It’s finally here – baseball season has arrived. With all due respect to Santa and his elves, it is truly the most wonderful time of year (and the Masters Tournament makes it even more special). As we prepare to endure another year of the Atlanta Braves rebuild, it is a stark reminder they have not qualified for the playoffs since 2013. The last time Atlanta went longer than that was the nine years between the 1982 Dale Murphy led NL West Champions to the 1991 worst to first year. So, as we prepare for our pastime to return, I will peek into the upcoming campaign from three perspectives; what the 91 Braves did to get over the hump, what I believe the Braves will need to reclaim NL East supremacy and I how I think the season will actually play out.
Catcher – The 91 Braves had Gregg Olson behind the plate, he arrived on the scene a year earlier and was the only Brave all-star representative from a bad 1990 Braves team. While not flashy, Olson was just what the Braves needed, the classic do-what-ever-it-takes to win catcher who was at the right place to see the development of Tom Glavine and John Smoltz from good pitchers to future hall-of-famers. While he did not hit that much, his leadership was impeccable.
Returning from last year is the solid combo of Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers who combined for 31 homers and 99 RBI. They will need that kind of production again this year, and they will need some defensive improvement. While Flowers in known for his ability to effectively framing pitches, they will need to focus on helping their pitchers improve and approach to the next level.
Realistically, I don’t see the same level of production from last year, those were big numbers. I project a combined 18 homers and 70 RBI, and about the same intangibles for the pitching staff. While those offensive numbers are still better that Olson’s, the grit and moxie that Olson provided will still be missing.
First Base – John Schuerholtz made a key free agent acquisition before the 1991 season in Sid Bream. While Bream provided leadership and a calming influence in the clubhouse, his offensive production was modest when compared to future Braves first baseman like Fred McGriff and Andres Galarraga.
In terms of Freddie Freeman, the fans take him for granted. He was on his way to a MVP last season when he was hit in the wrist in the Toronto series, and after missing considerable time, returned to play some third in a season that was lost. Freeman is the real-deal, to win the division, they need big-time, they need 35 HR and 115 RBI.
Regardless of where the Braves end up, the Braves should be able to count of those numbers, he is that good.
Second Base – The 91 Braves got away with a Jeff Treadway/Mark Lemke combination. They were steady and got the job done. Like Olson, not flashy, but workman like and dependable.
The Braves are embarking on their first full season with Ozzie Albies manning the position. He has shown flashes of brilliance but is he ready to shine? There is nothing to say he will not excel but is it to early? To win, he needs to create some havoc at the top of the order, get on and use his speed. Brandon Phillips had 11 HR and 52 RBI last year before he was traded while hitting a respectable .291. They will need somewhere around .280 from Albies and setting the table often for Freeman.
I expect Albies to hit somewhere around his .286 average from 2017 and have a great year, he will be one of the shining stars. These numbers would be considerably higher than Jose Altuve’s first full season at Houston, so that is expecting a lot from the kid.
Short Stop – The 1991 Braves went with defense at shortstop – turning to the light-hitting smooth fielding Rafael Belliard. It was defense first and his abilities helped solidify the psyche of an amazing pitching staff.
Dansby Swanson received as much fanfare as any young Brave since Jayson Heyward in 2010. He seems to be a lightning rod of the entire rebuild itself, the centerpiece of a John Coppolella trade that provided to be the missing ingredient. After making a flash in his first season, many would say he took a step back last season, getting sent to Gwinnett for a bit and perhaps has been overrated from the start.
To win, the Braves need a year from Dansby Similar to Chipper’s 1995 rookie season (23HRs 96RBI), when he was not THE bat, but he was one of the top bats. Those numbers might be a stretch, but to win this year, the Braves will have to score a lot of runs and Freeman will need a lot of support. Also, they need for his defense to come close the Belliard standard that sealed a traditionally leaky defense.
My projection is that he will improve for last year and continue see his offensive numbers rise, I see a 14HR, 60RBI year and while some improved defensive play, not quite championship level yet.
Third Base -The glue that brought the 91 team together was the play of Terry Pendleton. His leadership and clutch hitting willed the Braves down the stretch to outlast the Dodgers and win the NL MVP award.
On the current Braves roster, third appears to be the shakiest. Johan Camargo starts on the DL and Rio Ruiz and Charlie Culberson form some sort of starting role (Freddie will not be playing on that side of the infield this year, count on that). To win, they need 20HR and 90RBI, which will be a huge stretch for Ruiz who has a less than .200 career average, Camargo with 241 career at bats and Culberson who only hit 5 HR in parts of two seasons in Colorado.
Look for the position to be unsettled all year and a combination of players filling in with limited success (and did I mention Freddie will not be in the mix). They should expect 10 HR and 50RBI here and more reports of Austin Riley is in the wings.
Outfield – The 91 Braves had a four-outfielder rotation, a 30/30 guy in Ron Gant, a speedy CF in Otis Nixon, a veteran professional hitter in Lonnie Smith and David Justice who was solid in right. They complimented each other well and gave Bobby Cox some options.
Our current outfield is defined as much as who is not starting the season with the big club as who is. Ronald Acuna is the franchise, he is the one who well elevate us to the next level, but for at least two weeks, he will be trying to get a jump of the batting title in the International League with Gwinnett. But when he does get here, what should we expect? In his first full season, Andruw Jones hit .231 with 18 HR and 70 RBI, which many would see as a disappointment if that is what Acuna finishes with. But should the Braves expect more? Is his long-term potential greater than Andruw’s? To win this season, the Braves would need significantly better, somewhere in the 30HR 100 RBI range, but is that fair to expect?
Look for Acuna to have a great rookie campaign, somewhere in the middle of those two, say 22HR and 80 RBI.
Ender has been the unsung hero the past two years, steady at the plate, stellar defense and a good baserunner. He had 201 hits last year and hit .304, we will need a repeat performance from our leadoff hitter this year. Look for Inciarte to remain at the level for yet another season.
Nick Markakis has to be one of the least appreciated Braves since Claudell Washington. He has 505 hits in his three years here, played above average defense, hit in every spot in the order and has been a role model in terms of daily preparation. To win, however, we would need to see improvement, getting to the 20HR and 80RBI range, which while not completely out of the realm, it will be a stretch.
Look for Markakis to have a solid, steady season but get traded to an AL contender later in the summer, he could be the key piece for a team that is close, and his is a good guy, he deserves that opportunity.
With Markakis gone, Preston Tucker will take a spot. Tucker hit 13 HRs for Houston two years ago and is putting up some numbers in the Grapefruit League, but I don’t expect his production to come close to a standard Markakis season we have come to expect.
Starting Pitchers – The 91 Braves had two future hall-of-famers, a grizzled veteran in Charlie Leibrandt and another young phenom in lefty Steve Avery. Between the four, they won 67 games and a Cy Young award.
1991 was Glavine’s fourth full season and Smoltz’s third, and Steve Avery was in his first. A lot of youth with a lot of success, it is amazing looking back at their numbers.
Today, Julio Teheran is going into his sixth year, he has won 14 games twice, but to win, they need a Cy Young type year, a 20-win season and a true stopper. Mike Foltynewicz enters his third year, he won 10 last year for the first time in double digits, they will need 15 from him. Sean Newcomb showed promise last year, they will need that and more, perhaps 12 and newcomer Brandon McCarthy who has 63 career wins, they will need a Liebrandt type year with 13 wins. 60 wins from this top-4 will be a huge stretch.
Look for the Braves top starters to win 45, and a probable trade of McCarthy later in the year.
Bullpen – Even though it was a different era, the 91 Braves bullpen saw several players step up from time to time, Juan Berenguer was the team leader with a modest 17. This year, they need Arodys Vizcaino and his electric stuff to be lights out. They need to secure the close ones and not let them get away. Inconsistency has been the rule during the decline, but there will be no Jason Motte or Jim Johnson to blame this year, it’s up to Vizcaino. I feel he is up for the task and is ready to break out, to have one of those 40 save type years.
Rookie southpaw AJ Minter will also be an option for added depth, he will have the duty of getting the tough left-handed hitters out.
Projection – So where does that leave things? With the questions at third base and starting pitching, the Braves would need nine players to have career years (Albies, Swanson, whoever plays third, Acuna, Tehran, Folty, Newcomb, McCarthy and Vizcaino) to take raise another division flag. That is way too much to ask. My thought is for three of those guys come through (Albies, Acuna and Vizcaino), no one to take a major step back, Swanson to be steady and the team to win 76 games, which would be a four-game improvement from last year. They continue to get better, but still need time and experience to reach the next level.