Here at SportsTalkATL, I recently listed a strength and weakness I felt the Braves currently have going into the 2020 season, now that it appears the Braves are finished making additions to the roster. One of the team’s most obvious strengths is its bullpen, as GM Alex Anthopoulos dropped more than $50 million on the relief core before anyone else had time to blink back in November, including the signing of free-agent lefty Will Smith. However, the Braves also have a glaring weakness at the third base position, as the team looks to stick it out with two players that ended last season quite poorly, in Johan Camargo and Austin Riley.
Which part of the Braves’ roster — strength or weakness — will stand out the most this coming season?
No one knows exactly how the Braves’ 2020 roster will compare with the rest of the league, or whether the team’s situation at third base will wind up holding them back. That’s why they play the games! However, we do have some interesting tools that can help give us an idea of where the team stands. Every offseason, FanGraphs releases a leaderboard compiled from the site’s Depth Charts, with each team’s projected WAR total for every position. Let’s see how the Braves fared:
Note: Each position includes the Braves’ 2020 Depth Charts projection via FanGraphs WAR (amongst MLB / NL East) as well as the team’s 2019 WAR total.
Catcher (3.3 WAR)
- MLB / NL East: 6th / 2nd
- 2019 actual: 3.2 WAR (9th / 2nd)
The Braves did lose a few productive catchers from 2019, as veterans Brian McCann and Francisco Cervelli were both reliable players behind the plate last season, contributing 1.1 and 0.3 WAR, respectively. However, the projections feel that the addition of Travis d’Arnaud essentially results in a wash. The Braves’ new catcher should get plenty of work, considering Flowers is literally unplayable versus lefties (.155 AVG vs. LHP in ’19) and given d’Arnaud swings a strong bat.
First base (4.3 WAR)
- MLB / NL East: 1st / 1st
- 2019 actual: 4.0 WAR (6th / 2nd)
Thanks to a historic rookie season from Pete Alonso, the NY Mets finished 2019 with the second-best first base play in the majors (behind the LA Dodgers), though, I don’t see that happening this coming season. Per David O’Brien, from The Athletic, Freddie Freeman’s feeling better than ever, and I expect an even better season from the Braves’ franchise player. He may not hit 38 home runs again, but I could see him batting .300+ with 4.5-5 WAR.
Second base (4.1 WAR)
- MLB / NL East: 2nd / 1st
- 2019 actual: 4.6 WAR (8th / 1st)
Ozzie Albies broke out in his second full season with the Braves, slugging 24 home runs, stealing 15 bases and batting .295 while playing in all but two games. Barring a serious injury, I don’t see another team in the division surpassing the Braves in second base production this coming season, or anytime soon. Just think… the Braves will have Albies for at least six more years.
Shortstop (1.9 WAR)
- MLB / NL East: 19th / 5th
- 2019 actual: 1.9 WAR (19th / 5th)
As you can see, the projections have the Braves bringing up the division’s rear again in shortstop play this season, as well as the back-half of the majors, despite Dansby Swanson posting the second-best season of his four-year career (three-in-one-quarter, actually) in 2019. With a little more love on the defensive side last year by FanGraphs, Swanson would’ve easily surpassed his career-year from two seasons ago, as his Def WAR mark fell from 11.3 to -0.8. However, a full season of the glove-savvy Adeiny Hechavarria coming off the Braves’ bench should perhaps help give the team’s shortstop position more production in 2020.
Third base (1.8 WAR)
- MLB / NL East: 22nd / 4th
- 2019 actual: 4.4 WAR (9th / 2nd)
Third base play was a weakness for the NL East in 2019, and it appears to be a problem for all five teams this season as well, given that the entire group whiffed during the Josh Donaldson sweepstakes this offseason. Last month ZiPS projected the Braves for 2.1 WAR from the position in 2020, and I think that’s a realistic expectation to have. Shortstop and the hot corner will more than likely be the two biggest weak spots on the Braves’ roster this year, though Johan Camargo and Austin Riley could surprise us all.
Left field (2.7 WAR)
- MLB / NL East: t-6th / 2nd
- 2019 actual: 6.7 WAR (3rd / 2nd)*
*with Acuna’s overall WAR included
The outfield results are a little skewed in this exercise, given that Ronald Acuna Jr. played at all three spots last year, and FanGraphs doesn’t break down WAR-accrued by each position. But Acuna was worth 5.6 WAR in 154 total games in 2019, so I simply divided his overall total by the games he played at each position (I know, it’s not perfect), giving him 1.45 WAR in 40 starts at left field last season. With Adam Duvall, Charlie Culberson, Austin Riley, and Rafael Ortega added in there as well; the group totals 2.6 WAR — exactly what Steamer projects recently-signed Marcell Ozuna to accrue in 2020 and essentially what Depth Charts (shown above) has the team finishing with overall.
Center field (3.8 WAR)
- MLB / NL East: 5th / 1st
- 2019 actual: 6.6 WAR (6th / 1st)*
*with Acuna’s overall WAR included
Using my rough math from above, Acuna provided 3.45 WAR in 95 starts at center last season, with Ender Inciarte (0.9 WAR) and Billy Hamilton (0.1) managing another 1 WAR combined to give the Braves just over 4.5 WAR overall at the position. The team’s outfield should be one of the best in 2020 — especially if Ozuna’s bat comes through as expected — though just how good this group is will heavily depend on how well Inciarte bounces back. However, I think it’s very doubtful he’ll reach the 3.8-WAR projection above… at least not all by himself (… ahem … Pache, maybe?).
Right field (1.9 WAR)
- MLB / NL East: 11th / 4th
- 2019 actual: 1.6 WAR (20th / 5th)
I’m not sure why Depth Charts is so low here, other than perhaps it’s attempting to remain conservative based on the Braves’ production at the right field position last season (Acuna started just 19 games there, good for 0.69 WAR when dividing his total starts). The system obviously doesn’t know that Acuna will primarily play right in 2020, but I would expect him to post three times the above figure, given Acuna shouldn’t be moving around as much this season. Either way… the outfield should be a strong unit, especially once prospect Cristian Pache enters the fold.
Starting rotation (12.9 WAR)
- MLB / NL East: 12th / 3rd
- 2019 actual: 11.3 WAR (12th / 3rd)
The NL East is a division filled with dominant starting pitching, and that was certainly the case last season, as both the Nationals (who led MLB) and Mets finished in the top-three in the majors in WAR, with 21.4 and 19.7, respectively. Considering Mike Foltynewicz’s injury to start the season and Sean Newcomb and Kevin Gausman’s ineffectiveness, the Braves fared rather well after all in 2019. It’s still going to be tough to gain much ground, given everyone from the Nats and Mets are returning, but I think a 1.7-WAR jump by the Braves’ rotation in 2020 is an appropriate improvement. In 2019, 12.9 WAR was a top-10 starting staff in the majors.
Bullpen (4.2 WAR)
- MLB / NL East: 7th / 2nd
- 2019 actual: 1.1 WAR (19th / 1st)
Wow, the Braves somehow managed to lead the division in bullpen WAR last season, despite finishing with just over 1 WAR overall from its relievers. That shows you just how terrible the NL East was in terms of closing out games, which makes it even more incredible that the Nationals were still able to win a World Series (the Nats’ bullpen ranked right behind the Braves in 2019). I’m leaning more towards the 4.9-WAR ZiPS projection. This is going to be one of the best bullpens in the majors in 2020.
Overall batters (24.3 WAR)
- MLB / NL East: 9th / 1st
- 2019 actual: 27.9 WAR (6th / 1st)
That’s right, the Braves’ offense put up the most combined offensive WAR in the NL East last season (second-most in the NL, behind the Dodgers), and the team is projected to do so again this year, though with almost four less WAR. I suppose, considering the Braves will be without Donaldson’s potential 4-5 WAR contribution, the above projection is fair. However, given the catcher position should improve overall and the fact that Ozuna is capable of slugging 35 homers and knocking in 100 runs — not to mention a full season of Inciarte — I’m willing to take the over on Depth Charts’ 2020 projection.
Overall pitching (17.2 WAR)
- MLB / NL East: 11th / 3rd
- 2019 actual: 12.3 WAR (17th / 3rd)
This is the kind of impact a dominant bullpen can have on a team’s pitching. The Braves ranked in the back-half in overall pitching last season, but thanks to a now-loaded relief core, a 5-WAR improvement — a top-10 finish is a realistic expectation for the 2020 season. The Nationals may have won a title in October with a poor bullpen, but their starters bailed them out, giving them the 5th-highest overall pitcher WAR (22.3) in the majors. A bad bullpen isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for the postseason, but bad pitching overall is, shown by the fact that 7 of the top-10 overall pitcher-WAR leaders during the 2019 were also playoff teams last season.
Overall (41.4 WAR)
- MLB / NL East: 12th / 3rd
- 2019 actual: 40.2 WAR
Despite a few possible improvements to the team’s lineup, an absolute beast of a bullpen, and a few inspired players looking to have bounce-back seasons, Depth Charts has the Braves improving overall by just over one WAR in 2020, still behind two other teams in the NL East. In terms of strength of roster, Depth Charts likes the Mets (44 WAR) and Nationals (43.4) more than the Braves but certainly believes the division will be a competitive one, with the Phillies (36.3) not too far off from the pack as well (the Marlins’ roster is projected for 21.8 WAR in 2020).
Obviously, this is just a projection system and nothing to take too seriously, but it is rather interesting to see how each roster is projected to perform, broken down position by position. Like ZiPS, Steamer and all of the many other projection systems currently available, there are of course several overlooked aspects of roster construction, as well as the various nuances that a computer cannot take into consideration.
Regardless, I think it’s quite apparent that the Braves are at least a slightly better team going into the 2020 season. Just how good they are… well, that’s why they play all 162 games.