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Atlanta Braves 2016 Preview and Prediction

Freddie Freeman

Freddie Freeman

As pitchers and catchers report this week in Florida and Arizona, Athlon Sports will preview every team in Major League Baseball. Outlooks for every team and so much more information, including rosters, advanced stats and anonymous scouting reports, are featured in the Athlon Sports 2016 MLB Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store.

Braves president of baseball operations John Hart isn’t doing any sugarcoating anymore. The Braves are in a full-out rebuild, selling off nearly every last tradeable piece this winter to continue bolstering their farm system for the future. That included dealing Andrelton Simmons, arguably the best defensive shortstop in the game, to the Angels and righthander Shelby Miller to the Diamondbacks. Add those two and Cameron Maybin to last winter’s list of Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis and Craig Kimbrel. In return, the team has received a bevy of top-rated prospects, but few are major league-ready, which means another lean year for the Braves in 2016, their final season at Turner Field. And it could be another lean one in 2017, their first season in the new stadium in the Atlanta suburb of Cobb County.

Rotation

With Miller traded to the Diamondbacks, Julio Teheran is now the de facto ace of the Braves staff and frankly has pitched like one for stretches of the past two seasons. Teheran, who turns 25 in January, had an odd road slump for much of the 2015 season and — like the rest of the rotation — rarely got much run support. He topped 200 innings and made 33 starts for the second consecutive season. Matt Wisler proved himself during a 19-start stint as a rookie and is expected to fill a regular spot in the rotation to open 2016. The only other starting spot that would seem secure, for the early part of the season anyway, is one for Bud Norris. The Braves “bought low” on the 30-year-old pitcher, who was coming off a career-worst 3–11 season with a 6.72 ERA with the Orioles and Padres and signed for only $2.5 million.

The Braves also signed righthanders Jhoulys Chacin and Kyle Kendrick to minor league deals with a chance to make the rotation. They are likely to compete for one of the remaining two spots with Williams Perez, Mike Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos. Nobody should feel especially secure, though, with the next wave of minor league starting talent knocking at the door. That list includes Lucas Sims, who stood out at the Arizona Fall League; Tyrell Jenkins, who was named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year; and Sean Newcomb and Aaron Blair, both nearly major league-ready starters when they were acquired via trades this winter.

Bullpen

Jason Grilli is on track to be ready to pitch in spring training when he makes his comeback from surgery for a ruptured Achilles. He’s determined to be a factor when he does, but it might not be at the closer’s spot he held after arriving in Atlanta a year ago. Arodys Vizcaino is expected back in that role after making the most of his opportunity last year when Grilli went down. The dynamic power arm converted 9-of-10 save opportunities and posted a 1.60 ERA in 36 appearances. Foltynewicz could wind up in the bullpen if he doesn’t make the rotation, in the mold of a John Smoltz-type power pitcher. That might make more sense anyway; he is coming off surgery to remove half of a rib and relieve blood clots in his shoulder area. The Braves’ front office will continue to look for bullpen help as the season approaches.

Middle Infield

The Braves acquired shortstop Erick Aybar from the Angels in the Simmons trade to be a stopgap until newly acquired prospect Dansby Swanson, last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick out of Vanderbilt, is ready for the big leagues. Ozzie Albies, who had been projected the organization’s top shortstop prospect until Swanson was acquired, is an option at either shortstop or second base in the near future as well. The Braves would have liked to see a little more offense than Simmons provided over the last several years, and they could get it from the 32-year-old Aybar, who hit .270 last year with 30 doubles. Jace Peterson, acquired from the Padres, won the everyday job at second base last year, but the Braves need him to take a step forward offensively after he hit just .239 with 52 RBIs in 152 games.

Corners

Freddie Freeman is pretty much the last man standing, and for a while there, Braves fans were convinced that newly promoted general manager John Coppolella would trade him too. “Coppy” has insisted he won’t, and Freeman hasn’t exactly been in top form to maximize his value anyway. A wrist injury plagued him for much of the 2015 season, when he had career lows in games (118) and at-bats (416). The two-time All-Star is expected to be healthy again this season, but with questions about what kind of protection he’ll have in the lineup, it could be another challenging season. Third base is precarious given the Braves’ decision to move Cuban defector Hector Olivera to left field after he disappointed in a brief stint in the majors last year, leaving recent signee Gordon Beckham and second-year player Adonis Garcia as the best options there.

Outfield

Right fielder Nick Markakis was a puzzling addition to a rebuilding team last year when he signed a four-year $44 million free agent contract, and he still might find himself on the trading block before 2016 is out. But the Braves likely will wait to see if his value improves as the season goes along. He had spinal surgery heading into last season, and as a result his power numbers were down; he hit a career-low three home runs last season. The Olivera experiment has not gone well so far, and the Braves hope that will change with a move to left field. Ender Inciarte or Michael Bourn could open the season in center field, if one or the other is not traded this spring. Inciarte can play all three outfield positions.

Catching

This time a year ago, it would be hard to imagine that A.J. Pierzynski would be back in a Braves uniform in 2016 and Christian Bethancourt wouldn’t be. The point of signing Pierzynski was to back up the young and athletic Bethancourt. But the Braves never saw the development they wanted from Bethancourt, who was prone to passed balls at critical times, and they traded him over the winter. The Braves re-signed Pierzynski, who caught 113 games and hit .300 last season as the supposed veteran backup. Pierzynski figures to split time now with Tyler Flowers, who started 100 games last year for the White Sox and returns to the Braves organization that drafted him.

Bench

Nick Swisher gives the Braves an experienced bat off the bench, provided he’s not traded. Former Brave Kelly Johnson signed a one-year deal and will fill in at second, third and in the outfield. Emilio Bonifacio returns to the Braves’ bench after a miserable 2014 with the White Sox and an August release. That meant the Braves could sign him for only $1.25 million, and they got what had been a capable bench bat for the team in 2014 and a former Marlins player familiar with manager Fredi Gonzalez.

Management

The Braves made it official when they promoted Coppolella from assistant GM to general manager this winter. He’s been the architect of the rapid succession of trades that have reshaped the farm system and gutted the roster. Hart and John Schuerholz will have to continue to work damage control as the Braves try to convince their fans that all the turnover has been for sound reasons. Gonzalez is back for his sixth season as manager and has largely been given a pass for trying to keep some normalcy and progress amid all the chaos.

Final Analysis

It’s been 10 years since the Braves finished their run of 14 straight playoff appearances with the “Baby Braves,” their 2005 class of 18 rookies. They’ve made the postseason only three times since. They’re hopeful another wave of young talent sets the organization on course to get back to being regular playoff contenders. It’ll be a while, though, as the solid young pitchers who reached the big leagues last year continue to take their lumps and fans go reaching for their programs to see who the heck is who — if they show up to the ballpark at all.

Prediction: 5th NL East

Lineup

CF Ender Inciarte (L)

SS Erick Aybar (S)

1B Freddie Freeman (L)

RF Nick Markakis (L)

LF Hector Olivera (R)

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3B Gordon Beckham (R)

2B Jace Peterson (L)

C A.J. Pierzynski (L)

Bench

RF/1B Nick Swisher (S)

C Tyler Flowers (R)

UTL Emilio Bonifacio (S)

UTL Kelly Johnson (L)

INF Adonis Garcia (R)

Rotation

RHP Julio Teheran

RHP Matt Wisler

RHP Bud Norris

RHP Jhoulys Chacin

LHP Manny Banuelos

Bench

RHP Arodys Vizcaino (Closer)

RHP Jason Grilli

RHP David Carpenter

RHP Jim Johnson

LHP Alex Torres

RHP Alexi Ogando

RHP Mike Foltynewicz