It seems like just yesterday; the Braves were embarrassingly run out of their home ballpark to end what was a memorable 2019 campaign that included 97 wins and a second consecutive NL East title. Unfortunately, injuries struck the team at the wrong time, and they were a shell of the group that ran away with the division by the time October rolled around. This offseason, the Braves were among the busiest teams in baseball, despite losing their cleanup hitter, Josh Donaldson, to the Minnesota Twins. The pitching staff looks to be much more reliable, and their lineup could be even more devastating, but a lot of that depends on some critical pieces taking the next step in their development.
I’m actually a big fan of both Austin Riley and Johan Camargo, which is why I understood the Braves’ hesitancy towards handing Donaldson a lucrative four-year contract that would have taken him through his age 37 season. Camargo ended 2019 hot and has started the Spring the same way. However, Atlanta was at their best last season when Riley was rolling. In his first 42 games, he hit 14 bombs and recorded a .930 OPS, and it’s no coincidence that the Braves took control of the NL East around this time. Then, the former top-prospect fell off a cliff and even failed to make the playoff roster altogether.
It’s understandable for people to be down on Riley after he hit just .152 with a .466 OPS and two home runs in his final 32 games of his rookie year, showing an inability to lay off breaking pitches. But we saw similar issues with Ozzie Albies in the second-half of 2018, and he bounced back to become one of the best second basemen in baseball last season, leading the league in hits with 189. These kinds of slumps are not atypical for young ballplayers after some immediate success, and Riley, who is still just 22 years old, could look much more like the guy in the first half of last year consistently going forward. If his Spring Training results are any indicator, 2020 could be a monster year for the right-handed slugger. Riley turning into a 30-40 homer guy would take an already stellar Braves lineup to new heights.
Swanson’s been an X-Factor for the Braves for years, and last season, he was finally turning the corner in his development. The former top pick hit .270 with a .822 OPS, 17 home runs and 57 RBIs in the first half of the season while manning the shortstop position. Those are All-Star caliber numbers, but it was more than just the stat sheet that had the Braves excited. He was going the other the way more willingly and with a lot more power. This was a completely different player than the guy from 2017 and 2018, but then, a nagging heel injury struck, limiting him to just 38 games in the second half of the year. Over that time, he hit just .204 and did not have a single home run. Still, Swanson came alive during the playoffs as one of the team’s best bats. I’d like to think first-half Dansby is in him for an entire season — as long as he can stay healthy — but we are at the point where we have to see it to believe it. This could be Swanson’s make or break year in regards to his future at the position with the organization.
When looking at the rotation, I see several potential candidates that could be X-Factors. Sean Newcomb has had an excellent start to Spring Training and done enough so far to earn one of the rotation spots. If his considerable control problems are a thing of the past, he could provide a substantial boost to this group. Kyle Wright is another guy who could be considered an X-Factor. His stuff is off the charts, and he may finally be ready to contribute to the major league squad, but nobody is more critical to the rotation’s success than Mike Foltynewicz.
Last year, we watched Folty battle through injury and returned a shell of himself. His fastball velocity was way down, and his once devastating slider became a spinning frisbee that hung out over the plate. As a result, he was demoted to AAA, where he spent over a month before returning with a new mindset — one that led to him being the Braves best starter down the stretch. Brian Snitker even turned to him to start a winner-take-all Game 5 against the Cardinals, something nobody would have believed had you said it in June.
Foltynewicz is only a year removed from being the ace of the Braves staff, making an All-Star appearance, and recording a 2.85 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 183 innings. I tend to believe what we saw in the second half of last season was no fluke; that is who he is — but with Foltynewicz — you never really know because so much about his success is the mental aspect of pitching.
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