Spring Training Preview

Look, I know you are all as thrilled as I am to be getting videos of players stretching, hitting off of batting practice pitchers, and tooling around Spring Training complexes on golf carts. What on earth could be more exciting? SPRING TRAINING GAMES START SATURDAY!!!!!!

That’s right Braves’ fans, the long winter of our discontent is coming to a close. We can stop speculating on the hole in Riley’s swing, whether King Felix has anything left in the tank, and how Freddie Freeman’s elbow will respond after his off-season surgery.

As fans on Twitter are trying desperately to figure out how to cope with the release of Kelsey Wingert, beloved sideline reporter, it’s time to provide some distraction in the form of ChattTenn Sports Spring Training Preview – Atlanta Braves edition!

Comings and goings

Every offseason comes with a fair number of players changing rosters. This season the Braves had an extremely large number of free agents hitting the market. This is partially due to the affinity that Alex Anthopoulos has for short term contracts on veteran players, and partially because the Braves were in the playoff hunt and addressed some needs at the trade deadline, acquiring short term assets for a post season push.

Here’s the list of departures from the 40 man roster – Brian McCann, Matt Joyce, Adeiny Hechavarria (re-signed), Josh Tomlin (re-signed, minor league deal), Darren O’Day (re-signed), Francisco Cervelli, Anthony Swarzak, Chris Martin (re-signed), Jerry Blevins, Dallas Keuchel, Josh Donaldson, Julio Teheran, Billy Hamilton, John Ryan Murphy, Rafael Ortega (re-signed, minor league deal), and Charlie Culberson (re-signed, minor league deal. Sixteen players in all, six of whom were re-signed in some capacity with the team.

With a net loss of 13 players from the 40 man roster, you would think that the Braves would have no problem with having enough spots for the players they plan to use in 2020. However, as it stands right now the roster is at 40 and there are at least two players who have legitimate shots at opening the season with the Braves that currently aren’t even on the roster yet. How did we get to this point?

  • Free agent signings – Will Smith, Chris Martin, Travis D’Arnaud, Cole Hamels, Marcell Ozuna
  • Rule 5 protections – Phillip Pfeifer, Jasseel De La Cruz, Christian Pache, William Contreras, Tucker Davidson
  • Activated from 60 Day Injured List – Alex Jackson, A.J. Minter, Jacob Web

At the end of the season, all players on the 60 Day Injured list must be added to the roster or be released. Also, in advance of the Winter Meetings, select players in the minor league system who have been in the organization too long must either be added to the 40 man roster or be made available to other teams via the Rule 5 Draft. These players are typically those who have had their development delayed by injury, poor performance, or by virtue of being blocked at the major league level by a veteran player. Of the 5 players the Braves added for Rule 5 protection, only Christian Pache has a real shot of playing meaningful games for Atlanta this season.

To sum up the Braves offseason:

  • They lost Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran, replacing them with Cole Hamels and a non-roster invite to Spring Training for Felix Hernandez
  • They lost Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann, replacing them with Marcell Ozuna and Travis D’Arnaud
  • They shored up the bullpen by bringing back Chris Martin and Darren O’Day while also signing the best free agent bullpen arm available in Will Smith

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Roster Battles

Ultimately there are basically four roster spots up for grabs. Lineup mainstays Ronald Acuña, Jr, Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson, and the newly acquired Marcell Ozuna are locks. Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers will share duties behind the plate, and the rotation has four of five spots locked down by Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Cole Hamels and Mike Foltynewicz. The bench is also taking shape with Hechavarria, Nick Markakis, Ender Inciarte and Adam Duvall all expecting to play significant roles either starting or on the bench at any given time this season. So where are these roster battles?

Fifth Starter – Sean Newcomb, Felix Hernandez, Kyle Wright, Bryce Wilson

Let’s take the easy ones off the board first. Kyle Wright and Bryce Wilson both have limited experience at the major league level, and both still have minor league options, so barring a large scale injury bug hitting Braves’ camp this spring, neither of these players will be heading north when the team breaks camp at the end of March.

In comments over the winter, G.M. Alex Anthopoulos stated that Sean Newcomb would be given every opportunity this spring to prove he can be a starter for the big league club in 2020. He had shown some promise as a relief arm last season, and there is evidence that he might have adjusted his approach on the mound enough to take that next step forward and be the dominant left handed arm in the middle of the Braves rotation that they envisioned when the they acquired him in the Andrelton Simmons deal with the Angels.

The intriguing name in camp this year for the Braves is Felix Hernandez, a.k.a King Felix, who is testing the free agency waters for the first time in his storied 15-season run with the Seattle Mariners. A legend in the Pacific Northwest, Hernandez is far from the pitcher he was during a phenomenal run between 2009 and 2015 where he went 104-65 with a 2.83 ERA, 6 All Star appearances, and 4 top 5 finishes in the Cy Young voting, winning one in 2010. His last three seasons with the Mariners were a disappointment as his velocity dropped, he started putting on weight, and the toll of 8 consecutive years with 200+ innings finally started to catch up to him. Last year Hernandez was 1-8 with a 6.40 ERA, and even the fans who loved seeing him in a Mariners uniform were having to admit it was finally time for him to move on.

The Braves received some bad news as they opened camp, however, when it was revealed that Cole Hamels was going to miss at least the first 3 weeks of Spring Training with a shoulder injury. This will likely cause Hamels to not be available for the Braves in the first 15 days of the season, opening up a spot for both Newcomb AND Hernandez in the rotation to start the season. Fortunately for the Braves, a change of scenery seems to have agreed with Hernandez, who showed up to camp 15 pounds lighter and eager to prove that at 34 years old he still knows how to get major league hitters out.

Third Base – Johan Camargo, Austin Riley, Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant

Ok, let’s just stop the nonsense right here. Nolan Arenado and Kris Bryant are not being traded to the Atlanta Braves. At least, not before the trade deadline in July, that is. The cost in prospects and in pure dollars is too high to pay for a team that already has the highest projected opening day payroll in team history and a thinning farm system thanks to sanctions from MLB originating in the Coppolella scandals of 2017. So table the Arenado/Bryant discussion until we see just how much we need a third baseman this season, and maybe we can revisit this as needed closer to the trading deadline on July 31st.

Johan Camargo was awful last season. He was pretty serviceable in 2018, but after feeling like he earned the spot with that performance he was devastated to learn the Braves signed Josh Donaldson to play his position last season. He showed up to camp out of shape, over weight, and with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Predictably he started slowly, ended up being sent to the minor leagues, and after getting his head right was brought back to Atlanta 15 days later. He actually played well for a couple of weeks in September before fracturing his right shin on a pitched ball. He ended the season on the Injured List, but spent the offseason getting back into shape and focused on winning the third base job for 2020. From all accounts in camp, he is fit, trim, and motivated.

Austin Riley watched what happened to Camargo in 2019 and thought he might need to diversify himself defensively, so he opted to learn how to play left field last season. Surprisingly he was not awful, and he was called up when Ender Inciarte injured himself and was installed as the primary left fielder. At the plate, the young rookie went off, blasting 9 HR in 18 games to start his career and carrying a 1.101 OPS. He was passable defensively, too, so the expectation was that he would remain in Atlanta the rest of the season and help the team add more thump to the lineup for the post season. Sadly, the tale of Austin Riley took a dark turn soon after, with major league pitchers discovering that the young slugger couldn’t hit any pitch that had movement. In his final 63 games, 207 at bats, Riley batted .193 with 83 strikeouts and only 9 HR. Remember, he hit 9 in his first EIGHTEEN GAMES! Riley didn’t fall off a cliff, he was eaten by a pack of wolves then pooped off that cliff. Riley spent this offseason working with the Braves hitting instructors in Texas, and they feel some slight adjustments to his elbow placement and back foot mechanics in his swing should help him recognize and adjust to breaking pitches more easily, hopefully recapturing some of the promise of those glorious 18 games in May and June.

The last two bullpen spots

Currently, the Braves are sporting one of the most prolific back end bullpens in the major leagues. Free agent signee Will Smith and returning players Mark Melancon, Luke Jackson and Shane Greene combined for 87 saves last season. Chris Martin had four of his own, and Darren O’Day has 21 in his career. Those 6 players will be expected to anchor a bullpen that was maligned for most of the season in 2019, and a host of pitchers will be competing for the last two bullpen spots. If for some reason Sean Newcomb can’t secure a spot in the rotation, he will almost assuredly take a spot in the pen. Assuming he does, in fact, begin the season as a starter, here are the most likely options for the remaining two spots:

  • The kids – Jacob Webb, Patrick Weigel, Huascar Ynoa, Bryse Wilson, Phil Pfeifer, Chris Nunn
  • The vets – Josh Tomlin, Chris Rusin
  • On the bubble – A.J. Minter, Grant Dayton

The league instituted a new rule for this season: any pitcher entering the game either as a starter or reliever must pitch to a minimum of three batters or finish the inning, which ever comes first. On it’s face, this seems like a petty rule designed to give lip service to pace-of-play initiatives but having little teeth. In reality, however, this could end the careers of situational relievers who are brought in to get tough left handed hitters out or get batters to roll over into double plays in critical spots. A.J. Minter and Grant Dayton, both relievers, would probably be given reasonable consideration in year’s past, but with this new rule it’s hard to give a roster spot to a player that can’t get right handed batters out. Minter struggled with all batters last season, regardless of which side of the plate they were standing on, and Grant Dayton has splits that certainly indicate he’d be a great fit as a situational lefty, if only those existed in today’s game.

Josh Tomlin was brought back after a fairly successful transition from starting pitcher to long reliever and utility reliever. He was offered a minor league deal as camp opened, and since none of the 6 players mentioned as locks in the pen above fit in a long relief role, he has the inside track on one of the final two spots. The only thing holding him back is he is not currently on the roster, and the 40 man is full currently.

Of the remaining players, Jacob Webb and Phil Pfeifer are most likely to receive consideration. Webb could have been the Braves best reliever last season had he not been injured after a strong start, and Pfeifer is a lefty who was added to the roster for rule 5 protection and has the kind of stuff that all batters struggle to square up. An interesting name in camp is Chris Nunn, internet sensation who was signed by the Braves after posting 100 MPH fastballs on YouTube. If you can throw 100, there’s a chance for you in the MLB. Seven years in the minors with no MLB experience is working against him, though, along with a terrible 1.52 WHIP in affiliated ball.

Play Ball!!!!

So let the competition begin! If I was handicapping it today, before a single pitch was thrown in anger, I’d project Hernandez and Newcomb to round out the rotation while Hamels heals his shoulder for the first couple of months, and Minter and Tomlin securing the final spots in a stacked bullpen. Johan Camargo, as long as he stays healthy, will most likely start as our 3B with Riley going to Gwinnett to prove that the adjustments he made in the offseason are going to stick over a longer string of at bats than he will get in Spring Training.

Check out the Braves as they make their Grapefruit League debut on Fox Sports Southeast against the Baltimore Orioles Saturday, February 21st, first pitch at 1:05. Stay tuned to ChattTenn Sports all season as we discuss all things Braves and MLB. Go Braves!


Andy

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