The Atlanta Braves are set on the infield as they will return all four starters from 2020 to the lineup. There are still some question marks in regards to infield depth, but barring injury, the same group will be penciled into the lineup on Opening Day as last season.
That almost wasn’t the case in 2020, as Freddie Freeman tested positive for COVID-19 as camp reopened. His status was in question right up to the end of camp. Freeman may have been weakened physically at first but he recovered enough to be in the lineup on Opening Day. He started a little slow, if you can call a 136 wRC+ through eight games in July slow. He was lights out from there and posted a video game-esque 212 wRC+ over the final 32 games of the regular season and captured his first career MVP award.
The biggest question regarding Freeman entering camp centers on his contract status. He is entering the final year of his deal and there is confidence that he and the Braves will reach an agreement on an extension. It hasn’t happened yet, but it still feels like more of a matter of when than if. Atlanta has zero incentive to allow Freeman to reach free agency and he has already stated his desire to spend his entire career in Atlanta.
The Braves featured one of the best offenses in MLB in 2020 and won the NL East despite Ozzie Albies appearing in just 29 games due to a wrist injury. Albies was hitting .159/.196/.273 when he went on the injured list after just 11 games. He slashed .338./.372/.581 with five homers and three doubles after returning. His postseason line added another 52 PAs at a 104 wRC+, nearly identical to his sum total 103 wRC+ in 124 PAs for the regular season.
When looking at the Braves’ many offensive weapons, Albies sometimes seems to get lost in the shuffle. A full and healthy season should return his name to discussions as one of the best second basemen in the league. Both the ZiPS and Steamer projection systems see Albies as a top 30 position player headed into 2021 despite his uneven and shortened 2020; ZiPS sees his central estimate as producing marginally more WAR (4.1 to 4.0) than Freeman.
Dansby Swanson lost his arbitration case against the Braves but will still see a hefty raise in 2021. The raise is well-deserved after Swanson quieted some of the questions about him with a breakout season in 2020. Swanson appeared in all 60 regular season games while hitting .274/.345/.464 with 10 homers and a career-best 116 wRC+. His season wasn’t without concerns though however. His walk rate dipped while his strikeout percentage jumped to 26.9 percent. He also posted a .350 BABIP which was the highest mark since his debut in 2016. Some regression was likely over a full season, but Swanson still made enough hard contact to be encouraging. He will get the opportunity in 2021 to show that he has finally put it all together, and avoid the injuries that severely hampered his production in both 2018 and 2019. Critically, 2020 wasn’t some kind of small-sampled fueled breakout; Swanson actually posted a much higher xwOBA (.357 to .337) in 2019 — it’s just that he severely underhit his xwOBA in 2019 and outhit it a bit in 2020.
Rounding out the infield picture is third baseman Austin Riley, who is coming off an interesting season in 2020. Riley posted an 88 wRC+ last season which wasn’t much different than the 85 wRC+ that he posted during his rookie campaign in 2019. How we got there was pretty different though. Riley increased his walk rate to 7.8 percent and was able to cut his strikeout rate from 36.4 percent in 2019 to 23.8 percent last season. He swung less in 2020, made more contact, but sacrificed some power in the process, especially because he ended up with a normal grounder rate after rarely hitting the ball on the ground in 2019. Overall, Riley showed a better approach and his final numbers are skewed a bit due to getting off to a slow start, as well as a pretty sizable xwOBA underperformance.
This will be a big season for Riley as he will be looking to show that he can be the team’s long term answer at third base. While he made strides in many respects at the plate, high velocity from opposing pitchers continues to be a struggle. All in all, if Riley can’t give the Braves decent production, they may be forced to look for an upgrade at some point during the season.
While the infield starters appear to be set, the picture behind them is less clear. Johan Camargo struggled for the second straight season and is back this time on a non-guaranteed deal. He will have to earn his way onto the Opening Day roster. His defensive versatility is still valuable but he has hit just .222/.267/.378 over his last 133 games combined in 2019 and 2020. Camargo outhit his xwOBA a bunch in his breakout 2018, but his ability to hit lefties was real and valuable; however in 2019 he didn’t exhibit more than average xwOBA against southpaws, and he was terrible against them in a much smaller sample in 2020. Given that the Braves don’t seem too excited about playing him at shortstop in a pinch, Camargo will need to showcase he still does something well to grab a roster spot.
Without other legitimate backup shortstop options (Adeiny Hechavarria had a terrible 2020 and has agreed to play in Japan for the upcoming season), the Braves claimed Jack Mayfield on waivers and signed Ehire Adrianza to a minor league deal. Both Mayfield and Adrianza should be able to handle shortstop defensively, but are offensive question marks at best and would have a hard time making a roster with a better backup shortstop candidate.
Around the diamond, Atlanta also agreed to a deal with Jake Lamb, who has struggled and battled injury over the last two seasons. Lamb has some power and gives Atlanta another corner infield option, and could be a medium-term starter if Riley can’t hack it or gets hurt. The Braves are also bringing veterans Jason Kipnis and Pablo Sandoval to camp as non-roster invitees. Expect them to monitor the waiver wire throughout the spring in search of upgrades. It is entirely unclear how the bench will shake out; don’t be surprised if the Opening Day roster looks a little different in terms of depth than the names mentioned here.