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Braves infield loaded with Josh Donaldson

With pitchers and catchers set to report to Spring Training on Feb. 15, we extend our breakdown of the Braves’ projected roster by focusing on the infielders.

Around the Horn: Rotation | Bullpen

With pitchers and catchers set to report to Spring Training on Feb. 15, we extend our breakdown of the Braves’ projected roster by focusing on the infielders.

Around the Horn: Rotation | Bullpen

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos has repeatedly said he entered this offseason seeking a big bat, not a new third baseman. Regardless, his acquisition of Josh Donaldson has potentially added significant offensive value to a lineup that seemingly will not include Johan Camargo on a daily basis.

If a healthy Donaldson regains his MVP-caliber form and Camargo proves valuable as a super utility player, this is certainly an acquisition that could prove profitable across the board. Camargo’s glove might be missed at third base, but his capability to provide value at multiple positions will give the Braves the depth they lacked in 2018.

The Braves accounted for four — Freddie Freeman (160), Nick Markakis (157), Ender Inciarte (151) and Ozzie Albies (151) — of the 17 Major Leaguers who made more than 150 starts at a defensive position last year. Looking back, Markakis and Albies admit that their respective second-half declines were likely influence by the fatigue Camargo’s new role might prevent during the upcoming season.

Camargo proved to be one of the game’s top defensive third basemen last year. But after being introduced to the outfield during Spring Training, the 25-year-old switch-hitter is now preparing for the possibility to see some time in the outfield and possibly each of the infield positions.

Here’s a look at how the Braves might fill each of their infield positions in 2019:

Video: Freeman, Acuna, Inciarte looking forward to 2019

First Base: Freddie Freeman
Freeman finished fourth in balloting for last year’s National League Most Valuable Player Award, his third top-10 finish in the past six seasons. The 29-year-old also proudly added his first career Gold Glove Award to his resume last year.

Despite missing nearly two months of the 2017 season with a fractured left wrist, Freeman ranks fifth among NL players with the 15.8 fWAR (FanGraphs’ WAR model) he has produced since the start of 2016. His 146 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) ranks second among NL players, trailing only the Reds’ Joey Votto.

While Freeman has conceded he will no longer set playing all 162 games as an annual preseason goal, he will likely once again lead the team in games started. But when he needs to rest, he might be spelled by Adam Duvall, Charlie Culberson or Camargo, who may end up getting a taste of everything that does not require a chest protector and shin guards.

Video: Donaldson on joining Braves, postseason potential

Third Base: Josh Donaldson
The list of Braves who have hit at least 40 homers in a season this century consists of just one name — Andruw Jones in 2005 and ’06. With Freeman and Donaldson, Atlanta has a pair of infielders who could reach that mark this season.

Donaldson homered 41 times during his 2015 American League MVP season and tallied 37 in 2016, which stands as his most recent injury-free season. When Freeman hit a career-high 34 homers in 2016, he homered once every 17.3 at-bats, a ratio that he bettered with the 15.3 AB/HR mark produced while going deep 28 times during his injury-shortened 2017 season.

However you look at it, the Braves have a pair of MVP-caliber corner infielders who would like to get back to where they were before being injured in 2017.

Video: Donaldson on signing a 1-year deal with the Braves

Donaldson battled a right calf injury two years ago and then missed much of last season with a similar ailment. At 33 years-old, he still has the potential to be one of the game’s most productive hitters. The 16.2 fWAR he produced over the 2015 and ’16 seasons ranked second only to Mike Trout‘s 18.9.

Though Donaldson is known for his bat, it should be noted the 13 Defensive Runs Saves he was credited with over 2,505 innings from 2015-16 ranked fifth among qualified third basemen. He was credited with 11 DRS in 2015 and 2 DRS the following season. Camargo ranked second among qualified third basemen with 7 DRS last year.

With the plan to give Donaldson regular rest, Camargo will serve as the top option to spell him. Culberson will also be available to play third base when Camargo might be needed elsewhere.

Video: LAD@ATL Gm4: Camargo makes nice catch to rob Pederson

Second Base: Ozzie Albies
Coming off a season during which he hit .281 with 20 home runs and a .834 OPS before the All-Star break and then batted .226 with four homers and a .624 OPS over the rest of the season, Albies has already acknowledged he has to harness the aggression he showed during what was his first full year as a Major Leaguer.

Albies was consistent from the right side of the plate, hitting .313 with a .895 OPS in the first half and .370 with a .921 OPS in the second half. But from the left side, the young switch-hitter batted .269 with a .810 OPS in the first half and .161 with a .492 OPS in the second half.

While Albies will be given a chance to prove himself against right-handers, his struggles from the left side could create some playing time for the switch-hitting Camargo, who hit .272 with a .803 OPS against right-handers and .270 with a .813 OPS against left-handers last year.

Video: Ozzie homers from both sides of the plate

Shortstop: Dansby Swanson
The Braves shopped Swanson last winter and then spent last summer realizing third-base coach and infield guru Ron Washington was right about the young infielder’s defensive potential. Swanson was credited with -7 DRS in 2017, but he ranked sixth among all MLB shortstops with 10 DRS last season.

Swanson showed some offensive promise when he hit .357 with a .961 OPS through last season’s first 13 games. But his left wrist began bothering him during a frigid April 14 game at Wrigley Field and proved problematic until he was shut down during the regular season’s final week. He underwent surgery in November to remove damaged cartilage.

While it appears Swanson will come to Spring Training without any specific restrictions, he’ll likely be used sparingly during the first week or two of the exhibition season. The 24-year-old will approach his third full season attempting to prove he can quiet doubts about his bat as effectively as he quieted concerns about his glove last year.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for since 2001.

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