The Atlanta Braves enter 2017 with reasons to be hopeful about the future of the franchise. A rebuilding process has taken place over the past two years, replenishing the minor league system and infusing the pipeline with scores of talented players. However, that took a toll on the big league club. After suffering through a pair of 95-plus loss seasons, the Braves seemed to turn the corner collectively in the second half of 2016. As they move into SunTrust Park and begin writing a new chapter in the franchise’s rich history, Atlanta is hoping that strong finish was a sign of things to come. This five-part preview series will focus on a different aspect of the club over the five weeks leading up to spring training. Braves pitchers and catchers report to Disney on February 14 and the first full squad work-out is February 18.
- Part 1: Infield
- Part 2: Outfield
- Part 3: Catchers (1/27)
- Part 4: Rotation (2/3)
- Part 5: Bullpen (2/10)
- Top 30 Prospects
Matt Kemp |LF | Age: 32 | Contract Status: 3-years, $54 million
The acquisition of Matt Kemp was many things. For starters, it was unexpected. The former All-Star center fielder of the Dodgers did not enjoy the same success following a trade to San Diego two years ago, and perhaps that led to a rejuvenated Kemp joining Atlanta. He took to The Players’ Tribune to pen an open letter to Braves fans in which he pledged to turn over a new leaf and make the most of his opportunity to play for the team he grew up watching. The early returns were encouraging. Kemp batted .280/.336/.519 with 12 homers and 39 RBI as Atlanta went 31-25 in his 56 games played. He seemed to fit right in with his new teammates and was an important piece of a larger turnaround for the offense, which ranked fifth in MLB with 4.8 runs per game in the second half after ranking dead last in baseball with 3.4 RPG before the break. Kemp provided a stabilizing force in the clean-up spot and much-needed protection for Freddie Freeman. That middle of the order duo appeared to bond rather quickly, which was another encouraging sign. The deal with San Diego also allowed Atlanta to divest itself of Hector Olivera, the Cuban star who was arrested in April and handed the longest suspension to date under the league’s domestic violence policy. It was a change of scenery trade for Kemp, who settled into his new home, but the Padres immediately designated Olivera for assignment once his 82 game suspension was served. In essence, Atlanta was able to redirect the funds earmarked for Olivera and turn that money into an actual left fielder. It helped that the Padres just so happened to be looking for any taker for Kemp at the time.
What can be expected of Kemp as he enters the first of three full seasons in a Braves uniform? That’s an excellent question. One thing that came up almost immediately upon his arrival was the state of his physical conditioning. It was clear he was playing at his heaviest in 2016, something GM John Coppolella said would need to be addressed over the course of the winter. Billed at 210 lbs, Kemp was easily 25-plus pounds above that weight. That aside, it’s clear that Kemp’s bat still provides some value, though he is no sabermetric darling. Defensively speaking, he has been at or near the bottom when it comes to the advanced stats. Kemp’s days as a center fielder are behind him, but improving in left field would go a long way toward stabilizing his overall value to the team. At the end of the day, he was acquired to improve the offense. That is something Kemp should be able to do annually. After coming to Atlanta, Kemp’s walk-rate improved and he posted a 126 OPS+, his best since departing L.A. Kemp’s conditioning will draw immediate attention this spring. If he comes to camp in better shape, as he pledged in the open letter, then he could be primed for a successful run with the Braves.
Ender Inciarte | CF | Age: 26 | Contract Status: 5-years, $30.5 million
The Braves got a firsthand look at Ender Inciarte in 2016 and it’s safe to say they like what they saw. Inciarte won his first career gold glove while serving as a catalyst atop the order in Atlanta’s resurgent second half. Slowed by a hamstring injury over the first few weeks of the season, Inciarte scuffled at the plate and shuffled between center and left field as well. Following the dismissal of manager Fredi Gonzalez in late-May, new skipper Brian Snitker installed Inciarte in center field. That move resulted in countless amazing plays and all-around excellence. There’s no doubt the injury and the time it cost Inciarte contributed to his slow start at the plate, but the way he finished the season was encouraging to say the least.
- First Half: .227/.294/.306 with 13 XBH, 11 RBI, 26 R and 8 SB
- Second Half: .341/.396/.440 with 21 XBH, 18 RBI, 59 R and 9 SB
Now let’s talk about defense. Inciarte was a human highlight reel during his first season with Atlanta. With seemingly no ball hit out of his reach and a strong and accurate arm, Inciarte is fast building a reputation as a run-deterrent with opposing base runners. He led National League center fielders with 12 assists, among his 14 overall (two more as a left fielder). Those 14 assists ranked second only to Pittsburgh left fielder Starling Marte among the NL outfielders. According to FanGraphs, he ranked among the top three among all NL outfielders with 15 defensive runs saved (3rd), a 13.4 ultimate zone rating (2nd), a 16.0 UZR/150 (3rd) and led the league with an 8.6 ARM (outfield arm runs, which is the amount of runs above average an outfielder saves with their arm by preventing runners from advancing). While advanced metrics certainly smile on Inciarte, he also had a flair for the dramatic which helped him pass the eye test with flying colors. Inciarte’s incredible leaping catch in New York to deny Yoenis Cespedes of a game-winning home run on September 21 was one of the highlights of the 2016 season.
“I thought that ball was gone off the bat,” Inciarte told reporters afterwards, “but it was the last play of the game, so I was going to try for it. This is probably the best catch I’ve ever made. I was really pumped up. I caught the ball and I knew I had it, but the fans were waiting until I took it out of the glove.”
While that grab against the Mets may well be the crown jewel of Inciarte’s highlight reel last season, his heads-up decoy play on May 10 against the Phillies was another fine example of next-level instincts. Inciarte’s acting was so good that it not only fooled Carlos Ruiz on the basepaths, but also his fellow outfielders Jeff Francoeur and Nick Markakis. Inciarte circled under a shallow pop-fly in right center, motioned as though he’d lost it in the lights, then recovered immediately to catch the ball and double the veteran Ruiz off first base with a great throw. It’s something you don’t see everyday. Check it out.
Inciarte has fast established himself as one of the best outfielders in baseball over three years in the big leagues. He spent the first two patrolling all three spots for the Arizona Diamondbacks and bounced between center and left last year before ultimately settling in as Atlanta’s center fielder in late May. A hard-worker who takes pride in his defense and base-running ability, Inciarte is just the kind of player the Braves want when it comes to building a contender. That’s a move that could pay off for years to come. After signing a five-year extension with a sixth year option, Inciarte is officially a big part of this team’s future.
Nick Markakis | RF | Age: 33 | Contract Status: 2-years, $22 million
It has been an interesting couple of years for Nick Markakis, who seemed to be somewhat back to normal in 2016. Soon after signing with Atlanta two offseasons ago, neck surgery cost Markakis much of that winter and sent him into the regular season with little-to-no time to prepare himself. Thrown into the mix with about a week’s worth of at-bats in the spring, he ended up posting a fairly productive season in 2015. The notable exception was the home run column. After hitting just three homers in his first year with the Braves, Markakis hit .269/.346/.397 with a much more acceptable 13 long balls in 2016. He also collected 89 RBI, his most since 2009, and was another man who benefited from the acquisition of Kemp. That move allowed Markakis to slide into the No. 5 spot in the order, where he batted .278/.349/.415 with 43 RBI in 73 games on the year. That gives him a regular spot in the order after bouncing around in each of the top five slots. Markakis posted a .397 SLG last season, his highest mark since 2012 thanks to his 51 extra-base hits which were his most since 2010. There was one notable deficiency in Markakis’ offensive contributions last season, however, as he became more susceptible to left-handed pitchers than at any point in his 11-year career. A dozen of his 13 home runs came off rights, against whom he posted an .800 OPS in 418 at-bats. That’s a start contrast from just one homer and a .613 OPS in 181 AB against lefties. If that trend continues or the struggles become more pronounced, he could be given the occasional day off against tougher southpaws.
Some have wondered why the Braves handed Markakis a four-year, $44 million deal soon after trading away Jason Heyward. Atlanta continued to dismantle its team over the past two years. Given the direction that was taken, it does seem a curious move at face value. However, the Braves have maintained from Day 1 that Markakis not only fills the role of right fielder, but also contributes to the overall team dynamic. A quiet leader who has the respect of the clubhouse, Markakis comes to the park ready to go to battle every day. He is a solid right fielder with an average arm, who makes the routine plays. Flashy really isn’t his modus operandi. While the term “grinder” elicits eye-rolls in certain circles, Markakis takes pride in being in the lineup every day. The bottom line for any player evaluation is and should always be production first, and he was able to make a solid contribution to the club’s improvement during the second half last season. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to expect that to continue in 2017.
Dustin Peterson | LF | Age: 22 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
Perhaps no hitter in Atlanta’s minor league system did more to improve his stock than Mississippi outfielder Dustin Peterson. Awarded Organizational Player of the Year in 2016, Peterson took a big step forward in his development last season. In fact, he seemed to put it all together. The Braves acquired Peterson as part of the Justin Upton trade with San Diego in December of 2014. Originally a third baseman, Atlanta immediately moved Peterson to left field, a position he has found much more agreeable. After showing modest success despite being injured in the team bus crash with Carolina in 2015, Peterson really excelled in the Southern League last season. Batting .282/.343/.431 with 12 home runs and 38 doubles in 132 games, he led all Atlanta farmhands with 88 RBI and was second in both extra-base hits (52) and total bases (226) while setting career-highs across the board offensively.
One thing that may not be immediately evident when looking at Peterson’s career is that he has been one of the younger players in his league each season. He tallied just 18 plate appearances against pitchers younger than him in 2016, while playing his age 21 season at Double-A. Enjoying a little continuity as he settles into his regular defensive position, Peterson has been able to focus on making strides at the plate. He does not profile as a classic power hitter, but Peterson is quick to the ball and can barrel pitches with regularity. That should provide regular extra-base hit ability as he climbs the ranks. Still prone to the occasional swing and miss (100 strikeouts last season), Peterson has improved his pitch recognition annually. While his good play last season may have culminated in a September call-up some years, Atlanta’s outfield became rather crowded with the addition of Matt Kemp and remains locked down heading into 2017. Peterson will get a chance to test his wares against Triple-A pitching in 2017. (Read more about the Braves Top 30 Prospects for 2017)
Other options: With Sean Rodriguez on board, the Braves have added a player who can literally fit anywhere. He has played 163 games in the outfield, mostly in left. That could mean he’ll shift around in the late innings as a defensive replacement, but he’s also a top shelf option should injury sideline one of the starting outfielders… Jace Peterson spent some time last year getting acquainted with the outfield as well. He was one of the revolving door of left fielders, getting 11 starts out there before Kemp arrived in August. It’s highly likely that Peterson will take to the outfield some in the spring as the Braves attempt to explore his versatility more in 2017… As I mentioned in the infield preview, Chase d’Arnaud was in the right place and the right time last year. His ability to play some center field might come in handy, though he’ll have to provide a little bit more consistent production (.299/.364/.393 over his first 35 games and .190/.271/.276 in final 49 games) to warrant a spot on the roster… Emilio Bonifacio has had a couple of stints in Atlanta, returning last season to see limited time with the big club. A career .258 hitter with 166 steals in 793 games for 8 teams over the 10 seasons, the 31-year-old will likely begin 2017 in Gwinnett, where he batted .298 with 37 steals in 107 games last year … Micah Johnson was acquired from the Dodgers in mid-January to add another speedy, versatile option in the upper minors. Johnson, 26, was the White Sox opening day second baseman in 2015, but failed to produce and was dealt to Los Angeles in the Todd Frazier trade last winter. He’s batted .226 in just 43 big league games, but is a .292 hitter with 179 steals in 505 minor league games. The Dodgers started moving him around the diamond last year, with starts at 2B, 3B, CF and LF. Johnson is young enough that he could work his way into Atlanta’s plans if he remains productive.
Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game in Atlanta. This article first appeared on 929thegame.com. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.