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Braves’ lineup is set, but questions remain with the bench

Atlanta will head into the spring with a set lineup, but will need to round out the bench before Opening Day.

Division Series - Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves - Game Two Photo by Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves/Getty Images

We will wrap up our week-long look at the Atlanta Braves roster with a quick glance of where things stand on the position player side. The Braves have most of their core locked up long-term so there is no real drama as far as the starting lineup goes. There are questions on how they will fill out the bench, but given how they have chosen to use their reserves the last couple of years, which guy hangs out on the bench and rarely plays isn’t a big decision or priority.

The first thing that jumps out after a quick glance is that the Braves currently only have 11 position players on their 40-man roster — which is two short of the 13 position players that they will have to carry during the regular season. So, there is work left to be done. Additionally, Atlanta still has five open spots on the 40-man roster — and that doesn’t include the fact that Ian Anderson, Penn Murfee and Angel Perdomo will all begin the season on the 60-day Injured List, thus opening up three more spots. All in all, there is plenty of flexibility here, and we can expect the Braves will be extremely active on the waiver wire in the lead-up to the regular season.

Catchers: Travis d’Arnaud, Sean Murphy

The Braves had one of the best catcher tandems in the majors last season with Sean Murphy and Travis d’Arnaud. Atlanta’s catchers ranked third in the majors in fWAR despite both d’Arnaud and Murphy massively underhitting their xwOBAs; Braves catchers had a .369 xwOBA last year, a .023 lead over the second-place team, with that .023 gap equivalent to the difference between second and 11th in terms of catcher hitting inputs. Murphy posted a 129 wRC+ and slugged a career-high 21 home runs in his first season in Atlanta, but a massive xwOBA underperformance in August and an actual swoon to average-ish inputs in September made it look like he had an ugly second half. Murphy didn’t disappoint behind the plate, though, finishing third in the majors among in Baseball Savant’s Fielding Run Value and seventh in Fangraphs’ aggregate catcher value assessment.

Despite the addition of Murphy, the Braves extended d’Arnaud through 2024 and hold an $8 million club option for his services for the 2025 campaign. d’Arnaud missed about a month due to a concussion and ended up appearing in 74 games while posting an 83 wRC+ and 11 homers — which, again, came with a more-than-fine .330 xwOBA that he massively underhit.

Both catchers did a good job handling the pitching staff, which is the top priority for the Braves. d’Arnaud will turn 35 in February, but has emerged as a clubhouse leader and it would be surprising if his option isn’t picked up for 2025. Murphy is 29 and is under contract through at least 2028.

Infield: Ozzie Albies, Orlando Arcia, Matt Olson, Austin Riley

The Braves got 141 home runs from their starting infield in 2023. All four will return in 2024 and are locked up through at least the 2025 season.

Ozzie Albies bounced back after an injury-plagued season in 2022 to hit .280/.336/.513 while setting career-highs with 33 home runs and a 124 wRC+. (He actually had a slightly higher xwOBA in 2019, though.) However, he had his worst season defensively in 2023, finishing seven runs below average per Statcast’s OAA metric. Given that he was a positive defender as recently as 2022, it isn’t worth panicking over at this point, but is something to monitor going forward.

Depending on who you ask, Orlando Arcia was either the second or third choice to replace Dansby Swanson at shortstop. But, he ended up exceededing expectations by giving the Braves pretty good defense at the position to go along with league average production at the plate. Arcia finished the season hitting .264/.321/.420 with 17 home runs and a 99 wRC+, though he did manage that league-average line by outhitting his xwOBA a fair bit. He had a 54 wRC+ during the final month of the season with a matchingly-bad xwOBA and appeared to be worn down a bit, so finding him a few extra days off could be beneficial.

Matt Olson hit 34 home runs and was worth 3.2 fWAR in 2022 in what was his first season with the Braves. Those were perfectly respectable numbers, but short of what many were expecting and hoping for after Atlanta turned to him to replace Freddie Freeman. That season was weighed down by periods where Olson failed to dial in his approach, but he put it all together in 2023 and sluggied his way into the record books with a 54-homer season. Olson tallied 6.7 fWAR and finished fourth in MVP voting.

Austin Riley hit 37 home runs and put up a 5.2 fWAR season, but was somehow overshadowed by his teammates’ accomplishments. Since taking over as the team’s everyday third baseman in 2021, Riley has produced seasons totaling 4.8, 5.6, and 5.2 fWAR. He is coming off his best season yet defensively and will be a key piece of Atlanta’s lineup for the remainder of the decade.

Outfield: Ronald Acuña Jr., Michael Harris II, Jarred Kelenic

Like in the infield, the Braves’ outfield is set for the long haul with a pair of former Rookie of the Year winners and the 2023 unanimous NL MVP. Oh, and they added another former top prospect to the mix with the hopes that he realizes his potential in Atlanta.

What more can really be said about Ronald Acuña Jr.’s 2023 season? At this point, you just have to wonder what he can do for an encore. Acuña turned in one of the better seasons in major league history and was rewarded for it with an unanimous MVP selection. He was the first player ever to total 40 homers and 70 stolen bases in a season and that tells just a portion of the story. He set the Braves’ modern day record for runs scored and stolen bases, totaled 217 hits, and cut his strikeout rate from 23.6 percent to just 11.4 percent, a feat that essentially has no peers in recent history. Oh, and he did all that while posting a .428 wOBA, which substantially, deliriously underperformed his .463 xwOBA. I don’t think it is fair to expect more from Acuña in 2024, but again, I wouldn’t be shocked either.

A back injury in April contributed to a slow start for Michael Harris II, but he quickly reestablished himself as one of the Braves’ most dynamic young players. Harris had just a 33 wRC+ on May 22, but hit .320/.350/.525 with a 132 wRC+ over his final 444 plate appearances to finish the season with a well above average (115 wRC+) batting line. While the top line is more than passable, especially when combined with his elite defense, there’s even more to like. Harris underhit his xwOBA, and made a number of adjustments after his rookie year that substantially shored up his glaring weakness against left-handed pitching. Given what appears to be an inability to rapidly adapt to challenging circumstances, Harris could eventually have a crazy breakout season where he goes from elite young player to superstar.

Atlanta took on a substantial chunk of money in order to add Jarred Kelenic to their outfield for the next half-decade. Kelenic is a former top prospect who hasn’t quite lived up to his potential in parts of three seasons with the Mariners. He seemed to be on the verge of breaking out in 2023 after hitting .291/.340/.553 with a 146 wRC+ through May 15. However, he hit just .229/.319/.338 with an 85 wRC+ the rest of the way and missed a portion of the season after kicking a water cooler in the dugout and breaking his foot. The Braves can offer Kelenic a fresh start and much lower expectations, while hoping that he continues to develop and doesn’t underhit his xwOBA by .012 (or more) again. Unlike other acquisitions the Braves have made, Kelenic largely already follows the Braves’ gameplan (because the Mariners coach, or at least coached, hitting in a similar way), so it won’t be a matter of changing his approach, just refining it.

DH: Marcell Ozuna

The Braves denied it, but it certainly looked like Marcell Ozuna was in danger of losing his roster spot in early May of last season. At the time, Ozuna was just 5-for-59 at the plate and had sat out four straight games, including both parts of a doubleheader. Additionally, the Braves were going to need a roster spot as Travis d’Arnaud was set to return from the concussion list imminently. Brian Snitker put Ozuna back in the lineup on May 2. He went 6-for-13 with three homers in the series and never looked back. He then hit .297/.366/.603 with a 156 wRC+ the rest of the way. He set a career high with 40 home runs and drove in 100 runs for the second time in his career. All the discussion about whether he had a persistent slice that led to consistent, massive xwOBA underperformance evaporated as Ozuna terrorized league pitching.

Ozuna is signed through the end of the 2024 season, but the Braves hold a $16 million club option for 2025. I don’t know how anyone can project what he might contribute this season, but his bat lengthens the lineup when he is swinging it well.

Bench: Forrest Wall, Travis d’Arnaud, David Fletcher, TBD

Atlanta will have to fill out its bench between now and the start of the regular season. Forrest Wall made his major league debut with Atlanta in 2023 after 10 years as a professional minor league journeyman type. He brings top notch speed and the ability to play all three outfield spots. The speed is what will likely keep him on the roster, as he is a perfect fit as a pinch-runner after MLB’s recent rule changes. He still has options remaining which adds to his flexibility, as he can serve as a backup at Gwinnett for when a fourth/fifth outfielder addition a la Sam Hilliard or Eli White gets hurt or otherwise falters.

The Braves acquired veteran infielder David Fletcher from the Angels in a deal that amounted largely to a cash swap. Atlanta outrighted Fletcher off the 40-man roster, but there is a good chance that he will be added back as a reserve infielder ahead of the season. He’s a veteran option that has an 86 wRC+ for his career, but has the defensive versatility to play across the infield. One of the more amusing things about Fletcher is that he’s one of the slappiest hitters in MLB, which creates a giant contrast between his offensive approach and everything the team has coached for a half-decade now. It’d be funny to see him try to blend in with his new teammates and start swinging for the fences, but he probably won’t, assuming he gets any plate appearances to begin with.

Atlanta could look for a right-handed bat to complement Kelenic in left field against left-handed pitching. Kevin Pillar filled that role last season and had big moments without big production, but remains a free agent. This story likely won’t be finished until the final days of Spring Training, as we have seen the Braves completely remake their bench as other teams pare down their roster before heading north. Internal options for the bench include infielder Luke Williams and catcher Chadwick Tromp, who both saw some time on the active roster last season.

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