2018 Braves Positional Preview: Infield
The Atlanta Braves infielders will be an interesting group to watch for a variety of reasons. Heading that contingent is All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman. He was on his way to a career-year when a broken wrist put him on the shelf for six weeks in 2017. Meanwhile, Dansby Swanson struggled through his rookie season just as Ozzie Albies made his big league debut. Throw in a question mark at third base and the Braves head to spring training looking for some answers.
Freddie Freeman | 1B | Age: 28 | Contract Status: 4-years, $86 million
Oh, what could have been for Freddie Freeman in 2017. After putting together an MVP-caliber start, his season was derailed by a broken left wrist. Then things got weird. “Freddie Freeman, third baseman” became a thing for a couple of weeks. Eventually he moved back to first base, where he closed out one of the best all-around seasons of his career. Building off of a terrific 2016 campaign, Freeman set new career-highs in on-base percentage and slugging percentage as he matched his best OPS+. While Freeman made it back to the Atlanta lineup ahead of schedule, there’s no doubt that he will have benefited from some extended rest this winter.
Just how good was Freeman’s 2017 campaign going before that wrist injury on May 17? He was leading the National League with 14 home runs, a .748 slugging percentage, a 1.209 on-base plus slugging, ranked second with 26 extra-base hits and third with 35 runs scored. His .341 batting average was also the sixth best in the NL. It was an insanely hot start on the heels of a torrid finish to the 2016 season. Over a 162-game span from July 27, 2016 to September 17, 2017, Freeman posted a .332/.436/.638 line with 51 doubles, 44 homers, 124 RBI, 130 runs scored, 10 steals, 106BB/141K in 603 AB. Sure, it’s not all in one calendar year, but Freeman’s emergence as one of the premier power-hitting first basemen in the game is complete.
Last season also represented a noticeable spike in Freeman’s annual salary, which will be roughly $21 million through 2021, his age 31 season. With Freeman in the prime of his career, the Braves are hoping an influx of youth and new talent can help bring the club back into contention. While 2018 appears to be a long shot, the Braves are finally in a position to reap the rewards of their rebuild. Freeman remains a central figure in the Atlanta lineup, but will need some help in the middle of the order if the Braves want to make some noise in the National League East and beyond.
Ozzie Albies | 2B | Age: 21 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
The much-heralded Ozzie Albies made his big league debut in 2017 and did not disappoint. A speedy middle infielder who transitioned from shortstop to second base over the past two seasons, Albies does just about everything well and packs surprising pop from his 5-foot-9 frame. At just 21 years old, he has routinely been the among the youngest players at each level he has played. That culminated with his promotion to the majors in August. Entering the 2018 season, Albies has still yet to face a pitcher who is younger than him in his professional career.
A switch-hitter with a high-leg kick and a quick bat, the Braves’ first look at Albies in the big leagues was certainly promising. He batted .286/.354/.456 across 217 at-bats, belting six homers among 20 extra-base hits. He has top of the charts speed and runs the bases extremely well, evidenced by his eight steals in nine attempts. Albies hit .304 in 1,555 minor league at-bats and won the Southern League batting title in 2016. Last season, he began driving the ball more and hitting it on the ground less. That’s a trend among hitters in today’s game looking to maximize production through improved launch angle and higher exit velocity. Though he won’t be eligible for Rookie of the Year consideration in 2018, Albies seems primed to be one of the top young players in the National League.
Dansby Swanson | SS | Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
The 2017 season was filled with ups and downs for Dansby Swanson, a local product who was propelled through the minor leagues and straight to Atlanta just over a year after being the top pick in the 2015 June draft. Swanson started slowly at the plate and was exploited by a steady diet of breaking balls. Unfortunately for Swanson, his struggles extended to the field as well. He batted just .189 and committed 11 errors over his first 49 games, though his fielding improved in the second half (9 errors in 93 games). With the emergence of Johan Camargo as a viable option at shortstop, Swanson was demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett at midseason.
To his credit, he took the set-back in stride, said the right things and put in the work in order to rejoin Atlanta a couple of weeks later. At the plate, there was one pitch that gave Swanson a considerable amount of trouble. According to Statcast, Swanson saw sliders 20.8 percent of the time, the fourth highest percentage among qualified hitters in 2017. Invariably, he is going to have to show that he can hit the breaking ball in order to force pitcher to adjust. There were far too many peaks and valleys offensively for a player who’d been a consistent performer during his high school and college career. The rapid rise through the minors did not allow for much seasoning and required more on the job training at the big league level than most players are subjected to.
It’s safe to say that 2017 was, by in large, a disappointment for Swanson. The limited look in the minors and solid first impression in 2016 had many hoping that he’d be able to make a seamless transition to the majors. While that wasn’t the case, there is still plenty of reason to believe that he can develop into a productive every day player. An outstanding all-around talent with the makeup that helped him navigate through a challenging rookie season, Swanson will embark on a pivotal 2018 campaign with redemption on his mind.
Johan Camargo | INF | Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
Perhaps no player in the Braves organization has made a better impression in a shorter amount of time than Johan Camargo. Known mostly for his cannon-like arm, Camargo had been a light-hitting shortstop over the first three seasons of his minor league career. All of that began to change at Double-A Mississippi in 2016 when he collected a career-high 36 extra-base hits and was added to Atlanta’s 40-man roster over the winter. That move surprised some at the time, but turned out to be the right call.
Camargo’s bat took another step forward in 2017. It started in spring training when he began to generate some buzz as a dark horse candidate to crack the 25-man roster. Though he would start the season in Triple-A Gwinnett, Camargo wouldn’t stay down there for long. After a hot start, he worked his way to Atlanta to stay by mid-summer. The switch-hitter batted .299/.331/.452 with 21 doubles, four home runs and 27 RBI in 241 AB while making 30 starts third base, 23 at shortstop and another half a dozen at second base.
His emerging bat and defensive versatility lead many to wonder what the best role for Camargo will be. The Braves head into 2018 without a clear-cut third baseman, though that could change in the lead up to opening day. Camargo has certainly shown enough promise to the compete for that job in spring training, but the jury remains out on where he fits in Atlanta’s long-term plan.
Charlie Culberson | INF | Age: 28 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
The Braves added a slick-fielding reserve option when they plucked Georgia native Charlie Culberson from the Dodgers in the December trade that sent Matt Kemp back to Los Angeles. Culberson grew up in Calhoun, Georgia, and was a first round selection by the San Francisco Giants in the 2007 draft. He’s bounced around some since then, playing parts of five seasons in the major leagues with the Giants, Colorado Rockies and Dodgers. Culberson’s bat has not produced enough to earn him regular playing time or a regular spot. That was not the case in the postseason in 2017, however. Culberson filled in for the injured Corey Seager in the NLDS and came through with some key hits in the NLCS as well. Altogether, he batted .500 with four extra-base hits and four runs scored in his 16 playoff at-bats.
Upon taking the general manager post with Atlanta, Alex Anthopoulos said he would like to take steps to improve Atlanta’s defense. The Braves were tied for 26th in the majors with -43 defensive runs saved in 2017 according to FanGraphs. Divesting themselves of Kemp (-17 DRS) was a good start. Adding the sure-handed Culberson was another good step. With a pitching staff built around young arms for the foreseeable future, run prevention is a key component to their combined success. While Culberson is just a .231 hitter and doesn’t figure to nab too many starting assignments, his value as a platoon player and late-inning defensive replacement should not be overlooked. He could ably step in should there be an injury to one of Atlanta’s starting infielders and can also play the outfield.
Rio Ruiz | 3B | Age: 23 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
One of the many prospects acquired via trade as Atlanta began its rebuild after the 2014 season, Rio Ruiz got his first extended taste of the big leagues in 2017. Originally a fourth round draft pick by Houston in 2012, Ruiz has worked tirelessly to improve his conditioning and glove work over the past two seasons. After bouncing between Triple-A Gwinnett and Atlanta last summer, Ruiz was never able to seize the starting third base job. He’ll come to spring training hoping to get another opportunity. With Johan Camargo also looking for regular at-bats, it will be an interesting competition between two young players at third base for the Braves. Of course, that is barring any further offseason acquisitions that may occur in the coming weeks and months in advance of opening day.
Ruiz’s power numbers spiked in 2017, with a career-high 20 home runs among his 52 extra-base hits between the minors and majors. However, he batted just .193 and struck out 41 times in 173 plate appearances for Atlanta. That 23-percent strikeout rate is high but not terribly out of line in a game where punch-outs are becoming more and more accepted as the price to pay for increased offense. Ruiz will have to demonstrate his ability to produce those power numbers in order to cement his value at the hot corner. His .231 batting average on balls in play was the lowest by any Braves position player with at least 100 plate appearances. League average is annually around a .300, so a little more luck could have Ruiz’s BABIP trending closer to the norm and his average on the rise. It’s also worth noting that Ruiz sported the highest ground ball rate (56.3%) and lowest line drive rate (13.4%) of any Braves hitter with at least 150 AB. Both of those numbers were noticeably below his rates at Triple-A, so there is reason to believe he could see improvement in those categories.
Christian Colon, 28, signed a minor league deal just before the Winter Meetings and will come to camp hoping to earn a spot on the Atlanta bench. Colon was the No. 4 overall pick in the 2010 June draft by Kansas City. A career .282/.347/.381 minor league hitter, he has big league time with the Royals and Marlins, batting .252 in 386 career plate appearances in four seasons. Colon can play second, short or third and will provide some organizational depth if nothing else… Ray-Patrick Didder, 23, has seen much of his time in the minors in the outfield, but spent some time at both shortstop and second base last season. He has a knack for finding his way on base, relying on hit-by-pitch as one of his methods. However, he batted just .230 (with a .331 OBP) in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League last season. The Aruba native signed with Atlanta in 2013 and cracked Baseball America’s Top 30 Braves prospects in 2016… Sean Kazmar, 33, is the elder statesman among these non-roster invitees. He began his career in 2004 as a 5th round pick by the Padres. A lifetime .258 hitter in 5,300 minor league at-bats, he got a cup of coffee with San Diego in 2008. The versatile Kazmar has become a beloved figure in Triple-A Gwinnett, where he’s spent the last five seasons… Austin Riley, 20, was a competitive balance pick in 2015 and has made a name for himself as a slugging third baseman. A two-way star out of DeSoto Central, Southaven, Mississippi, Riley is among the Braves’ Top 10 prospects after posting back-to-back 20 home run campaigns. Riley is regarded by many as a potential long term answer at third base and could begin the season back at Double-A Mississippi or jump to Triple-A Gwinnett in 2018.