The Atlanta Braves Have Gotten Better This Offseason
It's no great mystery why the rebuilding Atlanta Braves have been working so hard to dig themselves out of the cellar in time for the 2017 season.
It's called "New Stadium Syndrome," and it typically affects franchises who are opening brand new ballparks that they hope will sell out repeatedly during their inaugural season. Next year, Atlanta moves into its brand new Sun Trust Park, and they'd rather not field one of the worst teams in baseball. Last year, only the Minnesota Twins, Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres and Tampa Bay Rays had poorer records than the Braves, who finished in last place in the National League East, 26 1/2 games out of first.
Atlanta was rebuilding last year, and that rebuild should continue into this coming season. But some of the moves Atlanta has made this offseason indicate a willingness to be as competitive as possible, certainly putting a smile on the faces of the "no-tanking brigade" carrying water for the baseball elite.
Yes, the Braves should be better in 2017. But are they helping or hurting their rebuild by trying to put out a semi-competitive team on their brand new field?
The Braves hit the free agent market early, signing veterans Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey to one-year deals. Colon and Dickey were each the oldest player in their respective leagues last year, and the 43 and 42-year olds, respectively, transform the Atlanta rotation from being the youngest in baseball, to one that more closely resembles middle age.
Atlanta also traded for former St. Louis Cardinals hurler Jaime Garcia, long one of the more under appreciated starters in the game. Here is how their rotation shapes up for 2017 (projected stats courtesy of ZiPS Projections).
That's a dramatic transformation from a rotation that saw 16 different pitchers start at least one game for the Braves last season. Despite his age, Colon has proven to be extremely durable, and Atlanta still has two good young arms in Teheran and Foltynewicz. Garcia and Dickey are both injury concerns -- and Dickey has lost much of his effectiveness the last few seasons -- but Garcia can be a very good left-handed pitcher when he's feeling good.
And in building like a smart rebuilding team should, none of their three new starters is signed past this season. The Braves acquired three placeholder arms that will in no way block any of the Braves' young pitching prospects from ascending to the big league when they're ready. They also give Atlanta some decent trade chips at next year's trade deadline.
The Braves also signed second baseman Sean Rodriguez to a two-year, $11.5 million deal this winter. Rodriguez had a career year for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2016, setting career highs in almost every offensive category (.270/.349/.510), and 18 home runs in just 342 plate appearances. Rodriguez will likely play all over the diamond, spelling Nick Markakis against left-handers, subbing for Adonis Garcia at third base and playing a lot of second along with Jace Peterson.
Rodriguez' versatility also allows Atlanta to promote one of their top prospects, infielder Ozzie Albies, to play second base whenever they see fit. He's expected to arrive sometime next season.
Atlanta also did a smart thing in signing their outstanding center fielder, Ender Inciarte, to a five-year, $30.5 million extension that will keep him with the Braves through the 2022 season (if they pick up his team option). It's a cheap price for a player who, over the last three seasons, has an fWAR of 9.5, which is 9th-most among qualified center fielders since 2014. Last year he was worth 3.6 fWAR, with much of that due to his outstanding defense in center.
"We feel that he's the best defensive center fielder in baseball" - #Braves General Manager John Coppolella pic.twitter.com/Xp1tZBTHAS
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) December 23, 2016
He's also not a slouch at the plate, with ZiPS projecting a .286/.334/.387 slash line in 2017 and a WAR of 3.4.
The team will also get a full season out of their stud young shortstop Dansby Swanson, who still qualifies as a "prospect" according to Baseball Prospectus. ZiPS sees him putting up a WAR of 3.3 in '17.
When Atlanta jumped the market to sign Colon and Dickey early in the offseason, it didn't make a ton of sense on the surface. For a team that was supposed to be rebuilding, they sure seemed to be going out of their way to get older.
But there has been a method to their madness. The veterans they signed are all there for just one or two years. No one is blocking a prospect. And everyone acquired is versatile and should make the product a little bit better for their new ballpark this season.
And they may not be done adding yet. Rumors say the team is contemplating signing former Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters to a free agent contract. The Braves still have Tyler Flowers, who had a better offensive season last year than Wieters (88 wRC+ for Wieters vs. 110 wRC+ for Flowers), and Flowers is also seen as one of the game's better pitch framers. However, Flowers was very poor at throwing out baserunners, successful in just 3 of 63 attempts.
Is this a playoff team in 2017? Probably not. But Fangraphs sees them leapfrogging the Philadelphia Phillies out of last place in the National League East with a record of 76-86, six games better than the Phils' 70-92 mark.
That might be enough for fans in the new ballpark to get excited about.