Braves: Biggest strength and weakness heading into the 2020 season

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With outfielder Nick Castellanos agreeing to a 4-year, $64 million deal with the Reds on Monday, the current free-agent market is all but barren in terms of impact players (infielder Brock Holt is the only top-50 player left unsigned, according to FanGraphs’ 2020 offseason tracker). Such a lack of options, and the fact that GM Alex Anthopoulos is uninterested in getting involved in any blockbuster trades this winter, suggests the Braves are probably done making additions to their 2020 roster (at least meaningful ones).

So given that assumption, let’s look at the roster’s biggest strength and weakness now that we’re less than a month away from Spring Training games. Both points that I’ve chosen are quite apparent and are aspects of the team we are all plenty aware of, but let’s go into a bit more detail regarding each specific one.

STRENGTH — Overall pitching

 

Notice: I have used the word “overall” here. Yes, the Braves spent roughly $55 million upgrading their bullpen at the start of this offseason, signing Will Smith and re-signing Darren O’Day and Chris Martin. The team also retains two strong relievers from last season’s deadline acquisitions in Mark Melancon and Shane Greene, providing the Braves with a deep and loaded back-end of the bullpen going into 2020. There’s no doubt this will be one of the most dominant Atlanta bullpens in the last several years (at least on paper), as we’ve all seen the type of production each one is capable of. But while we know the bullpen will be one of the best in baseball, I want to focus on the rotation a little as well since there hasn’t been as much attention towards them.

  • Nos. 1-4 of the Braves’ starting staff is headlined by 2019’s NL Rookie of the Year runner-up (and the majors stingiest when it came to HRs), Mike Soroka, who was everything and more in terms of being that consistent presence at the top of a team’s rotation. Soroka will be just 22-years-old for basically three-quarters of the 2020 season (he turns 23 in Aug.), after hitting the 200-inning threshold last year for career innings pitched. His fastball/slider/changeup combo in 2019 was almost as good as it gets, ranking 4th, 9th, and 6th, respectively among all National League pitchers last season (according to FanGraphs’ Pitch Values) as Soroka looks to be the Braves’ No. 1 for many more years to come.

 

  • Then there’s Max Fried, who according to some, was even better than Soroka from a production standpoint. The 26-year-old Fried led the Braves in wins and ran a higher K rate than Soroka, while also providing the same stinginess when it came to homers and walks. It has always seemed like Fried was right on the cusp of a breakthrough, though chronic blisters have held him back over the years. If he can continue to overcome such issues in 2020, as well as maintain the same dominance he flashed with his filthy slider (a pitch that opponents hit just .200 against in 2019), there’s no reason to doubt that Fried will once again hover around 170-180 strikeouts as the team’s No. 2.

 

  • Cole Hamels and Mike Foltynewicz make up the Braves’ final two “known” starters in the rotation, and while both are in very different stages of their careers, the two have real upside if everything falls just right. The newly-signed Hamels (1 year, $18 million) pitched like his former Cy Young nominee self with the Cubs during the first half of last season, posting a 2.98 ERA with 8.76 K/9 and held batters to just a .235 AVG. However, Hamels stumbled in the second half, finishing up with a 5.79 ERA, 4.5 BB/9, and allowed opponents to tee off with a .315 AVG. As we know, Foltynewicz’s 2019 was flip-flopped, and he struggled mightily in the first half (6.37 ERA / .275 BAA) but regrouped in the second half (2.65 ERA / .211 BAA). 

 

That’s four starting pitchers that are all capable of 2-4 WAR in a given season, depending upon health and effectiveness, of course. Remember the Braves’ 2020 ZiPS projections? This is what you call a very high floor for a pitching staff:

  • Soroka: 4.3 WAR 
  • Fried: 3.2 WAR
  • Hamels: 2.5 WAR
  • Foltynewicz: 2.4 WAR 

 

Not to mention, there’s also another lefty in Sean Newcomb that could break camp as the final pitcher in the group. Newk is projected for a stable 1.6 WAR (especially for a No. 5).

The Braves’ bullpen was an obvious area of focus for Anthopoulos a few months ago. But don’t sleep on this starting rotation, as there’s enough potential upside already on the staff, and depth from others (prospects included), that by the end of the 2020 season, it may be the team’s starters that carry the Braves to the playoffs. Regardless, pitching in both the rotation and the bullpen is undoubtedly a strength for the Braves this year.

 

WEAKNESS — Third base 

 

As you can see, I’m not trying to be too cute here with this assessment. We know there are some questions when it comes to third base for the Braves:

  • Who will get the majority of the playing time?
  • Will Johan Camargo bounce back from a terrible 2019?
  • Will Austin Riley be a productive player ALL season?

 

Other than that first one, we most likely won’t know the answer to any of those questions until at least halfway through the 2020 season. But because of that uncertainty… third base is currently a severe weakness going forward. 

No matter how optimistic we can feel about Camargo’s hard work this offseason or Riley’s hopefully inevitable development as a hitter versus major league pitching, there is still a lot that both players must prove until we can fully trust that the third base position won’t wind up a weak spot on the Braves’ roster. 

  • We’ve already seen the hideous numbers, but Camargo could barely stay on the Braves’ big league roster last season as he finished below replacement-level for the year, hitting just .233 with seven home runs — and weak defense to boot (-3.2 Def) — in 98 games. Camargo did rake at the Triple-A level for 14 games in 2019, and his almost-.500 AVG there was pleasant to see. Although, as soon as he appeared to be turning things around in the majors, hitting .455 in a nine-game stretch in September, Camargo fouled a ball off his shin, ending his season a few weeks early and swiftly ruining any positive momentum he so desperately needed. All-in-all, it was odd seeing Camargo struggle so severely in 2019, especially considering that most of his underlying numbers fell right in line with his big 2018 campaign. Other than a mild uptick in the number of times he swung at pitches out of the zone (36% up to 41% in ’19), Camargo had the same approach, batted-ball profile, and tendencies at the plate. For some reason, he never could get things going last year.

 

  • Riley’s struggles were arguably worse, though definitely more detectable. I won’t rehash all of the numbers we’ve already seen a million times illustrating just how incredible the start of his major league career was, but just know that Riley was on track for a potentially historic season before the month of July came around, as he hit .273 with 14 home runs in his first 43 games (from May 15 to June 30). But that span also included a 32.6% K-rate that we knew would force his performance to become unsustainable, which made his .156 AVG and 23 wRC+ from July 2 to the end of the season a little less surprising, though no less disappointing. 

 

In terms of why this obvious weakness at third base still exists, I’m sure it would be much easier to side with the team’s front office and come up with some rational reason as to why key decision-makers chose not to fill a crucial hole on the team, but the fact that Anthopoulos decided not to make a big trade for Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant or Kyle Seager, or that he hasn’t signed a veteran like Brock Holt to at least provide a little assurance at the hot corner, shows how much confidence he has in Camargo and Riley. Judging by most of Anthopoulos’ moves so far during his tenure with the Braves, I’m willing to keep an open mind at least.

However, the team’s weakness at third base is not a shortcoming the Braves can hide under the rug. The position is far too critical to the team’s success. If neither Camargo nor Riley can hold down the fort at third base during the first half of 2020, hopefully, Anthopoulos will be willing to make a change, especially given the fact that we were all so adamant about the position’s poor standing following Donaldson’s signing with the Twins. Because for all the good Anthopoulos has done with the Braves over the last two years, allowing such an apparent weakness to block the team from contending this coming season could be catastrophic. 

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