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Starting Nine: How good could Braves bullpen be? Historically so

Fried fittingly gets the Opening Day assignment, Olson’s slow start and more as spring training continues

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Atlanta Braves
Topped by Kenley Jansen, who was eighth in MLB, the Braves have five of the top 50 relievers in WPA last season.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One week.

We stand seven days from Max Fried toeing the rubber as the Braves open their title defense against the Reds at Truist Park next Thursday, and while there was a debate over Fried or Charlie Morton to get that Opening Day start, there should be no argument that Fried is the fitting pick.

Fried, who spun that gem in Game 6 against the Astros that clinched the World Series championship, all but cemented his standing among the game’s top starters by leading the NL in ERA in the second half of 2022 before a postseason that included two shutouts.

“It’s not an easy decision,” manager Brian Snitker said Wednesday. “There’s no right or wrong. Just Max’s total body of work (won out).”

No one would have batted an eye had Sntiker instead gone with Morton. The way his postseason ended — with a broken leg that he proceeded to throw 14 pitches on, and which kept him away from the champagne-soaked celebrations — giving Morton that moment would have felt right.

But as a coronation of a 2021 that pushed him to that ace status and as the present and future of this rotation Fried — who will be the first left-hander to start consecutive Opening Days since Warren Spahn made it six straight from 1957-1962 — is just ... more right.

As we enter the final days of spring training, thoughts and notes on a trip around the diamond.

1. Pitcher: How good could Braves bullpen be? Historically so

The Night Shift will be an enduring part of the Braves’ World Series run, both for its swagger, effectiveness and reliability: clocked in and punched them out. That core group was dominant when it mattered most, but during the regular season the totality of Atlanta’s bullpen was more middle of the road. It ranked 12th in fWAR (3.6) and had two members A.J. Minter (1.3) and Tyler Matzek (1.1) with fWARs higher than 0.8. Will Smith was the only player with more than 30 saves who didn’t crack a fWAR of 1.1 or higher. Enter Kenley Jansen and Collin McHugh, and there’s the potential that the Braves may have the game’s best relief corps — a ranking which’s Anthony Castrovince is already on board with — and it could challenge for the best bullpen in franchise history. The benchmark there is 2002, when John Smoltz saved 55 games for a group that was first in fWAR (6.5) and WPA (12.57) and second in ERA (2.60). Along with Smoltz, those Braves had four relievers with fWARs of 1.0 or higher and four with WPAs of 1.43 or better. Next week, Atlanta will open the season with five options in the bullpen who had a WPA better than 1.39, topped by newcomer Jansen, who was eighth in the majors (3.01) in that department. In all, the Braves have five of the top 50 relievers in WPA and the Brewers are the only team with more than two, and could get even more dangerous if Kirby Yates, who has a 3.4 fWAR season and two years of WPAs of 2.57 or better his resume. It could get next-level nasty with what Snitker has at his disposal.

2. Catcher: It’s all about control(ling the base paths)

We’re a year away from the implementation of bigger bases and MLB’s hopes that the engorged bags lead to more stolen bases, and it’s hard to argue that we’re in a different era when it comes to the steal. Last season, there were 2,924 attempts league-wide, a drop of 1,616 from 10 years ago. It may not matter as much as it used to but controlling traffic on the base paths was an issue last season, when the Braves ranked 17th with a 24 percent caught stealing rate from their catchers. That included seven different backstops, but when Travis d’Arnaud was in the game, he nabbed just 16 percent of runners and was at 11 percent the year before. He has a career rate of 21 percent, with his best season coming in 2015 at 33 percent. New addition Manny Piña should help to shore that up. The former Brewer was eighth in the majors last season (29.7 percent), was fourth in 2018 (40.8) and has a career 35 percent success rate. His addition should help the Braves in a place where they haven’t been above league average since 2015.

3. First Base: Olson’s slow start

Being at the center of the biggest change to the Braves’ roster this offseason, probably the last thing anyone wanted to see out of Olson is a slow start. Yet, here we are, with a slash line that stands at .235/.409/.235 in this shortened camp, with Olson going hitless in four of the last six games and he has yet to produce an extra-base hit. A cold spring may be meaningless when we look back at what Olson goes on to do in 2022, but across his career, his 122 wRC+ in March/April is his lowest of any month. In 2019, he hit just .129 in the spring and had a paltry 62 wRC+ in the first month; in 2020, he hit five percent below league average after hitting .219 in camp. Now, on the flip side, Olson did hit .327 last spring and went on to his best opening month (157 wRC+). It doesn’t help in trying to show that 2021 wasn’t an outlier that there’s fewer at-bats to be had this camp after the lockout delayed things. But given his track record, don’t be stunned if Olson is slow to thaw in his first year in Atlanta.

4. Second Base: Is Albies’ plate discipline a problem?

Amid Ozzie Albies’ 4.2 fWAR season — which was 0.3 below his career high set in 2019 — came the highest strikeout rate (18.7 percent), highest whiff rate (24.9) and highest swing rate on non-strikes (38.5) that he’s posted in any 162-game season. You live with those kinds of blemishes for a guy who hit 30 home runs, while driving in 106 and posting a .799 OPS, but it does highlight what many feel needs to be the next evolution in Albies’ game. The 25-year-old saw 2,608 pitches last season, which tied for fourth most in the NL, and his pitches per plate appearance (3.81) was a career best, meanwhile only five players had a higher swing rate than Albies’ 56.7 percent and just one of them (the Blue Jays’ Bo Bichette) saw more pitches than Albies. Hitting homers at a rate of 22 per 600 plate appearances, the walk rate may forever be below average. He swings ... a lot, and while it feels elevated while Albies is fanning at a 22 percent rate (14 in 63 ABs) in the postseason, it’s simply time to chalk it up any unsavoriness in his plate discipline as something that Albies has managed to overcome in spectacular fashion.

5. Third Base: Austin Riley ready to take the mantle of Mets Killer

Like Chipper Jones before him, Freddie Freeman built a reputation as a Mets Killer, slashing .305/.390/.499 with 28 home runs and 115 in 188 games. But now that he’s playing for the Dodgers — when it is going to stop feeling so weird typing that? — it’s time for the mantle to pass to Austin Riley. In 118 at-bats over 32 games, Riley has a .644 slugging percentage and a 1.015 OPS, both the highest of any current Brave. The Mets have become the hot pick in the division, with Caesars and FanDuel sportsbooks both giving one of the offseason’s biggest spenders the best odds to claim the division. A big reason for that is a pitching staff led by Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, and Riley owns a 1.058 OPS with two homers against deGrom. He’s struggled vs. Scherzer (.143 average and .286 OPS), but against current Mets arms, Riley has a .958 OPS with six home runs and five doubles.

6. Shortstop: Shewmake’s progress at the plate could impact future at position

The shortstop free-agent market was loaded this past winter, and it figures to be equally as deep after this season, with player/team options that could see Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, Tim Anderson all available, along with Dansby Swanson. As discussed last week in this space and with Grant McAuley on Battery Power TV, there’s the potential that the Braves could forgo another offseason of drama and lock up Swanson with his arbitration hearing looming after Opening Day. Whether the Braves feel it best to stick with Swanson or try to lure one of those big free agents, a factor in how long the team is willing to go contract wise at the position is the development of Braden Shewmake, MLB Pipeline’s sixth-ranked prospect in the system. Projected as a solid fielder, the bat isn’t forcing the issue, with the 24-year-old hitting .228 with a .672 OPS in Double-A last season, and he’s hitless in nine ABs this spring. While he’s not likely to reach the majors in 2022, how much progress Shewmake makes at the plate could play a part in what the Braves this offseason, and how long they’re willing to go with that choice.

7. Left Field: The return of an old friend

Marcell Ozuna will open the season in left field, likely seeing the brunt of the playing time until he slides into the designated hitter role once Ronald Acuña Jr. returns, pushing Eddie Rosario into left in what figures to be the Braves’ optimum look in the outfield. It’s a crowded outfield picture, and whether or not he ends up making an impact in 2022, Atlanta has at least added an interesting name to the mix, signing Preston Tucker on Wednesday to a minor-league contract. Back in 2018, he became the first player in franchise history to hit a three-run homer in the first inning of consecutive games. That was the last time he was in the majors, spending the las three seasons in the KBO, where he hit 32 home runs in 2020, though he struggled last year with nine homers. At the very least, the Braves had a fun callback to Braves past back in the system, and at a maximum maybe he finds a way to be a factor on the bench as the season wears on. Either way, welcome back to a guy played out of his mind with a .939 OPS halfway through April 2018.

8. Center Field: Duvall’s projections all over the place

While the Braves are coming off back-to-back seasons in which a player who ended the season in their uniform led the NL in RBI — with Marcell Ozuna in 2020 and Adam Duvall last season — they haven’t had the same player to the circuit in that department since Dale Murphy in 1982 and 1983. The forecasts for Duvall joining Murph are, frankly, all over the place. Steamer has Duvall projected at 77, Baseball Reference’s Marcels system has him at 89 and ZiPs 110. None of those are expected to lead the NL, with Duvall’s ZiPs projection topped by the Nationals’ Juan Soto (120) and Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. (111), with Duvall’s new teammate Olson and the Mets’ Pete Alonso both at 110. Tatis missing three months with a fractured wrist and a Washington offense that isn’t exactly daunting outside of Soto (no disrespect to Josh Bell or Nelson Cruz) figures to limit some of the right fielder’s production. Potentially hitting as low as sixth in the Braves’ loaded lineup, Duvall could be a value play if you’re the betting type.

9. Right Field: New territory for Rosario

While he manned the leadoff spot in nine postseason games, hitting .400 with a home run and two doubles, Ronald Acuña Jr.’s continued absence through the first month of the season is likely going to mean a departure for Eddie Rosario. He’s hit first just once in his career in the regular season — Sept. 2 of last season for the Braves in Colorado — and is expected to be in that spot (at least against right-handed starters) until Acuña’s targeted return in the first week of May. While he proved more than capable during the postseason, with five of those games at leadoff coming during his NL Championship Series MVP run, Rosario at this spot for an extended stretch does come with some valid concerns. Every season of his career, his on-base percentage has been below the league average of No. 1 hitters, including his height of .323 in 2015 and the .330 he posted during his 106 plate appearances with the Braves last season would have been 38th in MLB if they entirely came at leadoff. Maybe Rosario tapped into something last October, but how he performs with consistent playing time at leadoff is going to be a point of interest.

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