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2018 MLB preview: Atlanta Braves

2017: 72-90 (third place in NL East)

Last Postseason Appearance: 2013

Last World Series Title: 1995

2017 recap

Remember when the Braves won 11 straight NL East titles spanning from 1995-2005? Boy, that was a long time ago. Fast forward to 2017, and Atlanta is in the middle of a rebuilding process, in hopes of getting back on top.

Not much was expected in 2017 for Atlanta, who finished 21st in runs, 23rd in SLG, 25th in walks, 27th in team WAR, and 28th in home runs. The pitching allowed the fifth most walks in the bigs, finished 24th in ERA, and blew 23 save opportunities. Sounds like a true rebuilding team to me. Still, Atlanta’s attendance was the highest it’s been since 2013, which was the year they won 96 games. Braves fans are on board with the rebuild, and they can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Freddie Freeman, who played in just 117 games, hit .307 with 28 home runs. (MyAJC.com)

Atlanta’s season was practically over in May when Freddie Freeman was hit by a pitch from Aaron Loup of the Toronto Blue Jays. An MRI showed that Freeman had a non-displaced wrist fracture in his left hand, and he was out until early July. At the time of the injury, Freeman was leading the league in home runs, and was second in both OBP and SLG. Freeman played in 117 games and hit .307 with 28 home runs, both team highs. He also finished 6th in the MLB in SLG, and 7th in OPS.

Ender Inciarte made his first career All-Star game and finished the year ranking second in singles, and his 201 hits was third-most in the MLB. He set career-highs in home runs (11), RBIs (57), steals (22), and OPS (.759). Inciarte also won his second straight Gold Glove.

Still, this is a team that finished sixth in baseball in hits and batting average. The Atlanta Braves had more hits than the Los Angeles Dodgers. If they can somehow hit for more power, and walk more, Atlanta has a shot to make some noise.

2018: Around the Diamond

Although this may come as a surprise, Atlanta got incredible production out of the catcher position in 2017. Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers, who had the Braves ranked first in WAR for catchers, will continue to platoon behind the plate.

Freeman will be surrounded by a group of young studs in the infield. No more Brandon Phillips means Ozzie Albies will be the everyday second basemen. Albies, 21, dealt with elbow injuries last spring, but is now fully healthy and is ready for a big 2018. As a 20-year-old in 2017, He had a 112 WRC+ in 244 plate appearances. According to USA Today, the only guys to do that in the last 30 years are Rafael Devers, Carlos Correa, Bryce Harper (x2), Mike Trout, Jason Heyward, Giancarlo Stanton, Alex Rodriguez, and Ken Griffey Jr. In his 56 games, Albies hit .286 with 6 home runs and a .354 OBP. The switch-hitting Albies will most likely become a top-10 second basemen in his first full season.

The former number one overall pick in the 2015 draft, Dansby Swanson, looks to grow from his first full season at the major league level. In 2017, Swanson hit just .232 with 6 home runs in 144 games. He had just 12 extra-base hits in the second half. Like Albies, Swanson dealt with injuries last spring, which could have played a factor in his poor play. He is ready to put 2017 behind him, so let’s hope for a solid season for him. Atlanta also has acquired Charlie Culberson in the Matt Kemp trade, so expect Culberson to see some time at the middle-infield positions.

Ronald Acuna is the next big thing in Atlanta. (Sporting News)

As of today, Johan Camargo is in line to start at third base. Camargo, 23, appeared in 82 games last season and hit .299 with four home runs and 21 doubles, which was the sixth most in 82 games or less. If he can turn those doubles to home runs, Camargo could be a nice surprise for Atlanta. This is a Braves team who finished 25th in WAR for third basemen.

Nick Markakis, who led the team in RBIs, will remain in right, with Inciarte patrolling center. The number two overall prospect in the MLB, Ronald Acuna, will start in left field. Acuna has a limitless ceiling, and, between A+/AA/AAA, Acuna hit .325 with 21 home runs, 82 RBIs, and 44 steals. He proceeded to win MVP honors in the Arizona Fall League. Acuna, 20, is an absolute stud and will make an immediate impact at the big-league level. This is a guy who has power, and will steal 40+ bases per year.

For inter-league play, the Braves will roll with Lane Adams, Rio Ruiz, or Preston Tucker at DH. This lineup has crazy potential, but we will have to see how it all pans out.

On the Bump

Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters that Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz, and Brandon McCarthy are the only locks for the starting rotation in 2018. That means the last two spots will come down to Luiz Gohara, Sean Newcomb, Max Fried, Lucas Sims, and Scott Kazmir. In all likelihood, Gohara and Newcomb, two young stars, will take the final two spots.

Gohara, a Brazilian born lefty, started five games for Atlanta and went 1-3 with a 4.91 ERA. In 25 starts between A+/AA/AAA, he went 7-4 with a 2.62 ERA and struck out 147 batters in 123.2 innings. Newcomb, a Massachusetts native, started 19 games in 2017, and went 4-9 with a .432 ERA. Newcomb has pitched well in the minors and is entering his age-25 season.

Nonetheless, if Atlanta hopes to compete, they will need more out of their ace, Julio Teheran. Teheran issued the sixth most walks and allowed the 10th most home runs in the league last season. He will need to get his control back if he hopes for a big 2018.

With Jim Johnson now with the Angels, Arodys Vizcaino will be the primary closer. Vizcaino had 14 saves with a 2.83 ERA in 2017, and led the team in K/9 with 10.0. Jose Ramirez, who had 27 holds last year, will serve as the setup man.

The Future

Nobody in the majors has more Top 100 Prospects than the Atlanta Braves. Joining Acuna on this list is seven other young studs.  Six of them, Kyle Wright (No. 30), Mike Soroka (No. 31), Luiz Gohara (No. 49), Ian Anderson (No. 51), Kolby Allard (No. 58), and Max Fried (No. 83), are pitchers. Even though Atlanta’s starting rotation appears suspect, help is on the way.

Third basemen Austin Rile, the last Braves prospect on the list, checks in at number 97. Rile, who has drawn comparisons to Troy Glaus, hit .275 with 20 home runs between A+/AA.

2018 Prediction: 81-81

This team will drastically improve from 2017. The rebuild is right on schedule, and we will see this offense make massive changes. Freeman is obviously an MVP candidate, and Albies, Swanson, and Acuna all have major potential to turn into stars. While they might miss out on the postseason in 2018, which will be due to the lack of quality pitching, Atlanta is on the rise.

Featured image by MLB.com

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