Worst-case projections for Braves still are really good

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

The Braves are boring again. I don’t mean that they are uninteresting. A team with a swashbuckling slugger such as Ronald Acuna can never be dull. Winning is fun. The Braves have been doing a lot of that for five years and counting.

The Braves are boring because they’ve become predictable, or at least as predictable as a team playing a mystifying game can be.

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The Braves have been good. They are good again this season. They will stay good for the foreseeable future because the team can keep all its better players around for multiple years.

It’s easy to lose sight of those things when you follow a good team closely. The positive things are taken for granted when they happen. It’s expected. The negative issues are magnified. It’s a crisis. The cycle repeats every year.

Yes, the Braves have potential All-Stars at four spots around the diamond. But what about shortstop? Sure, the bullpen has a lot of quality arms. The rotation doesn’t look very deep, though.

We know right fielder Acuna is fantastic when he’s healthy. We don’t know who will play left field most of the time. Center fielder Michael Harris was National League Rookie of the Year. He hasn’t played enough to be sure what he’ll do as an encore.

All of those are legitimate concerns. They also are relatively trifling issues when looking at the big picture for the Braves. The medium and small pictures look pretty good, too. I was reminded of this when examining Dan Szymborski’s statistical projections at FanGraphs.

This year, Szymborski isn’t publishing only the average outcome of his ZiPS system’s simulations for players. He’s also including what essentially are the best-case and worst-case projections “in an attempt to better express the range of possibilities for an audience.” And that’s where you see really see why the 2023 Braves are so boring that they’re exciting.

According to ZiPS, the Braves have both a high ceiling and a high floor. They assuredly will be good, there’s a real chance they’ll be great and the odds are very low that they will be average. ZiPS projects that some of the Braves’ rivals also have the potential to be great. The difference is that none of them have so many worst-case forecasts that look as good.

A loaded lineup is the main reason why the forecast is so sunny for the Braves. Per ZiPS, the range of projections for Braves hitters in seven of nine lineup spots range from not bad to outstanding. The exceptions are the ones you expect, shortstop and left field. But ZiPS is more optimistic than I am about how well the Braves will fill those spots.

Shortstop Dansby Swanson signed with the Cubs after a career year with the Braves. The top option to replace him, Vaughn Grissom, isn’t nearly as good in the field and made only 156 plate appearance during his first MLB season. My view is that Grissom will be OK at the plate, but that production will be more than offset by his struggles in the field.

ZiPS sees it differently. Its midpoint projection has Grissom posting 1.9 Wins Above Replacement in 2023, with slightly below-average offense and slightly above-average defense. The MLB average is 2.0 WAR. It would be a big win for the Braves if they can replace Swanson with an average player who’s younger.

The higher-range projection for Grissom is 3.3 WAR. That doesn’t seem outlandish if, as ZiPS contends, Grissom is a credible shortstop. Grissom’s lower-range projection is 0.8 WAR. That’s bad, but the other option at shortstop, Orlando Arcia, is projected to have a 1.2 WAR with a high range of 2.1 WAR.

The Braves might be able to get by with Grissom and Arcia manning shortstop. ZiPS sees a bigger problem for the Braves in left field.

The Braves will go to camp with several candidates for the job: Eddie Rosario, Marcell Ozuna, Kevin Pillar and Jordan Luplow. ZiPS doesn’t like any of the options. It’s especially down on Rosario, who was NLCS MVP for the Braves in 2021 but hasn’t been the same since. I think the numbers could be missing something there.

ZiPS can’t account for Rosario’s eye issues. He scuffled before undergoing surgery to correct blurry vision in April. Rosario recovered for two months and performed better when he returned, if not up to his usual standards. It’s reasonable to believe that, with his eye issues further behind him, Rosario can be average at the plate this season if he’s not facing too many lefties.

The field is a different story. Rosario and Pillar are not good defensively. Ozuna is worse. ZiPS projects Luplow to be a plus defender. That’s why it projects his ceiling as highest among the four candidates to play left field. The Braves will start sorting things out in camp.

As far as ZiPS is concerned, there isn’t anything for the Braves to fret about beyond left field and shortstop.

The forecast expects Harris to follow a sensational rookie season with another good year. His range of outcomes is surprisingly narrow considering his lack of experience: 5.9 WAR near the top, 2.3 close to the bottom. Acuna and third baseman Austin Riley are still young players, too. ZiPS expects them to continue their ascension with a low projection of about 3.0 WAR (very good) and 6.0 WAR (MVP candidate) at the upper ranges.

The Braves’ pitching looks good. Staff ace Max Fried’s ZiPS projections range from very good to great. There’s a higher range of outcomes for the other starters. That’s probably related to age.

Young pitchers Kyle Wright and Spencer Strider have been outstanding. They haven’t logged many innings, so there’s more volatility in their projections than with established players. Charlie Morton, 39, compiled a 4.34 ERA in 2022. That’s his highest ERA in a full season since 2015. Does have one more good year left?

Braves starters can rely on an excellent bullpen to back them on the days they don’t have it. There are so many good options that manager Brian Snitker rarely should have to send out an ineffective reliever in tight spots. The Braves should be fine despite left-hander Tyler Matzek missing the year after Tommy John surgery.

The Braves are contenders to win the NL East if they get average performances from their top players. They could win the division going away if everything goes right. That rarely happens. But, even if some things go wrong, the Braves are so talented that they still should win enough games to earn one of the three NL wild-card spots.

That’s why the Braves are still boring, in a good way.

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