s submitted to the league prior to the first game is a fool’s errand, but if you aren’t a hockey or basketball fan there really isn’t much else to occupy your thoughts at the moment, right? There has been much discussion over the past couple of weeks as free agents have come off the board. With the Braves seemingly watching from the sidelines, much of that discussion has been speculating on where the Braves need to upgrade the current roster. With that in mind, let’s check in on the current state of things.

The starting 8

The commissioner of baseball has instructed clubs to proceed under the assumption that there will not be a designated hitter in the National League this season. With the MLBPA playing hardball in negotiations this offseason, that outcome is becoming more and more likely. For that reason we will stick to a more traditional National League lineup with 8 players. Stat projections are from Steamer.

  1. Ronald Acuna, RF .282/.381/.551 41 HR OPS .932
  2. Ozzie Albies, 2B .280/.340/.483 25 HR OPS .822
  3. Freddie Freeman 1B .294/.396/.540 32 HR OPS .936
  4. Travis d’Arnaud C .263/.325/.448 18 HR .773 OPS
  5. Austin Riley 3B .258/.322/.485 29 HR .807 OPS
  6. Dansby Swanson SS .250/.328/.415 20 HR .743 OPS
  7. Ender Inciarte LF .248/.320/.358 7 HR .678 OPS
  8. Cristian Pache CF .255/.309/.398 12 HR .707 OPS

Any lineup that has Ender Inciarte penciled in as a regular is a weak lineup. With that said, 1-6 is pretty solid. The loss of the DH will affect the number of AB’s that Travis d’Arnaud gets this season, however, and on those days the lineup gets a little light. Having the ability to insert a little offense off the bench would go a long way to alleviating that concern.

Starting rotation

The Braves ran through the playoffs with Max Fried as the only established starter in the rotation. Huge performances by rookie Ian Anderson and former highly regarded prospect Kyle Wright were critical to the team’s success, and the collective work of those three players and a spot start from Bryse Wilson took the Los Angeles Dodgers to a game seven in the NLCS. Despite that success, the Braves GM addressed the lack of depth on the 2021 roster by inking former Brave Charlie Morton to a 1 year, 15M deal and Drew Smyly for 1 year, $11M. He also brought back utility starter/reliever Josh Tomlin for even more depth. The rotation, formerly a glaring weakness for the Braves, looks to this point to be one of the best in the National League.

  1. Mike Soroka 8-9 4.46 ERA 7.26 K/9 2.92 BB/9
  2. Max Fried 11-10 3.99 ERA 8.41 K/9 3.38 BB/9
  3. Charlie Morton 11-9 3.94 ERA 9.37 K/9 2.69 BB/9
  4. Ian Anderson 8-8 4.47 ERA 9.29 K/9 4.37 BB/9
  5. Drew Smyly 8-8 4.41 ERA 10.28 K/9 3.49 BB/9

Ok, so these numbers don’t look all that great, but again, these are projections. They are impacted quite a bit by the small number of games played last season. No pitcher is projected for lower than a 3.01 ERA (deGrom), and only Gerritt Cole is expected to win as many as 15 games. Steamer is really soft on Soroka, coming back from a serious achilles injury, and Anderson, who will once again pitch in 2021 as a rookie. It’s incredibly hard to accurately predict numbers from pitchers who ended the year on the IL or don’t have enough innings in the big leagues to get a firm sample size, so models tend to view them closer to the league average. There is plenty of reason to believe this rotation will be highly effective, and there is still depth behind these 5 with Wright, Wilson and Touki Toussaint available to step in as necessary.

The bullpen

GM Alex Anthopoulos was applauded for his efforts to improve the depth and talent in the bullpen prior to the 2020 season, and it was the bullpen that propelled the Braves well into the playoffs. The insane nature of the season, truncated as it was by COVID-19, as well as the unfortunate injuries to Soroka and Cole Hamels put an extreme amount of pressure on the bullpen to deliver, and deliver they did. Once the season ended there were a number of key members of that unit that hit free agency including closer Mark Melancon, setup man Shane Greene, and sidewinding specialist Darren O’Day. The re-emergence of A.J. Minter and the solid performances turned in by Chris Martin, Tyler Matzek, and Grant Dayton still makes this a very formidable pen, and the expectation is that Will Smith will assume the closing duties and return to his 2019 form.

  • Closer – Will Smith (L) 3-3 3.85 ERA 8 SV 1.24 WHIP
  • Setup – Chris Martin (R) 3-3 3.97 ERA 21 SV 1.23 WHIP
  • Setup – A.J. Minter (L) 3-3 4.17 ERA 3 SV 1.36 WHIP
  • Reliever – Tyler Matzek (L) 3-3 3.79 ERA 1 SV 1.30 WHIP
  • Reliever – Luke Jackson (R) 2-2 4.27 ERA 1.41 WHIP
  • Reliever – Sean Newcomb (L) 1-1 4.26 ERA 1.36 WHIP
  • Reliever – Jacob Webb (R) 2-3 4.80 ERA 1.47 WHIP
  • Long Reliever – Josh Tomlin (R) 2-3 5.01 ERA 1.33 WHIP

You could do a lot worse than Will Smith, Chris Martin and A.J. Minter anchoring your bullpen. There were some hiccups with Smith last season, particularly with the long ball, but his performance in the final weeks of the season and post season provides a measure of hope that the overall stats from 2020 don’t provide an accurate representation of what Smith can do in Atlanta. In the final 7 games of the regular season he held batters to a .118 BA with 1 BB and 6 K’s over 5 1/3 innings, and in the playoffs he pitched in 7 games and allowed 2 hits (one HR), walked 3 and struck out 7.

The Braves will be counting on bounce-back performances from Luke Jackson and Sean Newcomb while hoping that the improvements shown by Smith, Minter and Matzek weren’t a flash in the pan.

the Bench

Here’s where things get a bit dicey. Travis d’Arnaud was a huge addition last season, but if there is not a DH option available to the Braves this season they will have to play around 60 games with a backup catcher in harness. Johan Camargo returns as the primary utility guy, but he provides little protection for Dansby Swanson at short. Putting together a strong bench from the players on the roster at this point simply isn’t possible, and that has to be a focus heading into Spring Training. Here is possibly how the bench would currently play out:

  • Catcher – Alex Jackson .212/.275/.407
  • Catcher – William Contreras .242/.297/.368
  • Utility INF – Johan Camargo .257/.319/.425
  • Utility OF – Abraham Almonte .224/.312/.370
  • Utility OF – Kyle Garlick .222/.278/.396

That’s right. Two catchers, and Johan Camargo is still probably your first guy off the bench. Also, there’s nobody on this list that is going to get playing time over Ender Inciarte at this point, and that in and of itself is a travesty. Of all the areas of need, this appears to be the biggest.

Conclusions?

Most of Braves country is clamoring for a big signing or trade to bolster the lineup, but Alex Anthopoulos could easily see artificially deflated numbers from Albies and Acuña due to injuries in 2020 and positive momentum gained from Travis d’Arnaud and Austin Riley and decide to stand pat until closer to the trade deadline. Fans also should keep in mind that while the Braves may not look at 2020 revenue numbers as a reason to reduce 2021 payroll, they could look at the expected impact of limited numbers of fans in the park in the 2nd fiscal quarter as a reason to use caution in their approach to free agency. The payroll number may ultimately be comparable to 2019 and 2020, but there is a good chance that the bulk of the dollars added between now and the end of the season occurs at the trade deadline as needs are better defined.

I don’t put too much stock in projections, but it’s important to note that the offensive projections for the Braves regulars do compare favorably to those of the other teams in their division. The rotation is solid, and the pen could use one or two additions to bring it back to the weapon it was last season. The bench, however, is non-existent. Two solid signings have to happen before real games start in April. Adam Duvall is still out there on the market and could return to the Braves if there is not a better situation out there for him, and there are a number of players 30 and older who could provide some pop off the bench. Options such as Jonathan Villar (24 HR in 2019), Jay Bruce (26 HR 2019), Daniel Murphy (17 HR .279 BA in 2019), and Jedd Gyorko (9HR in 2020) are all plausible options outside of the premium free agents available.

Ultimately, no one knows what Alex Anthopoulos has planned for the roster. I tend to be a little more pessimistic than most and believe that our major moves are done for the winter. One year deals for veterans who are looking for a team heading into Spring Training are going to provide the opportunity to fill the remaining spots without taking up room on the 40 man roster. No player can be added to the roster at this point without a corresponding move since the Braves stand at 40 players. With just a couple of weeks remaining in the offseason, it’s about time to start sending out those minor league deals with offers to spring training to round out camp and get ready for baseball in 2021.

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