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Feast or Famine? Where these Braves are headed in 2020

Why Dansby Swanson could put it all together next season and 2019 setbacks hang over two veterans

MLB: NLDS-Atlanta Braves at St. Louis Cardinals
From late-2017 on we’ve seen 600-plus at-bats of peak Dansby Swanson, with the shortstop slashing .274/.344/.445 with a .385 wOBA.
Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

Not all Thanksgiving meals are created equal. You could be hitting the Golden Corral buffet, with turkey and sides for days (and the chocolate fondue fountain!), or you could be Charlie Brown, forced to serve bread and popcorn after Peppermint Patty invites herself over (worst guest ever).

The point is, sometimes you’re left feeling empty with what’s on the table, and that dichotomy plays itself out as we we look at the Braves players who are poised to feast and those who are headed for proverbial famine in 2020.


Dansby Swanson, SS

First-half Swanson looked like he was poised for a breakout season, boasting 131 wRC+ in June to fuel a 108 mark at the break to go with 17 home runs and he had a legitimate chance to get into the All-Star Game as a reserve instead of the Cardinals’ Paul deJong. The second half, though, derailed by the heel injury that kept Swanson out for 30 games, saw him hit 44 percent below league average. He didn’t hit a single homer after July 4 and had a 29.6 percent strikeout rate that was 10 percent higher than his first-half K-rate. Through parts of three seasons -- from his Aug. 9 return after the demotion in 2017 through 2018 prior to the April wrist injury and before the heel issue last year -- we’ve seen peak Swanson through 600-plus at-bats, with the shortstop slashing .274/.344/.445 with a scorching .385 wOBA. Add in his being one of the bright spots in the lineup in the postseason as he hit .389/.421/.556 and it’s all reason to believe that, if Swanson can avoid another lingering ailment, he can finally take the leap in 2020.

Travis d’Arnaud, C

No word yet as to whether he’ll come with a guitar in tow like his brother and former Braves utilityman Chase, but since Brian McCann left Atlanta the first time after the 2013 season, the Braves have had two catchers produce a stat line like d’Arnaud had (at least 16 home runs and 16 doubles) after joining the Rays in May: Evan Gattis in 2014 and Kurt Suzuki in ‘17. So from that end, d’Arnaud should provide an offensive upgrade with a two-year, $16 million contract that puts him alongside incumbent Tyler Flowers. More on what this could mean for Flowers follows, but with 107 OPS+ in Tampa, d’Arnaud is coming off his most productive season since 2015 when he had a 126 OPS+ with the Mets. Take 2019’s home run numbers with a grain of salt as a record 273 players hit 10 or more long balls, but d’Arnaud’s 16 were a career high and he hit six of them at Tropicana Field, which produced the sixth-fewest homers last season. Add in the familiarity with the National League East -- d’Arnaud has a career 1.035 OPS at Marlins Park and a .791 OPS at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park -- and he has the chance to build off 2019’s offensive surge.

Sean Newcomb, LHP

In four starts in ‘19, Newcomb allowed on OPS just under .800, but as a reliever after a stint in Triple-A, the left-hander -- who said he was “ticked off” by the demotion -- became a weapon out of the bullpen with a .661 OPS and he stranded 83.6 percent of runners (sixth-best in the NL). Newcomb’s curveball was finally a weapon again, producing 3.7 wCB runs above average (up from minus-0.7 in ‘18), his overall swing rate was up (45.5 percent) and the walks per nine dropped slightly to a more digestible 3.82. Anthopoulos told MLB Network Radio that in 2020, Newcomb will get a chance to return to the rotation, where he has shown glimpses of elite status (the no-hit bid against the Dodgers in 2018 being the high point). Clearly motivated last season, he has should have no reason being so again this spring as he tries to regain his spot in the pecking order with the likes of Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson and the other contenders looking to break camp with a rotation spot.


Nick Markakis, OF

Returning to Atlanta for his age-37 season, Markakis dipped after his All-Star campaign of 2018, hitting 13 percent lower (102 wRC+), which included an 86 wRC+ in the second half as he missed 44 games with a fractured wrist. When the Braves announced Markakis was coming back on a one-year, $4 million deal, Anthopoulos said they discussed the idea of a platoon situation to pair the lefty with the right-handed Adam Duvall. If that’s the approach, it could allow Markakis to build on an average exit velocity (91.2 mph) that was his best in the era of Statcast ... but when available, Markakis missed all of two games in 2019 and, of course, played all 162 in ‘18. If rest isn’t used the way it was being billed before last year, here’s the reality: In the last 10 years, seven outfielders qualified for the batting title at 37 years old and only one (Ben Zobrist in ‘18) had an OBP that was at or above league average.

Tyler Flowers, C

Two years removed from being a fringe All-Star pick, Flowers had his worst season in a Braves uniform in ‘19 with 88 wRC+, a .310 wOBA, a 33.9 percent strikeout rate and only four catchers with at least 600 innings threw out fewer runners than Flowers’ nine. He earned all of one at-bat in the postseason with Brian McCann getting every start, and if d’Arnaud’s output with the Rays is any indication, the at-bats will be hard to come by for Flowers in 2020. To his credit, Flowers remains an elite pitch framer -- ranking ninth last season with 10.3 FRAA, and is arguably a better defensive option than d’Arnaud -- which along with his track record with the pitching staff was all the more reason to bring him back for a season at $4 million. But the erratic offense may turn this into more of a situation with a primary catcher than it was through the Flowers/Suzuki and Flowers/McCann pairings.

Shane Greene, RHP

With Chris Martin and Darren O’Day returning, there is always the potential that Greene -- due a projected $6.5 million in arbitration -- is non-tendered, though Anthopoulos has refuted that speculation. It’s undeniable that the start to Greene’s Braves run after the trade from the Tigers was rough and validation that thought his peripherals in Detroit didn’t speak to his All-Star resume, as Greene had a 14.54 ERA and .565 BAA in his first six games. He found his footing through 13 scoreless innings from Aug. 14-Sept. 6, then chased that with a 4.91 ERA in his last eight appearances. Greene had a miniscule 9.3 percent line drive rate with the Tigers last season (best in the American League and second in MLB), then in September had the fifth-worst rate in the game at 35.3 percent, underscored by an 89 mph average exit velocity that was the highest of any Braves reliever in more than 134 plate appearances.

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