Braves May Not Have Pitching Or Bats To Win Division
Last year, the Braves were the surprise team in baseball winning the NL East by an eight game margin over the Nationals. This is a young talented group who has the talent to not only win the division again next year but also go on a run like the Greg Maddux–Tom Glavine–John Smoltz Braves teams.
Freddie Freeman has become an MVP caliber player. Josh Donaldson has won an MVP and has the sixth highest fWAR in all of baseball since 2015. What’s scary to think is they’re not even the Braves best player. That honor probably goes to Ronald Acuna, who is the reigning Rookie of the Year and a real MVP candidate.
What is scary for the Braves is their roster beyond these three is quite questionable.
One of the reasons the Braves were successful last season was Nick Markakis having his first All-Star campaign. It was a turn back the clock season for him as he had been a below league average hitter over the previous five seasons. His 2.6 bWAR was higher than what he posted over his prior two seasons. Expecting him to repeat his 2018 season seems dubious in his age 35 season.
Markakis is not the only 35 year old expected to be a big part of the team. The Braves brought back Brian McCann, who is coming off a season where he hit .212/.301/.339. That’s a drop off from the .271/.332/.444 Kurt Suzuki provided the team last year.
This is nothing to say of Donaldson who had an injury plagued season last year. When he was on the field, he produced. However, it should be noted he did take a step back. From 2015 – 2017, he had a 154 wRC+ at the plate. Last year, he had a 117 wRC+. Defensively, he’s gone from an 11 DRS in 2015 to a 1 DRS last year.
That’s actually a step back from what Johan Camargo provided. Last year, Camargo was a 115 wRC+ at the plate with a 7 DRS at third. With Donaldson, you have the name value, but you lose the upside the 25 year old could provide.
On the topic of the Braves young players, by and large, they have not yet panned out the way many people have expected.
Ozzie Albies did have a 3.8 WAR last season, but he had some issues. For starters, the switch-hitter hit .231/.283/.412 against left-handed pitching (84 wRC+). With the right-handed pitching in the division, he is completely over-matched making him not much more than a good defensive second baseman for the majority of the time.
Ender Inciarte is also a defensive first player, albeit a very inconsistent one. Whatever the reason, Inciarte has been good in odd numbered seasons and Gold Glove caliber in even numbered seasons. For Inciarte to have value, he needs to be a Gold Glover as he already below league average offense has dropped from a 100 wRC+ in 2015 t0 90 last season.
The biggest enigma has been Dansby Swanson. The Braves had purportedly stole him from the Diamondbacks for Shelby Miller. The problem was Swanson has not quite panned out as expected. Last year was a career best year for him, which makes his prospects all the more dubious as he only had an 80 wRC+. He was very good defensively meaning the Braves up-the-middle defense is quite good but very, very questionable at the plate.
In some ways, in what promises to be a very tough National League East, the Braves are going to be reliant on their young pitching to make the difference in the division. Now, there are times this does work like 2003 with the Florida Marlins and 2015 with the New York Mets.
Mike Foltynewicz was the teams’ best pitcher last year, and it’s questionable if he can be that next year. His .251 BABIP was much lower than the .303 he has yielded in his career. If he reverts back to career norms, he may look more like the below average league pitcher (93 ERA+) he had been over the prior two seasons.
The Braves second starter, Sean Newcomb, has also roughly been a league average pitcher (103 ERA+) in his career. Same goes for Kevin Gausman (102 ERA+). That is also what Julio Teheran has been since 2016. That puts a lot of pressure on Touki Toussaint, a pitcher who Baseball America projects to be a middle of the rotation starter partially due to his control problems.
Ultimately, when you break the Braves down, this is a very pedestrian starting rotation, albeit one with plenty of upside. Their top two relievers, Arodys Vizcaino and A.J. Minter, have durability concerns. They’re relying on older veterans to be what they once were, and they’re hoping defensive minded players can unlock offensive potential they have not yet unlocked in over two years in the majors.
If the Braves figure it out, they’re a scary team. However, it’s also possible last year was as good as it gets. That should put them well in the mix for the division and the Wild Cards, but it also likely leaves them one or two pieces short from the postseason.