Youthful Braves offer potential, uncertainty

The Braves figure to be the youngest team among the National League East contenders, which is everyone except the Marlins. The good thing about that is their ceiling theoretically is higher. Potential can be a nicer way of saying something hasn’t happened yet, but you can’t say that about the defending East champions. 

Instead, the question for the Braves is whether they can do it again. Their youth makes it tricky to answer that question. Young players can be volatile players, especially in baseball, the hardest game of them all. 

If the one or two of the young stars regresses and the prospects don’t help (they usually don’t), then the Braves will backslide. If the young Braves stars continue their ascent, then the Braves can overachieve again even with higher expectations. That may not be enough for the Braves to repeat as East champs because the rest of the division improved, but it will give them a chance. 

The Braves will have to be a better ballclub for 2019 to be as fun as 2018. They’ll have to do it with inexperienced players making up three-eighths of the lineup, two-fifths of their rotation (at least) and filling big roles in the bullpen. 

I’m not saying experience is the most important factor for winning. The Braves proved that by winning the East with rookie Ronald Acuna as their best hitter and just-graduated prospect Johan Camargo in the top three. Second baseman Ozzie Albies and left-handed starter Sean Newcomb, two more graduated prospects, were crucial to the first-half surge. 

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The Braves can win with youngsters. It’s just that the range of outcomes tends to be wider for a team built around inexperienced players. I think that will matter more for the Braves in 2019 than it did in 2018 because the competition in the East is tougher. 

Remember, the Braves won the East by dominating the East. They were 49-27 against East opponents and 43-45 against all others. The Phillies had the division lead as late as Aug. 11. The Braves didn’t run away with the division so much as they remained above water while Philadelphia faded. 

One overlooked aspect of that race was that the 2018 Phillies were even younger than the Braves. According to Baseball Reference, the average age of Philadelphia’s position players was second-youngest in the league and its pitchers were third-youngest. The Braves had the ninth-youngest position players and 11th-youngest pitchers. 

The Phillies won’t be green in 2019. Philadelphia replaced a bunch of young lineup fixtures (Nick Williams, Scott Kingery, Jorge Alfaro) with older, better players (Bryce Harper, Jean Segura, J.T. Realmuto). The Phillies aren’t likely to fade this season, and the Nationals and the Mets added good veteran players to already-experienced clubs. 

Before spring training I was bullish on the Braves’ chances despite that experience disadvantage. My optimism only dimmed somewhat when Philadelphia signed Harper. More concerning was the string of injuries to key Braves pitchers during camp. 

A staff that short on reliable veterans saw a number of those arms sidelined. The Braves will navigate a tough early schedule while relying even more on young arms. 

Mike Foltynewicz, last year’s No. 1 starter, will begin the season on the injured list. The same goes for incumbent co-closer A.J. Minter and projected late-innings reliever Darren O’Day. (Starter Kevin Gausman had shoulder soreness during camp, but he’s expected to pitch during the first week.) 

Adding to the anxiety were Newcomb’s continued control problems during the spring. The candidates to fill out the rotation: Touki Toussaint (29 career big-league innings), Max Fried (10-1/2) and Kyle Wright (six). The bullpen is likely to include two of those pitchers, at least to begin the season. 

That’s a lot of young arms to rely on for any significant period. Early this season the Braves may need to win by pounding out enough runs to overcome spotty pitching. They did that for much of last season, but their chances of doing it again bring us back to the volatility of youth. 

I can’t imagine Acuna falling off a cliff, but I can see him falling short of 2018’s outstanding production. I don’t know if Albies will stop being such a free-swinger. I don’t see Dansby Swanson ever becoming an average hitter. 

The Braves have veterans in the lineup to stabilize things. Freddie Freeman will do what he does. I suspect new third baseman Josh Donaldson will, too, if he’s healthy

There are some experienced pitchers on staff, too. Veterans Gausman and Julio Teheran can provide competitive outings. It’s probably safe to count on reliable bullpen work from Jonny Venters and Arodys Vizcaino (the Braves will keep their fingers crossed that Vizcaino is over his shoulder issues from 2018). 

Still, to win the East, the Braves will need lots of young guys to hit and pitch consistently. They’ve won with that formula before, but it will be harder to do it again. Youthful potential cuts both ways.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.