Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
The Atlanta Braves, who once won a record 14 division crowns in a row, will have a tall task starting a new streak – even with the first one already in the books.
The Braves beat enormous odds last season to win 90 games, thus becoming the first team sice 1991 to win that many in any campaign after losing 90-plus three years in a row. Ironically, the last team to do it was the same franchise, which became the first worst-to-first team in National League history and came within a whisker of winning the World Series (Game 7 went 10 innings and was lost by the narrowest possible margin, 1-0).
These Braves are a vastly different ballclub. But they enter 2019 with similar hopes of retaining their title. That’s a good news / bad news proposition.
With severe payroll restrictions in place, the Braves can’t bid for Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, or even old friend Craig Kimbrel. That’s bad because the Nationals and Phillies, two of their top NL East rivals, have high interest in those players and enough money to sign them up. Atlanta has the division’s best farm system so the season sets up as a battle between player development and hefty moneybags.
Like Jack Benny, the Braves believe frugality will prevail.
First, the good news:
First baseman Freddie Freeman remains the Face of the Franchise after playing all 162 games, winning his first Gold Glove and his first starting spot in the All-Star Game. He finished fourth in National League MVP voting for 2018.
After winning Minor League Player of the Year honors and the Arizona Fall League MVP award, Ronald Acuna, Jr. followed up by leading the team with 26 homers even though he missed two months (April in the minors and June with a knee injury). No matter where he plays in the outfield, he projects as a Gold Glove candidate and potential National League MVP. At age 21.
Bosom buddy Ozzie Albies, 21 himself last year, had an All-Star first half in 2018 before the sophomore jinx caught up with him. A little guy who lost his head (and his average) after an unexpected early power splurge last year, he could play second or short, supply speed at the top of the order, and perhaps join Acuna and Freddie Freeman as 30-homer men.
The Braves could also mine 30 homers from former American League MVP Josh Donaldson, who signed a one-year, $23 million contract with an eye toward a rebound season and a megabucks contract when he tried free agency again after the 2019 campaign. But Donaldson was a gamble because of his injury history. He’s also new to the National League.
Versatile Johan Camargo, who sparkled at third last year, shifts into a jack-of-all-trades role but will still get plenty of playing time. He gained confidence at the plate last year (19 homers) and could top that figure if he gets enough at-bats.
Better things are exected from Ender Inciarte, who won his third straight Gold Glove, and Dansby Swanson, who missed the Division Series with a thumb injury but played a solid shortstop when healthy. He needs more consistency at the plate, however. Like Albies, he has to show more selectivity and stop lunging at pitches out of the strike zone.
Good news on the management side too: Brian Snitker, an organization man with more than 43 years in the Braves system, returns to his job after winning NL Manager of the Year honors. Most of his coaches, including former pilots Ron Washington and Walt Weiss, are also back.
The lone exception, pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, took the fall for his staff’s futility in throwing strikes and was replaced by Phillies pitching coach Rick Kranitz. Leo Mazzone, where art thou?
Here’s the bad news:
Mike Foltynewicz was one of four Braves to be NL All-Stars in 2018, along with Freeman, Albies, and current free agent Nick Markakis. But the rotation behind Folty was often faulty, even after the arrival of Kevin Gausman from Baltimore. Southpaw Sean Newcomb wasn’t the same after he lost a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning and Julio Teheran hardly showed why he started five straight Opening Day games. Atlanta searched for a starter all winter and may still find one (Madison Bumgarner? Corey Kluber? Alex Wood?) but will otherwise bank on kids, including the three 20-year-olds who got their first big-league wins last season. Anibal Sanchez, who signed with Washington, will be sorely missed.
The bullpen blew 20 save opportunities, contributing to Atlanta’s troubling inability to find home plate (more walks issued than any team but the Chicago White Sox). If Aroldis Vizcaino is past his shoulder troubles and A.J. Minter expounds on the capital he compiled as a rookie, the Braves could have a solid right-left closer tandem. But shopping all winter for Craig Kimbrel and Zach Britton indicates management isn’t satisfied. Too much Sam Freeman can do that.
The Braves’ bench has too many splinters. The likes of Ryan Flaherty and Lucas Duda won’t be back but Camargo and fellow holdover Charlie Culberson are solid building blocks. Manager Brian Snitker said during the winter meetings he’d like to add Evan Gattis and Matt Adams but those pesky Nats, perhaps in response to Atlanta’s stated interest, snagged Adams a few days later.
The worst of the bad news is how much better three division rivals became even before the Christmas break. The Nationals added starting pitchers Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez, catcher Yan Gomes, and the slugging Adams; the Phillies landed shortstop Jean Segura and still had hopes of coaxing Manny Machado away from the Yankees; and the Mets acquired second baseman Robinson Cano, catcher Wilson Ramos, closer Edwin Diaz, and outfielders Gregor Blanco and Rajai Davis.
Atlanta struck first, signing Donaldson and lefty-hitting catcher Brian McCann on the same day, but then stayed silent through the Las Vegas meetings and beyond. General manager Alex Anthopoulos, just completing his first year on the job, steadfastly refused to swap any of his club’s premier pitching prospects. So far, at any rate.
Perhaps he remembers the 2003 deal that sent pitchers Adam Wainwright, Jason Marquis, and Ray King to the St. Louis Cardinals for the one-year rental of J.D. Drew. Wainwright, then the top prospect in the Braves system, has been one of the game’s best pitchers ever since.