Answers On The Fly: A Reader Mailbag
Welcome to another installment of Answers On The Fly. Answers On The Fly is our reader mailbag feature, in which we answer questions sent in to us by our readers. Questions are generally related to the Atlanta Braves, but can also involve college football, good movies, good beer, good music, or bad NFL teams in and around the Atlanta area. The mailbag runs more or less weekly, and your questions are answered by a couple of our snarky, self-aggrandizing writers.
Submit your questions the following ways:
On Saturday, we published our very first podcast, during which we discussed the recent Hall of Fame ballot. Give it a listen here, and keep an eye out on this blog, iTunes or Google Play for future episodes.
On to the questions…
Why are we not pursuing a big bat at all so far this off season? With our moves thus far, a good number three bat would almost make us competitive if some of the young arms pan out.
– Chad F.
Cedar Grove, TN
Chris Jervis: There are a few reasons the Braves aren’t pursuing a big bat in fee agency, IMO. First, I don’t think the Braves feel they will be in a position that a big bat will be what puts them over the top into being competitive. The 2016 season is more about acquiring and developing players who will be expected to be part of the next Braves playoff team. Second, big bats are expensive. Jason Heyward and Alex Gordon signed for a combined $41M Average Annual Value. The general thought is that Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes will combine for a similar figure. There are other bats that were or are available, like Chris Davis and Pedro Alvarez. But that brings us to the third point, which is that we really don’t have a spot for any of the typical power bats. The OF is crowded already, with youngsters waiting to come up. First base is manned by Freddie Freeman. There is room available at third base, but there really isn’t a big third base bat available in free agency this season. And lastly, any money used to sign a free agent now is money that can’t be used to sign some of the international free agents whom we have already targeted, like Kevin Maitan.
The Braves have a plan in place that they feel will have them back in competition in the 2017 season, though I believe the 2018 season is a little more realistic. Trying to be competitive now, when there are few supporting pieces, could jeopardize the plan of building a long-term winner. It would seem to me that the Braves are going to continue acquiring young players that they can then use as pieces in a trade to acquire the final pieces, one of which I believe will be a power bat. That could happen this year, or it could happen next year. But because we aren’t hearing things publicly doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to do something.
Dan Horton: They could be looking and not telling or letting on that they are. Keeping the cards close is the way of the business. At this stage in the game though, I don’t know if a “big bat” is in the plans right now. I’d be willing to bet that the Braves keep with their current path. Look, we all have been told, or have at least inferred, that 2017 will be THE year. I would expect to see the big, productive offense addressed next off-season, when the money is more flexible and we have the ability to really go after the big free agents. I don’t see anything we have now returning a highly productive offensive piece. Then again, as the old saying goes, you can never have too much pitching. The Braves are loaded in that department, and what other teams want is controllable talent on the mound, and the Braves have more than enough of that.
Micah Smith: A good bat would be nice, but it won’t put us over the top. In my daydreams, I’ve contemplated ways it would be possible to add a bat through the free agent market this year because 1) there are some nice names still out there, and 2) next year’s free agent class is much weaker. However, keeping things in perspective, 2016 is not the Braves year to realistically compete; 2016 is the year to start clarifying what the Braves have, to sort through the jumble of talent filling the minor league – and major league – rosters (while still adding more). For instance, what do the Braves really have with Hector Olivera and Mallex Smith? How much will Dansby Swanson and Ozhaino Albies progress? Will Rio Ruiz bounce back from a tough year? Can Braxton Davidson take a step forward? Will Austin Riley continue to prove himself a legitimate hitter with massive power (and a good enough defender) after moving to full season ball? The system is heavy in talent; now it’s time for the Braves to sort out who is for real. As these players move up into the higher levels of the system next year, that picture will start to develop, which in turn will give the Braves a bit clearer view of what is needed where.
A second issue is cost. These players are not cheap, and free agents are usually getting paid for past performance. For instance, I really liked Alex Gordon. Alex Gordon just got a 4/$72 contract, meaning he will make an average annual salary of $18 through his age 35 season. That’s actually less than I thought he’d get (I expected more like 5/$100), but investing a lot of money in a few aging players is very risky for a mid-market team, and at least for this year the Braves are still l0wer-middle class when it comes to major league payrolls. Now, the good news is the Braves payroll is expected to go up quite a bit in 2017, but as I said previously, the free agent market is weak. However, the 2018 free agent market is shaping up to be an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of talent. Also, outside of free agency, the Braves have so much depth on the restocked farm that a trade almost seems more realistic, but unless there is a can’t-pass-it-up deal available, I don’t think the Braves are pushing for such a trade just yet.
Perhaps the most important reason the Braves likely won’t pursue a bat “just yet” was implied in your question. A big bat might make the Braves competitive in 2016 “if some of the young arms pan out.” Boy, that’s a big “if.” Don’t get me wrong. I think the system has some great arms, several of which are on the cusp of becoming household names, but asking three or four to “pan out” in 2016 is asking too much, in my opinion. Outside of the clear leader of the pitching staff – the almost 25-year-old Julio Teheran – there are two washed up reclamation projects in Bud Norris and Jhoulys Chacin and a ton of not-quite-there-yets with Matt Wisler leading the pack as potentially most reliable. Sure, Sean Newcomb could be the next big thing, Tyrell Jenkins made noise all the way up to AAA, Lucas Sims reclaimed some hype in Arizona, John Gant might be worth more than we gave, and Aaron Blair has “polish,” but as we saw last year, it’s most likely these young guns will have to take some lumps. Right now we can fantasize about their positive attributes, but when they each are eventually called upon to pitch to real major league hitters, we are going to wince watching glossed-over criticisms become real struggles against major league hitters. In real life, there are typically growing pains for young rookie pitchers, and some won’t overcome them. I think the Braves front office is realistically assuming the young staff will not instantly gel into a dominate force. It’s a safer bet the front office is crossing their collective fingers and toes in the hopes that a couple of these guys emerge as starting pitchers a competitive team can be built around in 2017 and 2018.
Do you think there will be any “bright spots” this coming season? Aside from your comments in your “forum”, can we hope, at least, to be entertained? I know “entertainment” is the last thing most are looking forward to but it helps during a season without much else.
– Lynne T.
Chris: There are always bright spots in a season, IMO. Even in the atrocious, 106-loss 1988 season, we were able to enjoy seeing young players like Tom Glavine, Ron Gant, John Smoltz, Pete Smith, Jeff Blauser, and Mark Lemke making their debuts or developing the skills that made them become key components of future playoff teams. Personally, I am very excited to see what steps forward are taken by Matt Wisler, as I thought he made some changes late in the seasons that really benefited him.
We very well could see some highly touted debuts this season. Mallex Smith will probably be up by mid-season. Sean Newcomb and Aaron Blair could be seen in 2016, as could John Gant (the “nobody” received when we traded Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson to the New York Mets). This season and next strike me as being very similar to the 1988 and 1989 seasons, in terms of young talent debuting. And, we know what happened after those young players debuted and were able to develop their skills.
If you consider a win as the only way of being entertained, then I’m not sure I have some good news for you. But, if you like watching young players and if you like watching a team gel together and scrap (much like the first half last season), then I think there will be plenty of entertainment and bright spots.
Dan: Yes. 2015 was a very entertaining season; well, at least the first half was. Once injuries mounted, it became less entertaining and more about playing for pride. Freddie Freeman will no doubt bounce back. Nick Markakis, after having a full off-season to increase strength and stamina, will be a lot more close to what he was in Baltimore. Remember, he didn’t have any chance to do that last year, and he will be Mr. Consistency again. I’m a huge Markakis fan and have been since watching him in person in Baltimore. In my opinion, and I could get tarred and feathered for what I’m about to say, but I think he was actually and upgrade over Heyward. He set a Major League record for consecutive games played without an error, was always on base, and was more of a leader than Heyward will ever let himself be. We have a good, serviceable young catcher back in Tyler Flowers who is head and shoulders better than A.J. Pierzynski and Christian Bethancourt could ever hope to be framing pitches. We upgraded the offensive part of that position when Bethancourt was sent packing, and he was painful to watch last year offensively. Watch out for Erick Aybar. Yes, we lost the best defensive SS in the game, but that’s it. Simmons was fun to watch, yes, but he was a one-dimensional player and Aybar gives you more than one dimension. Aybar will turn some heads. Anyway, I think the 2016 Braves will be a very entertaining squad to watch this year.
Micah: If you are looking for wins, then this won’t be a fun season. I am really excited for the season anyway. What I am looking for is not wins as much as growth and emergence. We have so much talent, and I am anxiously eager to see what happens when it starts hitting the major leagues. While I don’t think we will win many more games than last year, I do think this is the year we start finding some young kids whose name will be on the back of the next jersey we buy, the new “fan favorite.”
At the major league level, there are a few position players who will be interesting to watch, including Mallex Smith and Ender Inciarte, but I think I am most interested in seeing what happens with Hector Olivera. I personally think he will emerge into a solid hitter. He’s a curious counter-case to Jason Heyward. I say that because I only expect Olivera to be a solid role player, not a star; however, where Heyward had such a high bar that his solid production was disappointing, the bar for Olivera is so low that I think people will see his (likely lesser) production in a positive light as he beats the ridiculously low expectations (assuming health, which has always been my biggest concern).
Really, my entertainment is going to be focused on the emerging pitching. All those guys I named in the answer to the previous question excite me, and all are likely to be up at some point in 2016. Will all hit there ceilings? No, but that’s part of the excitement, isn’t it? And with all the talent, I’d expect several big hits amongst the misses. I’m really high on Blair, who has a bit of a Tim Hudson feel about him (yes, I went there). I don’t think he’s an ace, but he really seems to know how to pitch. Another guy I’m excited to see is one of our veterans, Matt Wisler. Yes, Wisler, by Braves standards, is a veteran, trailing only Teheran in wins as a Brave (40 wins for Teheran to 8 for Wisler). Wisler has the stuff to be a solid mid-rotation guy, and I’m hoping he shows that this year. The Braves are deep in pitching talent in the high minors, and I get the tingles thinking about watching this group emerge, watching the failures and successes, hopefully watching a couple of these guys rise to their ceilings as staff leaders, and maybe just maybe watching the next Clayton Kershaw‘s rookie season.
A final note is not to knock the minors when looking for “entertainment.” There is a palpable excitement through all levels, and it is worth following. We have great pitching at the lower levels, such as Touki Toussaint and Kolby Allard. The Braves might have some of the best rotations in the minor leagues next year. But nothing has me more excited than Albies and Swanson. My big question for 2016 is how far can they go? I think it’s realistic they both see AAA, and I’ll be disappointed with anything less than those two ending the year with great performances in AA.
What kind player is Swanson expected to be? Can he be a player to build a team around?
– Nick B.
Chris: Dansby Swanson is probably a little further along in development due to playing some college ball, which means that he is probably only two years away, rather than the typical four or more years of a high school draftee. He is said to have very good defensive instincts, and despite having played second base until his junior year, he projects as a good defensive shortstop. He has a very smooth, fluid swing that is easy to repeat, so he shouldn’t be subject to extended cold spells and mechanical breakdowns. He doesn’t have much power, but he should be good for 10 HR, and his line drive-type swing should generate a lot of doubles. He seems to be smart on the base paths, with solid but not spectacular speed that could be good for 20-25 stolen bases in his early years.
He’s been described as having ‘more floor than ceiling’. That’s not a knock on his talent, but an indication of how ready he probably is right now, and how consistent he is likely to be as a big leaguer. He’s probably not a guy that you would build a team around, like a Derek Jeter, but he’s likely to be a very key piece of a good team, maybe like an Omar Vizquel. Will Swanson be a star? Maybe. But he’s more likely to be a good starting shortstop for many years.
Dan: I’ve heard Swanson compared to Derek Jeter defensively and with better offensive projections. I can see him being in Atlanta and on the opening day roster in 2017. He is not expected to be in the Minors very long, and that is very, very promising and exciting. I think Swanson could be the second coming of Chipper Jones. I think he has the makings, tools, and desire right now to be. He won’t hit 30 HR a year, but he could probably give you 15-18 and drive in a ton of runs.
Micah: A guy I never hear Swanson compared to that always pops into my head is Dustin Pedroia. He’s got a really good sense of the strike zone and knows how to hit, leading to a good average and OBP. He’s a really good defender. He can steal double digit bases and hit double digit home runs for a nice speed/power combo that leans more toward the speed. He’ll drive in plenty of runs and probably score even more. But he won’t be the best in baseball – and possibly not the best on the team – at any of these things. He’s simply an all around great player. It’s odd that my praise almost seems like criticism, but I intend it as very high praise. This is the player that will stoke the irrational fires of hatred for ESPN’s “anti-Braves bias.” He won’t get the national publicity of a Bryce Harper or a Mike Trout, but everyone will respect him, and Braves fans will ravenously adore him as a “gamer” who brings a lot of value in both traditional and advanced stats, as well as a bucket full of “intangibles”…or he won’t pan out at all. (Sorry, just keeping it real.)
But let’s say he does pan out and meets my expectations as described above (which seems more reasonable based on what he brings to the table). Is this the guy you build your team around? I would say no in the sense that he’s not the best offensive juggernaut on the team, leading baseball in long-distance bombs and RBI’s and bat flips. I would say yes in the sense that some of the skills scouts rave about the most are his “makeup” and “baseball IQ.” This is a team leader-by-example who will have the stats and the work-ethic and the polish to earn respect in the clubhouse, the fan base, and the media.
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin sums him up the best: “He’s got tremendous awareness of what’s around him, and great instincts for the game. He’s savvy. He’s just a very good package of a lot of different things.”