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2018 Braves Positional Preview: Rotation

Every team needs pitching to set the foundation for success. The Atlanta Braves became synonymous with strong starting pitching during their heyday in the 1990s, but things have been quite different in recent years. The focus of the team’s rebuild has been drafting and developing young arms, many of which are just now finding their way to the big leagues or will be knocking on the door in the not-to-distant future. Thus, 2018 is an interesting year for the Braves pitching staff. They’ve got some veterans coming to camp as well as some of the brightest young prospects in baseball. These men will likely be counted on to set the course for the franchise this year and beyond, and it could all start this season.

Before we get rolling in this installment of the preview series, here’s an interesting note: 2017 was the first season in franchise history that the Braves pitching staff failed to record at least one complete game. That dates back to 1871. Let that sink in. Not one single starter went the distance. While the game continues to evolve with an emphasis on relief pitching, that is still an unusual distinction. Atlanta was one of three teams that failed to register a complete game last season, a growing trend.

Julio Teheran | RHP | Age: 27 | Contract Status: 2-years, $19 million

It was a strange ride for Julio Teheran in 2017. At no place was that more apparent than in his new home stadium. SunTrust Park did not exactly welcome Teheran with open arms. That or he simply did not find the new ballpark to be all that hospitable for whatever reason.

Regardless, it was nearly an even split in terms of workload, but Teheran posted a disappointing 3-10 record with a 5.86 ERA in 17 home starts as opponents batted .272 with 17 home runs in his 93.2 innings. On the road, he was a completely different pitcher, going 8-3 with a 3.14 ERA in 94.2 innings over 15 starts in opposing ballparks. He allowed 14 homers on the road as well, but his walk rate was nearly a full batter lower per nine innings – 3.0 BB/9 away vs. 3.8 BB/9 at home. To boil it down, he dealt with more base runners at SunTrust Park and that was the root of the problem.

Those numbers might suggest that it may have been a mound issue, but Teheran never placed the blame anywhere other than his stuff, command or execution on any given night. Home runs across baseball have been on the rise over the past few seasons and saw a noticeable spike in 2017. Teheran was one of many pitchers who set career-highs in home runs allowed last season. His 31 homers surrendered tied for second in the National League and was nine more than he allowed in 2016 in almost the exact same amount of innings (188.1 IP).

There were some signs of progress as the year wore on, however. After surrendering 26 home runs in his first 21 starts while posting 5.09 ERA, Teheran was able to close the season with a solid 3.44 ERA and just five home runs allowed over his final 11 starts. That success provides some indication that he was getting back on track. What’s more encouraging is that good work included a tidy 2.81 ERA with just two homers allowed in his final four home starts (25.2 IP). It may not sound like much, but it was a night and day difference from his early returns.

The struggles at SunTrust Park aside, the Braves need Teheran to bring consistency to the front of the rotation. Even as a younger pitcher, he has been looked upon as a No. 1 starter for the last four years, making the All-Star team in 2016. While trade rumors have swirled in recent years, Teheran’s team-friendly contract makes him an attractive asset for Atlanta whether he is stays or goes. Though he may not be a true front of the rotation ace, Teheran has avoided major injury and been a durable and dependable pitcher for the majority of his big league career. A cost-controlled big league starter with the ability to throw 200 innings, Teheran is under contract for two more seasons and has a $12 million team option for 2021 that includes a $1 million buy-out.

Brandon McCarthy | RHP | Age: 34 | Contract Status: 1-year, $11.5 million

Acquired from the Dodgers in the Matt Kemp trade, Brandon McCarthy is expected to fill the same role as R.A. Dickey in 2016, serving as a veteran to help stabilize the rotation. Injury has limited McCarthy in recent years, but from all accounts he is healthy and ready to contribute in 2018 according to general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who saw McCarthy pitch with Los Angeles last season. One would have to question the durability to some extent, as McCarthy has logged just 155.2 IP over the past three seasons combined. He missed substantial time in 2015 and 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

McCarthy dealt with shoulder and knee injuries as well as a blister issue that all cost him time in 2017. He made 16 starts for Los Angeles and returned just before the end of the season, even earning a spot on the Dodgers’ postseason roster. That, at least in part, led Anthopoulos and the Braves to take a chance on the right-hander as part of the five-player trade with L.A. in December. Over the course of a 12-year career, McCarthy has surpassed 10 wins and 200 innings just once, both in the 2014 season.  McCarthy has dealt with a litany of arm injuries that required elbow and shoulder surgeries and is in the final season of his four-year, $48 million contract. He could be a suitable stopgap for the Braves in 2018 as young arms like Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard continue to climb through the system.

Mike Foltynewicz | RHP | Age: 26 | Contract Status: Arbitration-eligible (1st)

The 2017 season was a tale of two halves for Mike Foltynewicz, a hard-throwing right-hander who has serious potential if he can find a way to harnesses his high-octane stuff. Building off a solid 2016 campaign, Foltynewicz got off to a solid start last year. He went 10-6 with a 3.86 ERA through his first 21 starts, striking out 111 batters against 42 walks over 119 innings. He allowed 18 home runs over that stretch, while averaging 3.2 walks and 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings. Track it back over a one-year span that includes 31 starts from August 2, 2016 to August 5, 2017 and Foltynewicz was 15-7 with a 4.06 ERA, 59 walks and 168 strikeouts in 177.1 IP. For a 24-year-old pitcher finding his way in the big leagues, this was encouraging work.

What was not quite as encouraging was the final couple of months, particularly a bad August stretch which once again raised doubts about Foltynewicz’s ability to maintain that level of production over the course of a full season. His good work was tarnished in August and September. Foltynewicz was beset by a slew of base runners as he lost his final seven starts. He allowed 44 hits, 17 walks and hit three batters in just 33 innings while producing a 7.91 ERA over that stretch. Oddly enough, he allowed just one home run in those final seven outings. Left-handed hitters were also an area of concern last season. They slashed .308/.384/.495 against him, walked more often and struck out less than their right-handed counter parts. In order to take the next step, Foltynewicz is going to have to find a way to neutralize lefty hitters so that he may mitigate some of that damage.

The numbers say a variety of things about Foltynewicz, but ultimately it appears the jury is still out. Scouts, talent evaluators, front office executives, coaches and players alike agree that there is a next level to be reached based on arm talent. As you’ll find annually in this preview series, Foltynewicz has electric stuff. His 95.2 average fastball velocity is among the best in the game according to FanGraphs. Only 19 starting pitchers in all of baseball average 95+ mph on their fastball. He’s in the same grouping with Chris Archer and Jacob deGrom, and ahead of the likes of Chris Sale, Yu Darvish and Lance McCullers among others. Obviously, it’s not all about the stuff but rather what a pitcher does with it. Secondary offerings have been a major focus as Foltynewicz and the Braves try to perfect the arsenal that could unlock his full potential.

Sean Newcomb | LHP | Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

A big lefty with an excellent fastball-curveball combination, Sean Newcomb arrived in Atlanta by midsummer and entrenched himself into the big league rotation. Originally a first round draft pick by the Angels in 2014, strikeouts and walks have been his calling card thus far and Newcomb gets more than his fair share of both. The major return from Los Angeles in exchange for slick-fielding shortstop Andrelton Simmons in 2015, Newcomb’s future will dictate whether that was a trade worth making. There were some ups and downs during his rookie season, but Newcomb has shown enough promise to merit a spot in the Braves starting five in 2018. What he does with that opportunity remains to be seen. Given the stats he put up in 19 starts last year, the numbers are open to interpretation.

For Newcomb, a 6-foot-5 lefty with a power arm, bases on balls are the main area he must improve, but his strikeout stuff in tantalizing. His 9.72 strikeouts per nine innings pitched ranked 10th best in the NL among starters with at least 100 IP. On the flip side, Newcomb’s 5.13 walks per nine innings was the worst rate among that same group. That’s been a trend for Newcomb in the minors, but he has routinely been tough to hit and that has taken the edge off the walks. That said, Newcomb somewhat predictably incurred more damage when facing big league lineups, which was to be expected. His hit-rate jumped from 7.0 hits per nine innings in his minor league career to 9.0 H/9 in the majors. Newcomb’s sparkling home run rate also nearly doubled, from 0.4 home runs per nine innings in the minors to 0.9 HR/9 with the big league club. That’s not altogether surprising considering the historic rate at which balls were leaving the park in 2017. The home runs are manageable, but dealing with nearly 14 base runners per nine innings is not a recipe for success.

Luiz Gohara | LHP | Age: 20 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Yet another young starting pitcher acquired as part of Atlanta’s extensive rebuilding effort, Luiz Gohara arrived with less fanfare than some but quickly opened eyes. The Seattle Mariners parted with the big left-hander, who rocketed through the minor leagues in 2017 and punctuated a breakout campaign with five big league starts. Just 19 years old for the majority of the season, the young lefty made three minor league stops before arriving in Atlanta for a September call-up. Gohara had never thrown more than 70 innings in any of his four seasons in the Seattle system, but combined to go 7-4 with a 2.62 ERA, 44 walks and 147 strikeouts in 123.2 IP before tossing almost 30 more innings with Atlanta in 2017. This is a pitcher who has front of the rotation potential and has already flashed some of that ability in a brief taste of the majors. Braves officials seem unified in their desire to see exactly what Gohara can do over the course of a full season.

One of just five men from Brazil to play in the major leagues, Gohara is a big-bodied strikeout machine at over 260 pounds, and has drawn comparisons to CC Sabathia based on his build and upper-90s fastball. Gohara combines it with a sharp-breaking slider that has proven to be an excellent strikeout pitch. While his changeup is not as refined as his other two offerings, it’s an adequate third pitch that may improve over time. After all, Gohara won’t turn 21 until July, so he’s still very much a work in progress. With that said, his first taste of the majors was tantalizing. Gohara struck out 31 men in 29.1 IP and posted a 4.91 ERA, but that number is somewhat deceptive since his 2.75 fielding independent pitching (FIP) suggests he was much better. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Gohara does not crack the rotation this spring, making him a stealth Rookie of the Year candidate in the National League.

Other candidates

Scott Kazmir, 34, did not pitch in the majors in 2017 because of a hip ailment which affected his velocity. He underwent hip surgery and made a handful of minor league rehab appearances. Though he is not being counted on, Atlanta is hopeful that the comeback-driven lefty will show them something in spring training… Chase Whitley, 28, is another veteran arm getting a crack at the rotation this spring. The righty was claimed off waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays in December. Whitley pitched exclusively in relief in 2017, posting a 4.08 ERA in 41 appearances, but came up as a starter with the Yankees in 2014. An Alabama native, Whitley is obviously a bullpen candidate if he’s unable to secure a spot in the rotation… Max Fried, 24, is another highly-touted lefty who can pile up the strike outs. His first taste of the big leagues included four starts and five relief appearances, over which he posted a 3.81 ERA in 26 innings. A blister issue sapped his effectiveness in the minors, but it did not discourage the Braves from taking a look at him in the big leagues. He struck out 22 batters, but had to deal with a lot of base runners in his brief cameo with Atlanta. Fried went to the Arizona Fall League, where he was 3-1 with a 1.73 ERA in six starts and struck out 32 men in 26 innings. His dynamic breaking ball, which is a plus-pitch, is Fried’s biggest weapon. Healthy and motivated heading into 2018, Fried will compete for the fifth starter’s spot this spring… Lucas Sims, 24, has spent six seasons in the Atlanta system and finally advanced to the big leagues in 2017. Well-liked for his competitive nature, Sims’ results were mixed. He was 3-6 with a 5.62 ERA (5.07 FIP), 44 strikeouts and 23 walks in 57.2 big league innings. Like other young Braves pitchers in recent years, too many base runners and the occasional home run ball worked against him. Sims made 10 starts and four relief appearances and could be a useful bullpen arm if pushed out of rotation. He’d like to remain a starter, though, and Triple-A Gwinnett may have to be the place for that given the numbers game in camp this spring… Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair are both 25 years old and both men had challenging 2017 seasons. Wisler had a promising rookie year in 2015 but was unable to turn the corner in 2016 and those woes followed him into 2017. He tried his hand as a reliever, but the results were not good – 8.89 ERA with 12.7 H/9 in 19 appearances. Meanwhile, Blair struggled at Triple-A then suffered a torn latissimus dorsi, which he spent the winter rehabbing. Blair has noticeably slimmed down as he tries to impress the club and get back on the right track this spring. Both men realize their window in Atlanta could be closing.

Down on the farm:

Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard will get their first taste of big league camp after advancing to Double-A Mississippi at the age of 19 last season. Both men more than held their own, with Soroka’s progress opening more eyes. That’s something that seems to be an annual event. Soroka appeared in the Futures Game during MLB All-Star Weekend and was named Braves organizational pitcher of the year after going 11-8 with a 2.75 ERA in 26 starts in the Southern League. Meanwhile, Allard turned in a 3.18 ERA across 27 starts. It was a big test for the duo, and they passed with flying colors. Soroka and Allard are ticketed for Triple-A Gwinnett this season and could make their big league debuts before 2018 is over… Kyle Wright, 22, was Atlanta’s top pick in the 2017 draft and also received an invitation to big league spring training. Wright is a Vanderbilt product and was the fifth player taken in last year’s June draft. He pitched sparingly in his pro debut, making nine starts but tossing just 17 innings in total. The Braves wanted to monitor Wright’s workload coming off the college season, but he should begin 2018 with Double-A Mississippi and could catch up with Allard and Soroka before the season ends… Ricardo Sanchez will turn 21 in April and was added to the 40-man roster over the winter. The lefty has shown flashes of potential in his two seasons in the Atlanta system. Acquired from the Angels at just 18 years old, Sanchez averaged a strikeout per inning at High-A Florida last season. He has been a slow starter the past couple of years, but has routinely been one of the younger players in each level he’s competed in. That could mean it just takes a little adjustment period to get rolling. While Sanchez might start the year in Double-A, it’s possible he could get a little more time in the Florida State League before heading to Mississippi.

2018 Braves Positional Preview: Outfield

The Atlanta outfield has been a work in progress over the past three years. Many names have been penciled in that grouping, particularly in left field. With Matt Kemp shipped back to Los Angeles, there figures to be a new name patrolling the green spaces at SunTrust Park this season. At some point this season, Ronald Acuña, the club’s top prospect will be making his highly anticipated major league debut. Until that time arrives, the Braves will be counting on a defensive wizard, a veteran stalwart and some role players to round out the outfield trifecta on a daily basis.

Ender Inciarte | CF | Age: 27 | Contract Status: 4-years, $26.8 million

The Braves’ defense has been anchored by Ender Inciarte for the past two seasons. Acquired in the same trade that landed Dansby Swanson, the early results favor Inciarte as the big return. Two gold gloves and an All-Star appearance later, Inciarte has made the most of an opportunity to play every day. Providing above average defense while serving as a table-setter atop the Atlanta lineup, Inciarte has been everything the Braves could have hoped when they brought him over from Arizona.

Let’s start with the defense, because that has become his calling card. Inciarte makes the easy plays. He makes the hard plays. He makes the hard plays look easy. In short, Inciarte covers some serious ground in center field. His 410 put-outs were the most by any outfielder in the National League in 2017 by a considerable margin. Over the past two seasons, Inciarte’s 761 PO in 2,487 innings are the most in the major leagues. That’s 49 PO more than the next closest outfielder, Mookie Betts of the Red Sox, despite the fact that Inciarte has played 24 fewer games than Betts in that two year span. Inciarte’s seven outfield assists in 2017 tied for 10th in the NL and 21st the majors. While that total is down from his 14 assists in 2016, that’s due at least in part to runners respecting the arm of Inciarte.

Inciarte has also been doing work at the top of the order for Atlanta. Dating back to the second half of 2016, Inciarte has racked up 301 hits over 229 games while posting a .315 batting average. He set or matched career-highs in virtually every offensive category last season, including a .304 average, 201 hits, 93 runs, 27 doubles, 11 home runs, 57 RBI and 22 stolen bases. Those 201 hits were second only to the Rockies Charlie Blackmon (213) in all of baseball in 2017. Atlanta enters the upcoming season with options at the lead-off spot. Inciarte could return there or slide down and allow second baseman Ozzie Albies to take a turn at the top. The impending arrival of a certain star prospect will also lead to some interesting lineup decisions down the line.

Nick Markakis | RF | Age: 34 | Contract Status: 1-year, $11 million

Nick Markakis heads into the final season of his four-year deal with the Braves. After spending nine seasons in Baltimore to begin his career, the veteran outfielder has more or less provided what the team expected in his three-year stint with the Braves. His style is certainly not flashy, but Markakis handles his job in a workmanlike manner. He could easily be described as a good soldier. He has done everything asked of him. Despite having neck surgery just after signing with Atlanta, Markakis has proven to be a durable staple in the lineup, averaging 158 games per season. Barring any last-minute transactions, Markakis will once again be counted on to provide stability in the Atlanta lineup in 2018.

At the plate, Markakis hit .275/.354/.384 in 160 games last season. That slash-line is right in line with Markakis’ normal output over the last five seasons, but his production is not what it once was at the outset of his career with Baltimore. He averaged a .295/.365/.455 line with 41 doubles, 19 homers and 85 RBI per 162 games played from 2006-2012. That has fallen to .277/.348/.380 with 35 doubles, 10 homers and 68 RBI per 162 games over the past five seasons.  Bottom line, Markakis is a solid contact hitter who has spent time in virtually every spot in the batting order over the past three years. That kind of bat comes in handy. Additionally, he was at his best with men in scoring position in 2017, driving in 67 runs in those 147 at-bats, both team-highs.

The Braves know what they have in Markakis, who is a quiet leader in the clubhouse and is well-respected by his teammates. After posting a 2.5 WAR in 2014 for the Orioles according to FanGraphs, he’s seen that value decrease in each of his three seasons with Atlanta – from 1.5 in 2015 to 1.1 in 2016 to 0.7 last season. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate has steadily risen in each of the last seven seasons – from 10.5% in 2011 up to 16.4% in 2017. Markakis still finds his way on base enough to maintain his status as a useful everyday player. He surpass 2,000 career hits last season and is just the 10th active player to reach that plateau. That’s a tribute to his steady production over the course of his career.

Defensively, he makes the routine plays, but Markakis’ days as an above-average outfielder are behind him. He has two gold glove awards, but his range and arm strength have both diminished in recent years. Depending on what the club decides to do with Ronald Acuña this season, Markakis might benefit from a move to left field. The Braves can cross that bridge at the appropriate time.

Lane Adams | OF | Age: 28 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Lane Adams finally got a chance for an extended stay in the major leagues in 2017. He certainly made the most of that chance to show off his considerable athleticism when called upon. Adams was originally a 13th round draft pick by the Royals in 2009 and earned a brief call-up in 2014. After bouncing from Kansas City to the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs systems, Adams briefly pondered retirement before eventually signing a minor league deal with Atlanta in December of 2016. Blessed with great speed and some pop at the plate, Adams proved he was a capable reserve and fill-in option for the Braves in the second half.

Adams batted .275/.339/.468 with five home runs among his 10 extra-base hits in 109 at-bats. Having already racked up 223 stolen bases in the minors, he swiped 10 bases in as many big league attempts in 2017. Adams became Atlanta’s primary pinch-hitter down the stretch, batting .267 with a pair of home runs and 12 RBI in 45 at-bats in that role. That contribution was a large part of a much-improved bench as the season wore on. In fact, Atlanta pinch-hitters combined to lead the majors with 10 home runs and 54 RBI in 242 at-bats last season. Depending on what the club decides to do with top prospect Ronald Acuña, some regular playing time could come Adams’ way to begin the 2018 season. Regardless, Adams will be counted on as a key contributor in a reserve capacity

Preston Tucker | INF | Age: 27 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

The Braves acquired Preston Tucker from Houston in an off-season trade, hoping his lefty bat could provide some of the power he showed in his 2015 rookie season. Tucker, whose younger brother Kyle also plays in the Astros system, did not appear in the big leagues in 2017. The Tampa native spent the season at Triple-A Fresno, where he batted .250 with 24 home runs and 96 RBI in 128 games. Tucker owns a lifetime .282/.353/.491 line in the minors with three 20-homer campaigns, so the power is definitely there. He hit .243/.297/.437 with 13 homers among his 32 extra-base hits in 300 at-bats for Houston in 2015, but managed just .164 AVG with four home runs in 48 games in his sophomore season.

Atlanta added Tucker in a late-December trade for a player to be named later or cash considerations after he’d been designated for assignment by the Astros. He is expected to compete for at-bats in left field and off the bench as a lefty-hitting option. There’s a chance he may be asked to play some first base in order to provide a back-up option for Freddie Freeman, a role left vacant with the departure of Matt Adams. Tucker has one option remaining and could be stashed at Triple-A Gwinnett should the Braves decide to make any further roster moves over the weeks leading up to opening day.

Ronald Acuna | OF | Age: 20 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Yes, I saved the proverbial best for last. Ronald Acuña is not only the Braves’ top prospect, but he’s arguably the top prospect in all of baseball. Baseball America has already recognized him as a such with the release of their Top 100 prospects list in mid-January. Acuña had an incredible season in 2017, making three stops up the minor league ladder and getting better at each level. Altogether, he batted .325 with 21 homers, 82 RBI, 88 runs scored and 44 stolen bases. And he did all of that at the age of 19.

Acuña’s journey started with the High-A Florida Fire Frogs in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. All he did there was bat .287 with 11 extra-base hits and 14 stolen bases in 28 games. He followed that up with a torrid stretch in Double-A Mississippi, slashing .326/.374/.520 with nine home runs among 25 XBH to go along with 30 RBI, 29 runs scored and 19 steals in 57 games. Triple-A was next on Acuña’s hit list. He exploded onto the scene as the youngest player in the International League and hit .344/.393/.548 with 9 homers, 33 RBI, 38 runs scored and 11 steals in 54 games.

Need an encore? No problem. Acuña terrorized the Arizona Fall League as well. He batted .325 and led the league with seven home runs on his way to earning MVP honors. It was truly a meteoric rise for a prospect who was well-regarded before the season started and well-renown by the time it ended. Acuña is a five-tool player and those are hard to come by. Though he was prone to the strikeout – with 144 of those in 557 at-bats – there was never a period of time in any league in which Acuña seemed completely over-matched. His ability to make timely adjustments is an attribute that will serve Acuña well as he looks to get accustomed to the big leagues.

The Braves will give Acuña plenty of playing time this spring as he prepares to make that jump at some point in 2018. Manager Brian Snitker has said on multiple occasions that he was so impressed with Acuña last spring that he very well could have made the big league club on pure talent alone. This was a kid who had just 148 at-bats above the rookie-ball level. Most agree that Acuña has the chance to be an above average center fielder, but that decision will be a difficult one with a premium defender like Inciarte already entrenched at the big league level. Atlanta will likely have Acuña start the season in the minors in order to insure another year of team control, but a mid-April call-up seems like a distinct possibility. If 2017 is any indication, then Acuña’s big league debut will be must-see television.

Non-roster options:

The Braves have a handful of outfielders in camp vying for playing time in some cases, and simply looking to make a first impression in others. Obviously Acuña is the biggest name on this list and has been covered extensively. Another highly-touted prospect heading into his first big league camp is Cristian Pache, the 19-year-old from the Dominican Republic. Talent evaluators have deemed Pache’s defense in center field to be both major league ready and gold glove caliber. He batted .281 with 32 stolen bases, but is still looking for his first professional home run. Despite that, many believe there’s untapped power in Pache’s bat. Perhaps he’ll begin to unlock it at High-A Florida this season… Dustin Peterson, 23, enters what feels like a make-or-break year in many respects. He had a chance to compete in big league camp last year, but a fractured hamate in his left hand derailed those hopes. That injury sidelined Peterson for a couple of months at the start of the season and probably sapped his strength once he did return. Peterson batted .248 with one home run and 30 RBI in 87 games for Triple-A Gwinnett. That setback came after being named the Braves minor league hitter of the year in 2016, when he batted .288 with 38 doubles, 12 homers and 88 RBI in Double-A Mississippi. Peterson was left exposed in the Rule 5 draft over the winter, but was not selected and thus has a chance to redeem himself and get back on track in the Braves organization. A second tour of duty in Gwinnett seems likely… Jaff Decker, soon-to-be 28 years old, was a minor league signing who brings some big league experience with him to camp. Dacker was originally a first round supplemental pick by San Diego in 2008 and has played 77 big league games with four different clubs. He’s batted .174 in just 161 at-bats between the Padres, Pirates, Rays and Athletics. Decker is well-rounded player who can work a count, run the bases well and hit the occasional home run. He’ll probably serve as organizational depth on stand-by at Gwinnett this season… Atlanta brought back the versatile Danny Santana, 27, who was acquired from the Twins last season and spent most of 2017 with the Braves. He signed a minor league deal to return after being non-tendered in December. A switch-hitter who can play all over the diamond, Santana has struggled to recreate the success of his rookie season. He batted .319 with 41 extra-base hits and 20 stolen bases over 101 games for Minnesota in 2014. Since then, he’s slashed just .221/.255/.320 in 703 plate appearances over 248 games. Santana plays three infield positions and all three spots in the outfield and will compete for a spot on the bench this spring. At worst, the Braves have an insurance policy with some major league experience at they ready should injury inevitably crop up this season.

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.

Non-roster options:

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.

2018 Braves Positional Preview: Catchers

If you’re looking for pleasant surprises on the 2018 Atlanta Braves, then the catching position would be the place to start. The Braves benefited from some unexpectedly potent production last season, and it was generated by a duo of 30-somethings who were each somewhat unheralded free-agent signings. In fact, the two returning Atlanta catchers combined for a 5.2 WAR, the highest at any position on the team according to FanGraphs. Sure, Freddie Freeman was out for a while, but that’s still saying something for this pair of veteran backstops. Let’s take a look.

Tyler Flowers | Age: 32 | Contract Status: 1-year, $4 million

Tyler Flowers was a former Braves farmhand who was dealt to the White Sox in 2008, but returned on a two-year deal prior to 2016. Since, he’s enjoyed two of the most productive years of his career. After posting a 1.1 fWAR in 2016, he followed up with a 2.5 fWAR in 2017. Flowers has slashed .276/.368/.433 in 695 plate appearances with Atlanta after producing a .223/.289/.376 line in 1,395 plate appearances across seven seasons in Chicago. He is playing this season on a team-friendly option and could make a strong case to return if he continues to produce.

A tireless worker, Flowers has spent years improving his defense, particularly his pitch-framing ability. He is widely regarded as one of the best in the business at garnering additional strike calls per game. StatCorner has poured through the F/X data and compiled those called strike numbers for comparison. Flowers’ name annually appears at or near the top of that list. According to that leaderboard, he was better than any catcher in the majors at grabbing extra strikes – 2.56 per game on average – proven across virtually every metric. While not infallible, those numbers are worth perusing (Catching Leaders). Also of note, Flowers’ throwing was much improved in 2017. He caught 23 percent of attempted base-stealers, which is just about league average and up from a paltry 5 percent in 2016.

At the plate, Flowers has enjoyed a renaissance since returning to Atlanta. The work ethic is also on display in the batting cage. His strikeout rate is down, walk rate is up and he is generating hard-hit contact and barreling baseballs with regularity. According to Statcast, Flowers’ 89.4 mph average exit velocity was second on the team to Freddie Freeman (89.6 mph) and good enough for 43rd best in MLB (minimum 200 AB). If recent trends continue, the Braves should be in good hands behind the plate in 2018.

Kurt Suzuki | Age: 34 | Contract Status: 1-year, $3.5 million

Kurt Suzuki had quite the season in 2017. The former All-Star enjoyed a career year in the power department and drew praise for his ability to work with a staff that included an increasing number of young arms as the year wore on. Suzuki’s solid all-around work earned him a one-year, $3.5 million extension that he was able to iron out in-season. All of this after signing just before spring training a year ago.

Suzuki, like many players across the game, saw an uptick in power last season. Despite being part of a platoon, he set a career-high with 19 home runs. Perhaps more impressive is that he did so in just 276 at-bats. That’s the fewest trips to the plate in a season for Suzuki since his rookie year. Those 19 homers were the seventh most among major league catchers, but his .536 slugging percentage was the best among all catchers with at least 300 plate appearances.

With Suzuki in tandem with Flowers, the Braves catching duo provided a steady offensive force in the lineup. As mentioned in the open of this article, they combined to provide the single most productive position for the Braves in terms of wins above replacement. In fact, both catchers were also high on the list of individual leaders in that category. Only Freddie Freeman (4.5) and Ender Inciarte (3.0) were ahead of Suzuki (2.7) and Flowers (2.5) in FanGraphs’ version of WAR among the 2017 Braves. Those individual WAR totals also ranked among the top 10 for all major league catchers – Suzuki ranked sixth highest and Flowers checked in at No. 10.

They also held a rather painful distinction of being a magnet for baseballs. Suzuki was plunked 13 times, while Flowers was hit by pitch 20 times. For those scoring at home, those were career-high totals for both men. Combining those totals would have sent the Braves catching duo to the top of yet another leaderboard. Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs led the majors with 24 HBP. So, with 33 HBP, you could say that Atlanta catchers were the real major league leader. Okay, maybe not, but the point is they were hit by more than their fair share of pitches in 2017. That sidebar aside, random chance can’t be counted on annually when it comes to finding one’s way on base.

Down on the farm: Just three short years ago, the Braves were searching for help behind the plate throughout the organization. Atlanta’s rebuild was centered around pitching, but the dearth of catching started at the top and trickled all the way down to the low-level of the minors. That was something that had to change. Fast forward to 2018 and Atlanta has a handful of capable catching prospects in the pipeline.

The Braves traded for former Seattle top pick Alex Jackson and moved him back to his high school position. The returns have been encouraging thus far, with Jackson’s offense turning heads and his work behind the plate garnering generally positive reviews. He should reach Triple-A if that progress continues.

Atlanta signed international free agent William Contreras, a 20-year-old who was an All-Star in the Appalachian League at Danville last season and is the younger brother of Cubs standout Wilson Contreras. Catching must run in the family. The Braves have also drafted some catchers with early picks over the past couple of seasons, taking Lucas Herbert in 2015 and Brett Cumberland in 2016. All of those men have shown promise and give reason to believe that a long term solution could be on the rise in the organization. More on those men in the upcoming Top 30 Braves Prospects for 2018.

Braves Trade With Dodgers Has Future Implications

ATLANTA — After a trip to the Winter Meetings didn’t really produce any headlines, the Atlanta Braves certainly made some on Saturday when they hooked up with the Los Angeles Dodgers on a five-player trade that could have a big-time impact on the future of both clubs.

Atlanta dealt left fielder Matt Kemp back to L.A. in exchange for pitchers Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, infielder Charlie Culberson and cash considerations.

It’s a truly fascinating deal for both sides. Though this trade involved a host of veterans, it also has a direct effect on Atlanta’s best and brightest prospect.

Ronald Acuña was already on the fast track to SunTrust Park in 2018, but this deal allows him to make his final approach after a spot in the Atlanta outfield was officially opened up. Now the club just has to make a decision on his official arrival date, which could be delayed in order to maintain an extra year of contractual control.

“We expect Ronald Acuña to factor at some point in 2018 and I’m not prepared to say,” said Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos when asked for an ETA on the club’s most highly-touted prospect in recent memory.

“He’s a young player at 19, turning 20 here soon,” Anthopoulos continued. “We expect him to factor in 2018. Whether that’s early, middle, late, I’m not sure. We’ll continue to evaluate it, but we expect Ronald Acuña to be a very good player for a very long time. We’re not going to be overly concerned with how soon or how fast, but when he’s ready to go… we’re going to look to make room for him and certainly a move like this won’t hurt.”

The Braves cleared a path for Acuña as they divested themselves of Kemp’s contract obligation, a $36 million sum which stretched into 2019. They did so by taking on a couple of well-paid veteran starting pitchers and a utility option while also assuming financial responsibility for cutting loose Gonzalez, who was immediately designated for assignment. The Dodgers sent some cash over in the trade, which helps even out the contracts coming to Atlanta.

If that sounds like a lot, well, it certainly is.

With $4.5 million in cash considerations coming over with the four players, the money in this deal is a wash. Anthopoulos acquired players on expiring contracts in order to push his club’s financial obligations ahead to the 2018 payroll. In other words, the money due for Kemp’s 2019 salary is now being used to pay ahead on McCarthy, Kazmir and releasing Gonzalez. Ultimately, the Braves took on some salary for next season in order to add at least one pitcher who should join Atlanta’s starting rotation in McCarthy, though Kazmir’s future is less certain.

The bottom line is that this trade should allow for more flexible spending for the Braves in next year’s stellar free agent market. It will also enable the club to have the necessary capital to pursue other, bigger trade targets in the future as well.

“[Going] through 2019 and [looking] at the rosters, we had a lot of different ideas, concepts and proposals,” said Anthopoulos of the trade talks to move Kemp’s salary. “We talked with a lot of teams about various things with players making some significant money coming back. We explored a lot of things. This is the one that got some traction, so it’s the one that we pursued. Really, being candid, this was the only one that was going to work for us.”

The Braves have only three players on long term contracts beyond 2018, first baseman Freddie Freeman, center fielder Ender Inciarte and starting pitcher Julio Teheran. Adding McCarthy and Kazmir to outfielder Nick Markakis and catchers Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers and the Braves have nearly $50 million worth of contracts set to expire at the close of next season.

McCarthy, 34, made 16 starts for Los Angeles last season and, most importantly, ended the year healthy. Anthopoulos worked in the Dodgers front office for the past two years and said he believes McCarthy is primed to contribute to the Atlanta starting five in 2018.

“We see him being in our rotation,” said Anthopoulos. “He had an intermittent year in L.A. but the stuff was very good. He came back at the end of the year and was on the World Series roster just because of how good he looked, how good stuff was, up to 94 mph. He started throwing a slider that he just added at the end of the year that was really good. Still very good stuff and even early in the year he was on a roll in L.A. when I was there. First few months was really throwing the ball well and then he missed time. Excited about him, think there’s some upside to him.”

Kazmir will turn 34 years old in January and did not pitch in the majors in 2017 because of a hip ailment which affected his velocity. He underwent hip surgery and made a handful of minor league rehab appearances. Anthopoulos said Atlanta will take a look at Kazmir in spring training to determine if he’s in position to help in the rotation as well.

Anthopoulos wanted to find some veteran arms to help bridge the gap to some of Atlanta’s prized pitching prospects, several of which could contribute over the course of the 2018 season, including Max Fried, Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka. The club also wants to leave the door open for those young arms to come in and compete in spring training.

“If a guy like Scott Kazmir can throw the way he’s capable of throwing and the way he’s thrown in the past, even stronger for us in terms of depth,” said Anthopoulous. “We have a lot of young arms. We don’t know that they’re all necessarily going to be able to go 200 innings, perform over 200 innings. We’re going to need that depth.”

“With the other wave behind those [veteran] guys, with the Allards, the Frieds and the Sorokas that are starting to get close, and obviously Fried has already been up, just to have that depth over the course of the year, especially knowing how young we are on the mound, is going to be really important,” said Anthopoulos.

The Braves also added the versatile Charlie Culberson, who has a good glove, should help out off the bench and is capable of playing just about everywhere. The 28-year-old is from nearby Calhoun, Ga., and was a first round draft pick by San Francisco in 2007. Culberson has spent parts of five seasons in the majors with the Giants, Rockies and Dodgers.

While the club did strengthen its roster in a couple of areas, the biggest move Atlanta made with this deal was clearing a path to the majors for Acuña, the 19-year-old wunderkind who lit the minor leagues on fire as he blazed a trail from A-Ball to Triple-A in 2017. Though he may or may not break camp with the big club for reasons not related to his ability or readiness, Acuña will be the story in spring training. If he puts together a strong showing, Acuña could make for a difficult decision for the Braves, a decision that Anthopoulos said has not been made by any means at this time.

The Dodgers. meanwhile, are setting themselves up to potentially get under the luxury tax threshold of $197 million this season in order to gets their funds in order and spend on the robust 2018 free agent class next winter headlined by Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and a host of other All-Stars.

It seems unlikely that their reunion Kemp will be a lasting one, with Los Angeles likely trying to find a way to flip the injury-prone veteran slugger to another club. The American League would offer Kemp a chance to DH, a role which bests suits him at this stage of his career.

The other veteran slugger in this deal was just looking for a route to free agency. Gonzalez agreed to waive his no-trade clause if the Braves would designated him for assignment. He will make about $22 million in 2018 and is now searching for a place to play. Gonzalez missed significant time in 2017 due to injury and the Dodgers are now set at first base with the emergence of rookie of the year Cody Bellinger.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher.

 

2017 MLB Winter Meetings Live Blog (Day 3)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Below you’ll find the latest updates from Day 3 of the Winter Meetings. The newest will be placed at the top.

11:16 a.m. — Just finished up with Brian Snitker’s media availability and will head over to have the annual manager’s luncheon this afternoon. As usual, he was peppered with roster questions and how he sizes up the returning players, particularly the young talents that will once again be relied upon to help the Braves take a step forward from 2017. With a new GM and front office in place that clearly puts value on the analytics side of the game, Snitker said his conversations with Alex Anthopoulos and others have been “enlightening” and will only help in the efforts to get the maximum return from the team in 2018.

Snitker, who has been in and around the game for over four decades is not altogether unfamiliar with the advanced scouting and metrics that have become increasingly prevalent over the past two decades. However, as a member of the field staff and a minor league manager who has been tasked with development and not encumbered by the statistical influence as much, he is in fact learning on the job and trying to add to his knowledge base in order to better communicate information that may be helpful to his players and ultimately the team.

Here’s what Snitker had to say about his discussion with Anthopoulos so far:

“Yeah, it’s been real interesting to me because I told him, hey, I’m 62 years old, and I spent my entire career relying on my gut and my eyes and getting to know the people that Alex has brought in, it’s been enlightening to me, because this is kind of where we’re at and where we’re going in the game, and I’ve spent the last couple days up in the suite talking to those guys, and they’re showing us the information and there’s a lot to it. It’s very interesting for somebody like me that’s — I don’t have that background.

So it’s going to be real beneficial, and the thing they preface everything by is, “We’re not going to push this on you. We’re going to give you information.” And now I kind of get what I’ve been reading about, what I’ve been hearing about with the analytics side of the game, I’m already understanding what that’s all about and now as these guys say, we’re going to get the information and get it in the players’ hands, it’s kind of like you see what they’re talking about.

It’s going to be good. They have already shown me information I think that the players are really going to latch on to it, and it’s going to be good for them, their careers, day in, day out workings of us playing the game. It’s going to be very useful and it’s going to help a lot.”

This conversation and information obviously extends to the players:

“Players are going to give us their feedback too. You present it all to them and then ultimately they’re the ones that decide what they’re going to use. Us too, as a staff, we’ll get together and I think each guy that has their area or whatever are going to know little things maybe that they want and how they want to present it to the guys. So it’s going to be something that it’s going to be new to all of us, I think, and again it’s going to be very beneficial to all of us.”

How has the success of others club, like the Dodgers, helped him see the benefits of implementing analytics?

“It’s legit stuff. I’m seeing things that — I think the thing that I think it’s going to be a really — it’s for the players. How they break things down. It’s not going to be negative stuff to these guys either, it’s going to be things that can help them to get better and it will be up to them, what they want to grab hold of and use, but I think there’s going to be a lot of guys that I think that some of the information that they’re going to give them is going to be good for them. It’s going to give them another avenue to try and to improve their game. So I think they’re going to like it.

Nothing but positive is going to come out of the whole thing. They made it very clear they’re not going to ram things down your throat, but there’s information there. I understand now they talk about the manager getting it in the hands of the players, what to give them. I think that you talk to them as they learn it, they understand it, they’re going to know and probably want more in some situations too, but it is very interesting stuff.”

What is the plan for Dansby Swanson heading into 2018, following a very up and down rookie season?

“Things change as we go. You start the season with a plan and with a lineup, and then things have a way of working themselves out and things change. I think it was another — again, we forget I think, too, with Dansby that he had going into this year he had a year total, I think, of professional experience. Because that first year he didn’t do a whole lot. He didn’t play a whole lot.

So that was a big year, it was a big year for him last year. Now he’s going to go into this year a lot more prepared, I think a lot more versed in what to expect when we get to Spring Training. Last year he probably thought he did but then it didn’t go like we wanted. Earlier in the year he had a lot of hard-hit balls that were caught. To his credit he kept working, he kept playing, went down, came back, and finished the year okay.

So we like Dansby a lot and I think again we like all the young players last year, it was a really beneficial experience year for him.”

What has impressed Brian Snitker about Ronald Acuña, and how realistic are his chances to break camp with the big club this spring?

“Well, I think he’s just has to do what he does. I mean, like I say, last year he came in as a very impressive young man, I was most impressed about the adjustments he would make on the fly and in at-bats and again the kid’s skill set defensively, what he brings offensively, the potential is going to be really good. We’ll get him down there and he’ll be part of the mix and see where he’s at.”

8:50 a.m. — Heading over the Swan and Dolphin for the last full day here in the Orlando area. A very quiet Day 2 could give away to some movement in Day 3. Or it may not. There seems to be some action on the relief market, with the Phillies signing a pair of relievers, which is very much something the Braves would like to do at some point this winter.

I posted the latest Around The Big Leagues podcast following our Day 2 chat with Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos (Hear it here). We talked about analytics, the young core of the team, possible moves and the impending arrival of super prospect Ronald Acuña.

There are plenty of trade rumors swirling this time of year, with Atlanta looking to deal away a corner outfielder (or two) and perhaps looking to acquire one as well. Christian Yelich of the Marlins stands out as an obvious target and many clubs are interested in his services. While no GM is going to dangle the names of the players he’s pursuing, Anthopoulos told me the Braves continue to monitor the market for the right players, the right deals and the right moves in general:

“There’s a lot of good players out there and we’d love to say ‘hey, we made some transactions.’ Conversely, people are going to ask for our good players so that’s where it gets challenging. And then also you’re going to weigh things like the years of control. Some names have already been reported, but obviously there’s some rumors out there and some names of some really good players, but maybe the club control is not very appealing to us. You’re always weighing that off too. We’re trying to build something that’s going to be sustainable that’s going to be long term. But the fact that good players are out there, you’re still going to engage [in talks] and see if there is a fit and if we can get a deal done.”

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Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud and Stitcher.

2017 MLB Winter Meetings Live Blog (Day 2)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Below you’ll find the latest updates from Day 2 of the Winter Meetings. The newest will be placed at the top.

4:12 p.m. — Heading to the suite to have our daily media session with Alex Anthopoulos. Obviously, not much has transpired, but it’s a good chance to continue to pick the brain of the new man in charge. I don’t think he’s worried whatsoever about having to make a deal to make a statement here in Orlando, but the talks here often lead to the possibility of deal happening down the road.

Meanwhile, tomorrow is the annual manager luncheon, so I’ll have a chance to catch up with Brian Snitker and see what he has in mind for roster construction and needs for the 25-man roster as well as the new coaching staff.

1:58 p.m. — There have been plenty of questions posed to me and plenty of speculation about what Miami may do with its other two, young, talented outfielders. With slugger Giancarlo Stanton now a Yankee, the Marlins can turn their attention to shedding further payroll by dealing away Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna. These are two very different players, however.

Most believe that Yelich has the potential to become a superstar, while Ozuna had a quietly dominant offensive season in 2017 and he did so in the shadow of Stanton’s 59-homer campaign. Oh, and throw in a gold glove for Ozuna – something Yelich had won previously.

Bottom line, both men will attract plenty of interest from multiple clubs.

Ozuna, 27, hit .312/.376/.548 with 37 home runs and 124 RBI. He is under team control for two more seasons through arbitration, but Yelich signed a multi-year extension that keeps him under contract for five more seasons if his 2022 team option is picked up. Yelich, 26, has put up a .290/.369/.432 slash line while averaging 15 homers and 18 stolen bases over his first five years in the majors.

Moving one of those two young outfielders will not purely be for salary relief purposes, and neither man will be able to exercise the kind of control that Stanton was able to over trade negotiations thanks to his iron clad no trade provision. Teams that missed out on Stanton, like the Cardinals and Giants could turn their attention to Ozuna as they look to bounce back from off years. Clubs building for the future and taking a more long term approach would prefer to have Yelich, especially when paying the prospect price.

If the Braves were to go for one of the two, you can bet it would be Yelich.

10:21 a.m. — Day 2 won’t start with quite the same fanfare. There’s no Hall of Fame press conference and no $300 million slugger being introduced by his new team today. At least not yet for the latter.

Atlanta has some definite needs as the restructured front office builds out the 25-man roster. While new GM Alex Anthopoulos is no stranger to wheeling and dealing, he’s not looking to pull any trades simply to make a splash at the Winter Meetings. He discussed a “cautious and measured” approach with the media on Monday. This is especially true as he gets to know the cache of prospects in the Atlanta system, which still remains one of the best in baseball.

Does that mean we don’t need to expect any trades in Orlando?

“That can change in a phone call,” Anthopoulos said.

The Braves are definitely in pursuit of trade partners to help them improve the defense, which means veteran corner outfielders Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis are on the block. As you may have heard in my chat with MLB.com’s Mark Bowman (which you can catch here), moving Kemp is the priority and will prove a much more difficult task thanks to the $36 million he’s owed over the next two seasons combined.

As I wrote here yesterday, there’s a case to be made for biting the bullet and eating the money if it comes down to it. However, that’s a decision the Braves would make only after exhausting all options that don’t involve dealing away other, younger talents simply to facilitate a trade. Markakis should be much easier to move and may very well stay put as he heads into the final season of the four-year deal he signed prior to 2015. It goes without saying, the Braves are going to do everything they can to open up a place for super prospect Ronald Acuña to play, whether that’s on opening day or shortly thereafter.

Outside of the the outfield, the Braves could certainly use some veteran arms in the bullpen, likely two of those. Former Brave Peter Moylan is a name that continues to come up. He’d offer some help in the sixth and seventh innings and would also be useful in what is a younger bullpen by in large. The configuration of the bullpen seems to be leaning toward carrying eight relievers. Anthopoulos said that could change throughout the season, because there may be a need to carry an extra reserve player. If the rotation and bullpen are both doing their respective jobs, it could mean that a five-man bench would be preferable. After all, we are talking about a National League team which will need its share of pinch hitters throughout the season. The four-man bench makes that challenging in long games and extra-innings.

Also worth noting, you can count Anthopoulos among those who is looking forward to seeing what Austin Riley has to offer and that’s a factor when planning an upgrade at third base for 2018.

“Short term, we’ve talked about third base,” Anthopoulos told me on Monday. “We think Riley has a chance to be a really good player long term. I know people in the organization are incredibly excited about him and excited about the Fall League.”

Riley, 20, slugged his way through the AFL, finishing second in the league with six home runs and third with a 1.021 OPS. He trailed his teammate Acuña in both those categories. Riley is coming off back-to-back 20 home run seasons and finished 2017 with a good run in Double-A Mississippi. By all reports, Riley continues to make strides with the glove as well, which was a question mark for him during his first season in pro ball. However, he figures to be a 2019 arrival, so the Braves need at third base would be a year or two. In house, the club has the versatile Johan Camargo, a switch-hitter who has made strides at the plate the last two years and could warrant a longer look at third base. Atlanta also has Rio Ruiz in the mix, but the Braves seem set on exploring the FA market and potential trades to bolster the position rather than relying on that duo to platoon at the hot corner. Acquiring a proven veteran would allow for Camargo to fill a super-sub role, where most see his value at its highest.

There are some veterans out there that will command big money, with Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas perhaps the biggest name. While Atlanta won’t get in that derby, veteran Todd Frazier could be a player who makes sense for the Braves on a two-year deal. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about a Martin Prado reunion. The Braves obviously like him, but at age 34, coming off an injury-riddled season and owed nearly $29 million the next two seasons, the Marlins would have to eat some serious cash to make any deal happen.

 

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Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud and Stitcher.

2017 MLB Winter Meetings Live Blog (Day 1)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Below you’ll find the latest updates from Day 1 of the Winter Meetings. The newest will be placed at the top.

9:21 — I’ve been a very busy man this afternoon, catching up on the Braves beat after spending most of my day moonlighting with the news from other teams. New Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos held his media availability a few hours ago. It sounds like he’s looking to ease into what is a familiar role, but with an all new team. We asked a bevy of questions about the winter shopping list and where his club could use some improvement.

Here are a few noteworthy items from today’s chat with the general manager, beginning with roster construction.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion topic was how he will go about filling needs and approaching trades with all the young talent he inherited on the farm. Caution seems to be the operative word.

Basically, what I gathered from speaking with him is that Alex Anthopoulos doesn’t want to come in and just start making aggressive moves without properly weighing/evaluating the talent they’d be parting with from a prospect perspective.

“To make real significant decisions, especially with young players, unlikely. Not impossible, but unlikely unless there’s real conviction among everyone in the organization,” said Anthopoulos. “With young players you’re always going to have debate and split camp. It’s just important to be thorough. It’s hard to be aggressive when you’re not completely comfortable with information yet.”

My latest podcast tackles all of that and more, and includes an interview with Anthopoulos as well as new Hall of Famer Jack Morris. I’m joined by Mark Bowman of MLB.com in the latest episode of Around The Big Leagues.

2:49 p.m. — Giancarlo Stanton was introduced to the media and the newest Yankees slugger looked very comfortable in pinstripes. After voicing his excitement to join a winning franchise, it became apparent that he was perhaps even more overjoyed to avoid another Miami rebuild. Armed a full no-trade clause, Stanton was sought after by several play-off clubs and hopefuls. He declined to accept a trade to both the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals before landing in the Bronx, where he’ll join fellow 50-homer slugger Aaron Judge. That tandem will not make life easy on opposing pitchers.

“This has been quite the experience, quite the road to get here,” Stanton said in his first remarks with his new team. “When I signed up in Miami, I wanted things to work out, and I had a good vision there, but sometimes things just spiral out of place and you have to find a new home. So I’m very excited to be here and to be a part of the Yankees, and I’m just looking forward to stepping up and being with this winning environment and winning culture.”

It’s also fairly obvious that Stanton was not overly enamored by the new ownership group as the process played out. There were no warm and fuzzy exchanges between he and new front office figurehead Derek Jeter, the longtime Yankees captain. Stanton’s monster contract has 10-years and $295 million remaining, which was never going to allow for many teams to even inquire. However, it was Stanton’s no-trade provision that proved most difficult for the Marlins to control the negotiations. The player had all the leverage, and exercised it in order to join a club that appears to be putting together the pieces to build a perennial playoff contender. Stanton’s agent Joel Wolfe told the media that his client has no intention to exercise his opt-out clause after the 2020 season.

1:25 p.m. — The Braves have a few needs to fill as they go through the winter and a few pieces they wouldn’t mind moving prior to spring training. Let’s start with the obvious corner outfield conundrum which has been a running storyline since top prospect Ronald Acuña took the minor leagues by storm last season. Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis are both candidates for trade this winter, though both men come with entirely different circumstances attached. Specifically, Kemp’s health, which will be a stumbling block as the club looks to unload as much of the $36 million he is owed over the next two seasons while simultaneously opening a spot for Acuña.

Make no mistake, a high-value return for either is not in the cards. Creating that spot for Acuña is the single most important thing that trading away one of their veteran outfielders will accomplish.

Kemp, 33, came to spring training this year in good shape, but after a hot start he added back the weight he’d lost as hamstring injuries landed him on the disabled list. Kemp’s days in the outfield appear to be numbered, but if healthy his bat could help an American League club looking for some power. That said, Kemp has compiled a total 1.6 fWAR since the beginning of 2013. Chronic leg injuries have diminished his value in the field and on the bases to the point where both are non-existent. He has power, but his on-base skills are limited. It’s unfortunate to see from a guy who was among the best all-around players in baseball about five years ago.

The issue for Atlanta as the seller in this case is two-fold. First of all, Kemp hasn’t been able to remain healthy. Second, finding a club that is willing to take on that $18 million annual salary is going to be a significant challenge. The Braves can shop him around in hopes of attracting a buyer, and could also sweeten the deal by attaching a prospect to help offload more of Kemp’s salary and off-set the risk for the buyer. This is perhaps an all too familiar place for the Braves in recent years, trying to move bad money contracts by attaching other, better talents to the deal (See: Upton, Melvin and Kimbrel, Craig). It’s not an enviable position. There could be a bad contract swap that would benefit Atlanta and another club. If all of that fails, releasing Kemp and/or eating all the money he’s owed is another possibility.

Markakis, 34, has provided the Braves with a decent right field option for the past three seasons. While he is far from an impact player, he has provided a steady presence in the Atlanta lineup – averaging 1.2 fWAR over the last three years – and a valued veteran with workman’s approach to a clubhouse that has constantly been in transition since the start of 2015. Markakis has just one year and $10.5 million remaining on his contract, which should not create any issue when seeking a trade partner. He should be much easier to move if Atlanta chooses to go that route.

12:10 p.m. — The Hall of Fame press conference just wrapped up as Alan Trammell and Jack Morris were introduced as the newest members of the hall. Both men were incredibly gratified to be going in with one another. After all, these two men were each drafted in the Tigers 1976 draft class and went to play as teammates in Detroit through 1990. Both Trammell and Morris spent the 15 years on the BBWAA ballot, hoping to gain election to the Hall of Fame. Those 15 years came and went, but they were elected on their first appearance on the Modern Era Ballot.

“It’s been a little hard at times to see guys way younger than me being first,” Morris said of the waiting game. “I’m proud of them. I’m happy for them. But I’m so happy that I can go in with guys that were my peers and maybe get to know each other better and celebrate.”

Morris is also keenly aware that baseball’s turn to analytics over the past two decades has changed forever the way clubs and fans digest the statistics. That in turn has changed the way players are viewed in both an annual basis and in perpetuity for an honor like the hall of fame. While the analytics don’t paint Morris in the same light as others in Cooperstown, his place in history is now cemented.

“I want all the writers to know that I’m not mad at any of you,” Morris joked of waiting 18 years to receive his spot in Cooperstown. “I appreciate and understand how difficult it had to be. I finally grew up and learned that there’s reasons I maybe didn’t deserve to be in. I wasn’t born and raised in the analytics that are in the game today. None of it was a part of the game when we played. I always found it puzzling to wonder why I’m being judged on a criteria that didn’t even exist while we played, but it is what it is.”

“But I also want to appreciate and acknowledge all the writers who did support me and even the guys who didn’t because that’s our country. We have that right. And we shall cherish that right, and I respect everybody for whatever they thought.  Now that I’m in, I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

Trammell’s case was definitely helped out by the advanced stats, which help make the case that he was one of the greatest shortstops of his era. Though he may not have the counting stats that have long been customary for hall of fame players, Trammell’s all around game and contributions to the Tigers and baseball in the 1980s are hard to ignore. They will go begging no longer.

“When I ranked myself as a player, I thought I could do a lot of things well, but probably one thing — there wasn’t one thing that just was at the top. But I think that’s part of the criteria when you look at all the ingredients of becoming a Hall of Famer is a well-rounded player, and that’s just who I was. I couldn’t be anybody else. That’s just the good Lord gave me this ability, and I tried to do the best I could,” said Trammell of earning a spot in Cooperstown.”

‘For my peers to be able to recognize that, that’s very much appreciated, very much appreciated,” Trammell continued. “I look at that, and I’ll look on it for my lifetime very fondly, that it didn’t go unrecognized. Again, just proud to be a part of this thing.”

You will year from Jack Morris on today’s episode of Around The Big Leagues. So stay tuned for the podcast tonight.

9:40 a.m. — The Atlanta Braves’ contingent has arrived in central Florida along with the rest of the sport. Here you’ll find 30 teams all looking to better themselves for the 2018 season and beyond.

The weekend preceding the Winter Meetings may have already set the tone. Highly sought after Japanese star Shohei Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Angels, while the Yankees landed Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton in a blockbuster trade. The official press conference to introduce Stanton will take place Monday at 2 p.m. ET.

The other big news from Day 1 is Monday’s Hall of Fame press conference. Detroit Tigers legends Alan Trammell and Jack Morris were elected from the Modern Era Ballot and will be on hand to discuss receiving baseball’s highest honor. That will take place at 11 a.m. ET and I’ll have notes, quotes and photos from the event.

Longtime St. Louis Cardinals catcher Ted Simmons fell just one vote shy of the necessary 12 needed for election from the special committee. Simmons played briefly with the Braves and alongside two-time NL MVP Dale Murphy, who fell well short of the necessary support. Both men can go back on the Modern Era Ballot in two years.

I’m going to circulate around the Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin Resort for a while and check out the set-up for this years meetings. You can expect daily podcasts and regular social media updates, so make sure you’re following all the right places:

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Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud and Stitcher.

Braves Receive Harsh Punishment from Major League Baseball

 

Additionally, Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that former Atlanta general manager John Coppolella has been banned for life while former international scouting director Gordon Blakeley has received a one-year ban.

The punishment is unprecedented and includes the loss of more than a dozen prospects, including highly-touted infielder Kevin Maitan. The players in question have been declared free agents after baseball’s investigation into Atlanta’s dealings revealed the club routinely skirted the rules for signing international amateur talents.

The 13 players Atlanta lost include Maitan, Ji Hwan Bae, Abrahan Gutierrez, Yunior Severino. Juan Contreras. Yefri del Rosario, Yenci Peña, Livan Soto. Juan Carlos Negret, Brandol Mezquita, Angel Rojas, Antonio Sucre and Guillermo Zuniga. The Braves also face severe restrictions on signing any international prospects over the next three to four years. The league also confiscated Atlanta’s third round pick in the 2018 amateur draft after the investigation deemed the club offered improper benefits to 2017 second round pick Drew Waters.

The investigation concluded that Atlanta “bundled” prospects and redirected bonus money from one player to another in an attempt to circumvent MLB rules during the 2015 signing period. Had those signings been done by the book it would have put the Braves over their allotment of bonus pool money for that period and therefore should have resulted in spending restrictions which would have precluded the Braves from breaking the bank in 2016.

Maitan and Gutierrez were the top names in Atlanta’s 2016 signing class, which came at a reported cost of over $13 million. That number may have been significantly higher, with David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporting the club may have spent in excess of $4 million more – pushing the actual total to at least $17 million. By spending well over the annual $4-6 million hard cap each team is given during an international signing period, the Braves were placed in the “penalty box” and not allowed to sign any players for more than $300,000 for the following two periods (2017 and 2018). The league determined those spending restrictions happened a year later than they should have.

It’s worth noting that Atlanta’s actions took place around the same time the Red Sox were being punished with the loss of prospects for similar “bundling” practices. Of course the difference here is the scope. Atlanta went far beyond Boston’s violations, which were the first and only real precedent for how the league would approach handling the players involved in such incidents.

The prospects Atlanta lost will be allowed to keep their original signing bonuses, but will not become true free agents. Those players will instead go back into the international signing pool and any of the other 29 teams will be free to sign them. Waters, meanwhile, will remain with the organization.

Upon receiving the news of the sanctions handed down, the Braves issued a statement in which the club accepted the commissioner’s discipline, reaffirmed its commitment to restoring the faith of the fans and declined to make any further comment going forward.

The loss of Maitan, 17, is by far the biggest on the prospect front. The top player available in the 2016 international signing class, Maitan inked a $4.25 million deal with Atlanta that July. He made his stateside debut last summer, batting .241/.290/.340 in 42 games at the rookie ball level. Maitan is a switch-hitting shortstop out of Venezuela who has drawn comparisons to Miguel Cabrera. He was among Atlanta’s top 10 prospects and was recently ranked the No. 72 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America.

Gutierrez, 17, was another of the high-profile signings in 2016. A power-hitting catching prospect who signed for a reported $3.5 million bonus. Like Maitan, a fellow Venezuelan, Gutierrez made his stateside debut this past summer. Additionally, Severino, 18, is an infielder from the Dominican Republic who signed for $1.9 million in that same group.

Bae, 18, is another notable loss. Atlanta signed the Korean-born shortstop in September. He was widely regarded as one of the best prospects to come out of the country in recent years and was projected to be the top pick in the KBO draft had he not signed with the Braves. The Bae acquisition seems to fall at or around the time MLB began its investigation into Atlanta’s perceived inconsistencies in the international market. Factoring in the team’s aforementioned hard cap of $300,000 for player signings and questions surround how the Braves got a player of Bae’s caliber to agree to such a deal. The league concluded that the team offered Bae extra-contractual compensation and therefore disapproved his agreement with the club, which had yet to become binding.

Commissioner Manfred also chastised the club for brokering a commitment from an agent for 14-year-old Dominican prospect Robert Puason in which he agreed to sign with Atlanta in 2019. The Braves are forbidden from signing Pauson in the future.

While the Braves currently remain in the “penalty box” regarding international signings, the future restrictions were also laid out in the commissioner’s statement:

“The Braves will be prohibited from signing any international player for more than $10,000 during the 2019-20 signing period, which is the first signing period in which the Braves are not subject to any signing restrictions under our rules; and the Braves’ international signing bonus pool for the 2020-21 signing period will be reduced by 50 percent.”

In addition to the sanctions, the club was dealt a significant blow to its front office structure. Coppolella and Blakeley were both forced to resign by the team on October 2, just one day after the regular season concluded. Despite reportedly being cleared by the league’s investigation, demoted former president of baseball operations John Hart announced his departure to “pursue other opportunities outside the organization” just three days after new general manager Alex Anthopoulos was hired. During the press conference to introduce the new GM, team chairman Terry McGuirk revealed that Hart had ceded complete control of baseball operations to Anthopoulos and would instead serve as a senior advisor. The timing of Hart’s resignation seems to line up with Braves officials learning that Coppolella would be receiving a lifetime ban. It would clearly not be a good look from a public relations standpoint for the Braves to have Coppolella’s direct supervisor remain on staff in any capacity in the wake of the sanctions. That likely hastened Hart’s exit at the behest of the team.

Manfred acknowledged the necessity of those departures and added the following regarding punishment to be handed out to other Atlanta front office officials:

“I intend to discipline other Braves’ International Baseball Operations employees who participated in the misconduct after the completion of our internal procedures. My staff will speak to the Players Association and officials in the Dominican Republic regarding appropriate consequences for the representatives of the players who intentionally participated in schemes to circumvent our rules, none of whom are certified by the Players Association.”

Atlanta has already turned its attention to putting its house back in order. The first order of business was hiring the executives who will lead a restructured front office. Anthopoulos will head that group. He was introduced in a press conference at SunTrust Park on November 13. With the cloud of the league’s investigation looming over his new club, Anthopoulos was keenly aware of the possible sanctions. That did not deter him from taking the reins of a Braves team that still has one of the best farm systems in baseball.

“Every club is going to have challenges, obstacles, things like that. This is one of them,” said Anthopoulos. “We’re going to deal with it. We’re going to handle it. We’re going to get through it.”

“We won’t be the first club that’s gone through some things,” said Anthopoulos. “Regardless of what happens, the Braves are going to be here. We’re going to be playing opening day. There’s still a lot of good things to be excited about and we’ll meet the challenges head on and get through them.”

Manfred shares that sentiment and believes the Braves will get back on course after what can only be described as a monumental misstep.

“The Braves cooperated throughout the investigation, which was conducted by MLB’s Department of Investigations. The senior Baseball Operations officials responsible for the misconduct are no longer employed b

Braves Set To Hire Alex Anthopoulos As General Manager

ATLANTA — With the franchise in a state of disarray, the Atlanta Braves have taken the first step toward putting their house in order. Longtime Blue Jays executive Alex Anthopoulos will be named the new general manager of the Braves according to multiple reports late Sunday night.

Mark Bowman of MLB.com was first to report the possibility of Anthopoulos taking Atlanta’s vacant general manager position. Joel Sherman of the New York Post later confirmed the news. An official announcement is expected to take place Monday according to Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic.

The impending arrival of Anthopoulos follows nearly two months in which the Braves have been under investigation by Major League Baseball for alleged infractions in both the international market and the amateur draft. As a result, general manager John Coppolella and international scouting director Gordon Blakeley were forced to resign immediately following the regular season.

Now Atlanta finds itself in need of stability and proven leadership, two things Anthopoulos can provide as the club rebuilds its front office. The team is still awaiting the findings of the league’s investigation, with sanctions expected to follow. Those could include loss of players, loss of future draft picks, an international spending ban and a substantial fine.

According to Sherman, Anthopoulos will have final say on all player personnel decisions, with Bowman adding that he will essentially serve as the club’s de facto president of baseball operations. That is a title currently held by John Hart, who is under contract with Atlanta until the end of the year. Hart will reportedly remain in an advisory capacity for the time being.

Anthopoulos, 40, is a Montreal native who began his baseball career as an intern in the Expos organization in 2000. He joined the Blue Jays front office as a scouting coordinator in 2003 and worked his way up to general manager within six years. He was Toronto’s GM from October 2009 to October 2015, but turned down a five-year extension shortly after the arrival of current Blue Jays team president Mark Shapiro. Anthopoulos was named the Sporting News’ Executive of the Year for 2015 and went on to join the Dodgers as vice president of baseball operations in 2016. He has held that post for the past two years.

The Blue Jays rose back to prominence in the AL East thanks to a powerful offense. Both Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista were acquired in 2009, just before Anthopoulos – an assistant to then-GM J.P. Ricciardi  – took the reigns as general manager. Anthopoulos later traded for Oakland slugger Josh Donaldson, who immediately won the 2015 AL MVP Award as Toronto played deep into October. Anthopoulos has shown the ability to be creative within payroll limitations and build from within while maintaining an active approach in both trades and the free agent market.

Like any GM, his trade history contains both hits and misses. While the Donaldson trade turned out to be one of the best this decade, Anthopoulos also acquired veteran knuckleballer R.A. Dickey from the Mets in 2012 in exchange for a package that included top pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard. However, his trades for David Price and Troy Tulowitzki helped Toronto reach the ALCS in 2015, where they were eliminated by the eventual world champion Kansas City Royals.

The Blue Jays built a solid farm system which was used to supplement the major league roster and in trades. Along with Syndergaard,  Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Roberto Osuna, Kevin Pillar, Devin Travis, Adeiny Hechavarria and Travis d’Arnaud are all seasoned big leaguers who were acquired under Anthopoulos’ watch in Toronto. He inherits a Braves farm system that is loaded with talent with which to build and shape the future of the franchise.

Atlanta was rebuffed in its attempts to lure Royals GM Dayton Moore back to the franchise he began his career with. Kansas City owner David Glass denied the Braves permission to interview Moore.  He would likely have been positioned as the club’s new president of baseball operations, a mantle that Anthopoulos could take up sooner than later.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.