Championships are hardly won during spring camp, and tempting as it may be, results from Spring Training (good or bad) should be taken with a grain of salt. Although, the Braves’ first nine-inning affair versus the Red Sox on Sunday was chalked-full of topics worth discussing. So let’s dive into Atlanta’s 5-4 win from yesterday and the key takeaways to consider, as well as what’s transpired up to this point in Florida.
Charlie Morton looks great
At 37-years-old and having logged over 1,400 innings during a 13-year MLB career, Morton looked sharp Sunday when he struck out three Boston hitters in three shutout innings while allowing only a pair of hits and one walk. In his first outing as a Brave, Morton not only enjoyed a great line for his spring debut, but he also impressed with his fastball velocity, at times reaching as high as 96 MPH with the heater.
Charlie Morton gave up a double and a walk to start the first inning, then got a line-out to center and consecutive strikeouts to avoid damage.
— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) March 7, 2021
Paired up with his old teammate from his Rays days (catcher Travis d’Arnaud), Morton’s three-inning Spring Training debut on Sunday is the most innings a debuting Braves starter has logged so far this spring. And according to The Athletic’s David O’Brien, the veteran lefty’s longer rope stemmed from the fact that he had thrown a simulated game last week, giving him a bit more stamina to work with. One innings or three, what Morton was trying to accomplish yesterday was rather simple and resulted in some confused Red Sox hitters:
“Really it’s just getting a feel for my pitches, getting in shape, and trying to stay healthy.” — Morton (post-game on Sunday)
Let’s hope he does remain healthy, for Morton is expected to be a key contributor for Atlanta’s staff during the 2021 regular season as the rotation’s projected top WAR compiler, per FanGraphs Steamer projections. If Sunday was any indication as to what type of performance Morton’s capable of this coming season, the Braves should wield quite a dangerous starting rotation from top to bottom.
The regular lineup is back at it again
For the first time this spring, we had the opportunity to see what Atlanta’s regular batting lineup could look like as all of the team’s regulars got the start, with Marcell Ozuna in left field, Cristian Pache in center, Ronald Acuna in right and Jake Lamb covering DH duties.
Considering it’s still early March, the group did well, combining to go 4 for 19 (.210 AVG) with four runs, four RBI and two XBH overall. And the offense put pressure on the Red Sox’s starter — Garrett Richards — right out of the gate, quickly loading the bases in the opening inning before shortstop Dansby Swanson belted a bases-clearing triple to left-center to put the Braves up 3-0.
As Spring Training progresses, we’ll obviously see more of the regular batting order, but yesterday’s results were definitely comforting and an indication that the Atlanta offense in 2021 will once again score a ton of runs.
Dansby is just picking up where he left off
I mentioned Dansby’s three-run double above, but the Braves shortstop is really having himself a lovely spring so far. Here’s his two-bagger from yesterday:
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) March 7, 2021
For the spring, Swanson is currently 3 for 8 (.375/.444/.635 slash-line) with four RBI in four games, with two of those three knocks being doubles. Of the Braves regular starters on offense, only third baseman Austin Riley owns a better AVG (.455) at this point, although it’s the quality of contact that stands out the most for Swanson. He’s absolutely crushing the ball when he connects, and his timing looks like that of a player who’s in mid-season form.
It’s only fair, but we shouldn’t read too much into Swanson’s success at this particular point. Over his career, he has always hit well during Spring Training, maintaining a .281 AVG (.795 OPS) with five homers and 24 RBI in 83 total games. However, it’s not as if this is a new thing, and it would be much easier to write off as just his usual Spring Success if it wasn’t for the fact that he ended up finishing 2020 as one of the five-best shortstops in baseball at the plate. As difficult as it is for some of us to accept, given the frustrating start to his MLB career and the inconsistency that came with it, Dansby Swanson has developed into a damn good player for the Braves. And it appears as if he’s planning to pick up right where he left off from last season.
Huascar Ynoa has improved
Our own Chase Irle wrote about Ynoa this past Saturday as he’s a potential up-and-comer among the Braves’ next wave of pitchers.
Braves: Huascar Ynoa highlights the next wave of talented young arms https://t.co/gaqEJklDwO
— SportsTalkATL.com (@SportsTalkATL) March 5, 2021
Ynoa experienced some tough breaks on Sunday against the Red Sox, allowing three runs over a 2.1-inning outing that bloated his ERA for the spring up to 9.00. However, there’s more to him than a couple of bad breaks, as shown in his Spring Training debut back on March 1 versus Boston, when he punched out four batters in just 1.2 frames.
Many are already praising Ynoa for his improved delivery this spring, coupled with some strides made regarding what was already an elite repertoire of pitches. Now it’s just a matter of him finding more consistency, which he’ll get plenty of chances to do throughout the rest of Atlanta’s slate of exhibition games.
Assuming Mike Soroka is part of the Braves starting rotation on Opening Day, and the four remaining projected starters (Fried, Anderson, Morton, Smyly) are intact as well, righty Kyle Wright probably still sits in that no. 6 spot as the team’s first depth option; however, Ynoa is making a case to potentially join Wright in that role.
Cristian Pache continues to be a better hitter than we think
We’re aware of Pache’s already-elite defense in the outfield, and for whatever reason, we seem always to overlook his abilities at the plate. Although he appears prepared to change that with the spring he’s having so far. Here’s his latest highlight from Florida, an absolute bomb during Sunday’s game against Boston:
Take a look at that Cristian Pache triple to right. Well-struck. pic.twitter.com/rzUZ5BH5Rx
— Grant McAuley (@grantmcauley) March 7, 2021
Opposite-field extra-base hits are great to see from Pache, especially when we already know he’s plenty capable of turning on a pitch and pulling it for a homer, as he did with this one a couple of seasons ago in Triple-A:
— Grant McAuley (@grantmcauley) August 30, 2019
Like Swanson, Pache is displaying a great approach at the plate and already seems to be seeing the ball really well.
Sunday’s RBI-triple was Pache’s first XBH of Spring Training, and through four games, he’s now 2 for 8 (.250 AVG) with two strikeouts and no walks. Pache is already the better option over Ender Inciarte to land a starting role in Atlanta’s outfield in 2021, and I believe he’ll be out there come Opening Day. But it’d be even better if he simply leaves absolutely no doubt just in case the Braves are still thinking about going with Inciarte.
Bullpen is starting to settle down
Seven games is nowhere near a large enough sample size to determine the quality of the Braves bullpen, but with each starter only working a couple of innings before hitting the showers, Atlanta’s relievers are oftentimes left with to cover anywhere from 5-6 innings, even during the recent shortened games.
And while the Braves have opted to sub in some of their minor league starters during the middle-innings, several of the team’s key relievers have gotten in some work so far, and to start Spring Training, the results weren’t too good.
Through Atlanta’s first two games this spring, the ‘pen was forced to cover 11.2 innings while allowing eight earned runs to go with 11 walks. However, even with Ynoa’s poor line (mentioned above) added in from Sunday, the Braves bullpen has surrendered just four runs combined over the last two games (10 IP), good for a 3.60 ERA. And the group has really started to miss bats too, tallying 13.5 strikeouts per nine over that span, to go along with 3.6 walks per nine.
The overall outlook still hasn’t been exactly ideal. Atlanta’s relief core is currently maintaining a 5.71 ERA and walking over five batters per nine over the group’s first 36.2 innings of spring camp. But it’s a good sign that at least things are turning around, and hopefully by the end of the month, the bullpen will feature all of its main contributors firing on all cylinders. There’s no reason this Braves bullpen shouldn’t once again dominate in 2021.