The Braves open the season next week. After four consecutive losing seasons, the roster still has a who-are-these-guys look to it. Some of that is because of youth. Some of it is because of corporate ownership that prefers collecting rent on retail space and paying down real estate debt to beefing up payroll. Some of it is because the organization flushed the front office following the most embarrassing episode in franchise history and the general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, isn't ready to make team-defining changes yet.
One of the Braves with the most name recognition is 20 years old. But Ronald Acuna will start the season in the minor leagues for economic reasons (postpone his free-agency clock), even though management insists it's for "having more development time." Acuna hit .432 in the spring. That doesn't guarantee anything for the regular season, but I'll believe the Braves really are doing this for development if Acuna is kept in the minors all season, not for just two weeks.
So where will all of this leave the Braves this season? Most likely under .500 and out of the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season. Websites, from those applying reason and baseball analytics to those that throw darts, project 72 to 76 wins. Here’s what I think:
What to like: There's no doubting the upside potential of the first four starters: Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz, Brandon McCarthy, Sean Newcomb. Teheran has at times looked like a top-of-the-rotation (or near) starter, Foltynewicz has impressive stuff, Newcomb is big, young and talented and McCarthy is solid when healthy. However …
What to question: There are way too many maybes. Teheran, who will start opening day, has yet to match what he showed in his second season in 2014. He has spent spring training trying to improve his change-up. Foltynewicz has struggled with mental toughness when things go sideways. Brandon McCarthy has been at one with the disabled list since a 200-inning season in 2014. Newcomb is young and has battled control issues. Luiz Gohara, another young arm built up for the masses, had a disastrous spring: weight issues, groin strain, ankle injury. Scott Kazmir, a former All-Star, is with his fourth organization in four years. He didn't pitch last season because of a hip injury. He missed a recent spring start because of jaw pain after he was hit in the face with a ball while playing pitch. It would be nice if he made at least a few starts because the Braves are paying off the last season of his three-year, $48 million contract (the price for dumping Matt Kemp and the rest of his deal onto the Los Angeles Dodgers). Not good.
What to like: Arodys Vizcaino did a nice job closing last season. Peter Moylan is 39 years old, but he led the majors with 79 appearances for Kansas City and will be a good veteran presence back in Atlanta, where he started.
What's to question: Most of the rest are either young and unproven or just hanging on. Jose Ramirez can be erratic, but he led the staff in appearances and posted a respectable ERA (3.19). Sam Freeman and A.J. Minter have potential, but are young. A shaky rotation needs a strong bullpen to rescue games, and there's little evidence right now that the Braves have that.
What to like: As Anthopoulos continues to evaluate before making sweeping changes, the only absolute keepers in the everyday lineup appear to be Freddie Freeman, Ender Inciarte and Ozzie Albies. (Also, the ghost of Acuna.) Freeman, who didn't expect to lose this much when he signed his extension, would be an MVP candidate on a contender.
What to question: There's not enough offense to overcome the pitching. Dansby Swanson was rushed to the majors before he was ready and may have been affected by the team overexposing the hometown kid. If he trips again out of the gate, the Braves will have to wonder about their perceived shortstop of the future. (Reminder: Former general manager John Coppolella felt the need to rush Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons out of town with a dreadful trade.) Nick Markakis is solid, even if his future with the team probably isn't. Third base is being kept warm for another prospect (Austin Riley), and Johan Camargo will start the season on the disabled list. So many holes. But what's another year?
Washington and New York clearly are 1-2 in the National League East. If all goes well, the Braves can challenge for third place. Anthopoulos may start to deal after he watches this team and the prospects for a couple of months. Expect changes and instability for another season. Prediction: 74 wins and fourth place, just ahead of Miami.
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