It’s been a tough couple of years for Atlanta Braves fans, and that frustration is expected to continue in 2016 as the team continues to rebuild while looking ahead to moving into its new ballpark in Cobb County in 2017. That being said, 2016 could be especially long for the current face of the franchise, Freddie Freeman, who currently lacks protection and other players of his caliber around him.
A couple of years ago, Freeman was another power bat in a lineup that included the likes of Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, and Evan Gattis. After winning the division and 96 games in 2013, the Braves brass accepted the fact that they weren’t going to be able to keep all their marquee players long-term, which initiated a huge fire sale before Opening Day of last season. Shipped out were the likes of the aforementioned Upton, Heyward, and Gattis, along with Craig Kimbrel. Throughout the season, the team also dealt away setup men Jim Johnson, Luis Avilan, starter Alex Wood, veterans Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe, and finally rid themselves of Chris Johnson. The team did take on aging veterans Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher from the Indians in the Chris Johnson swap, but the team also garnered a lot of younger players and contract relief as well.
This offseason, the team put the final nail in the rebuilding coffin by dealing away fan favorite and arguably the games best defensive player in SS Andrelton Simmons to the Angels in exchange for a collection of highly touted prospects and Erick Aybar. While LHP Sean Newcomb is now considered the organization’s top pitching prospect, the trade further depleted the nucleus of players Braves fans expected to see for years to come.
With position players expected to report to spring training in a couple of days, Freeman and pitcher Julio Teheran are the only holdovers from that team that last claimed a division title in 2013. Furthermore, Freeman is surrounded in the lineup by up-and-comers and small ball players, rather than the boppers that protected him in years past. While guys like Nick Markakis, Aybar, A.J. Pierzynski, and newly acquired Ender Inciarte are all fine big league players, none of them possess the true power or fear you generally expect out of a three, four, or five hitter. Last season, Freeman predominantly hit third in an attempt to get him to plate in the first inning of every game. This year, the team might be better off going ahead and hitting him cleanup since he’s the best hitter on the team, and the most polished run producer. With contact guys Inciarte, Aybar, and Markakis hitting one through three, Freeman could have a lot of RBI opportunities. Manager Fredi Gonzalez tinkered with having Markakis hitting cleanup for a large portion of last season. While a great contact and on-base guy, Markakis didn’t hit his first homer of the season until July 20, and only had three all season in 156 games played.
30-year-old rookie Adonis Garcia surprised the Braves by belting 10 HRs in his first 191 big league at-bats, but he’s expected to split time at 3B with Kelly Johnson, whom the team brought back into the fold this offseason for his third stint with the club.
Cather A.J. Pierzynski had a resurgent year in 2015, stroking 9 HRs, and driving in 49 runs while hitting .300 with a .339 OBP. The Braves would love a repeat of that, but Pierzynski also is expected to split time behind the plate with pitch framing extraordinaire Tyler Flowers, who has returned to the club that originally drafted him. While he’s a nice role player, A.J. too isn’t able to offer the kind of protection Freeman needs to be at his most productive.
The wildcard in the Braves’ lineup will be Cuban export Hector Olivera, who was acquired from the Dodgers last season. While Olivera exhibits a lot of tools that have John Hart and the front office excited, he struggled trying to figure out big league pitching late last season. Granted, it was a small sample size, but Olivera hit .253 in 79 at-bats with 2 HRs and 11 RBIs. The team is also looking to shift him from 3B to LF for the upcoming season, so we’ll see if the new position and more experience can help the promising prospect blossom into the player the Braves envision.
While the Braves lineup is young, athletic, and able to make more contact that some of the lineups it has fielded in years past, the biggest question will be how many opportunities opposing teams will give Freeman to beat them. It’s easy to say on Feb. 20, “oh, just pitch around Freeman.” However, with speedy, contact hitters setting the tables ahead of him, there’s a good chance Freeman could do some real damage at times.
He could also very well lead the league in walks this season.
Coming off a nagging wrist injury that limited him to only 118 games in 2015, Freeman will need to stay healthy if the Braves have any shot at finishing better than their dismal 67-95 finish of a year ago.
While the team is set up nice for 2017 and beyond with the plethora of young arms and position players they’ve accumulated since John Hart and John Coppolella began calling the shots. It may be another frustrating year for the team’s franchise player whom they signed to an eight-year $135M contract after he finished fifth in the MVP voting after the 2013 season.
Braves projected lineup: 1. Ender Inciarte 2. Erick Aybar 3. Nick Markakis 4. Freddie Freeman 5. Adonis Garcia/Kelly Johnson 6. Hector Olivera 7. A.J. Pierzynski/Tyler Flowers 8. Jace Peterson/Gordon Beckham 9. Pitcher.