• Exclusives

    It’s Time To Put Money On The Braves

    Are the Braves still a terrible team? Some observers certainly seem to think so. USA Today predicts that the Braves will remain among the worst teams in baseball, losing 92 games in 2017. While, according to wagertalk.com, Vegas has Atlanta faring only slightly better at 72-90. Those predictions were made before the Brandon Phillips trade, but I doubt that deal changes their calculations much, if at all.

    I can’t tell you how many games the Braves will win this season, but I can tell you this: This 2017 Braves squad will NOT lose 92 games. Or 90 games. In fact, I rather doubt they’ll lose 81 games … which is to say, I believe they’ll be over .500 for the first time in 4 years.

    Braves manager Brian Snitker is looking to reward the Braves' front office for removing the 'interim' from his title.

    Braves manager Brian Snitker looks to reward the Braves’ front office for removing the ‘interim’ from his title.

    Here’s the thinking of those predicting 90+ losses from the Braves this year:

    Many skeptics start with the Braves’ 2016 record: an unsightly 68-93. Then they ask “What did Atlanta add over the winter?”  And aside from Phillips, Atlanta made no changes to its likely Opening Day lineup. Nor did the Braves make any significant additions to the bullpen. The most notable change was the overhaul of the starting rotation, but many observers are unimpressed with the addition of two 40-something hurlers (Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey) and a capable but oft-injured lefty (Jaime Garcia).

    But here’s the problem with their reasoning:

    Atlanta’s terrible 2016 record is a flawed starting point for projecting their 2017 performance. It’s important to recognize that 2016 was a tale of two seasons for the Braves:

    Before the All-Star break, the Braves were an MLB-worst 31-58.

    After the All-Star break: 37-35.

    Freddie Freeman will benefit from Matt Kemp's presence in the lineup for a full season.

    Freddie Freeman will benefit from Matt Kemp’s presence in the lineup for a full season.

    Few national baseball writers seemed to notice that the Braves, by the numbers, featured what was arguably the National League’s best offense from the All-Star break onward. And after GM John Coppolella added slugger Matt Kemp and top prospect Dansby Swanson to the lineup in August, the team really took off. Despite having little to play for late in the season, they were the NL’s best team down the stretch, going 20-10 over their last 30 games.

    Yeah, I can hear the objections now. “Come on man, you can’t possibly think a 30-game sample at the end of the season tells us what kind of team this is!” No, of course I don’t think that. If they replicated their performance over their last 30 games last year over a full season, they would win 108 games. Clearly, I don’t expect that to happen. I merely contend that this roster is good enough to play +.500 baseball over 162 games.

    Those skeptical of the Braves this year clearly expect them to more closely resemble the pre-All-Star 2016 Braves than the post-All-Star version. But consider how remarkably different the early 2016 lineup looked vs the final 6 weeks of the season. Not only were Kemp and Swanson not yet featured in Atlanta’s lineup, but Ender Inciarte also went down with a hamstring injury just a few games into the season. He missed a month of action, and upon his return, it took him a good while to regain his timing at the plate and quickness on the basepaths.

    Are the Braves closer to the awful 2016 pre-All-Star squad … or the second-half edition that played .+500 baseball for 72 games?

    Compare Atlanta’s likely 2017 Opening Day lineup to the kind of lineup the Braves trotted out for much of the first half of last year.

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    Granted, Inciarte was in some of those early 2016 lineups, but again, it clearly was not the entirely healthy/sharp version of the center fielder that we saw later in the season.

    Now consider this year’s rotation:

    Julio Teheran
    Jamie Garcia
    Bartolo Colon
    R.A. Dickey
    Mike Foltynewicz (most likely)

    Bartolo Colon is one of several new faces who will provide veteran leadership in the ATL clubhouse.

    Bartolo Colon is one of several new faces who will provide veteran leadership in the ATL clubhouse.

    Compared to 2016 Opening Day rotation:

    Julio Teheran
    Bud Norris
    Matt Wisler
    Williams Perez
    Jhoulys Chacin

    Atlanta’s 2017 starting rotation won’t set the world on fire, but it’s a far cry from where this rotation stood a year ago. The trio of Garcia/Colon/Dickey replaces Norris/Perez/Chacin. Big upgrade.

    Some questions remain in the bullpen, but there are also more potential answers here to those questions than there were a year ago. If healthy, the trio of Jim Johnson, Arodys Vizcaino and Mauricio Cabrera could form a formidable back-end trio, with other potentially capable middle relief arms in the mix. I also expect lefty AJ Minter to debut in Atlanta this season. Minter is likely the most gifted and celebrated relief prospect the Braves have featured since the arrival of Craig Kimbrel, and that’s not hyperbole.

    This is not a perfect roster. Far from it. This may or may not be a good Braves team in 2017, but I’m confident it won’t be a bad one.

    So I say it’s time to put money on the Braves. I’m not betting that they’ll win the NL East, of course. I’m not even willing to wager that they’ll slide into one of the NL Wild Card slots. But if Vegas has Atlanta’s over/under set at 71.5 wins (and it does) … then yeah, cut me in on that action.

    Let me know what you think about the Braves outlook for 2017. Chirp me up on Twitter: @FriedbasballATL

    Kent Covington is a national radio news reporter and BravesWire Editor.