Braves think they're close to contending. Are they?

They are coming off the franchise's worst back-to-back seasons in more than a quarter of a century, having lost 95 games in 2015 and 93 in 2016. But that record hardly tells the story about where things stand with the Braves, about the optimism of players and team officials as they prepare for their first season at SunTrust Park, genuinely confident that they’ve turned a corner in a painful rebuilding process and aren’t far from being a contender again.

Rookie shortstop Dansby Swanson is a big reason the Braves feel so much better entering about the 2017 season than they did entering 2016. (Getty Images photo)

While no one outside the organization is going to pick the Braves to win the NL East in 2017, or win a wild-card playoff berth for that matter, the consensus is they are well on their way to being good again, really good, and should at least be competitive in 2017 -- as they were for much of last season after a horrific start.

The minor league system has been rebuilt and the major league offense made significant strides during the 2016 season with the addition of Matt Kemp and with up-and-comers Ender Inciarte and Dansby Swanson joining franchise player Freddie Freeman in a suddenly legit lineup. Now they need a veteran-bolstered pitching staff to show major improvement if the Braves hope to make much progress in 2017.

With the calendar flipped to 2017 and spring training only about five weeks away, let’s take a look ahead to the upcoming season and some areas of focus for the Braves. In case you missed it, you should go back and read this blog I posted Sunday looking back at the past season, which brings us up to this point.

Snitker and tweaked coaching staff

After going 20-10 down the stretch in 2016 including 12 wins in their final 14 games, the first offseason question the Braves faced was the managerial decision. And they took just over a week to make it, opting to retain manager Brian Snitker and remove the “interim” tag from his title with a one-year contract that also includes an option for 2018.

Many observers, especially in the national media, seemed convinced the Braves wouldn’t be able to resist signing a bigger-named manager – Bud Black was mentioned frequently – with the team moving into a new ballpark and all, but it made too much sense for the Braves to stay with Snitker. He led a fairly resounding midseason turnaround and received overwhelming support from players, many of whom lobbied openly for Snitker to keep the job.

Ron Washington, the other veteran-manager finalist (along with Black), interviewed for the managerial position but instead took the third-base coaching position, replacing Bo Porter, who moved to the front office as a special assistant. The other coaching change was a big one – Chuck Hernandez, a former major league pitching coach with four different teams, was promoted from Braves minor league pitching coordinator to replace Roger McDowell, who was dismissed by the Braves and soon took the Baltimore Orioles’ pitching-coach job.

Hernandez has a reputation for working well with young pitchers, something the Braves found lacking with McDowell despite the team’s overall pitching success for much of his tenure with the team. With so much invested in their pitching prospects, some of whom should reach the majors in the next year or two, the Braves wanted to make the change now.

Snitker was promoted from Triple-A manager to replace fired manager Fredi Gonzalez on May 17, after the Braves’ 9-28 start. They went 9-18 in Snitker’s first 27 games, but were 50-47 the rest of the way including 20-10 in the final 30.

“I'm very proud of how we finished in the second half of the season,” Snitker said in December. “How they went about it every day and the professionalism and how they prepared, the way they played the game…. I felt like we were chasing a wild-card berth, the way we played the games and never gave up, how we just played a hard 27 outs. It was fun to watch, it was very gratifying, it said a lot about those guys, which I saw when I first got there. The record was bad, they had been beat over the head, just things weren't meshing real good (at the beginning of the season). But the day-in, day-out preparation, the clubhouse, how they played the game was very impressive to me, to a man.”

It’s that character, talent and progress that he saw from the Braves during his 4 ½ months as manager that makes Snitker feel good about the upcoming season, whether outsiders are ready to jump on the bandwagon or not.

“I think to a man when we go to spring training our goal is going to be to win the division, and I don't see why it should be anything other than that,” Snitker said at baseball’s Winter Meetings in December. “I think, again, to a man we feel like we have a real good club. To go in there with any other thoughts to me would -- we're showing up there to win the division. I think if you asked our players, they would tell you the same thing, with how we finished and where we feel like we're at as an organization, as a team, and the depth that we have and our club the way it's shaping up right now, I don't see any reason why that shouldn't be our goal.”

Veterans make for revamped rotation

Braves starters, for so long the backbone of the franchise, slipped to their lowest point in recent memory in 2016, finishing next-to-last in the National League in ERA (4.87, even worse than the altitude-challenged Rockies) and allowing the second-most homers (135) among NL starters while pitching the third-fewest innings (880 1/3, more than 100 innings fewer than Cubs and Giants starters).

Bartolo Colon is a former Cy Young Award winner still going strong at 43, and the Braves are counting on him having enough left to provide close to 200 innings for a revamped rotation. (AP photo)

Braves general manager John Coppolella said the day after the season ended that that adding multiple starting pitchers was the Braves’ top priority, and it didn’t take them long to get busy. They signed former Cy Young Award winners Bartolo Colon and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, the two oldest starters in baseball, during the general-manager meetings when most teams were still just feeling out the free-agent and trade markets, then traded for Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia on Dec. 1.

Colon, 43, and Dickey, 42, were signed to one-year deals (Dickey’s has an option year) and Garcia is in the final year of his contract. The Braves will pay the three of them a combined $32 million in 2017 including $12.5 million for Colon.

The Braves also tried to add a bona fide ace, but weren’t willing to part with the bounty of prospects that the White Sox were asking for Chris Sale and that the Rays have continued to ask for Chris Archer.

They also inquired on White Sox All-Star lefty Jose Quintnana and the Athletics’ Sonny Gray but deemed the asking price too high for each -- at least so far. With Coppolella and president of baseball operations John Hart running things for the Braves, we’ve come to expect deals when they’re least expected. (Who can forget the Craig Kimbrel and B.J. Upton to San Diego trade the night before opening day?)

The Braves turned things around at midseason despite the starting rotation, not because of it. They were determined to avoid a repeat of their rotation struggles in 2017, to avoid putting undue pressure on another promising bullpen and not waste so many solid four- and five-run offensive performances like they did a year ago.

As things stand today, they’ll have a rotation of All-Star Julio Teheran, Colon, Garcia, Dickey and a fifth starter to come from a pool of competitors this spring that could include the likes of Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair, Josh Collmenter and others, but should be Mike Foltynewicz's to lose entering spring training.

We filled our needs,” Coppolella said in December. “We needed innings, and we feel like we got 550 innings, hopefully, out of the three guys we (acquired).”

After seeing so many starters exit before the sixth inning last season, especially in the second half, Snitker was asked how comforting it was to know the Braves added proven innings-eaters in Colon, Dickey and, when healthy, Garcia.

“Very,” he replied. “I remember saying (before a lot of starts last season) let's just get this plane off the ground and we'll take it from there (with the bullpen working most of the game in plenty of starts).”

Snitker said adding veteran innings-eaters “is what we were looking to do. We targeted (the three veteran additions), those were the guys that we felt like we wanted. Walking around (the Winter Meetings) I've had a number of other guys that have had those players over the years that were very complementary and encouraging, and the words they used were the make-up, how you can trust them, the reliability in those guys, and that's why we targeted them.

“…(Dickey), Bartolo, Jaime, those are guys that have pitched innings, and that's what we're looking for and that will be good for those relievers, to not have to go to them as much as we did and have guys to cover innings, that was big.”

Rodriguez: potential big impact from low-key signing

When the Braves agreed to a two-year, $11.5 million deal with Sean Rodriguez, the move got overlooked, perhaps because of the timing – news of the deal broke on Thanksgiving – and the fact that the nine-year veteran “super utility” player had never posted an OPS as high as .720 until his career-best 2016 season with Pittsburgh.

But in Rodriguez, 31, the Braves think they might have their most versatile and impactful utility player since Martin Prado. He played seven positions in 2016 and, after making swing adjustments including a pronounced front-leg left, Rodriguez set career-highs in most offensive categories including home runs (18), batting average (.270), RBIs (56), on-base percentage (.349) and slugging percentage (.510) despite striking out a career-high 102 times in 342 plate appearances.

The Braves have high expectations for veteran newcomer Sean Rodriguez, who can play seven positions and is coming off a career-best season with the Pirates. (AP photo)

Rodriguez is a solid defender at second base and could share duties there with Jace Peterson until prospect Ozzie Albies is ready. The Braves haven’t been content to sit back and wait – they pursued a trade for Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips early in the offseason, but Phillips, with only one year left on his contract, blocked the deal. Rodriguez was signed soon after.

Albies, who turned 20 on Saturday, fractured the olecranon bone at the tip of his right elbow taking a swing during a Double-A playoff game. He’s expected to be ready for spring training, but the Braves obviously don’t want to rush him coming back from injury, and with Rodriguez on the roster they don’t need to.

Rodriguez figures to get plenty of starts at various positions including third base, where he gives the Braves an option if Adonis Garcia struggles, particularly against right-handers. Though Rodriguez is right-handed, he had 14 homers and a strong .831 OPS in 248 plate appearances vs. right-handed pitching in 2016. (He hit .286 with four homers and a .934 OPS in 94 PAs vs. lefties.)

The Braves also still have utility player Chase d’Arnaud on the roster, but they could make a move to add another versatile bench player this winter, with former Braves Kelly Johnson and Jeff Francoeur among those being considered. Versatility is key for the Braves, especially since they are likely to carry eight relievers again instead of seven, at least early in the season.

Rodriguez can play nearly every position on the field including center field, no small detail given that the Braves might decide to have Mallex Smith start the season in Triple-A rather than on the major league bench playing infrequently behind the veteran outfield trio of Inciarte and corner outfielders Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis.

“This is a guy that’s going to probably play more second base than anywhere else, because that’s a need for us,” Coppolella said in December. “But he can start at any number of positions. We think the changes and adjustments that he made (to his swing before the 2016 season) are real. And this guy is still young, he’s 31 years old.

“He always gets between 300 and 400 at-bats. There’s a chance he’s going to get more than that this year with us.”

The Braves committed $43.5 million the veteran foursome of Colon, Dickey, Garcia and Rodriguez, with only Rodriguez signed to a multi-year deal.

“The fact that we’ve spent all that money shows that we’re trying to win,” Coppolella said. “We’re trying hard to win. We’re trying to build a better team. We’ve added three starting pitchers, we’ve added guys for the future (in other trades)…. We’ve added a really good player in Sean Rodriguez who hit 18 home runs in 300 at-bats and can play seven different spots on the field. We aren’t going to say we’re going to win the World Series or we’re going to win X number of games. We’re going to say we’re going to be better and we’re going to be fun.”

Will second-half offensive surge continue?

After batting just .230 with 11 homers, a .596 OPS and 114 runs (3.08 average) during their 9-28 start under Gonzalez, the Braves under Snitker hit .262 with 111 homers, a .737 OPS and 535 runs (4.31 average) in 124 games, led by Freddie Freeman’s stunning performance over the final four months of the season.

After cleanup hitter Kemp joined the lineup Aug. 2, Kemp hit .280 with 12 homers, 39 RBIs and a .519 slugging percentage in 56 games and the Braves were 31-25 with a .278 average, 57 homers and 289 runs in that span, averaging more than five runs per game.

Along with Freeman’s sensation surge, the addition of Kemp and the emergence of Gold Glove winner Inciarte as a highly effective leadoff man, the Braves were boosted by a return to form from outfielder Nick Markakis, the August addition of rookie shortstop Swanson and big improvement from Peterson and Garcia after early stints in Triple-A.

If the offense is to continue clicking at the level the Braves saw in the second half, they’ll likely need for Kemp and Inciarte to stay healthy, Freeman to avoid another slow start and Swanson to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.

And unless they make a late addition at catcher – free agent Matt Wieers is still out there – the Braves are also going to hope for similar production as in 2016 from catchers Tyler Flowers and Anthony Recker. That might be asking a lot, considering Flowers, a career .232 hitter, set personal bests in average (.270) and OPS (.777) in his age-30 season, and Recker, at 32, had career-bests across the board in average (.278), OBP (.394) and slugging percentage (.433).

“We have a great deal of confidence in Tyler Flowers as someone who could be our primary catcher,” Coppolella said. “We feel great about the way that Anthony Recker played last year. Not that WAR is the be-all, end-all, but his WAR was better than half the free agents out there. And he’s ours, a guy that we know, a hard worker. So if we end up with Tyler and Anthony and Tuffy Gosewisch at Triple-A, among others, we feel that’s a pretty good catching group.”

The Braves pursued left-handed hitter Jason Castro as a platoon partner with Flowers, but Castro signed a three-year, $24.5 million deal with Minnesota.

“In a perfect world for us, we were looking at that left-handed sort of platoon guy,” Hart said at the Winter Meetings. “We don’t necessarily see that guy out there right now. Doesn’t mean we wouldn’t play with (adding another) right-handed hitting catcher, but it’s not as big of a priority for us.

“I think we’ve probably come to the conclusion that Johnny (Coppolella) said, that you say, OK, can we put our head on the pillow at night and feel that these guys are going to be good for our pitchers, are going to work our pitchers? Is there somebody out there arguably that maybe could be a little better offensively, that maybe is a little younger or a little more of a defender? Yeah, we’ll examine that. But if we don’t, we’re OK.”

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About the Author

David O'Brien
David O'Brien
David O'Brien covered the Atlanta Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for more than a decade.