How far are the Braves from competing? Can this year be the year? Can they surprise the world?
There is no answer to these questions – just gut feelings. I don’t do so well with that. Hi, my name is Tommy and I want the whole world quantified.
I’m half-joking, but I did want to take a look over the next few days at how far the Braves are from competing and what are some possible outcomes for the 2018 Atlanta Braves. Now, let me be real to the point – this is a thought exercise. It’s not meant to be a hot take, a fluff piece, or to push an agenda. Instead, what I want to do is to find both a reasonable and optimistic projection of what the 2018 Braves could be. After that, I’ll take a look at what adding players before the season might do. It won’t be a regurgitation of our trio of building playoff contenders for 2018 articles we did earlier in the winter. More of a placeholder discussion with little focus on fitting into a payroll.
So, how do we do this? I’m going to use Steamer projections to provide a baseline, though I will tweak it here-and-there. While Steamer has a reputation for being conservative, it has proven in at least two of the last three seasons to be very accurate. I’m also using Steamer projections because it’s free and available. Most of my tweaks will be due to rookies and playing time. The latter is self-explanatory, but projection systems, as a rule, have a difficult time with rookies and players without enough playing time to do any legitimate estimations.
Our goal is to get to 90 wins. We’ll be using the same system Stephen spoke of in his previous column on building a playoff winner. A replacement team finishing with 0.0 fWAR would finish with, roughly, 46 wins. From there on, each fWAR that is added to the team total gets us a win closer. Get to 44 fWAR, add the 44 wins you need to be a playoff team. It’s a simple idea, I know, but it can work.
As I said, we will look at three versions of the Braves. The first version will be today’s – the Realistic Projection. For this team, we try to stay close to the Steamer projections with just a few tweaks. Our goal today is not to build a winner, but to establish a baseline. Also, note that this team isn’t a Pessimistic Projection. I won’t be doing one of those because contrary to popular belief, I care some about my mental health. Tomorrow, I’ll release the Optimist Projection. With this one, we’ll take the Steamer Projection and add a dash of hope. No, I won’t have ten Braves hitting 75 homers. I will try to stay within the range of possibilities – just focusing on the best possibilities.
In two days, we’ll circle back to today’s team, which I do assume won’t be enough to make it to the magical 44 fWAR we need, and try to add talent to get us there.
At the end of this, what I want to do is provide you and, truthfully, myself a better idea of how close the Braves are to competing for a playoff spot. People often suggest adding this player or this other player will make the team a playoff contender. Is that just hope or is there some facts supporting their statement? Hopefully, at the end of this trio of articles, we’ll all have some idea.
Last year, Braves catchers led baseball with a 5.1 fWAR, but Steamer projects a far modest 2.0 fWAR for 2018. I think that’s a little low and with Tyler Flowers having produced in back-to-back years with the Braves, I’m going to project about 3 fWAR between the two catchers. Individually, give Flowers 2 fWAR and Kurt Suzuki 1 fWAR.
The conservative projections Steamer provides truly play up here. Even with all of his issues, Freeman posted a 4.5 fWAR in 117 games in 2017. Steamer projects 4.0 fWAR in 146 games in 2018. This will be Freeman’s Age-28 season so I am tempted to set my reasonable expectations high. However, I don’t want to over-do that for the purposes of providing a realistic baseline. With that in mind, I’m going to project another 4.5 fWAR season. I don’t believe Freeman will have much trouble moving past that total, though. Provided, of course, that he stays healthy.
The Braves finished tied for tenth last season with a 3.4 fWAR from their second basemen. Steamer projects a very minimal view of Ozzie Albies for 2018, estimating a slash of .267/.325/.408 and a .315 wOBA. I think this is bollocks and I’m not even British. A few reasons for the projection looking so much more pessimistic than the actual production Albies most recently posted – lower walk rates and a lower ISO than recent history. I think the walk rate is fair, but what Steamer doesn’t project is an increased BABIP. Albies only posted a .316 BABIP when he came up last season. That is despite some great rates of hitting the ball hard and elevating the ball. I believe Steamer’s projection is low here.
Again, I don’t want to go crazy – tomorrow’s “Optimistic Team” is for that. That said, even if you factor in a bit of a lower OBP and SLG from his 2017 pace and suggest a .280/.340/.420 line, you’re looking at a 2.6 fWAR player in Josh Harrison going on last year’s results. I still think that’s probably low, but it’s better than the 1.7 fWAR Steamer Projection. We’ll imagine that Charlie Culberson and Johan Camargo also get some playing time, but I’m not going to change my fWAR total for the position because one’s bat might help but the other (namely, Culberson) will hurt.
With the aid of Johan Camargo’s bat, shortstop wasn’t a complete dumpster fire according to fWAR. 1.3 fWAR is in the bottom third, but it was still better than nine other teams. Does Steamer suggest a return to form for Dansby Swanson? A little bit. Steamer gives Swanson a .254/.332/.379 slash for 2018. I’ll stick with their outlook considering the struggles Swanson had last season. I will up his fWAR slightly as Steamer only gives him 130 games and 1.3 fWAR. I’ll push it up to 1.5 fWAR and, again, Culberson and Camargo off-set in my mind as far as the rest of playing time goes.
Steamer’s projection included Adonis Garcia and a strict platoon, which gives Rio Ruiz 448 PA. I don’t think that happens and not only because Garcia has signed with Korea. Instead, I’m going to give Camargo/Ruiz/Culberson a 70/20/10 split in playing time. Steamer suggests Camargo will hit .266/.307/.392, but its projection is based a lot on his pre-2017 minor league numbers. I think it’s fair to think his wOBA will come down from .330 as a realistic option. Steamer has it at .299 – I’ll split the difference and predict a .315 wOBA. If that’s right, Yolmer Sanchez of the White Sox last year is a good comparison. He finished with a 2.1 fWAR based largely on his defense. I think that’s fair, though I’ll take Camargo down to 2.0 fWAR.
Ruiz is given a .230/.309/.378 slash and a .298 wOBA by Steamer. Culberson is worse than that. Therefore, I’ll stick with 2.0 fWAR at third base largely because it’s an easy-and-round number. This is possibly the biggest leap of faith I will take with the Realistic Roster considering the Braves had a 0.6 fWAR at third base last year and haven’t reached 2.0 fWAR at third since 2013. But I don’t really consider this an optimistic projection. With Camargo’s defense and a .315 wOBA, along with the bulk of playing time, I think he can be a 2-win player with ease.
Here’s where things get funky and Steamer doesn’t know what to do. The expected outcome in 2018 is that Ronald Acuna will play right field, moving Nick Markakis to left field. However, Steamer doesn’t know where to fit in Acuna and predicts a timeshare of at-bats between Preston Tucker and Lane Adams in left field with Acuna playing a fourth outfielder role. This is not going to happen so we’ll focus on what we can put together.
I’m predicting just 1 fWAR in left field. My reasoning is that I am sticking with Markakis’s projection of .264/.344/.378 with a .313 wOBA and 91 wRC+. In right field, that’s good for a 0.1 fWAR projection. I think his defense will improve slightly with a move to left field and he will lose some at-bats against lefties. Give him 0.6 fWAR.
Lane Adams is majorly disliked by Steamer (.282 wOBA). I think it’s unfair and project him to produce the other 0.4 fWAR needed here with numbers. I’m not going to include Tucker too much.
I believe Steamer misses a bit with Ender Inciarte. They project a .313 BABIP, 15 points below his average. That leads to a batting average 13 points below his career. I’m going to ignore that and give him an Ender-like season total of .295/.341/.392 – or his career slash. As a result, I’ll name him Mr. Consistency and believe for the fourth consecutive year, he delivers a 3-win season rather than the 2.2 fWAR Steamer projects.
Steamer is usually the best projection system with rookies. That said, because it only projects 81 games for Acuna, his numbers are a bit muted. It does give him a .273/.324/.439 triple slash, 14 doubles, 10 homers, and 16 steals. It also gives him a negative grade on defense. I’m comfortable for the purposes of this exercise sticking with the triple slash, but do believe he’ll play many more games and deliver much better defense.
It’s difficult to find a reasonable comparison in 2017 to what I’m looking for with Acuna, but Jackie Bradley Jr.’s 2.3 fWAR season last year is the closest. He also played in 133 games, though his value is increased by playing center field. I’ll drop Acuna to 2-wins as a result. Much better than a projected 0.6 fWAR Steamer gave him, but still pretty reasonable. I’ll leave the bench alone, but obviously, Tucker and Adams would be expected to handle right field if Acuna is left in the minors to begin the season. Like with Carmago and Culberson, I’m going to suggest Tucker and Adams off-set.
Steamer predicts ten different starting pitchers for 2018. The good news here is that I think their fWAR projections are decent for the five main starters.
Julio Teheran – 1.5 fWAR
Brandon McCarthy – 2.1 fWAR
Luis Gohara – 2.3 fWAR
Sean Newcomb – 1.9 fWAR
Mike Foltynewicz – 1.6 fWAR
That comes out to 9.4 fWAR. We’ll add Max Fried, who helps fill in for injuries and whatnot, and predict an even 10 fWAR for the starting rotation. That’s only 1.3 fWAR better than the 2017 staff and I believe it’ll be a realistic projection. It would, though, be the best total in four years.
Steamer isn’t fond of the relief group. Arodys Vizcaino leads the way with 0.6 fWAR. Rex Brothers and Daniel Winkler are next at 0.4 fWAR each. The names aren’t quite that important here, but the projections. For those reasons, I looked at last year’s bullpen, which posted a 4.58 ERA/4.37 FIP/4.61 xFIP. However, most of the poorest performers – Josh Collmenter, Jason Motte, Ian Krol, and Eric O’Flaherty – are gone. Subsequently, the best performers all return, including Winkler and A.J. Minter. Combined, they pitched 32 times and had a 0.9 fWAR. You could double that, but I’m going to pay attention to their injury history and only suggest that, combined, they end up with 1.2 fWAR.
That leaves a lot of lottery picks and hopefuls like Jacob Lindgren, Akeel Morris, Josh Ravin, and Chase Whitley. Let’s just be simple here and project 0.4 fWAR. Finally, I’ll give Steamer the benefit of the doubt and stick with Vizcaino’s projection. All told, that’s a 2 fWAR bullpen. I do think that’s low – the 2016 bullpen posted a 4.2 fWAR after all. Remember, though, that this is the Realistic Team model and we want to keep our expectations connected to with what is most likely.
To Sum Up
We came into this knowing we needed 44 fWAR. We also know that last season, the Braves had 26.4 fWAR and 72 wins. So, what did our Realistic Team Model project?
31.6 fWAR. That would suggest a reasonable expectation that the 2018 Braves are a 77-78 win team. Don’t get down or head to the comment section to rip me a new one. I expected that this model wouldn’t be a playoff team. It gives me something to build from for tomorrow’s team, the Optimistic Model, and Friday’s club – the one that adds talent to the team without relying on players outperforming their projections. I am also convinced that the most likely Braves team is actually somewhere in the middle of the Realistic Model and the Optimistic Model.
I am happy that this model suggests a 5 or 6-win improvement over last year’s roster. And that’s with pretty low expectations. What do you think? Believe the model was still too low or agree with me that this model is based on the most likely of events? Or, perhaps, you believe this model is already a bit too optimistic. Let me know in the comments. Tomorrow, I’ll take a stab at the roster as constructed, but I’ll have some reasonable optimism. Can I find a dozen more wins with this roster? I imagine the answer is a big yes.