2018 Record: 90-72
First Place, NL East
Team ERA: 3.75 (tied for 7th in MLB)
Team OPS: .742 (11th in MLB)
What Went Right
We all knew the Braves were on the rise going into 2018, but they arrived a bit sooner than expected this season while winning their first NL East crown since 2013. It should come as no surprise that Freddie Freeman was the team’s most valuable player, but youngsters like Ronald Acuna, Jr., Ozzie Albies, and Johan Camargo provided a nice boost to the lineup. Acuna came to the majors with considerable hype, but he was as advertised and could walk away with the National League Rookie of the Year Award later this month. Nick Markakis trailed off during the second half, but he turned in a resurgent year overall and made his first All-Star team. Ender Inciarte had another strong second half while Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers again made for a productive combo behind the plate. There were also some breakthroughs on the pitcher side, led by Mike Foltynewicz, who posted a 2.85 ERA (tied for 5th in NL) over 31 starts. Anibal Sanchez was a huge surprise after signing a minor league deal with the club in March and Sean Newcomb showed some flashes of excellence. A.J. Minter should be a late-inning staple in this bullpen for several years.
What Went Wrong
So much went right this year that it’s a challenge to find many negatives, but there are some areas which stand out. Braves pitchers were tied with the White Sox for the highest walk rate in the majors. Pitching coach Chuck Hernandez was let go last month, so his replacement will be tasked with getting the staff to improve in that department. There were some high expectations for Luis Gohara after his breakout 2017 season, but he began the year on the DL with an ankle injury and ended up throwing just 19 2/3 innings in the majors. Highly-touted prospect right-hander Mike Soroka earned his first call-up to the majors in May, but he missed the entire second half due to shoulder issues. Dansby Swanson is an excellent defender at shortstop, but his lack of progress at the plate continues to be frustrating. Arodys Vizcaino was excellent when healthy, but injuries cropped up again as he missed a good chunk of the season due to shoulder issues.
**Ronald Acuna, Jr. was one of the more hyped arrivals in recent memory. And it happened a bit later than initially expected, as he got off to a bit of a slow start with Triple-A Gwinnett before finally getting the call in late April. The 20-year-old didn’t dominate from the jump, as he had five homers and a .779 OPS through his first 29 games before taking a nasty spill at first base on May 27. It looked like something that was potentially season-ending, but fortunately he only suffered a mild ACL sprain and was able to make it back about a month later. And then he really took off. Acuna put up a monster .304/.380/.589 batting line with 21 home runs, 51 RBI, 14 steals, and 59 runs scored over his final 82 games, looking every bit like the impact player we were hoping for in fantasy leagues. He was more selective as the year moved along and found himself among impressive company in regard to his hard-hit rate. It’s no stretch to think that he has a ceiling on the level of Mike Trout or Mookie Betts in fantasy leagues. With expectations through the roof, it’s unlikely he makes it out of the first round in drafts in the spring.
**Freddie Freeman played in all 162 games this past season, but he hit just 23 home runs and saw his OPS drop from .989 to .892 in the process. Yes, this is very much nitpicking. Freeman led the National League with 191 hits and 44 doubles while posting his highest RBI total since 2013 and the most steals (10) of his career. It’s very hard to complain about all of that from a fantasy perspective. With an improved supporting cast, Freeman deserves to be one of the top first basemen off the board in mixed league drafts, but his fly ball rate this year declined from 40.6 percent to 31.3 percent compared to 2017. He’s going to need to get that back up in order to reach 30 homers again, but he’s still quite valuable even if it doesn’t happen.
**Ozzie Albies was a huge surprise on the power front in the early part of the season, amassing 22 extra-base hits in April and 20 homers with an .834 OPS in 93 games going into the All-Star break. However, he faded to the tune of a .226/.282/.342 batting line and four homers over 65 games during the second half. After beginning the year near the top of the order, he mostly hit sixth or seventh down the stretch. While it was a disappointing finish, Albies still reached 105 runs scored and also chipped in with 14 stolen bases. He has the sort of speed to improve on that total moving forward. Albies isn’t going to be 22 years old until January, so there’s reason to believe he can make some adjustments at the plate. The good news is that strikeouts aren’t a major issue. With his across-the-board ability, Albies should be one of the first second basemen selected in mixed league drafts for years to come.
**Mike Foltynewicz has teased fantasy owners in the past, but he enjoyed a full-fledged breakout this year with a 2.85 ERA and 202/68 K/BB ratio in 183 innings over 31 starts. What really stood out was the increase in strikeout percentage. The 27-year-old fanned 27.2 percent of the batters he faced, good enough for 12th among qualified starters. He was at 20.7 percent in 2017, 41st among pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched. Foltynewicz is among the hardest throwing starters in the game, but he continued to up the use of his slider this year and the change worked for him. Even if you expect some regression — Folty benefited from a .251 BABIP and a 77.1 percent strand rate this year — he’s likely going to be treated like a top-25 starter in drafts next year.
**Sean Newcomb also made his best effort at a breakout after posting a 2.71 ERA through his first 16 starts, but he struggled with a 5.45 ERA through his final 15 appearances (14 starts and one relief appearance). His control was an issue throughout, so ERA doesn’t tell the whole story here. His walk percentage (11.6 percent) was tied for the highest among all qualified starters while only Gio Gonzalez had a lower first-pitch strike percentage. Newcomb is only 25 years old, so there’s still plenty of time, but consider him a late-round option in mixed leagues until we see some improvement.
**Kevin Gausman posted a 2.87 ERA and 44/18 K/BB ratio in 59 2/3 innings over 10 starts after coming over from the Orioles at the trade deadline. His strikeouts were down this year, but it’s reasonable to be intrigued about him spending a full year in the National League. Outside of the obvious change of environment, he also has a much better defense behind him with Atlanta. Gausman wouldn’t be the first pitcher to thrive after getting away from the Orioles, so keep him in mind for a potential step forward in 2019.
**Should the Braves go into 2019 with Arodys Vizcaino as their closer? The 27-year-old served multiple stints on the disabled list this year due to shoulder issues and has topped 38 2/3 innings just once in his career. A.J. Minter notched 15 saves this past season and certainly has the stuff to be a full-time closer in the future, but the Braves would be wise to at least add some insurance to the late-inning mix. A higher-profile addition (a reunion with Craig Kimbrel, perhaps?) isn't out of the question.
**Hopefully Mike Soroka and Luiz Gohara have better luck on the health front next year, but the Braves still have plenty of young arms in the pipeline. Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, and Kyle Wright are among the names to watch going into 2019. Third base prospect Austin Riley isn't far off on the position player side of things.
Team Needs: With Nick Markakis and Kurt Suzuki hitting free agency, look for Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos to acquire a corner outfielder and at least a part-time option behind the plate. Markakis is a possibility to return. We can’t rule out a trade for the Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto, as the Braves have the prospect depth for such a deal. The Braves also fit the profile of a team who should be in on Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, but there’s naturally some skepticism about that coming to fruition. More likely is that we see the club add a veteran piece for their rotation and a couple of experienced arms in their bullpen.