The Atlanta Braves are, on paper, projected to be one of the best teams in the National League - and all of baseball - in 2023. No team’s roster is perfect, and every team runs into unexpected issues during the course of the season.
With that in mind, Atlanta has a few depth issues that could be causes for concern despite not appearing to be an obvious problem at first glance. Remember, the Braves used seven catchers in 2021 with Kevan Smith and Stephen Vogt catching more than 20 games each for Atlanta during the regular season despite the team coming into the season with what appeared to be solid depth behind the plate.
To address the elephant in the room, this article will not focus on the two biggest issues that we’ve all spent most of the offseason worrying about: shortstop and left field. Yes, there are internal options for both - and everyone has an opinion on those options - but that discussion has happened extensively, so let’s look at a few roster concerns that may be overlooked before Spring Training officially starts.
Matt Olson and Austin Riley are entrenched at first and third base, respectively, with both possible MVP candidates this season.
Olson will have a normal offseason after last year’s lock-out and subsequent trade to Atlanta. It’s something he’s excited about as you can read here. Fangraphs’ ZiPs projection has him at 4.4 fWAR and despite the struggles he had during the 2022 season, he still played in all 162 regular season games and provided a 122 OPS+ and .802 OPS in 699 plate appearances.
Riley made the All-Star team for the first time in 2022 and finished sixth in the NL MVP vote after leading the league in total bases and putting up a career-high 142 OPS+ while slugging 38 home runs and playing in 159 games one season after leading the NL in games played. Oh, and Fangraphs projects Riley to provide 5.1 fWAR this upcoming season.
Why the concern?
Olson and Riley both are established, long-term pillars of the Braves who play every day and provide significant offensive value. But what happens if one of them misses time - even as little as 20 games - this season?
Last year the Braves didn’t need anyone else at either position. Mike Ford, a first baseman by trade, provided more value as a pitcher than as a first baseman since he didn’t appear in a game at first but did pitch. The team hasn’t address depth at first base at all with no 40-man or non-roster invitees with major league experience at the position.
While Riley could play first base in an emergency - thus the likely reason the depth at first hasn’t otherwise been address - the only other possible third baseman on the roster would be Orlando Arcia, who played four games at third last season. And the topic of Arcia’s role is something that will be touched on a little later on in this article.
There isn’t a notable prospect at either position in the high minors - Branden Shewmake is the only plausible option on the 40-man roster from a prospect perspective.
The team does have Joe Dunand, who got a brief cup of coffee with the Marlins last season, and Carlos Sanchez, who was a long-time starter for the White Sox at various infield positions - including third base - in camp as non-roster invitees. Sanchez doesn’t provide much value offensively, however.
Depth at either position isn’t likely to be addressed this spring - barring injury - but there are a few plausible free agents lingering that could fill a bench/DH role and a break-in-case-of-emergency starter in guys like Miguel Sano, Yuli Gurriel, and Donovan Solano.
A benefit of any of those three - and throw in Luke Voit as well - is they could fill a bench roll on the big-league roster, although with Marcel Ozuna taking up a roster spot as a bat-only player (whose bat is questionable, to say the least), the team isn’t likely to break camp with two players who offer little defensive flexibility and/or value.
Yes, it looks like there are at least seven pitchers who will enter the spring as likely members of the Braves rotation. That includes 2022 NL Cy Young runner-up, Max Fried, Kyle Wright who seemed to right his career’s ship in 30 starts last season, and Charlie Morton who led Atlanta in starts despite the fact that he spent the prior offseason recovering from a broken leg and pitched through bouts of inconsistency all season. Throw in 2022 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up, and strike-out sensation Spencer Strider, and that seems to be four rotation spots on lock, as the kids used to say.
The fifth spot in the rotation looks to be a battle between Ian Anderson, who started 20 games last season but is looking to rebound from a season that saw him pitching in AAA at the end of the season; 2019 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Mike Soroka, who is hoping to return to the Braves’ rotation for the first time since suffering the first of two Achillis tendon injuries in 2020; and Bryce Elder who started nine games for Atlanta last season and pitched well enough to have a legitimate chance at winning the final rotation spot this Spring.
There is a reason why one of the most overused lines in baseball is, “you can never have enough pitching.” It’s true.
Last year, 12 different pitchers started a game for Atlanta. Throw out Jesse Chavez and Jackson Stephens, who each start a game as an opener in a bullpen game, and the team still had 10 pitchers getting multiple starts, including seven pitchers who started nine games or more.
Morton will be 39 this season, and has been durable, but is also 39 years old. Wright struggled mightily until last season, so it is fair to have some doubts as to whether he can replicate last season’s success (and some underlying metrics back-up that concern). Strider was a revelation last season, but only started 20 games last season, and doesn’t a full-season worth of starting under his belt. Soroka hasn’t started a game at the major league level in almost three years and pitched a total of 25 innings in the minor leagues last season. Anderson, who received Rookie of the Year votes in both 2020 and 2021, pitched his way out of the rotation last season and didn’t pitch any better after being optioned to Gwinnett.
In each of the full seasons that the Braves have made the playoffs in this most recent post-season run, six pitchers have gotten double-digit starts - with multiple other pitchers commonly getting four of five starts - in each of those seasons.
After the first seven most-likely rotation candidates, the Braves are looking at prospects with varying degrees of upside and experience, like Darious Vines, who is on the 40-man roster. With no one on the current non-roster invite list bringing much experience as a starter at the major league level, adding another experience starter could be a prudent move, even if their role is only to get through Spring Training in the event of multiple issues with those top seven starting pitchers.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of realistic options left on the market. Mike Minor might be willing to pitch another season but didn’t pitch well last season. Dallas Keuchel is still out there, but he was awful last year, starting games for three different organizations at the major league level. Chris Archer, Michael Pineda, and Dylan Bundy didn’t pitch well last year, either, but that’s where we are given this at point in the off-season.
And hey, Cole Hamels says he wants to pitch again this season ...
Still, bringing in another veteran arm as deep insurance wouldn’t be the worst idea.
Four Braves appeared in 10 or more games at second base for Atlanta last season. Ozzie Albies, whose season was derailed by injuries, hopefully will give the Braves 155+ games this season - as he has done in each of the three full seasons in which he has been the starting second baseman (excluding the COVID-shortened 2020 season). Fangraphs has his 2023 ZiPS projection at 3.3 fWAR, which seems like an underestimation, if he is able to stay healthy this season.
However, if he were to have another season in which he missed significant time, the team does have two players on the roster who each played 40 or more games at the position last season. The only problem is one of those two will likely be the team’s starting shortstop, and at this point, there’s not depth behind them at shortstop, either.
From a reserve perspective, the issue at second base isn’t that they don’t have bodies in camp who can play second base. In addition to Arcia and Vaughn Grissom - one of whom will likely start the season as Dansby Swanson’s replacement - the team also has the previously mentioned Shewmake on the 40-man roster as well as non-roster invitees Ehire Adrianza, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Sanchez, who all have major league experience at second base (and other positions, including shortstop). Atlanta also brought in Hoy Park in the offseason, although he is not shown as a non-roster invitee, he will likely get a look given his defensive versatility at the keystone.
The problem with all of those reserve/deep reserve options is that is none of those players are going to provide positive offensive value over an extended period of time - or at least nothing in their track record suggests they will.
There isn’t much left on the free agent market that isn’t another version of what the team already has in camp. Jonathon Villar was bad last season but was okay offensively in more than 500 plate appearances in 2021. Andrelton Simmons was dreadful last season but was just below average offensively in 2020. Injuries may have wiped out his ability to contribute, despite being only 33 years old.
There are obviously other names still on the market, like former Braves prospect and long-time MLB starter Elvis Andrus, but one would have to assume he is likely looking for an opportunity as a starter rather than a reserve. If that changes, then he’d be a logical fit with Atlanta.
Addressing the Issues
Will any of these depth issues be address this spring, barring injury?
Probably not, although once pitchers and catcher reports, the Braves will be able to open up two 40-man spots by putting Tyler Matzek and Hector Ynoa on the 60-day IL given that both will miss most or all of the 2023 season due to injury.
A starting pitcher addition seems the most likely of the three, since having the opportunity to pitch for Atlanta could be enticing for a veteran pitcher looking for an opportunity audition for someone, even if that player were to not end up making the Braves roster.
Never-say-never on a once-productive batter also joining Atlanta for the spring a la Ryan Howard in 2017 and Raul Mondesi in 2005. Howard never saw action in Atlanta but did spend some time at AAA and Mondesi made the team out of camp but only spent two months with the team before being released.
Most realistically, if an injury were to strike, the Braves would probably follow the same 2017 path that saw the team pick-up Matt Adams in a trade when Freeman was injured. Adams played well enough that Freeman shifted to third base upon his return for a period of time before shifting back to first base when Adams’ bat cooled significantly.
The risk with a trade like that is that Atlanta gave up Juan Yepez to get Adams, and Yepez is the exact type of player this year’s Braves team could use given his above average offensive performance last season playing on the infield and outfield corners as well as DH’ing. People by lottery tickets - and teams trade for them - because sometimes they hit.
Make no mistake, Atlanta’s major league roster is in a good shape, even with the much-discussed concerns about shortstop and left field. Great organizations have plans for calamities, so it is fair to assume the Braves do as well. Hopefully we won’t have to find out what that plan is this season.