Braves pitcher Mike Soroka.
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Braves Q&A: King Felix, Drew Waters and looking at the future

Hello, fellow quarantined sports enthusiasts. Last week, I fielded questions on Twitter related to — you guessed it — the Braves. Below are a handful I’ll answer now. There surely will be more Q&A’s in the future, so tweet @GabeBurnsAJC or email gabriel.burns@ajc.com and hopefully we’ll get to your question.

And before we get started, as always, I wish everyone good health in this trying time. I hope that articles like these can provide a small distraction from our current reality. We’re all looking forward to the day we can take sports more seriously again.

Q: If baseball actually comes back and Cole Hamels is healthy when it resumes, do you still think King Felix (Hernandez) makes the squad?

A: I do. I didn’t feel Hamels’ health was as significant a factor in the Felix decision as some believed. If Hernandez showed he had something left — and it looked like he did — he’d make the team. If he didn’t, they’d cut him loose. The bottom line is his $1 million was a low cost to cover innings while Kyle Wright and the like log minor-league frames.

If there’s a season, we don’t know how the rebooted spring training will work. Leo Mazzone told me that pitchers would need roughly three weeks. Rosters will assuredly be expanded for at least a portion of the campaign, leaving fewer immediate difficult decisions. So yes, I think Hernandez should be part of the Braves’ opening rotation, but that guess is surrounded by uncertainties.

If we do get a season, it will be unlike anything we’ve seen before. So predicting roster roles and layout is practically useless right now. I will end this saying I felt Hernandez made the team’s rotation, and the delay has robbed us what could’ve been a pretty neat story (the Braves were even scheduled to play at Seattle early in the season).

Q: What was up with (Drew) Waters during spring training? I saw him play in five games. He looked overmatched at the plate. Do you find it concerning?

A: Nope, though it confirmed what we already knew: Waters needs to cut down on his strikeouts. It’s the glaring flaw in his otherwise exciting game. Despite his underwhelming at-bats (4-for-24 with 14 strikeouts), I’d say Waters came out of camp impressive in about every other way. His demeanor and passion popped out to everyone who encountered him.

If he’s going to fulfill his potential, that begins and ends with his ability to lessen those K-numbers. Everything else – the bat speed, foot speed, attitude, baseball IQ — is there. He’s only 21.

I recommend Steve Hummer’s piece on Waters, which delves into his unique talent-personality combo

Q: What will the Braves outfield look like in the next 2-3 years?

A: The easy answer: Cristian Pache in center, Ronald Acuna in right, Drew Waters in left. That’s also the likeliest outcome. Maybe there’s a scenario the Braves deal one of their two top outfield prospects and replace one with a free agent or trade acquisition, but the smart money is on that trio roaming Truist Park by 2022.

I will say this: I don’t expect Pache or Waters to be traded. But if one were to go, the general belief seems to be that Waters is more expendable. Again, I stress, I don’t see either moved anytime soon, but if the Braves really feel they can acquire someone who makes the ultimate difference, you never know. To take a page from Zach Lowe’s playbook, I ask aggregators not to run with that statement. I DON’T THINK EITHER WILL BE TRADED AND THAT WASN’T A REPORT.

Q: Do you think (Kyle) Muller has a chance to be like (Madison) Bumgarner on the mound and at the bat! His BP was fun to watch!

A: We often joke that if Muller the pitcher doesn’t work out, Muller the position player will be unleashed. But those remarks are rooted in truth. If you just watched his batting practices, you’d think he was an outfielder. The last time he was a position player was his senior year of high school, when he hit .396 with 15 homers.

As a pitcher, he’s a physical specimen who’s very much unrefined, as his spring training showed. It was, as I wrote, very Wild Thing-esque. The brief sample size showed he’s not ready yet, which is perfectly fine.

The upside is immense, but reality is that players with such ceilings often don’t get there. In Muller’s case, he’s a good kid and a hard worker who’s been placed in an ideal developmental environment. That’s an encouraging start.

We yak on and on about the Braves’ young pitchers, but the competitive atmosphere really does help. Every guy, from Mike Soroka to Wright to Ian Anderson to Muller has brought it up over the past few years. You can’t be a big fish in a small pond in the Braves’ system.

Q: In a worst-case scenario where currently scheduled free agents are able to move on with the possibility of not playing a game this season, what are the priorities the team needs to cover? Ex. - Freddie Freeman, filling the OF w/ a year of progress lost for Pache, 3B battle, etc.

A: I’ll consider this an opportunity to look ahead at next offseason, which either comes after an abbreviated campaign or none at all. Regardless, ages and contracts move forward a year.

Marcell Ozuna will become a free agent. The Braves could let him walk, replacing him with Waters or Pache (as was the assumed plan). But now, they might not get the sample size they’d hoped to evaluate from either prospect. Ozuna won’t be inclined to take another one-year offer, though he might have to.

Hamels would hit the market with the Braves possibly still unsure how prepared their younger starters are for larger roles (especially in the event of a canceled season). Mark Melancon’s and Shane Greene’s contracts expire, ending this edition of the team’s heavy bullpen investments. Darren O’Day also has a $3.5 million team option.

Tyler Flowers and Nick Markakis would be available, two important clubhouse presences who are in the twilight of their careers. The Braves may well bid both farewell, leaving a leadership void. In the catching case, they wouldn’t bank on Shea Langeliers to begin next season, so a partner with Travis d’Arnaud will be on the shopping list.

It’s difficult to say what the Braves will “need,” since we don’t know how their internal options develop. Yet there’s no shortage of wonders. 

I doubt they’d want to roll out Acuna-Pache-Waters for opening day in 2021. They’ll need a veteran catcher. I think the rotation could probably use a guy like, well, Hamels. The lineup might need a clean-up hitter. For as talented and well-stocked this team is, there are too many unknowns to hand jobs over to some of these younger players.

The only thing I’ll say for sure about next offseason: We’ll discuss Freeman. His deal expires after next season. Both parties will probably prefer an extension in place before next season. Freeman wants to be a lifetime Brave and the organization wants to make him one. So that’ll place somewhere high on the team’s agenda.

Q: What’s your dream lineup and starting rotation for 2021? 

A: We’ve got plenty of time, so I’ll play along with the fantasy baseball idea.
1B: Freddie Freeman
2B: Ozzie Albies
3B: Austin Riley
SS: Francisco Lindor
LF: Marcell Ozuna (on another one-year deal; otherwise, pivot to another short-term option) 
CF: Cristian Pache
RF: Ronald Acuna
C: Travis d’Arnaud

I don’t think the Braves will land Lindor, but you said “dream.” To me, he’s the best player who’ll be realistically available in the next 12 months. This is more a testament to Lindor’s greatness than an indictment on Dansby Swanson, who was entering an important year.

Could they re-sign Lindor? The Braves have never been one for dishing out those huge deals. But they’re in a unique position with Acuna’s and Albies’ under-market contracts, and I feel this is a scenario you could bite the bullet and pay a player a $200 million-plus deal. 

That said, they probably won’t, for better or worse. And as baseball continues to prove, those commitments are rarely for the best. Would Lindor or a similar player be worth acquiring under the assumption you have no shot at re-signing him? Maybe. Depends on your situation and philosophy.

By the way, check out the 2021-22 free-agent class of shortstops: Lindor, Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, Trevor Story and Corey Seager. The class boasts big names beyond them, too, including Kris Bryant, Michael Conforto, Tommy Pham, Starling Marte, Salvador Perez, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Noah Syndergaard, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. Nolan Arenado has his oft-referenced opt-out.

So if the Braves decide to channel their inner Yankees and throw major cash at somebody in the coming years — still more dream than likelihood — that might be the winter. Keep in mind Freeman needs an extension at that time. Mike Foltynewicz is also a free agent.

As for the rotation, I’d prefer to add a guy of the Hamels’ ilk, but by season’s end I would feel good about this homegrown group.
SP1: Mike Soroka
SP2: Max Fried
SP3: Mike Foltynewicz
SP4: Kyle Wright
SP5: Ian Anderson

You’d have two pitchers — Soroka and Anderson — who could be bona fide No. 1’s (Soroka already is). Foltynewicz has a high ceiling and low floor, but you’d certainly feel good about him in the middle of your rotation. Fried is, worst case, a solid 3. Wright is a wild card but I’m still a strong believer.

Perhaps you make a play for Mike Clevinger or another heralded starter. But in an ideal world, I think the Braves’ rotation comes from within, allowing them to supplement their offense from the outside. Then again, maybe everything’s peachy offensively, in which case adding a frontline starter could push you over the top. Options are good!

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About the Author

Gabriel Burns
Gabriel Burns
Gabriel Burns is the Braves beat writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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