Atlanta Braves pitchers and catchers have reported to North Port and will hold their first workout on Thursday. The Braves acted early this offseason in hopes of solidifying their rotation with the additions of veterans Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. After a long stretch of inactivity, Atlanta finally made the most obvious move in February, locking up Marcell Ozuna on a multi-year deal.
While much of the heavy lifting has been completed, there is still work to do in rounding out the roster as Spring Training begins. In addition, not every looming question regarding the players in camp has been resolved. We will explore some of the storylines that will be in play as camp opens.
Freddie Freeman, Brian Snitker contract status
It hasn’t felt like there has been much urgency from the Braves or from Freddie Freeman’s camp in getting a contract extension worked out. The general assumption has been that both sides will sit down at the appropriate time and hammer out the details. With Ozuna signed, and Spring Training about to open, it feels like now is the time. There is no incentive for Atlanta to allow Freeman to reach free agency and he has had a stated desire to spend his entire career in a Braves uniform. Paul Goldschmidt’s five-year, $130 million deal with the Cardinals is the framework that most point to in regards to what an extension for Freeman might look like. I’m not expecting any drama to emerge from those extension discussions, but don’t be surprised if this is the biggest story surrounding the Braves when camp opens.
Another contract situation that will likely be worked out during the early part of the spring is that of manager Brian Snitker. The Braves picked up the third-year option on the deal that he signed at the end of the 2018 season at the start of camp last year. The team has historically handled these things at the start of camp and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Snitker get another short, multi-year deal.
When will Mike Soroka be ready to rejoin the rotation?
If Freddie Freeman’s contract status is the biggest storyline for the Braves then Mike Soroka’s status is a close second. Soroka made just three starts for Atlanta in 2020 before tearing his Achilles tendon. Reports on his rehab have been positive and he has advanced to throwing bullpen sessions at Truist Park. Still, don’t expect Atlanta to rush him back, especially if the DH doesn’t return in the National League. The Braves won’t need a fifth starter until a couple of weeks into the regular season, which would allow them to have Soroka begin the season on the injured list.
Will Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly solidify the rotation?
The Braves claimed their third straight division title in 2020 despite a rotation that ranked near the bottom of the league in fWAR (24th), innings pitched (28th), ERA (28th), FIP (23rd), and xFIP (26th). They were able to overcome it in large part due to the shortened season and a deep bullpen. With the league planning to return to a normal 162 games in 2021, adding depth was at or near the top of the to do list for the offseason.
Alex Anthopoulos didn’t waste any time adding veterans Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton to the mix with a pair of one-year deals in November. Smyly appeared in just seven games for the Giants in 2020 but saw an uptick in velocity and struck out 37.8 percent of the batters he faced while posting a 2.01 FIP in 26 1/3 innings.
Morton returns to where all began for him in Atlanta. A shoulder injury limited him to just nine starts with the Rays in 2020. He struggled a bit early and his ERA jumped to 4.74, but he improved as the season wore on and he posted a respectable 3.45 FIP. The Braves will be banking that he will benefit from a more normal spring and will be hoping that he can provide some veteran leadership for their young pitchers.
Also in the mix for starts should an injury occur are Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson. Wright struggled through most of the year but had a couple of encouraging outings late in the season. He then helped the Braves sweep the Marlins with six shutout frames in his first career postseason outing. But, the Dodgers obliterated him in Game 3 of the NLCS. Wilson spent most of his 2020 bouncing back between Atlanta and the alternate site, but had one good start in September and then dominated the Dodgers for six innings in NLCS Game 4, allowing just a walk and a solo homer as the Braves got revenge for Wright’s shellacking the previous night. Neither righty is a sure thing to provide good production in 2021, but both had good things to take away from 2020 and could finally take a real step forward this season.
Will the bullpen be a strength despite losing Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Darren O’Day?
Atlanta’s bullpen was a huge part of their 2020 success, but they have seen several departures during the offseason. The Braves declined to pick up the 2021 option on Darren O’Day’s contract and he eventually signed with the Yankees. Mark Melancon served as the team’s closer since arriving at the trade deadline in 2019, but he too found a new team this offseason signing with the Padres. Shane Greene is still a free agent, but a reunion in Atlanta seems unlikely at this juncture.
Despite those departures, the Braves do have options. Will Smith was the team’s big addition last offseason and he will be looking to return to form after an up and mostly down 2020 that led to him getting started late due to COVID and never really settling in. A.J. Minter returned to form in 2020 and Chris Martin has been one of the team’s more reliable relief options. Tyler Matzek was the biggest surprise of the 2020 season and could serve as a late inning, high leverage option or in a multi-inning role.
The Braves don’t appear to be concerned about their bullpen, but we will see how things shake out over the next month. In addition to the names above, they also brought back Josh Tomlin as a long relief option, and have brought in players like Victor Arano, Carl Edwards Jr., and Nate Jones to compete for bullpen spots during Spring Training.
Who will back up Travis d’Arnaud?
Travis d’Arnaud was one of the best value signings of last offseason and he turned in a career-best offensive year for the Braves in 2020 with a 144 wRC+. He will see the bulk of playing time behind the plate, but who will serve as his backup remains to be seen. Tyler Flowers appeared in 22 games for Atlanta last season, but is a free agent. Alex Jackson could be an option and has become one of the better pitch framing catchers in the minors, but has yet to show much offensively at the big league level. William Contreras was impressive in a very limited showing, but did find his way onto the playoff roster for the Wild Card round. The Braves may be best served to have Contreras spend most of the season in Triple-A, but a good spring could see him force his way into the conversation. My thinking is that we will see Flowers return or another veteran catcher will be added to the mix, but this is one of the areas to monitor when camp opens.
Will Cristian Pache be in center field on Opening Day?
Cristian Pache appeared in two regular season games and had four plate appearances during the 2020 regular season. However, an injury to Adam Duvall during the NLCS thrust Pache into the lineup and he didn’t look overmatched, notching his first big league homer in a loss in Game 3. Pache should give the Braves superior defense in center and has shown improvement at the plate. The question is whether or not the Braves will be comfortable going with him at the start of the season or would they rather allow him to get a little more time at Triple-A, for both service time and development reasons.
Another part of this story is the return of Ender Inciarte, who struggled throughout 2020 and was left off the various postseason rosters altogether, not even being added when Duvall was hurt. The thinking was that the Braves would look to move Inciarte, who is slated to make $8.7 million in 2021, this winter but finding a taker was never guaranteed.
Given their current lack of depth in the outfield, they may be hard pressed to not include Pache on the Opening Day roster, but it will be interesting to see how this develops as camp progresses.
What about the bench?
It seems every year that the Braves enter the spring looking for bench upgrades and this year will not be different. Johan Camargo struggled again in 2020 and is back on a non-guaranteed contract. His versatility is valuable, but the Braves need him to produce at the plate. Atlanta claimed infielder Jack Mayfield and outfielder Travis Demeritte off waivers this offseason and will have veterans Pablo Sandoval, Jason Kipnis and Ehire Adrianza in camp as well. Still, they will likely be watching the waiver wire as camp rosters are trimmed in search of an upgrade. In the past, Alex Anthopoulos has added Anibal Sanchez and Matt Joyce during Spring Training, and each paid massive dividends during the season.
Who will the Braves turn to if Austin Riley struggles?
Austin Riley took over as the Braves’ everyday third baseman in 2020 but his season was largely a mixed bag. On a positive note, he cut his strikeout rate to 24 percent, but his ISO dropped from .245 to .176. The result was a below average 88 wRC+ which was only slightly better than 2019.
It goes without saying that this will be a big season for Riley as he looks to establish himself as the team’s third baseman of the future. If he struggles, then Atlanta may be forced to enter the trade market as there are not a lot of internal options short of Camargo returning to his 2018 form.