At this point, it is anyone’s guess when Spring Training might actually begin. When it finally does, it won’t be the leisurely jog reminiscent of seasons past, but will instead be a mad sprint to the finish line to prepare for Opening Day. I’m still hopeful that happens sooner rather than later. When it does, it is going to be critically important for the following five Atlanta Braves players.
Kyle Wright - RHP
Wright made two lackluster starts for the Braves during the 2021 regular season, allowing seven hits, two homers and seven runs in just 6 1/3 innings. He spent the remainder of the regular season at Triple-A, where he made 24 starts and logged a 3.02 ERA and a 3.33 FIP in 137 innings. All that aside, Wright’s 2021 will best be remembered for his performance in Game 4 of the World Series when he entered the game in the first inning with the bases loaded and somehow managed to escape with just one run crossing the plate. Wright allowed just five hits and one run over 4 2/3 innings while benefiting from some good batted ball fortune, and the Braves came from behind to win 3-2.
Wright was shuttled back and forth between Gwinnett and the majors with little success during the 2019 and 2020 seasons. After his performance in Game 4, Brian Snitker said that he thought Wright benefited from throwing a clump of innings at Gwinnett and being successful.
“He’s been through a lot in a young career, and we’ve created a lot of it, quite honestly, I think,” Snitker said of Wright. “I thought the best thing was for him to stay in Triple-A all year in mass innings and pitch and be successful.”
“The greatest thing these guys can have is experience, I don’t care where it is, especially as a pitcher,” Snitker added. “I think we asked a lot of him in his young career, and I love the fact he got to stay down there all year, and he put together a really good year. For me, tonight, I saw that. It was a more mature pitcher because he’d experienced more. I went back and looked at some of the at-bats on that thing we got, and his stuff was good. It was live. What he did coming in in that situation, limiting damage, and getting us to where he did in that game was huge.”
The Braves may look to add at least one veteran option to the rotation once the lockout is lifted, but figure to enter the spring with at least one opening. Wright will have whatever momentum is left over from the postseason on his side, but will face a lot of internal competition as well. After spending nearly all of 2021 at Gwinnett, it is hard to see much that he has left to prove there. He has a lot left to prove at the big league level and this spring would be a good place to start. Still, Wright’s been successful in Grapefruit League play before, so any exhibition success would be just a small starting point, and he’d still need to translate it to defeating major league batters.
William Contreras - C
Contreras was pressed into action early in 2021 after injuries to both Travis d’Arnaud and Alex Jackson. Things began well enough, as he hit .239/.333/.507 with a 120 wRC+ over 20 games in May. However, things came crashing back in June as those numbers dropped to .200/.257/.323 with a 51 wRC+ over the next 20 games in June. He was eventually sent back to Triple-A, where he put up a .290/.357/.516 line with a 133 wRC+ in 44 games. A season-ending injury to Stephen Vogt led to his return for the postseason, but he logged one single plate appearance throughout Atlanta’s World Series run.
The Braves agreed to a two-year extension with d’Arnaud in August that also includes a club option for 2024. They also inked veteran Manny Pina to a two-year deal in November that also contains a club option for 2024. With those signings and the presence of top 100 prospect Shea Langeliers in the wings, it is easy to see why this is a big season for Contreras.
Whether it is a little bit of prospect fatigue or something else, it feels like Contreras has been a bit forgotten. There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic. He had a .265 BABIP in just a 185 plate appearance sample at the MLB level. Contreras had an average exit velocity of 92.5 mph and a max of 114.2 mph per Statcast to go along with a 10.9 percent barrel rate. Plus, all of that came before he had logged a single plate appearance at Triple-A. It might be tempting to say that his pre-June line was inflated by batted ball fortune, but that’s not quite the case, as he had a .366 xwOBA (.356) in May before imploding.
There is a lot to like here, but Contreras needs to turn heads during the spring to prove that he can be part of the equation in Atlanta or with another club. He is still just 24 years old and his package of talent should be in demand somewhere.
Cristian Pache - CF
At this point last offseason, the concern in many circles was whether the Braves were going to give Cristian Pache the Opening Day job in centerfield rather than going with veteran Ender Inciarte. In the end, the Braves’ center field saga was a great example of how quickly things can change, especially with a prospect. Pache went on to win the Opening Day job but struggled, got hurt, struggled some more and was then sent back to Triple-A.
The numbers weren’t pretty, either. A .111/.152/.206 line with a 36.8 percent strikeout rate just won’t play, no matter how good you are defensively. His return to Triple-A was not very inspiring either, but he did finish the season relatively strongly.
There is a lot of prospect fatigue going on right now with Pache and it is easy to see why. He had an opportunity to cement himself in Atlanta’s outfield last season and failed miserably.
However, it is worth noting that he is just 23 years old and has logged a grand total of 72 plate appearances at the major league level. His future at this point is unclear, but it is ridiculous to give up on him.
Pache may need quite a bit more time at Triple-A before he is ready. The Athletic’s Keith Law, who still has Pache as Atlanta’s top prospect, acknowledged that he may need another 400 plate appearances at Triple-A before he is ready. Still, a good showing in the spring would quiet down a lot of the criticism that Pache has drawn.
Drew Waters - OF
A lot of the same arguments with Pache apply to Drew Waters as well. The prospect fatigue argument applied to Waters as early as May of last year. He did not put together the 2021 season that many were hoping for, but I think it is worth exploring how we got here.
Waters tore up Double-A in 2019, hitting .319/.366/.481 with a 144 wRC+ in 108 games earning himself a late-season promotion to Gwinnett. Waters hit .271/.336/.374 after the promotion, good for an 84 wRC+. He had a 36.1 percent strikeout rate in just 119 plate appearances. Then the 2020 season was lost due to the pandemic. An injury during the spring limited Waters’ opportunities again early on in 2021.
Many questioned whether Waters’ aggressive approach at the plate would lead to success at the upper levels of the minors. That was clearly a focus for him last season as he bumped his walk-rate back up to 10.2 percent. The strikeouts are still too high and his groundball percentage jumped to a career-high 56.9 percent. One thing to keep in mind is that it’s not clear that the walk rate was directly the result of a more selective approach — more whiffs can lead to deeper counts, which tend to lead to walks. Better plate discipline data would help clarify whether Waters became more selective, or just took advantage of opposing pitchers’ poor control.
Waters just turned 23 so there is still plenty of time. A good spring could help jump start him towards a solid 2022.
Huascar Ynoa - RHP
Having Ynoa here might be a little bit of a stretch. He established himself with a strong showing before suffering a self-inflicted broken hand after a tough start in Milwaukee. He wasn’t as good after he returned, but most of that was just the team’s continued use of him the third time through, which was always horrendous but got egregiously bad late in the season. He would have played a part in the postseason before a tender shoulder forced his removal from the NLCS roster.
When Spring Training opens, Ynoa will be part of the competition for one of the final rotation spots. He was essentially a two-pitch pitcher. in 2021 relying on his slider (48.2 percent) and 4-Seam fastball (40.5 percent). He added a changeup to the mix, but threw it just seven percent of the time. Increasing his confidence in the change would give him another weapon. The Braves could also help him out by limiting the times that he faces a lineup for the third time, as he tended to be dominant before facing his 19th batter.
Ynoa also profiles as a high-leverage reliever where his stuff would likely play up and having that third pitch wouldn’t be as important. A good spring could cement his spot in the rotation, but at any rate, he figures to be a big part of the pitching staff in 2022.