Hard to be optimistic about Braves

I’m the cynical type, both by nature and occupation, but then there’s something about baseball spring training that chips away at my pessimism.

Even a hardened hack like me gets caught up in the aspirational vibe of spring camp. Every team believes they have a chance, and there are no official results to dissuade them. Potential and possibilities have yet to be spoiled by any inconvenient realities.

While down in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., I looked at the Braves’ roster and saw a bad team. But then I heard Braves players, coaches and brass talk about how if they get a break here, a career year there, then maybe things will go their way.

Normally I would roll my eyes at such sunny optimism in the face of contradictory evidence. At spring training, I raise an eyebrow and nod. Yeah, maybe they can be pretty good.

But then I return to Atlanta, away from the intoxicating optimism of spring training, and my rational mind regains control. And my head tells me the Braves are going to be hard-pressed to top their 67 victories in 2015, which were their fewest since 1990.

FanGraphs agrees. The advanced statistics website crunched the numbers and projected that the 2016 Braves will win 68 games after the 2015 Braves won 67, their fewest since 1990. According to FanGraphs, the Braves will be the same.

It’s not predicting the Braves will be exactly the same, mind you. FanGraphs predicts the Braves will score a few more runs in 2016 (606 vs. 573) and give up a few less (719 vs. 760) but that it will all add up to 68 wins again in the end.

According to the FanGraphs forecast, the Braves’ 187-run deficit (!) in 2015 will become a 113-run deficit in 2016. It says the Braves will finish fourth in the NL East by 21 games this year after they were fourth by 23 games in 2015.

Yay, progress?

Mind you, these projections are just probabilities. They can and have been wrong a large margin. Not everything that contributes to winning can be measured. But what can be measured adds up to the Braves being a very bad baseball team again.

That’s not to say there are no rational arguments in favor of the Braves being a significantly better team. Most of them center on what almost certainly should be a better-hitting lineup (though I still don’t see much power).

I believe every player in the regular lineup will be an average-to-above major league hitter (yes, even Jace Peterson). That wasn’t the case for long stretches of last season.

Slugger Freddie Freeman, healthy again, will be the lynchpin. Nick Markakis will be steady again with a bit more power. New addition Ender Inciarte will be a better lead-off hitter than what the Braves have had for a while.

Shortstop Erick Aybar is an upgrade over Andrelton Simmons at the plate and is good-if-not equal in the field. You can dismiss Hector Olivera’s strong hitting this spring as not predictive of the regular season, but how can it be anything but positive?

But then you turn to the Braves’ pitching and … yikes. The bullpen should be be fine — the Braves always seem to figure out things there (at least until they start trading guys). But FanGraphs projects the Braves will have the worst starting rotation in the majors, and it’s hard to disagree.

The Braves traded their best starting pitcher, Shelby Miller, and ace Julio Teheran is coming off his worst season. The rest of the rotation will feature unproven young guys and stopgap veteran Bud Norris. Young arms can improve, and Norris and Teheran could bounce back. But I don’t believe the Braves will get consistent, quality starting pitching, and no team can win much without that.

You may recall that soon after the 2015 season ended Braves boss John Hart declared the team would be “significantly better” in 2016, maybe 15 to 20 victories better. GM John Coppolella was similarly defiant during the offseason, and his stance was the same when I was down in spring training.

I don’t fault Hart and Coppolella for being optimistic. That’s what the spring is all about. Even a skeptic like me isn’t immune. They may even end up being right.

But I just don’t see how the Braves will be any better in 2016 than they were in 2015. That’s realism, not cynicism.

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