NL East Roundup: Atlanta Braves

It’s time to continue my preview of the National League East with the Atlanta Braves.  The Braves raised some eyebrows before the season even began by trading away highly touted closer Craig Kimbrel to the Padres for a multitude of players, headlined by Cameron Maybin and Carlos Quentin. Despite the trade, the Braves went just 67-95 in 2015.

Unfortunately, I don’t see the Braves improving much, if at all, in their final season at Turner Field.  The Braves have acquired a surplus of young pitching talent over the past few years, trading away many staple players (such as Kimbrel) in order to get it.  But young pitching talent takes time to develop, as well as an offense that can provide them with run support so they can throw with confidence.

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Freddie Freeman looks to come off his wrist injury and provide a huge season in Atlanta. Photo: USA Today Sports

Luckily, the Braves top two hitters, Nick Markakis and Freddie Freeman, remained in Atlanta through the offseason.

Freeman, despite missing 44 games due to a wrist injury last year, led the team with 18 home runs and 66 RBI.  While it is good to see that Freeman can still produce solid stats while missing over a quarter of the Braves’ games last season, it’s worrisome that his 66 RBI (which was tied for 39th total in the National League) led the team.

The Braves management is playing it smart with Freeman, easing him back into the lineup; they have made it very clear that their main priority is to have him 100% by Opening Day, and won’t be doing anything to risk re-injury prior to then.

Acquiring Nick Markakis was definitely the most productive offseason move the Braves made last year, leading the team with a .296 batting average and 181 hits.  The ex-Oriole did a great job at the top of the order, primarily leading off and moving to the 3 spot when Freeman wasn’t playing.  Markakis should continue to be an offensive leader on this Braves team, which offers a solid mix of youth and experience in their position players.

The Braves offense as a whole looks like a decent small ball team on paper, with veteran A.J. Pierzynski currently the starter behind the dish, and offseason addition Erick Aybar being added at shortstop.

One dark horse for this team could be Ender Inciarte, currently slated in center field.  Inciarte is entering his third season in the MLB, his first with the Braves; his previous two season with the Diamondbacks are nothing to scoff at, hitting .303 in 524 at-bats with Arizona last season and swiping 21 bases in 2015. Combine him with Michael Bourn and the Braves have a duo of speedsters that have to be respected when they make it on base.

The biggest concern with the Braves coming into the season has to be their pitching.  While they have acquired several young hurlers over the years, a lot of them are still in Minor League ball or are coming into the Majors with very little experience.

The rotation is currently headed by Julio Teheran, who led the Braves with 11 wins in 2015.  While some are hesitant towards Teheran, I think he has the highest ceiling of any of the five men on the rotation, highlighted by his 2.89 ERA in 221 innings in 2014.  While I don’t think his numbers will be quite that strong, I certainly think Teheran deserves to be given the #1 slot in the rotation and can keep the Braves in games.

The rest of the Braves rotation is the biggest question mark coming into 2016. Bud Norris, the only one with a full MLB season under his belt, struggled tremendously last season with the Orioles and Padres, going just 3-11 with a 6.72 ERA, being moved to the bullpen by the end of the year.  It will be interesting to see if Norris is able to pitch with the confidence he began to show by the end of his time with Houston, or if he will continue to slump.

The remaining three starters, Matt Wisler, Manny Banuelos, and Williams Perez, have just 44 starts between them.  In a division hosting dangerous batters like Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper, the young pitchers could find themselves outmatched.

Although anything can happen in baseball, the Braves do not appear to be set up to move out of Turner Field in a blaze of glory.  This season will probably be a lot of Atlanta starters struggling to keep the score low and give their offense a chance to squeak some runs across.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see some young arms currently not in the rotation get a chance to start a couple of games to get some experience.

The Braves, much like the Phillies, look like they will be strong in a few years, but this year I see them around 60 to 70 wins.

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