Pitchers and catchers will officially report to spring training in just over a month. It seems like this offseason flew by; perhaps it was the blockbuster deals that shipped Andrelton Simmons and Shelby Miller west. There are still a few big pieces out there on the free agent market, but it would seem the Braves are mostly done with their major moves.
The Braves are not supposed to be very good in 2016. That said, no one expected Atlanta to do anything last year, yet the club entered July hovering around .500. A couple of key injuries and trades derailed any chance the Braves had at keeping things interesting down the stretch.
In part one of our three-part series, we take a look at the 2016 infield.
Freddie Freeman's 2015 was ruined by a pretty serious wrist injury. The good news is Freeman recently said his wrist is pain free and he should be good to go this spring.
Freeman is the major cog in what could be the league's worst lineup. His health is paramount not only for 2016, but for years to come as the team moves to Cobb. Freddie starts getting expensive this year – he'll earn $12.5M next season before getting upped to $17M in 2017 and $21M from 2018-2021 – and he will need to produce like a franchise player. If he has a down or unhealthy year, things could get ugly.
Steamer projection: .283/.374/.480, .368 wOBA, 25 HR, 4.0 WAR. ZIPS: .280/.374/.469, .363 wOBA, 21 HR.
Jace Peterson, Gordon Beckham and Emilio Bonifacio figure to split reps at second. No, you should not feel confident about this.
Peterson's first half of 2015 was promising, but he was exposed in the second half as big league pitchers figured him out. It will be an uphill climb for him to play in another 152 games. Steamer projects Jace to play in 122 games and be worth just 0.6 WAR, half of his 2015 mark.
Beckham has never lived up to the hype he garnered as a top prospect many years ago. He has just one 1-win season under his belt since his rookie campaign in 2009. Moving closer to home may help him, but expectations should be low.
Bonifacio shouldn't be expected to produce much, either. Kelly Johnson could also get a few starts at second; his versatility will be valuable off the bench.
Perhaps Peterson takes a step forward or Beckham finds Atlanta more enjoyable than Chicago, but there figures to be a revolving door at the position for at least some of the season.
Andrelton Simmons is gone. It will be weird watching someone other than Simmons at shortstop, and I can only imagine the number of times we'll watch a ball slide under Erick Aybar's glove and think, "man, Simba would've gotten that."
That said, Aybar isn't chopped liver. He's under contract for one more season at a reasonable price. He's a career .276 hitter with a .315 OBP and 92 wRC+; over the last three years, his slash line is .273/.308/.366. He's been worth 6.7 WAR since 2013, though that's inflated a bit by a terrific 2014 season where he was worth 4+ wins. He isn't a star, but he should be a solid veteran who may bat 2nd in the lineup.
Steamer projects him to hit .271/.309/.371 with a .296 wOBA and 1.5 WAR.
What everyone will really be watching is the development of Dansby Swanson. The Braves' No. 1 prospect could move quickly up the minor league ladder, and it's not out of the question that he gets a cup of coffee with Atlanta in September.
One would think Hector Olivera would get every chance to be successful at third base. The Braves, however, had him spend the winter learning left field, where his value would diminish substantially should it be a permanent move. Scouts have questioned whether or not he's athletic enough to handle the infield. It's still unclear how exactly the Braves plan to use Olivera after giving up quite the haul to get him last summer, and we probably won't know until spring training wraps up.
Olivera and Adonis Garcia figure to get the majority of time at third base. Garcia was a revelation last year, smacking 10 homers in 58 games while hitting .277/.293/.497 with a 113 wRC+. That's quite good, though there have to be concerns about Garcia's ability to produce at that level over a full season. There are questions about his glove, too.
Here's Garcia hitting a grand slam over the weekend. The announcer's call is phenomenal.
Regardless of who's at third, the Braves seem to be willing to go into 2016 with fingers crossed and eyes closed.
There are two intriguing prospect to watch at the hot corner. Rio Ruiz was a top-100 prospect a year ago, and despite his struggles in Double-A last year, he was one of the youngest players in the league and had a big final month of the year. Austin Riley is just 18 years old but he destroyed rookie ball after being drafted last summer. Already being labeled as the Braves' best hitting prospect, it will be fascinating to see him develop.
Part two, where we preview the outfield, will run on Wednesday.