2017 Atlanta Braves Season Preview

Aaron Doster—USA TODAY Sports
Mar 16

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Atlanta Braves have confidence that the offensive improvement they showed the final two months a year ago wasn’t a mirage, and they think that the three stop-gap veteran starters added for 2017 will stabilize the rotation.If that is the case, the Braves could outperform most predictions and avoid a third straight losing season as they move into their new suburban ballpark just outside Atlanta.The Braves won 20 of their last 30 games in 2016 to finish 37-35 after the All-Star break, and that took some of the sting away from another season of more than 90 loses.”We had a really good second half,” Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said. “The players feel that they can compete and win this year.”The Braves went from averaging 3.4 runs per game to 5.2 after acquiring veteran outfielder Matt Kemp from the San Diego Padres and promoting shortstop Dansby Swanson from the minors.First baseman Freddie Freeman thrived with Kemp batting behind him and there were usually runners on base, with center fielder Ender Inciarte turning red hot from the leadoff spot.”We all liked where we were at the end of last season,” said manager Brian Snitker, who took over a team that was 9-28 before Fredi Gonzalez was fired.The pitching, though, remained iffy in 2016 and the bulk of the young mound talent the Braves have acquired in their rebuilt is still a year or more away.That’s why the Braves signed 40-somethings Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey and traded for Jamie Garcia.”We added three veteran pitchers and didn’t touch our farm system,” general manager John Coppolella said. “I think we’ve given ourselves a much better chance to compete this year.”Two-time All-Star Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz, impressive this spring, fill out the rotation and veteran Jim Johnson was re-signed as the closer.If the Braves are to win 80 or more games, though, it likely will be mainly because of their lineup, which was further boosted with the addition of second baseman Brandon Phillips.”I feel we can go out there and win, especially with these veteran guys we brought in,” said Kemp, who had 35 homers and 108 RBIs with the Braves and Padres last year. “Hopefully the last two months (of 2016) can be a whole season.””When we traded for Matt, it showed we were ready to win,” said Freeman, who had 34 homers and hit .302 a year ago after batting .365 in the final 50 games. “The optimism is high. It should be an exciting season.”ROOKIE WATCH: SS Dansby Swanson, 22, just got under the limit to still be a rookie this season when he hit .302 in 129 at-bats and also more than held his own defensively last season. The Braves pulled a heist when they obtained the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft from Arizona along with CF Ender Inciarte in a trade for RHP Shelby Miller. Swanson, fully recovered after missing two weeks in spring training with a side strain, is sure to be a fan favorite at the team’s new ballpark in suburban Cobb County, where the former Vanderbilt All-American grew up.ON THE RISE: CF Ender Inciarte, 26, hit .341 in the second half after an early DL stint to finish at .291 with a .351 on-base percentage and won a Gold Glove in his first year with the Braves. The reward was a five-year contract extension worth $30.5 million. “I think we’ve got one of the best center fielders in all of baseball,” said John Hart, the Braves’ president of baseball operations.BACKSLIDING: RHP Matt Wisler was the key piece in the return for closer Craig Kimbrel in the trade with the San Diego Padres two years ago and he showed promise as a rookie in 2016. Wisler, 24, took a step back last year, though, as he went 7-13 with a 5.00 ERA and will start this season back in Triple-A. He wouldn’t necessarily be the first starter promoted by the Braves, either. That could be RHP Aaron Blair or LHP Sean Newcomb.PLAYER NOTES:• 1B Freddie Freeman should benefit from the Braves’ move to SunTrust Park, which offers a much more intriguing target for left-handed hitters to shoot for. It is just 375 feet to right-center compared to 395 feet at Turner Field and only 325 feet down the line, although the wall is 16 feet high. Freeman, 27, hit a career-high 34 homers last season, with 16 in the final 50 games, and finished sixth in voting for the National League MVP.• RHP Julio Teheran will become just the third Atlanta pitcher to get four consecutive starts on Opening Day when he faces the Mets in New York on April 2, joining Greg Maddux (1993-1996) and Rick Mahler (1985-1988). “He’s our guy,” manager Brian Snitker said. Teheran, 26, made the All-Star Game for the second time last season and is being counted on to be a true ace this year after going 7-10 with a 3.21 ERA in 2016.• 2B Brandon Phillips, who grew up just outside Atlanta, will get to play at home this season after a trade from the Cincinnati Reds and the veteran gives the Braves the opportunity to not rush infield prospect Ozzie Albies. “For this year, I think he’s going to be a perfect fit,” said John Hart, the Braves’ president of baseball operations. “Brandon buys us time.” Phillips, 35, is in the final season of a long-term contract and the Reds are paying all except $1 million of his salary.• LF Matt Kemp reported to spring training in much better shape than when he was traded to Atlanta by San Diego last season and seems poised for a productive full season if he can stay healthy. Kemp, 32, hit .280 with 12 homers and 39 RBIs in 56 games with the Braves, finishing with 35 homers and 108 RBIs overall. “I think when Matt came over here, he got a new life,” said John Hart, the Braves’ president of baseball operations.