We’ve started our annual Depth Chart Discussions, re-branded as Playing Time Battles for 2016. You can catch up on every team we’ve covered in the Playing Time Battles Summary post or following along using the Depth Chart Discussions tag.
The final season for the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field stands to be one of their most disappointing, so long as you’re of the belief meeting exceptionally low expectations still qualifies as a disappointment. The Braves opened their Turner Field tenure (then called Centennial Olympic Stadium) in 1997 with a 101-win season, winning 10 division titles in nearly two decades there. Last year, the Braves recorded 67 wins, the fewest in their history at the park. They stand to challenge that mark in 2016.
That’s because the Braves are coming off of a league-worst weighted runs created-plus of 85, built on a .251/.314/.359 triple-slash line that produced a sub-.300 weighted on-base average. That’s a lot of numbers to say the Braves’ offense was bad, with the league’s least-dangerous power-hitting lineup and not much plus-contact or speed to speak of to help make up for it.
Thee had a busy offseason in response, to the point that this year’s roster will look drastically different from last season’s. That’s probably a positive, even if Fangraphs’ projections see them scoring more than only the Phillies, if only for catharsis. And hey, maybe life at SunTrust Park will be better, even if it’s inconvenient for the bulk of the fan base and a waste of tax dollars.
Ender, decidedly not in exhile
There are a lot of question marks and time-shares here, so let’s start with what seems certain.
Ender Inciarte, a part of the Shelby Miller haul, will play a strong center field and lead off. The former Rule 5 pick hit the scene with Arizona in 2014 and built on that in what could be called a breakout 2015, although it still made him just an average bat overall. He doesn’t walk much, but he also doesn’t strikeout much, and he has the speed and batted-ball profile to confidently suggest he can BABIP over .300. With the chance to hit in the high-.200s, a likely green light to push for 25-30 stolen bases, and the defense to keep him in the lineup through any slumps, Inciarte could push top-50 status in the outfield.
Installed in right and batting third daily will be Nick Markakis, perhaps the most boring fantasy player in the game. He’s got a floor but not much of a ceiling and is a better baseball player than he is fantasy asset, falling on the fringes of the top 75. He’s essentially Outfield Erick Aybar, so it’s fitting that Aybar will probably hit a spot ahead of him and man short daily. At 32, Aybar still has a couple years of utility, holding down the for until Daniel Castro is deemed ready (probably some time this summer), but he’s only on the radar in NL-only leagues.
Freddie Freeman rounds out the reliables as a clean-up hitting first-baseman who could bounce back to 25 home runs and push for a .900 OPS. Unfortunately, the lineup around him isn’t very inspiring, so he’s probably only just inside the top 10 at the position rather than pushing the top five.
Jace Peterson will start the season as the everyday second baseman, and that’s great for Peterson. He’s fine, but he’s not a great contact hitter, doesn’t possess a ton of pop, and has 20-steal potential at the very most. Because he’s a solid defender and there’s nobody really biting at his heels, Peterson figures to get the entire season to show he can be more. He just won’t be doing it on your fantasy team.
More intriguing in a likely everyday role to start is Adonis Garcia, but his profile isn’t nearly as attractive as his name might suggest. He’ll be a backup third baseman for fantasy purposes, one you’ll want to get into a 3B/CI slot whenever he’s facing lefties. Braves fans probably want to believe there’s more than that role suggested by his .497 slugging percentage as a 30-year-old rookie, and maybe there is. Luckily, you won’t have to pay to find out and can snag him late if you’re a believer.
Also potentially seeing some time at third but factoring in more as a possible left-fielder is Hector Olivera. The 30-year-old Cuban had a 24-game cup of coffee last season and was solid enough, and manager Fredi Gonzalez has spoken highly of him early in spring training. He has much more upside than the other names Gonzalez has at his behest – Olivera is probably a slightly better fantasy prospect than Garcia, even – that it’s tough to see him staying in the minors for long if he doesn’t crack the roster out of camp.
I wish I was a Pierzynski, with Flowers in my hair
A.J. Pierzynski enters his 43rd major-league season set to take on the lion’s share of the workload behind the plate. The Braves didn’t think that would be the case last season, but Christian Bethancourt couldn’t keep up at the dish and was then dealt. So long as he’s holding down the fort around 400 plate appearances, he’s on the map as a C2 or NL-only backstop, one who won’t sink your batting average and will add a home run here and there.
Tyler Flowers is no longer a prospect at 30, but with no inspiring catchers in the pipeline – like, none, unless you believe in Ryan Lavarnway finally figuring it out for some reason – turning the job over to a younger option might be worthwhile for Atlanta if Flowers plays well, especially since he’s on a two-year deal. The book on Flowers is that he’s a pretty good framer, and despite pretty poor offensive performances overall, he has enough power to matter at the catcher spot for fantasy.
Keep an eye on how this platoon appears to be shaking out come late March, as Flowers could usurp Pierzynski for his top-25 ranking if it looks like he’s going to eat into a significant share of time against right-handed pitchers.
The weirdest bench in baseball?
Alright, so here’s where this team is just downright strange. Michael Bourn might start in left field if Olivera is deemed unready, but the 33-year-old is long past the point of fantasy utility. Right there with him is Nick Swisher, who’s now 35 and hasn’t been healthy in years but can still draw a walk, hit a couple home runs and, well, that’s about it. Sorry, bro.
Maybe Kelly Johnson is more your type? He’s certainly Atlanta’s, but he probably shouldn’t take more than 200 plate appearances spotting in around the diamond. That said, his four-position eligibility and power make him worth keeping on the watch list in daily NL-only formats. Gordon Beckham is like a poor man’s Johnson, if such a thing exists, and his belief that he could win the starting job at the hot corner suggests he may have dirt on Gonzalez. Emilio Bonifacio rounds out this weird veteran group, coming off the first season since his rookie year that he didn’t piece together double-digit steals by jumping around the diamond. That 2009 waiver rush, though.
If that’s not enough veteran names, Jeff Francoeur signed a minor league deal, too. He hit 13 home runs last year but probably doesn’t figure into Atlanta’s plans unless they find themselves in need of #VeteranPresents. Chase d’Arnaud, Matt Tuiasosopo, and Nate Freiman are also in camp as depth options.
There isn’t a lot of minor-league talent pushing for a chance in the majors outside of Castro and maybe Mallex Smith, a 22-year-old outfielder with no power but with serious stolen-base potential if he gets the call. Rio Ruiz is a decent long-term prospect at third but struggled in Double-A last year and probably needs another full season in the minors. Try to stay patient, Braves fans.
Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.