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Starting Nine: Vegas loves Snitker; is bullpen missing something?

Plus, Freddie Freeman’s career to-do list, Jake Lamb eyeing resurgence and Cristian Pache’s fitting tribute

Atlanta Braves v Boston Red Sox
Only three National League managers, and six total, have been at their posts longer than Brian Snitker.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Per a 2016 study, the average tenure for an MLB manager was 3.7 seasons, a figure that is certain to be shorter now considering a combined 20 were canned in the years since, including the Phillies axing Gabe Kapler after two seasons and the Ron Roenicke lasting just one with the Red Sox.

From that end, Brian Snitker has defied expectations. Only three other National League managers have been at their posts longer in the Brewers’ Craig Counsell (seventh season), Marlins’ Don Mattingly and Dodgers’ Dave Roberts (sixth season for each) and six in total when you bring in the American League’s Bob Melvin (11th year), Terry Francona (ninth) and Rays’ Kevin Cash (seventh).

He’s defied them even more so when you consider he went from an interim tag that — at the time after Fredi Gonzalez’s firing — seemed a handout for decades of service to three straight division titles and a new contract extension that could keep him on the Braves bench through the 2024 season.

With that new deal in place, only the Marlins’ Don Mattingly (50/1) and Padres’ Jayce Tingler (50/1) enter the 2021 campaign with longer odds than Snitker of being the first manager fired per (not that anyone is seeking to plot Snitker’s exit, just passing along the info here, folks). Also, per that sports book, Snitker goes into the season with the best odds at National League Manager of the Year, and in that underscores the place he’s carved out in MLB and the organization.

Having already won the Baseball Writers Association of America award in 2018. First handed out in 1983, Bobby Cox is of course the only Braves skipper to have won it multiple times — in 1991, 2004 and ‘05 — and Snitker has claimed a pair of the Sporting News version of the trophy (2018 and ‘19). Cox has seven of those — which dates back to 1936 — and Bill McKechnie (1937) is the franchise’s only other recipient.

It’s a long shot to believe that Snitker, who has 353 wins — ninth best in Braves history and 20 away from Hall of Famer Casey Stengel for eighth — ends up catching Cox and his 2,149 victories over 25 years or another HOFer in Frank Selee, who claimed 1,004 games in 12 seasons in the team’s Boston era. But averaging 86.3 wins in his three full seasons, Snitker is on pace to be only looking up at those HOFers by the end of this current contract.

We’re in the era of Freddie Freeman, and Ronald Acuña too. But don’t leave out Snitker. It’s a stability that, since the Braves promoted him, 24 franchises have been longing for.

With the Braves living out a Groundhog Day version of spring training with their cycle of seeing the Orioles, Pirates, Rays, Red Sox and Twins, this week’s Starting Nine goes around the horn with thoughts at each position.

1. Pitcher: Is this bullpen missing an ingredient? Not if ...

Last season, Braves starters had the third highest ERA in the game (5.51) and their relievers the fourth best (3.50). But the confidence around each of those groups is flipped going into 2021 given Mike Soroka’s impending return to the rotation, Ian Anderson’s emergence and the additions of Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. Meanwhile, the bullpen has its top four back in fWAR and ERA but is banking on Will Smith returning to All-Star form and withstanding the losses of veterans Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Darren O’Day. “Losing those three guys, those are three great arms,” said holdover Chris Martin, who had a 1.00 ERA and 2.36 FIP in 18 innings last season. “But obviously we’ve got really good young arms to back ‘em up. I’m not worried about it.” Still, it feels like its missing some bite — and there’s still a chance that Greene, who remains a free agent find his way back — and veterans Carl Edwards Jr. and Victor Arano haven’t done much this spring to make anyone think they’re going to be answers and Luke Jackson and Grant Dayton haven’t exactly impressed in early Grapefruit League appearances. Jacob Webb figures to be a key and the ‘pen may be Bryse Wilson and Huascar Ynoa’s best bet to contribute. But a major factor in this group’s success figures to be one left-hander showing he can be consistently dominant and another showing 2020 wasn’t a fluke. A.J. Minter went from a 7.06 ERA to 0.83 and stranded 92.9 percent of runners — second best in the National League — as his cutter/slider was a top five pitch among all relievers (5.5 wSL). Then there was the confidence-building start against the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series, all setting the stage for Minter to truly establish himself in the Braves bullpen. Meanwhile, former first-round pick Tyler Matzek broke out to the tune of 13.34 K/9, 2.79 ERA and 1.92 FIP over 29 innings. All positives, but Minter is going to find himself in more high-leverage situations (where he allowed a .920 OPS in 2019) and more will be expected to Matzek, who Steamer and ZiPS are projecting to go from a 1.92 FIP to 3.60 by the former and 4.39 via the latter. The Braves have plenty of depth, but consistent presences behind Smith and Chris Martin are likely going to determine this relief corps success in 2021 and it’s hard to find bigger factors to that than Minter and Matzek.

2. Catcher: The most anti-climactic battle of the spring

William Contreras can hit major-league pitching; Alex Jackson has shown so far that he can’t. In the battle to serve as Travis d’Arnaud’s backup at catcher, the Braves seem to be headed toward the expected resolution of Contreras — who they have long-term aspirations for — continuing his development at Triple-A Gwinnett, while Jackson makes the roster behind d’Arnaud, who figures to get approximately 80 percent of the starts. This spring, Contreras is 2-for-6 with three RBI, while Jackson is still searching for his first hit after six trips to the plate, but with so little playing time coming with that roster spot, there’s little sense in putting Contreras in that position given his upside. It would be a bigger confidence-builder on the bench’s status is Jackson was trending in the right direction offensively, and to his credit he’s walked twice (something he did just 5.8 percent of the time at Triple-A in ‘19), but you have to wonder if Atlanta would be better off adding a veteran to the mix (ahem, Tyler Flowers)?

3. First Base: Does Freeman mark another accomplishment of his to-do list in ‘21?

I know, I know, batting average is an outdated, archaic stat that needs to be retired. But being the league batting champ still matters, and it’s something no Braves player has done since Chipper Jones hit .364 to lead the NL in 2008. It’s among the few accolades that weren’t part of Freddie Freeman’s 2020 as his .341 average had him finishing second to the Nationals’ Juan Soto (.351). Does Freeman mark that off his career to-do list in ‘21? Since Jones, Freeman and Chris Johnson, who BABIP’d his way to a new contract in taking second in 2013 with a .321 average have come closest, while Freeman was also third in 2018 (.309) and ‘13 (.319), as was Omar Infante (.321) in 2010. The Braves have had more Cy Youngs (seven), Rookies of the Year (six) and MVPs (five) since moving to Atlanta than they’ve had batting champs, with Jones in ‘08 coming after Terry Pendleton in 1991, Ralph Garr in ‘74 and Rico Carty in ‘70. Freeman, who has hit under .302 once since 2015, is projected to hit .297 or lower by five of the six projection services FanGraphs utilizes and Baseball Reference forecasts a .292 average.

4. Second Base: Move over, Uggla?

In each of his 162-game seasons, Ozzie Albies has hit 24 home runs, accounting for six in his 57-game debut of 2017 and six more last year when he was limited to 29 games due to a right bone bruise. That gives the 24-year-old second baseman 60 on his career, which is fourth all time in the franchise at the position, leaving him four behind Glenn Hubbard for third, 12 from Marcus Giles for second and 19 away from Dan Uggla for the top spot. Given he’s under contract through 2028, Albies’ eventual place on that home run list is a given but projected to go deep no fewer than 22 times by the major services, there’s a strong chance Albies muscles (that’s for you, Uggla fans) the former second baseman out of the way in 2021. And thus, concludes the inclusion of Dan Uggla into the Starting Nine for 2021.

5. Third Base: Lamb making his case

The job is Austin Riley’s to lose, and he figures to get every opportunity to show he can put together a complete season after a 116 wRC+ first half in 2019 and 103 second half in ‘20 gave glimpses of his potential. But the Braves also have, with former starter Johan Camargo and a finally healthy Jake Lamb looking to recapture his 30-home run output of 2017 in Arizona. The 30-year-old is coming off three straight seasons in which he was no better than 79 wRC+, but points to his 13-game stint with the A’s last season — in which he hit .267/.327/.556 with three home runs and four doubles in 49 plate appearances — why he feels like a bounce-back is in order. “I just like to hit the ball hard,” he said. “... I just want to square the ball up and I love seeing when that exit velo is above 100 and that’s how I felt in Oakland. I felt like every hit, every out I was making was barrell-on-the-ball and hitting it really hard. ... That’s what I was doing in ‘16 and ‘17.” An option at first base in a pinch as well, Lamb at a minimum, figures to be a left-handed bat with pop off the bench, something this team lacked last season, and could be a veteran insurance policy if Riley falls back to 2019 form, when he was fanning 36.4 percent of the time. “If I can come in and just be a guy, whether it’s off the bench or platoon somewhere, I’m here to help out,” Lamb said. “Bottom line is I want to win, and we’re going to win some games here.”

6. Shortstop: Dansby Swanson and the pursuit of consistency

If you’re waiting to see Dansby Swanson put the “small sample size” disclaimer on his career 2020, you’re not alone. The Braves shortstop took a similar tone during an appearance on MLB Network Radio on Tuesday. “I definitely think what I did last year is the start of things to come,” he said. “I definitely believe in myself as a player and think I’ll just continue to get better and better offensively. For me the biggest thing is the consistency. Definitely showing that I’m capable of doing great things. It’s just a matter of being able to do it for a full year. That’s how you continue to get better.” There was some serious luck involved in Swanson’s 1.9 fWAR, 116 wRC+ season and not just in the fact that he avoided injury for the first time since 2017, as his career-high .350 BABIP was 22nd in MLB and he joins the Rockies’ Raimel Tapia (.392), Tigers’ Jeimer Candelario (.372) as the only players in the top 25 in that category to have never hit at or above league average in a previous season. That lack of consistency had to have played a part in the Braves beating Swanson in salary arbitration and most projections aren’t buying his staying power, seeing a drop in wRC+ from 116 to 90 as that BABIP falls to a more in-line-with-the-league-average of .311-.304. But Swanson, who so often leans on positive mindsets and mental approach — hence that Good Energy line of his clothing company — admitting he still needs to show he can produce for the duration of a season speaks to some added pressure as he tries to show he’s in the elite class of shortstops.

7. Left Field: Phillip Ervin setting the stage for tough decision

So much of the bench seems set, with Ender Inciarte likely losing the center field job to Cristian Pache, giving him a spot, along with the backup catcher, the versatile Johan Camargo and Lamb. That leaves Phillip Ervin, Jason Kipnis and Pablo Sandoval the most intriguing reserve candidates remaining, and Kipnis’ ability to play first base, second and the outfield may win out. But Ervin is pushing, getting the start in left field twice, right field in another game and another as designated hitter. In all, he’s appeared in in six of the eight games, hitting .333/.385/.333 with a walk and five strikeouts, and spoiled what could be the highlight of the year for the Pirates with the Braves’ lone hit when he singled in the bottom of the ninth. Clearly, he’s earning himself a long look, with his 12 at-bats tied for third on the team and he has the fourth highest OPS (.718) among players with double-digit ABs. The problems with Ervin are the positional constraints as an outfielder and the fact that he ran out of options when he was waived by the Cubs last month, allowing Atlanta to pick him up. Unless the Braves are able to move on from Inciarte one way or the other, Ervin seems like a long shot for the Opening Day roster, but he’s at least making things interesting.

8. Center Field: A fitting numerical tribute

Somehow, despite his inclusion in the Braves Hall of Fame, and despite his 10 Gold Gloves, All-Star appearances and other accolades, Andruw Jones’ No. 25 has remained in circulation. Barbaro Canizares wore it, as did Ryan Church and Troy Glaus, Juan Francisco, Joey Terdoslavich, Christian Bethancourt, Cameron Maybin and, most recently, Tyler Flowers. But if the Braves aren’t going to retire the number — which they’ve done for Jones’ teammates Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz and manager Bobby Cox, along with Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Dale Murphy, Phil Niekro and Warren Spahn — it seems to be getting a fitting second life in Jones’ heir apparent. In Wednesday’s Grapefruit League game against the Red Sox, Cristian Pache — who had worn No. 14 up to that point — wore No. 25. It’s the number he wore in the minors, and if Pache lives up to the hype and expectations that have come with his defensive skills, fitting for the center fielder of the foreseeable future. But if the Braves weren’t going to retire the number, at least Pache is doing his part to try and make sure nobody else ever wears it again.

9. Right Field: Another slow spring for Acuña

Don’t freak out (not that anyone really is), but Acuña is off to another slow spring start. Hitting a mere .071 with five strikeouts and one hit — a double — in 14 at-bats, the Silver Slugger-winning right fielder isn’t exactly in a groove, and that’s OK. Yes, there’s the fact that he showed up to camp looking more svelte, quicker or as Snitker put it “look at him and how he’s moving, it’s really, really good,” and spring he hit .156 with 14 strikeouts in 32 ABs, then followed it by hitting 72 percent below league average in a really, really bad July. But in two March/Aprils, he’s posted wRC+s of 240 (2018) and 139 (‘19) and, most importantly, the wrist that bothered him last season is back to 100 percent. Though if it does flare up, “I’m feeling hurt or feeling anything, my goal is to be in the lineup every single day,” Acuña said. That he dealt with the discomfort that came with gripping the bat due to that ailment and still posted a 1.055 OPS after his return from the injured list is impressive, but it does provide something to watch for with the 23-year-old. In two Mays he’s posted 81 wRC+ and 96 in 2018 and ‘19, respectively, and coming after the first full month of his logging consistent ABs, how his wrist is feeling and how he’s producing will be a point of interest.

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