Braves 2016 Preview Series: Infield

The 2016 Braves Positional Preview Series examines who could comprise the 25-man roster on Opening Day as well as players who could make a difference this season and beyond. A new preview will be released each Monday, with accompanying podcasts featuring special guests coming out each week as well.

  • Part 1 – Catchers
  • Part 2 – Infield
  • Part 3 – Outfield
  • Part 4 – Starting Rotation
  • Part 5 – Bullpen
  • Part 6 – Top Prospects

 

 

Freddie Freeman | 1B | Age: 26 | Contract Status: 6-years, $118.5 million

As the Braves continued the process of rebuilding the club this offseason, it became clear that first baseman Freddie Freeman was the one player who isn’t going to be dealt away. Exactly how clear? General manager John Coppolella made a pretty bold declaration:

“I cannot make it any more clear. We are not trading Freddie Freeman,” he told USA Today in November. “We are not. I’d give my right arm before we trade Freddie Freeman. It is not happening.”

It’s unusual to see any GM put life and limb, or at least limb, on the line to keep a player in his team’s uniform. However, it’s a stance that Coppolella has not backed down from, even if that exact quote may not have been meant for public consumption. Freeman is a cornerstone player for the Atlanta Braves and over the last 18 months, those have been in increasingly short supply. Freeman signed the biggest of the long term extensions handed out by then-GM Frank Wren in early 2014. At eight-years and $135 million, it is the largest contract in franchise history. With the market yielding bigger and bigger free agent deals each winter, it may end up being a bargain when all is said and done. But that, of course, depends on a healthy and productive Freeman to make it happen.

Over his first four full major league seasons, Freeman averaged a .287/.368/.466 line with 21 HR and 89 RBI in 153 games. A mid-season wrist ailment and subsequent oblique injury resulted in two trips to the disabled list last season. Prior to tweaking his wrist, Freeman was batting .299/.367/.520 with 12 homers in 66 games. He then spent five weeks on the shelf, only to return for 10 games before the oblique cost him another 15 days. Freeman batted just .248/.380/.408 with six homers in his final 198 PA and was only available off the bench in the final series of the season as the wrist flared up again. Even though his 2015 was marred by injury, Freeman had proven extremely durable after playing all 162 games and logging a major league-leading 1,449 innings in 2014. A fiery competitor, he prides himself on being on the field from start to finish. Freeman is hoping that foregoing surgery in favor of a winter’s worth of rest will allow the wrist to get back to normal this season.

Injuries cost Freeman 44 games last year as he batted .276, which ranked 22nd among all first basemen. His 18 home runs ranked 18th, but were enough to lead the light-hitting Braves, as were his 66 RBI. With a top of the order that should be improved by the additions of Ender Inciarte and Erick Aybar (more on that later), Freeman could stand to get more chances to be a run producer in 2016. Nick Markakis and Hector Olivera did not provide much in the way of power last season, but both men will be counted on to protect Freeman in the heart of the Atlanta lineup this year.

Jace Peterson | 2B | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

One of the many players obtained in the slew of trades last winter, Jace Peterson had a 2015 season that had some definite peaks and valleys. After a slow start, he heated up and seemed to find himself at the plate in late April. For the next 50 games, Peterson batted .309/.389/.426 with 12 doubles, two homers, 20 RBI and 24 runs scored in 210 PA. That impressive production was driven in part by an unsustainable .357 BABIP, but also included 25 BB against just 31 K during that stretch. However, in his other 102 games, Peterson was a .201/.274/.288 hitter with just 31 walks and 89 K in 379 PA, course corrected by a .258 BABIP.

The numbers aren’t the only consideration when it comes to Peterson. He brings some intangibles to the table that the Braves coaching staff consistently praise. Though he may have been just a league average player with a 0.5 WAR, Peterson was middle of the pack or better among National League second basemen in several categories:

56 BB (1st) | .314 OBP (7th) | .649 OPS (8th) | 52 RBI (9th)

Peterson is an average defender, but an extremely hard worker. When he had early season trouble turning double plays, he was out on the field for early work which helped him correct that issue in short order. Peterson has the ability to grind out at-bats, though it was not on display quite as much over the final three months of the season. He finished third on the team with a 9.4 BB%, which was second best among all major league second basemen last season.

His base running, particularly in the stolen base department, is an area that needs some improvement. Peterson was just 12 for 22 in stolen base attempts last season. Moreover, playing time may not be quite as plentiful in 2016. Peterson batted .190/.234/.276 in 114 PA against left-handers. With the signings of other veteran infielders who can play second base and hit lefties at a higher clip, Peterson will have to show drastic improvement in a few areas in year two with Atlanta if he wants to maintain a chance to be an everyday player.

Erick Aybar | SS | Age: 32 | Contract Status: 1-year, $8.5 million

Shortstop will be a very different story than it has been since late 2012. Andrelton Simmons took defense to an entirely different level in his three and a half seasons in Atlanta. With that said, comparing these two men would be a substantial waste of time. I say that for the sake of clarity and insuring the brevity of this particular portion of the preview. Erick Aybar will likely offer more consistent offense, but replacing the otherworldly defense that Simmons brought to the table will be next to impossible. That said, Aybar is solid, if not spectacular, in his own right and a proven major league shortstop who should make steady contributions in 2016. Coming over from the Angels as part of the return for Simmons in a mid-November trade, $2.5 million of Aybar’s $8.5 million salary will be paid by Los Angeles.

As for what he offers on the field, Aybar was an American League all-star in 2014 and a gold glove winner in 2011. He’s averaged a .278/.318/.383 line with six homers, 51 RBI, 18 stolen bases and 2.7 WAR over the last seven seasons in Anaheim, but is coming off a bit of a down year in 2015. Aybar batted .270/.301/.338 with only three homers, 44 RBI and 15 steals, turning in a meager 81 OPS+ (second lowest of his career). Will he continue to regress slightly in 2016? It’s possible, but he still does enough with the bat and the glove to be a 2.0 WAR player for Atlanta.

With a solid all-around game that includes the ability to hit for contact and run the bases well, GM John Coppolella is excited about having Aybar and Inciarte setting the table for Freeman and others this season.

“Those two guys can hit at the top of the lineup and give us a little bit of a different look that what we’ve had in the past,” Coppelella told me at the Winter Meetings last month. “If you add them to our present lineup, we think we have a chance to be a better team in 2016. Look, I don’t want to cast any expectations on our team saying we’re going to win 100 games or not win 100 games, but I think our fans are going to see a better team. We’re going to see a team that’s going to play the game the right way. It’s going to get on base, run the bases well and do all the little things. It would have been really easy in the trade we made for Shelby Miller or for Andrelton Simmons to just go straight prospects, but in each deal we got back big league value players that play up the middle spots, shortstop and center field, and they’re both guys that we really like a lot.”

Adonis Garcia | 3B | Age: 30 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

In one of the more surprising developments of the winter, Adonis Garcia seems to have the inside track on the starting job at the hot corner. After putting on a power display as a 30-year-old rookie with 10 homers in 191 at-bats in 2015, he may have played his way into a larger role at the very least. A fellow Cuban and Garcia’s longtime friend, Hector Olivera was believed to be Atlanta’s third baseman of the immediate future when he was acquired from the Dodgers last summer. The news of Olivera shifting to the outfield full-time is another of the winter’s more fascinating storylines. He may still factor into the equation, but I’m going to save him for the outfield preview. Given Garcia’s immediate success at the plate and an apparent position change for Olivera, both Coppolella and President of Baseball Operations John Hart suggested that Garcia will get first crack at becoming Atlanta’s regular third baseman. If for no other reason, the Braves want to find out what they have.

The flash of power shown by Garcia in the final two months opened some eyes, but a few red flags come along with that pleasant surprise. There was no indication in his minor league days to expect Garcia to hit home runs in bulk. In fact, he’d hit just 21 homers in 1,195 at-bats since coming stateside as a Yankees farmhand in 2012, where I saw him play for High-A Tampa in his first stop. The fact remains, the power manifested itself at the big league level in a way not seen since his days in Cuba. Whether or not it’s here to stay is another question. Realistically, 10-15 home runs may not be out of the question, but Garcia’s walk rate was very low (just five walks in 198 PA with Atlanta). He’ll have to be able to find his way on base at a high enough clip to warrant every day at-bats, and that is a definite concern following a .293 OBP in 58 games last season. To that point, his work against right-handers may be a deciding factor, with left-hand hitting Kelly Johnson available to spell him. It’s also worth noting that Garcia’s glove work leaves something to be desired, as evidenced by 10 errors in just 96 chances at third base last season.

As of this writing, Garcia had not slowed down whatsoever in winter ball, where he’s batting a robust .370/.430/.519 with 12 XBH, 22 RBI and 21 runs scored in 36 games for Navegantes del Magallanes in Venezuela. The offensive potential from the late-bloomer is intriguing, but Garcia is going to have to produce consistently to make the third base job his own. With veterans like Johnson and Gordon Beckham around, manager Fredi Gonzalez won’t be lacking options.

Gordon Beckham | INF | Age: 29 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.25 million

A product of the University of Georgia who was selected by the White Sox as the eighth overall pick in the first round of the 2008 draft, Gordon Beckham signed as a free agent with Atlanta over the winter. Approaching 30 years old, much of the shine has worn off, but Beckham could serve a valuable role for the Braves in 2016. He’s spent his entire career in the American League, most of it with the White Sox. After finishing fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2009, Beckham struggled to live up to his top prospect billing in the six seasons that followed. His career .242/.304/.372 line in nearly 3,200 plate appearances includes some occasional power (69 homers in 2,874 at-bats) to go along with a solid contribution on defense. At the very least, Beckham serves as an insurance policy at both second and third base, where Atlanta appears to be heading into the season with Peterson and Garcia respectively. With virtually identical numbers against both righties and lefties, Beckham could also allow Gonzalez the flexibility of playing some daily match-ups that may prove advantageous.

Kelly Johnson | INF | Age: 34 | Contract Status: 1-year, $2 million

A versatile platoon player who is in his third stint with the Braves, Kelly Johnson enjoyed a nice bounce-back season in 2015. His odyssey started in Atlanta and wound up in the World Series with the New York Mets. All the while, Johnson proved a valuable and steady performer for both clubs. He batted .265/.314/.435 with 14 homers in 111 games, easily his best overall output since 2010. Johnson hit .279 with nine of those homers in just 182 at-bats with the Braves before being dealt to the Mets in July. Not only was he producing at the plate, but Johnson also played all over the place for Atlanta and New York. He started games at all four infield positions and both corner outfield spots last year. When a team goes looking for versatility, that would certainly qualify. Johnson has played for eight different clubs in a 10-year career and returned to the Braves to continue playing the game he loves while doing so close to home. As Mark Bowman of MLB.com writes, Johnson’s son, Cole, was a catalyst for this latest reunion. It should give his father the opportunity to plug and play and produce yet again.

Emilio Bonifacio | INF | Age: 29 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.25 million

Adding depth to the bench brings Emilio Bonifacio back to Atlanta after an abysmal stop with the White Sox in 2015. He offers speed and versatility, including the ability to play the outfield. Bonifacio, like his old teammate Beckham, received a one-year pact with a low base salary. He batted just .167/.198/.192 in 82 PA over 47 games as a reserve before being designated for assignment by Chicago in August. Bonifacio caught on across town with the Cubs, but never made it back to the majors. At least he finished on a higher note, batting .469/.544/.510 in a brief 13 game stint for Triple-A Iowa to close the season. That proves he didn’t somehow completely forget how to hit, but he enters spring training with much to prove. A switch-hitting veteran of nine seasons with 165 career stolen bases, Bonifacio brings a speed dynamic that no other potential Braves reserve infielder can boast.

Daniel Castro | INF | Age: 23 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Don’t expect Daniel Castro to be completely lost in the shuffle. The young infielder put himself on the radar last spring and earned some time in Atlanta in 2015, even getting semi-regular playing time down the stretch in September. Castro signed with the Braves as a 16-year-old out of Mexico in 2009. He had a slow ascent through the system at first and avoided being plucked away in the Rule 5 draft last winter. A competent hitter with a line drive swing, Castro puts the ball in play at a very high rate. He has struck out just 114 times in 1,292 minor league plate appearances. Castro brings a steady glove to the mix and is comfortable at either shortstop or second base. He will have to fight it out this spring with Bonifacio and Beckham to serve in a utility role, with a return to Triple-A Gwinnett not out of the question.

Non-Roster Invitees

There are a handful of minor league free agent signings in camp fighting for a spot as well. Reid Brignac, 30, probably has the most major league experience of the bunch. A perennial top prospect who flashed some power in the Tampa Bay system after being selected in the second round in 2004, Brignac enjoyed some success in 2010. He batted .256 with eight homers and 45 RBI in 113 games during his first full season. Since then, he has hit just .189  in 208 games for Rays, Rockies, Yankees, Phillies and Marlins. Brignac can play short, second and third, but he’s a long shot to crack the 25-man roster on opening day… Nate Freiman, 29, is a 6-8, 250-pound first baseman who saw some big league time with Oakland in 2013 and 2014. He was a Rule 5 draftee from the Padres to the Astros and then claimed off waivers by the A’s. He’s turned in a .256/.309/.408 line in 301 PA, hitting nine home runs in 116 games. Freiman is coming off a season in which he hit .220 with just four homers in 79 games at Triple-A. The burly, right-handed hitter has slugged 20 or more home runs three times in his seven professional seasons and owns a .285/.356/.469 minor league line. Freiman lacks the versatility to play multiple positions, thus making his quest for a roster spot an up-hill climb with Freddie Freeman manning first base in Atlanta… Chase d’Arnaud, 29, is the older brother of Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud, but has not enjoy the same success at the major league level. The elder d’Arnaud has seen time with the Pirates and Phillies, hitting just .205/.231/.277 in 175 PA over 75 games. A shortstop by trade, he has increased his versatility by morphing into more of a super-utility type in recent years. D’Arnaud has good speed (211 steals in 264 minor league attempts) and a good arm, but lacks any real stand-out tools. Once a Top 10 prospect after being drafted by Pittsburgh in the fourth round of the 2008 draft, he is looking to make an impression this spring or, more likely, with Gwinnett in hopes of getting back to the big leagues in 2016…  A trio of Top Prospects, including SS Dansby Swanson, SS Ozzie Albies and 3B Rio Ruiz all received non-roster invitations. They will each be profiled in my Prospect Preview on February 8th.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. All statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted. Subscribe to his podcast, “Around the Big Leagues” on (iTunes) or (Stitcher).

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