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Starting Nine: Bold predictions for Braves at spring training

The Braves will add a new starting third baseman, Bryse Wilson leaves camp with a rotation spot and Ender Inciarte’s run comes to an end 

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at Atlanta Braves
What lies ahead this spring? We know it will have a different feel as fans will not be allowed at workouts. There has been no announcement about whether spectators will be able to attend Grapefruit League games.
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

As MLB teams hit Arizona and Florida next week — with Braves pitchers and catchers’ first workout set for Feb. 18 — the new normal is going to mean a new version of spring training.

While we’ve all became accustomed to the Zoom calls and the same quotes and storylines regardless of publication within the last year, those first days of camp have always been among the most energy-filled of a season, with everyone happy to be back in a clubhouse and reporters’ notebooks filled as they made their rounds, chatting up everyone from All-Stars to non-roster invitees.

Baseball avoided that part of spring training changing last year, beating the full grip of the pandemic by week. Sure, you’ll hear from Freddie Freeman and the likes consistently, but it’s those low men on the proverbial totem pole who are going to suffer, their stories untold.

It’s a gripe, for sure, but spring is a different kind of vibe, one that allowed me to shoot a video with Charlie Culberson mistaking him for Dansby Swanson, taking Mike Soroka and former top prospect Kolby Allard putt putting. Players, though, are reporting on time with a 162-game season on the menu is a positive message worth pushing. But there’s going to be a shot of vanilla to spring training for the first time and that, frankly, sucks.

So now that we’ve gotten the Debbie Downer portion of things out of the way, let us do something bold, like predictions. With camp a week away, here are nine predictions (some bold, some very bold, and some bordering on hot-take territory) for the Braves this spring.

1. The starting third baseman isn’t on the roster just yet

Let’s come out throwing a haymaker. During an interview with MLB Network Radio last weekend on the heels of resigning Marcell Ozuna, general manager Alex Anthopoulos gave a trademark vague answer about the Braves’ plans going forward of “we’re going to work all the way up until the end and continue to try and get players if we can.”

Ozuna’s back-loaded, four-year, $65 million deal provides flexibility to continue to be aggressive, and while that could be as simple as outfield depth or another reliever — both of which the GM has stated as possibilities — it could provide room for something more substantial, like an upgrade at third base.

While Nolan Arenado is off the table, having been dealt to the Cardinals, we know the Braves had talks with the Rockies about the eight-time Gold Glove winner. If the appetite remains at a spot where Austin Riley has shown flashes but yet to find his rhythm in two below-average seasons — 85 and 88 wRC+ in 2019 and ‘20, respectively — there remains a number of targets.

Kris Bryant’s recent comments make a breakup with the Cubs seem inevitable and it it’s difficult to see them retaining him or the free-agent-to-be’s $19.5 million salary for the duration of the season. Why not hasten things and move him when he has his most value to a contender? If not Bryant, the Reds’ Eugenio Suarez ($10.5 million in ‘21 and five years of control) or the other Ohio third baseman in Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez ($9 million for this season and under contract through ‘23) could be had for the long-term. Meanwhile, Justin Turner remains on the free-agent market, and with the Dodgers ponying up to add Trevor Bauer, joining Anthopoulos, who Turner has a relationship with from their Los Angeles days, would seem a viable move on shorter-term deal.

Like a broken record, we’re discussing these points with the Braves: they have (seemingly since they’re $15 million under payroll from the last 162-game season) financial flexibility and still have plenty of prospect capital with Allard and Joey Wentz the only high-profile prospects they’re traded under Anthopoulos’ watch.

Locking up Ozuna was the move the Braves had to make, but in the NL East arms race, there’s another that could help before Opening Day.

2. A reunion (or two) will happen

If any roster machination is a given, it’s that the Braves will add to the bullpen. The core of Tyler Matzek, Chris Martin and A.J. Minter means the top three arms from last year’s group are back in terms of fWAR and Minter (0.83) and Martin (1.00) had the best ERAs of the group. But there’s exactly one save back, courtesy of Martin, with Mark Melancon and his 11 from last year on the free-agent market, and only Matzek (29 innings) logged more than Shane Greene’s 27 2/3. There’s also zero catches of Ozzie Albies home runs from the bullpen without Melancon on the roster, a key missing element. Per FanGraphs’ crowd source results, Melancon is expected to net $8 million with Greene at $5 million but considering Greg Holland (0.8 fWAR in 2020) received $2.75 million via the Royals after being projected at $5 million Alex Colome — whose fWAR (0.6) was equal to those Braves’ arms combined — got $6.25 million from the White Sox, so here’s forecasting the Braves get both at bargains.

Anthopoulos noted a desire to add outfield depth, and while Adam Duvall, coming off that 116 wRC+, 16-home run 2020, would have made solid returning piece after the Braves opted to non-tendered him, the 32-year-old landed with the Marlins at $4.5 million, just above what he was expected to be due via arbitration ($4 million). Instead, another outfield reunion will be in the cards as Atlanta will bring back clubhouse favorite Nick Markakis, a much-needed additional left-handed bat, and at likely less than the $4 million he signed for before 2020.

3. Bryse Wilson claims the No. 5 spot (for now)

With the lack of the DH in 2021, the Braves should be cautious with Mike Soroka given the additional workload for the pitcher at the plate, and potentially the base paths. That being said, it means there’s an opening in the rotation alongside Max Fried, Charlie Morton, Drew Smyly and Ian Anderson going into camp. That battle figures to center around Bryse Wilson vs. Kyle Wright. While we’ve seen Wright deliver the last two springs, he’s followed that with ERAs of 8.69 (2019) and 5.21 (‘20) and likewise, Wilson hasn’t exactly been lights-out, posting a 7.20 ERA in six appearances in ‘19 with starts and 4.02 in ‘20 behind two starts. But both had their moments in the postseason as Wright held the Marlins scoreless over six three-hit innings and Wilson bewildered the Dodgers in Game 4 of the NLCS to the tune of six one-run innings. Consistency has been Wright’s biggest issue, and Wilson stepping up on the biggest stage this generation of Braves have played on will be his springboard. This won’t be long-term with Soroka returning likely weeks into the season, but Wilson claims the job out of camp.

4. The Braves cut the cord on Ender Inciarte

During the Zoom call after signing Ozuna, Anthopoulos was clear that, given the current climate (i.e., a DH-less NL), that the slugger is the team’s every day left fielder. With Cristian Pache coming for the starting center field job and Ronald Acuña Jr. holding down left, it leaves no road to playing time for former All-Star Ender Inciarte, who is due $8 million one year after he hit 60 percent below league average and was left off the postseason roster. Ideally, the Braves can find a trade partner that can offer the three-time Gold Glove a landing spot and a role, but even that may be difficult as Inciarte’s defense has also been sliding with 1.4 Defensive Runs Above Average in ‘19 and minus-0.8 last season after that figure was at an average of 8.3 in his first three seasons in Atlanta. But be it a trade in which the Braves offset the money with added cash/negative-value contracts or releasing him, it feels like we’ve reached the end of Inciarte’s run and role on this team.

5. William Contreras locks down the backup catcher role

For the first time since 2015, the Braves can get away from the timeshare that has defined them at catcher. Travis d’Arnaud should become their first backstop to log more than 94 starts in that span and the first since Brian McCann to get to 126 starts. From that end, they can afford to go younger with their secondary catcher and that presents a position battle at camp in William Contreras vs. Alex Jackson, with Shea Langeliers also in the mix. This feels like a critical season in Jackson’s career with Contreras the most polished of the two and Langeliers’ trajectory. The logical choice is Contreras as Jackson has profiled as capable defensively with power but lacks plate discipline with as many as 120 strikeouts in his last three minor league seasons, and Contreras at least gave hopes the 23-year-old can hit major league pitching (4 for 10 with a double) in a four-game call up year. It’s time the Braves figure out what they have in their young catchers and Contreras will get his chance.

6. The biggest impact from a non-roster invitee will come from

As of this writing we don’t know which non-roster players will earn invitations to camp, but there are givens — minor-league lifer Sean Kazmar among them for sure — and we can use last year’s invitees to build expectations. Towering — all 6-foot-6, 235 pounds of him — Bryce Ball made a splash last spring when he put on shows in batting practice and homered in 15 Grapefruit League at-bats. He was added to the 60-player pool at the team’s alternate site and while there’s no easy path for the first baseman given Freeman’s inability to take a day off and the current lack of the designated hitter in the NL in 2021, he profiles as the kind impact bat that could provide serious power off the bench if needed. From that end, Ball created buzz last year at camp and now it’s about capitalizing on it this time around.

7. Expect plenty of rust from Braves pitchers at the plate, except for ...

Way back in 2019, you know when pitchers were logging consistent at bats, there was one given during Braves batting practice: Fried was going to rake. Former Atlanta infielder and current Orioles third baseman Rio Ruiz told me that when he and Fried played together on travel teams growing up in the Los Angeles area, that Fried was the best hitter on the team. As the Harvard-Westlake product’s Perfect Game scouting report said, “sound hitting mechanics, good looking swing, squares the ball up well, has hitting tools with more strength.” Fried has backed it up with some BP long balls and hit four doubles in 2019 while hitting nearly .200 (.196 to be exact) in ‘19. Have no concerns about the Braves’ No. 1 arm going into the season having taken a year off from having to hit.

8. Title of Best Shape of His Life will belong to ...

The easy pick here is Acuña given the Instagram stories of his rigorous workouts, but instead we’ll go with Pache, who between the 2018 and 2020 seasons put on 30 pounds of muscle to get to 215 pounds and has been posting videos of his own regimen. Defense has always been his No. 1 attribute, but the power has developed, with Pache going from zero home runs through his first three professional seasons to eight in 2018 and 11 in ‘19 and delivering the first of his MLB career in Game 3 of the NL Championship Series against the Dodgers. He’s expected to claim the starting center field job and given his posted workouts, the 22-year-old is on a mission this winter to make sure that happens.

9. Chipper Jones will steal the show

We ended with some heat and we end with something nice, fat and squarely over the plate. The newly hired hitting instructor typically holds court when he makes his spring training stop and now that he’s in camp in a more official capacity as a member of the coaching staff, Chipper Jones is guaranteed to provide the defining sound bites of camp. Previously, his spring pressers were more of the generalized “what it’s like seeing all the guys again” and team preview-type questions, but in his new role, he figures to get more detailed questions about the Braves’ hitters, what he thinks needs tweaking, etc. Any time you get Professor Jones breaking down hitting it’s can’t-miss. No offense to manager Brian Snitker who will hold his daily availability, but when Chipper speaks it will dominate the day.

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