2016 Record - 68-93
Fifth place, NL East
Team ERA: 4.51 (24th)
Team OPS: .705 (27th)
What Went Right
The Braves met expectations. Which is to say, there weren’t any. In the middle of a stripped-down rebuild, the Turner Field Era ended with another 90-loss season. Most of the familiar faces are gone, but Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran are still around and each of them had really nice years. Freeman established new career-bests with 34 homers and a .968 OPS while Teheran rebounded from a down 2014 by posting a 3.21 ERA and 167/41 K/BB ratio over 188 innings. To the surprise of nobody except for former Diamondbacks general manager Dave Stewart, the Shelby Miller deal has already proved to be a big win for the Braves. Ender Inciarte hit .341 in the second half and 2015 No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson batted .302/.361/.442 in 38 games during his first stint in the majors. The Braves had the game’s worst offense during the first half, but they were sixth in the majors in runs scored after the All-Star break. Matt Kemp was a big part of that, as he put up 12 homers and an .855 OPS in 56 games after coming over from the Padres. Adonis Garcia swung the bat well after coming back from the minors and Nick Markakis also showed some signs of life down the stretch. The Braves won 20 out of their last 30 games to finish the year, which led to Brian Snitker having the interim manager tag removed this week.
What Went Wrong
It was really ugly early on. While it was hardly his fault given the talent he had to work with, Fredi Gonzalez was fired in mid-May after the Braves went 9-28 to begin the year. The Braves were jockeying for position with the Twins for the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft for most of the year before a late surge under Brian Snitker. There were high hopes for Hector Olivera coming into the year, but he appeared in just six games before being arrested April 13 and charged with assault and battery of a woman. MLB suspended him for 82 games and Braves eventually turned the page by trading him to the Padres in the Matt Kemp deal. Acquired as part of the haul from the Angels for Andrelton Simmons, Erick Aybar batted just .242 with a .607 OPS in 97 games before being traded to the Tigers in August. Coming off a surprising 2015, A.J. Pierzynski was one of the worst players in the majors. Next stop, broadcast booth? Braves starters ranked 28th in the majors with a 4.87 ERA this season. If you take Julio Teheran out of the mix? Their ragtag mix of youngsters and retread veterans combined for a 5.32 ERA. The Braves parted ways with longtime pitching coach Roger McDowell after the season.
*What was the key to Freddie Freeman’s monster season? Prior to 2016, he had never hit more than 23 homers in a season nor had an OPS higher than .897. Putting aside the speculation about league-wide juiced baseballs aside, we did see some changes this year in addition to improved health. According to FanGraphs, his fly ball rate increased about five points from his career average and he also did a much better job of using the whole field. Meanwhile, only David Ortiz had a higher hard-hit rate among qualified hitters. So we have some explanation for the uptick in power and even for the .370 BABIP. I should note that he sacrificed some contact for power, so I understand if you are skeptical about a repeat of the .302 batting average, but he’s a clear top-10 first baseman in mixed fantasy leagues going into 2017.
*Is there anybody to trust in this rotation outside of Julio Teheran? Aaron Blair, another part of the Shelby Miller deal, struggled with an ugly 7.59 ERA over 15 starts as a rookie. Matt Wisler now owns an underwhelming 4.88 ERA with 187 strikeouts through his first 265 2/3 innings in the majors. Among the current internal options for 2017, Mike Foltynewicz might have the best chance of breaking through. The 25-year-old showed improved control this season while posting a 4.31 ERA and 111/35 K/BB ratio in 123 1/3 innings through 22 starts. He relied less often on his mid-90s fastball and posted a swinging strike percentage above the league average for starters in the process. Keep an eye on him.
*Arodys Vizcaino quickly grabbed ahold of the Braves closer role from Jason Grilli during the first half, but injuries limited him to just five appearances after the All-Star break and Jim Johnson took advantage by going 20-for-23 in save chances. After a rough start to the season, the veteran reliever posted a 1.65 ERA over his final 48 appearances. The Braves were impressed enough to sign Johnson to a two-year extension on the final day of the regular season. As of now, general manager John Coppolella expects him to go into spring training as the team’s closer. Mauricio Cabrera put up a 2.82 ERA in 41 appearances as a rookie and regularly reached triple-digits on the radar gun, but he’ll have to make some progress with his control (19 walks in 38 1/3 innings) before becoming a legitimate threat for save chances. File that name away, though.
*Alright, so the Braves are rebuilding. Who are the young players to monitor here? Mallex Smith is one you should already be acquainted with after he stole 16 bases in 72 games as a rookie this season. He’s blocked in the outfield right now, but an offseason trade could open the door to regular playing time in 2017. You have to like the speed potential there. With Dansby Swanson now up in the majors, Ozzie Albies is the big name in this system. And he’s now far off. Albies struggled during a brief stint in Triple-A this year, but don’t forget that he was the youngest player at the level. He doesn’t turn 20 until January. Heck, he was the youngest player in Double-A at the start of the year and he hit .321/.391/.467 with four homers and 21 steals over 82 games there. Some more seasoning in the minors is probably needed, especially after undergoing surgery in September to repair a fractured olecranon bone in his right elbow, but it’s probably just a matter of time before he takes over the second base job. Jace Peterson might keep the seat warm in the meantime.
Key Free Agents: None
Team Needs: The biggest need is starting pitching. They could really use one or two veteran arms, though upside is limited in this free agent class. It will be interesting to see if the Braves try to make a big splash as they move into their new ballpark in Cobb County. Reacquiring Brian McCann to platoon with Tyler Flowers might not translate to much in the way of on-field impact, but he’s obviously a popular and familiar face. Free agent Matt Wieters, who is from South Carolina and went to Georgia Tech, is an interesting alternative on the free agent market.