Julio Teheran will lead the rotation. He struggled the first part of the 2015 season, but Teheran rebounded with a strong September. Then this spring, Teheran was tremendous (2.01 ERA in five starters). The Braves need Teheran to be an ace and to be consistent. Veteran Bud Norris was brought aboard to provide innings. He struggled last season in Baltimore. Matt Wisler will be the third starter after a solid rookie season for the Braves. Williams Perez had a good spring and will be the fourth starter. When a fifth starter is needed, Jhoulys Chacin will get the nod. He had success with Colorado a few years ago. Mike Foltynewicz could join the rotation once gets stronger after having blood clots late last summer. Aaron Blair and Tyrell Jenkins could knock on the door if they pitch well in Gwinnett.
Arodys Vizcaino and Jason Grilli will get save opportunities. Vizcaino took over when Grilli ruptured his Achilles tendon in midseason and did great. Grilli is now healthy and the pair should provide a solid late-inning duo. Jim Johnson returns as a setup man. He did well for the Braves, but then Johnson struggled after he was traded to the Dodgers. Both Grilli and Johnson could be trade bait if they do well. Vizcaino did not give up an earned run in seven spring training games. He should be the primary closer. The Braves brought Eric O’Flaherty back as the lefty reliever. He’s recovered from Tommy John elbow surgery. Veteran Alexi Ogando won a job in spring training as a middle reliever. Rookies Dan Winkler, John Gant and Jose Ramirez will round out the pen. All three were tremendous in March.
A.J. Pierzynski was scheduled to back up Christian Bethancourt last season. Instead, Bethancourt struggled and Pierzynski kept on hitting. At 38 years old, Pierzynski hit .300 and was a great veteran on a young team. The Braves brought Pierzynski back to help the young pitchers. But can he continue to be productive at his age? If he does well, Pierzynski could also be trade bait during the summer. Tyler Flowers was drafted by the Braves a decade ago but traded to Chicago, where he spent parts of seven seasons with the White Sox. The Braves signed Flowers back to help behind the plate, especially if Pierzynski slows down. Flowers has struggled with the bat, but he’s become a tremendous defensive catcher. The Braves need Flowers to help the young pitchers develop. This is the weakest position in Atlanta’s farm system.
The Braves have resisted trading Freddie Freeman, since they need someone the fans know when they move into Sun Trust Park next season. Freeman is signed through the 2021 season, so he’s the current face of the franchise. The Braves need Freeman to be a power threat in the middle of the lineup. Freeman hit 18 home runs in each of the last two seasons, but the Braves need more from him. He needs to stay healthy, as a wrist injury impacted his power output last season. But can the Braves protect Freeman in the lineup? That’ll be a big question, as teams will undoubtedly try to pitch around Freeman. Defensively, Freeman is one of the best at scooping throws. But leadership is the big thing the Braves need from Freeman, who must be patient as the rebuilding process continues.
Jace Peterson won the second base job last spring and had a decent first full season. His production tailed off in the second half as he battled a thumb injury. Peterson hit just .221 after the All-Star Break after doing well in May and June. The Braves moved Peterson around all spring to let him play at shortstop, third base and in the outfield. They are preparing Peterson for his future, as he’s likely to be replaced by Dansby Swanson or Ozzie Albies at second base next season. While it’s fine to believe Peterson can become a super utility player, the Braves need Peterson to be consistent and play well this season. Peterson will hit lower in the order this season, so he might not feel the pressure he did last year to be as much of an offensive player.
The defensive wizardry of Andrelton Simmons is gone, and while Swanson or Albies may be the future at this position the Braves have veteran Erick Aybar there for now. He’s a solid player, a ‘pro’s pro,’ according to coaches. The Braves need some veterans for the young players, and Aybar will provide solid leadership. But how long will he be around? Aybar is a free agent after this season, so there’s a great chance the Braves could shop him if some team needs a shortstop during the year. Fans will miss Simmons, but the future is likely in Swanson’s hands at this position. The Braves will take this year to determine whether Swanson or Albies will likely take over a year from now. So this is a transitional year at shortstop, as the Braves wait on Simmons’ replacement to graduate.
Adonis Garcia came out of nowhere late last season and hit 10 home runs in almost 200 at bats. He doesn’t walk a lot and strikes out too much, but Garcia provides the power the Braves need in the lineup to protect Freeman. But with more playing time this season as the expected starter, what will the soon-to-be 31-year-old Garcia do? Defensively, Garcia is scary at third base at times. The Braves have Peterson to also play at third, along with Kelly Johnson and Gordon Beckham. Johnson played well at third last season before being traded to the Mets. The Braves might turn to Johnson again if Garcia struggles. Of course, with manager Fredi Gonzalez, there could be a platoon at the position with Garcia and Johnson. Either way, the Braves need something out of the third baseman this season.
The Braves made the big trade with the Dodgers last July (giving up pitcher Alex Wood) to get Hector Olivera, who they had tried to sign out of Cuba last spring. Atlanta’s scouts really believe Olivera can be a good major league hitter. The Braves gave Olivera a taste of the big leagues late last season and he hit just .253 with two home runs in 79 at bats. But this spring, Olivera hit .393 and gave the Braves hope he can be an offensive force. The Braves decided to move Olivera to left field after he struggled some at third base. Can Olivera play left field? Well, who knows? The Braves aren’t even certain he can handle it. But they just need Olivera to hit and help a lineup that was last in baseball in runs scored last season.
The Braves thought Michael Bourn would bridge the gap until Mallex Smith is ready, but they got Ender Inciarte in the Shelby Miller trade with Arizona. Inciarte is a 25-year-old left-handed hitter who is under control for five seasons. He’s got good speed (21 stolen bases in 132 games last season) and has always had a good batting average. Inciarte is known for his great defense, so that will help as he leans toward left to assist Olivera. Smith will be in Triple-A Gwinnett, and the Braves expect him to possibly be ready sometime this summer. It will give the Braves options with Inciarte, which might include a trade if teams come calling again. Several teams tried to get Inciarte from Atlanta right after they got him, so the market could be there again if the Braves have a surplus.
Nick Markakis is back for year two of his reasonable four-year contract. Last season, the Braves got the leadership they expected when they signed the longtime Baltimore Orioles’ star. He moved all around the lineup and hit .296 with a solid .370 on base percentage. But Markakis had no power – only three home runs – after having neck surgery right after signing with the Braves. With a full offseason of training, Markakis needs to provide more offense than just singles this season. However, he hit just .182 in spring training with only one home run. There have been rumors teams (specifically Baltimore) might come calling for Markakis, and the Braves just might listen. The Braves need him to bounce back and be more of like what he was in Baltimore, where he averaged 15 home runs a season in nine years.
The Braves have assembled a decent bench. Beckham and Johnson form a solid pair for the infield. Beckham can play second or third base, while Johnson can play the same two spots and the corner outfield positions if needed. Plus, Johnson is the backup to Freeman at first base if he needs a day off. Both could figure into a platoon situation with Beckham spelling Peterson at second and Johnson facing tough right-handers in place of Garcia. However, Johnson does better against lefty pitchers than right-handers. Jeff Francoeur and Drew Stubbs are two good right-handed hitters off the bench in the outfield. Both are good defenders with good speed. All four of these players could be trade bait during the summer. Whichever catcher - Pierzynski or Flowers - is not starting will also be a solid bat off the bench.
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