Usually, a marketing plan is put into place when a new stadium is set to open. Teams expect to be very competitive, with the thoughts of energizing a fan base into filling the new stadium regularly. Unfortunately, the Braves had issues selling out Turner Field during the time of their National League dominance. And just about the same time the Braves had announced their plans to build a new baseball facility, the Braves brought in veteran baseball executive John Hart and eventually fired General Manager Frank Wren, leading to the rebuild we have seen going on in Atlanta for the past couple of seasons.
The Braves finished 2016 with a 68-93 record, one which was better than expected based off the talent of their roster. In fact, from September 1, on last season, the Braves had an 18-10 record. After going 9-28 under incumbent manager Fredi Gonzalez, the Braves had a 59-65 record under interim manager Brian Snitker. This prompted the Braves to name Snitker the full time manager, and in doing so, launched a campaign to return to competitiveness shorter than the current rebuild would suggest.
The Braves have shortstop Dansby Swanson playing in his first full season after hitting .302 in 38 games for Atlanta in 2016. First baseman Freddy Freeman is currently just 27 years old and enjoyed a fantastic season, hitting .302 with 34 home runs, 102 runs scored and an on base plus slugging of .968. Center fielder Ender Inciarte is 26 and despite missing some time last year due to injury, managed to hit .291 and play gold glove caliber defense. 26 year-old Julio Teheran pitched to a 3.21 earned run average in 30 starts and 25 year-old Mike Foltynewicz showed some promise in his 22 starts last season, striking out 111 batters in just over 123 innings pitched.
During the 2016 season, the Braves made a trade with the San Diego Padres, the third major deal made with them in a little more than two calendar years, for outfielder Matt Kemp. In 51 games with Atlanta, Kemp hit .280 and finished off his best offensive season since 2014 with 35 home runs and 108 runs batted in. The Braves continued their quest for veteran players into this past off season, signing pitchers Bartolo Colon and RA Dickey, trading for St. Louis Cardinals left hand pitcher Jaime Garcia (10 wins, 13 losses, 4.67 ERA), and first signing free agent infielder Sean Rodriguez to a two year contract, then trading for Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips after the former had his shoulder operated on following a major car accident.
The goal has been for the Braves to let their younger players develop in the minor leagues as many of their best young prospects probably will not be major league ready for another couple of years. While bringing in a series of veteran players is a good idea to teach the younger ones, precedent has been set that this philosophy generally does not lead to postseason results. This is why I think it will help the Braves of 2017. For a team looking to simply get better, they made the right kind of moves, both on the field and in the clubhouse.
Colon, with 15 wins in just under 192 innings pitched, and Dickey have the ability to help the Braves fill innings in their rotation. Garcia gives them a lefty capable of doing the same. Teheran remains their ace, though, and by the end of the season, Foltynewicz should be right up there near the top of the rotation. The three additions allow for younger, more inexperienced pitchers like Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair to pitch the majority of the 2017 season in the minor leagues. Veteran Josh Collmenter is an additional option to start some games if needed though he provides experience as a relief pitcher as well. Former White Sox left hand starter John Danks is trying to make a comeback and remains a possibility.
Since he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles after the 2013 season, veteran relief pitcher Jim Johnson has struggled mightily... unless he is pitching for the Atlanta Braves. During stops in Oakland, Detroit and Los Angeles, Johnson has posted ERA's of 7.14, 6.92 and 10.13 for the Athletics, Tigers and Dodgers, respectively. But during his two stints in Atlanta, Johnson has had an ERA of just 2.72. He is joined by a series of hard throwing younger pitchers. Right hander Arodys Vizcaino struck out 50 batters in just under 39 innings last year and left hander Ian Krol had 56 Ks in 51 innings in 2016. Right hander Mauricio Cabrera seems to possess the most talent among the hard throwers and seems to be a closer in the making. Left hander Paco Rodriguez has missed most of the past two seasons as he has recovered from Tommy John surgery, but is expected to be ready to pitch at the start of the season. In Rodriguez' last full season in 2013, he struck out 63 batters in just over 54 IP. Jose Ramirez should get another chance and the last bullpen spot should come down to veterans Collmenter, Chaz Roe and Blaine Boyer.
Cuban third baseman Adonis Garcia is a wild card for the Braves this season. He has under performed at the major league level, but possesses a lot more natural power than he has shown to this point. But he is almost 32 and has spent the last several season playing baseball professionally in the states. Former starting second baseman Jace Peterson has the ability to play third, as well as Sean Rodriguez if he plays this season. In the mean time, Garcia will get another chance, similar to that of catcher Travis d'Arnaud with the New York Mets this season. Travis' brother, Chase, will be a utility player this season as he can play all over the diamond. Infielder Micah Johnson is a solid depth piece as well and he can play both the infield and outfield.
Oufielder Nick Markakis is in the third season of a four year contract he signed after the 2014 season. He has not performed according to expectations, though he has been relatively healthy since signing his free agent deal. The Braves brought in veteran Kurt Suzuki to be their starting catcher with Tyler Flowers pushing him for time. The lineup I would go with to start the season is Inciarte CF, Swanson SS, Freeman 1B, Kemp LF, Phillips 2B, Markakis RF, Garcia 3B, Suzuki C. Peterson, d'Arnaud, Johnson, Flowers and maybe Emilio Bonifacio could round out the Braves bench this season. There is a possibility the Braves will open the season with eight relievers and a four man bench, though seven and five seem almost equally possible at this moment.
Second baseman Ozzie Albies will probably be kept in the minor leagues another season but is expected to be the team's future along with Swanson. Left hander Sean Newcomb could debut this season, but the Braves are not in a rush. Pitchers Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka and Joey Wentz will all continue to develop with Ian Anderson likely being ready in 2019 or 2020. The prospect I am the most intrigued about is switch hitting infielder Kevin Maitan. Maitan has a pure combination of power and ability to hit for average and I expect him to move up the top prospect list quickly. He is just 17 years old.
The Braves have brought a lot of postseason experience with them this season. Unfortunately, only Freddy Freeman has appeared in a postseason game wearing an Atlanta Braves uniform. I think Phillips will help out in the clubhouse, as will Colon and Dickey. I do not think it is fair to expect the Braves to be close to being in a playoff race in 2017. But I do think they have the ability to overachieve. The Braves number was set at 71.5 and has moved up to 73.5, which shows the belief in this team is starting to grow. I will take the over, as I have the Braves at 80-82, third place in the National League East division this season.