Guest Writer: Andy Simms of
Freddie Freeman and Josh Donaldson look to power the Braves offense this season and vie against each other for MVP honors.
Freeman and Donaldson look to power the Braves offense this season and push each other for MVP honors.
Today we look at the most promising unit the Braves will roll out this season: the infield. Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies both looked like MVP’s in the first half of 2018, and Dansby’s defense masked issues with his swing caused by a balky left wrist. The emergence of Johan Camargo as a legitimate offensive weapon wasn’t enough to preclude Alex Anthopoulos from upgrading at that position, adding Josh Donaldson on a record one year, $23M contract and simultaneously addressing a lack of power in the top half of the Braves’ lineup. The infield looks to be an overwhelming strength of this 2019 club, complete with depth on the bench capable of logging significant innings. So let’s get to it!
Freddie Freeman – 1B – .309/.388/.505 23 HR 98 RBI
Freeman was a legitimate candidate for National League MVP before fading a bit down the stretch for the Braves. He carried a .827 OPS over the first half and hit 16 of his 23 HR during that span. Playing 162 games took its toll, however, and while his numbers remained solid he faded late in the MVP race. The most encouraging thing about 2018 for Braves’ fans is that Freeman was relatively healthy for the entire season, providing hope that he has put his wrist issues behind him and help lead this team back to the postseason.
Ozzie Albies – 2B – .261/.305/.452 24 HR 72 RBI
If I told you prior to opening day that Freddie Freeman would play 162 games and Ozzie Albies would have more HR at the end of the season you would have laughed in my face. Ozzie’s 24 HR were a surprising for most evaluators and his opening salvo in March and April was a big story-line for the Braves. By the time the calendar turned to May, Albies had hit 9 HR, 12 doubles and had scored 29 runs. As with most rookies, however, the league adjusted and recognized that Ozzie struggled to be productive on pitches at the top of, or just out of, the strike zone. His OPS of .988 in March/April dropped to .738 in May and hovered around that point for most of the rest of the season. While Ozzie might have tailed off offensively, in the field he was proving to be dynamic at the 2nd base position. Brian Snitker often referred to him playing the position like a SS, and due to advanced shifting he was often playing up the middle and making throws and plays that a SS would be expected to make. Even Anthopoulos suggested that if Dansby needed a breather at SS Ozzie might log a few innings over there. If Albies can iron out his 2nd half issues and continue to provide excellent defense he could be a difference-maker for Atlanta this season.
Dansby Swanson – SS – .238/.304/.395 14 HR 59 RBI
Hindsight being what it is, I feel like we might owe Dansby an apology. His offensive woes were comically bad, often swinging at sliders a foot off the plate and being reduced to almost a dead-pull hitter, but towards the end of the season it was revealed that he was dealing with loose bodies in his left wrist. This would often cause him to lose flexibility in that wrist, sometimes to the point that he could no longer flex his wrist at all. This would make it difficult or nearly impossible to check a swing or drive a ball to the right side of the diamond, so some of his issues might have been a direct result to that injury. He had surgery to remove those bodies in his wrist in the offseason, and assuming he is healthy this will be a crucial year to evaluate whether or not he can be productive as a hitter. As a defender, however, he made major strides. This might have been primarily due to the advanced approach the Braves took to defensive positioning last season, but it was also obvious that the subtle changes Ron Washington made in his fundamentals was finally taking root and yielding results. Swanson still made the occasional bone-headed error, but statistically he had one of the best seasons in the league defensively at the SS position. If the rest of the offense on this team produces, it may not matter if Swanson can be relied on as a major offensive threat. A solid defender who can get on base and hit with occasional power could work fine in the 8th spot of the lineup again this season.
Josh Donaldson – 3B – .246/.352/.449 8 HR 23 RBI
Josh Donaldson was hurt last year. Those numbers above reflect that fact. He was only able to get in to 52 total games, and 36 of those were affected by his injury. Once he was traded to Cleveland and completed his rehab, he came back to a more successful version of himself, batting .280/400/.520 in limited action for the Indians and showing normal range of motion at 3B. It was enough of an audition, combined with the history they share, for Anthopoulos to extend Donaldson a 1 year pillow contract of $23M to play 3B for a team with an already established 3B. In fact, by his own admission, the Braves were content to go into 2019 with incumbent starter Johan Camargo as the primary, everyday third baseman, but the overarching need to infuse power into the lineup and the readily available Donaldson willing to do it on a one year deal made this a no-brainer for the Braves. Projections for Donaldson have him hitting around .260 with 25-27 HR. His last season before his injury saw him hit .270/.385/.559 with 33 HR, so anything close to that will be a huge boon for the Braves. Even if all he does is hit his projections he will still be a presence in the lineup the Braves haven’t seen for years.
The Bench – Johan Camargo and Charlie Culberson
As it stands now, Camargo and Culberson provide more than enough depth and experience to back up this collection of talent on the infield. Camargo will be the primary backup for Donaldson and, likely, Swanson, while Culberson will function as the backup for Albies and Freeman. There may be a case to be made where Camargo can pick up significant AB’s from Albies if he continues to struggle against RHP, but I believe that he will see the majority of his AB’s and innings giving Donaldson reset in late innings or on day games following night games. This duo is capable of extended service in the field in the event of an injury as well, so on the whole the Braves are possibly in their best depth position in many years on the dirt.
In the minors
While the major league level is flush with talent currently, the minor leagues are suffering a bit. Once you get past the obvious talent of Austin Riley (who may get significant time in the outfield at Gwinnett), the cupboard looks to be pretty barren. The next infielder to hit the Braves MLB Pipeline top 30 prospects is Derian Cruz at number 17. He spent last season at the Braves low-A affiliate in Rome, batting .222 with 4 HR and 4 SB in 112 games. His carrying tool is his 70 grade speed, but beyond that he has been pretty disappointing to this point. Other depth options are Travis Demeritte (17 HR and 140 K) and Drew Lugbauer (12 HR and 153K). Both have power potential, neither have enough contact rate to stick at the big league level in any capacity currently. Fortunately, unlike Demeritte, Lugbauer has plenty of time to develop. Travis, on the other hand, has been left unprotected twice in the Rule 5 draft and will likely be a minor league free agent after the season.
That’s a wrap!
So as you can see, the infield really is one of the strengths of this team. With all of their depth in the major leagues, however, health will be a huge factor. I would hope we might see some minor depth moves made for the Gwinnett squad just to give a level of comfort to the Braves coaching staff as they are penciling into the lineup two players with significant injuries last season. In our final installment on the roster we will look at the outfield grouping. Chop On!