With the start of spring training now only a month and a half away, it’s time to look at the teams the organization has assembled this offseason and try to figure out where all these players will actually play. We kick of the series with the position of most stability, headed by the organization’s best player.
STARTER: Freddie Freeman
From the beginning of the 2017 season until he was struck with a pitch that fractured his left wrist, Freeman was batting .341/.461/.748, good for a 203 wRC+ and was the clubhouse leader in the NL MVP race. When he returned from that injury on Independence Day through the end of the season, he hit .292/.375/.515, 128 wRC+, a period of time where he famously said he felt like he was “swinging a wet newspaper”. In other words, he’s roughly as productive of an offensive player as Buster Posey or Nolan Arenado hitting with a still-mending wrist.
We’re still waiting for that full season of dominance from Freeman, but all of the ingredients are present for him to claim the title of best first baseman in baseball.
BACK-UP: Nick Markakis
When Freeman went out with his fractured wrist, the Braves were caught short-handed. Planned back-up Sean Rodriguez was already on the DL at the start of the season, and utilityman Jace Peterson was pressed into duty until the Braves traded prospect Juan Yepez to the Cardinals for Matt Adams. Adams hit very well in Freeman’s absence, but his presence on the roster when Freeman returned caused convulsions as he was a bat too good for the bench, but a glove too bad to play left field. That lead to a strange mid-season experiment with Freeman playing third base for the first time since A-ball. That experiment didn’t last long, but going into 2018 the plan again seems to be to hope very, very hard that Freeman won’t have to miss time.
Nick Markakis logged one game at first base in 2017, running his career appearances at the position to 6. That’s probably good enough to be the emergency back-up on the team until the Braves can make a call to Gwinnett or make another emergency trade. Let’s all hope Plan A – Freddie Freeman playing close to 162 games – can stay in effect.
GWINNETT STRIPERS (CLASS AAA)
STARTER: Carlos Franco
With primary 2017 first baseman Matt Tuiasosopo or another option unsigned at the time of this writing, first base seems to belong to Carlos Franco, who provided punch to the Gwinnett line-up after he was promoted from Mississippi last May, and tallied 21 round-trippers between the two teams last year. Challenged at third with a lack of range as his body has matured over the last several years, he has good hands and should be a better fit at first base.
BACK-UP: Rio Ruiz
Ruiz logged five appearances at first base for Gwinnett in 2017 as well as two for Atlanta. Increased positional versatility can only help Ruiz’s chances to one day stick in the majors, so expect him to see continued looks at the position.
MISSISSIPPI BRAVES (CLASS AA)
STARTER (Promotion): Carlos Castro
On May 10 last season, Castro had what will likely be the game of his life, a 5-for-5, 3 home run performance for the Florida Fire Frogs. At the conclusion of that game, Castro was hitting .345/.377/.534. The next day Castro would be struck in the face with a pitch, an injury that would require an ambulance ride to the local hospital. Castro would return 20 days later, but would only hit .252/.269/.368 the rest of the way. While his early success was in no way sustainable, hopefully any residual effects of the injury will dissipate. Castro swings at pretty much everything, but has good power when he connects; he could actually see more success as he climbs the organizational ladder as pitchers tend to throw more around the plate and trust their stuff to get batters out.
**TOP 50 PROSPECT** BACK-UP: Jonathan Morales
Catcher Jonathan Morales logged 18 appearances at first base for Mississippi in 2017. The Braves seem to be trying to turn some of their catchers into utility players, perhaps with the idea that regular 8-man bullpens and 4-man benches that seem to be the future of the major league roster will require extreme positional flexibility. A dark horse candidate at first base is minor league free agent Michael Snyder, a former Angels prospect who has hit 50 home runs over the last two seasons with the independent South Maryland Blue Crabs of the independent Atlantic League.
FLORIDA FIRE FROGS (CLASS A+)
STARTER: Braxton Davidson
Former first-round draft pick Braxton Davidson seems ticketed for his third year at the high-A level. Davidson played first base in instructionals this fall, seemingly in anticipation of having to make room for the slew of outfielders expected to emerge from Rome. Davidson primarily played first base in high school and is more athletic now, so he shouldn’t have difficulty with the transition. Davidson’s hitting approach seems to careen between being too aggressive at the plate and being too passive. He still has impressive power potential, but his swing is still too long and his pitch recognition too poor to consistently bring it into games. Going into his fifth minor league season, this may be a make-or-break year for Davidson with the Braves.
**TOP 50 PROSPECT** BACK-UP (Promotion): Drew Lugbauer
Lugbauer primarily played third base with Michigan and first base with Rome, but the Braves insist they will still primarily look at him as a catcher. This goes with the idea that they want to develop catchers that can fill in easily at other positions. Even if Lugbauer does primarily catch, he will be in the line-up everyday with looks at first and third base as well as designated hitter. Another catcher with plenty of experience on the corners, minor league Rule V draftee Skyler Ewing, could be a factor here as well.
ROME BRAVES (CLASS A)
STARTER (Promotion): Austin Bush
A big guy (6′-6″, 220 pounds) with a big swing, Bush was a 15th-round pick in 2017 out of UC-Santa Barbara, where he had just set the Gaucho’s single-season home run record. Assigned to Rome after the draft, Bush picked up where he left off in college, getting 8 hits in his first 5 games and swatting a monster home run. South Atlantic League hurlers quickly got the hint and stopped throwing him strikes. Bush did not respond well and hit only .169/.258/.253 with only one home run and striking out 32.3% until the Braves mercifully sent him down to Danville. Bush did to Appalachian League pitching what you would hope high-level collegiate hitters would do, hitting .273/.368/.530 with 3 homers in his month with Danville, though he did still strike out at a greater than 30% rate. Still, the power is intriguing enough for the Braves to likely give Bush another crack at low-A to start the season.
BACK-UP: Anthony Concepcion
Concepcion played all season at Rome in 2017, compiling a .228/.321/.329 batting line while playing first base and both corner outfield positions. Going into his age 23 season Concepcion isn’t really a prospect, but is capable enough in this role though defensively he’s more comfortable in the outfield.
DANVILLE BRAVES (Rookie League)
STARTER: Griffin Benson
Benson started the 2017 as Danville’s primary first baseman, but was essentially displaced by Austin Bush after Bush was demoted in August. Overall he only hit .234/.325/.285 in his age 19 season. A 23rd round draft pick, Benson is young enough to hope that he can improve rapidly at the plate, but guys that don’t hit in the rookie leagues and and can only play first base are pretty much the most replaceable people in professional baseball.
BACK-UP: Nicholas Vizcaino
Vizcaino is a 20-year-old non-drafted minor league free agent the Braves picked up early in 2017. The GCL Braves essentially had no set first baseman in 2017, and Vizcaino ended up getting 152 plate appearances with the club, hitting .259/.329/.348. My conclusion about Benson applies here as well.
With Freddie Freeman under team control for at least another four seasons, first base is one position where a lack of system depth isn’t a critical issue. If for some reason the Braves needed to produce a homegrown first baseman in the relative short term, top third base prospect Austin Riley would be the most likely to move over to assume the role.
OFR TOP 5 FIRST BASE PROSPECT RANKINGS:
- Drew Lugbauer
- Carlos Franco
- Carlos Castro
- Braxton Davidson
- Austin Bush