Sneaky Good Fantasy Team: Atlanta Braves

Team context is undoubtedly a huge factor in fantasy sports as the performance of the whole obviously correlates with the individuals. That doesn’t mean good players don’t reside on bad teams or that being on a 100-win team guarantees a player success, but you’re obviously not entering your drafts with an idea of loading up on Miami Marlins and Detroit Tigers, teams expected to struggle throughout 2018. As the league shifts to more of a haves/have nots phase with several rebuilds under way, you might find yourself crossing off a bunch of “have not” teams only to realize you’re cutting the pool too much to field the kind of teams you want. One team you might consider delving deeper on is the Atlanta Braves.

They went just 72-90 last year, but they have one of the game’s best farm systems even after the losses inflicted by their cheating in the international market. It started paying dividends last year during the summer and remains positioned to deliver major impact in 2018. Just two players in their projected lineup* are north of age-30 and four are 24 years old or younger. They picked up a couple elder statesman for the rotation in Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir – both 34 – but the other three are 27 and under with five others 25 and under already on the 40-man and expected to contribute this year.

*I’m counting Ronald Acuna here even though he’s unlikely to break camp. I see the Kris Bryant model here: called up after 8-10 games to clear the threshold to save service time.

I could see the Braves as this year’s Milwaukee Brewers, jumping 10-15 wins and hanging around a yearly earlier than expected. Even if it’s more of a trickle up and they only add 6-9 wins on last year’s total, I still see many avenues to get quality fantasy production at a great price.

The Rock

Freddie Freeman is the foundation and he’s treated as such, going as the 23rd overall pick in early NFBC drafts, which places him third among 1B behind Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto. He’s not exactly a bargain, but having the elite star already on tap is nice. Whether they surge as a team this year or not, Freeman will make life better for the offense, adding runs to those ahead of him (Ozzie Albies and Ender Inciarite) and setting up more RBI opportunities for Tyler Flowers, who is projected behind him.

The Table Setters

Ender Inciarte and Ozzie Albies are a big impetus behind this piece. Seeing where these two have been going in drafts has me targeting both as speed/average options. Albies is one of Eno’s guys and I’m here to be the bullhorn for him. I wonder if the home run craze dampened the prospect hype on Albies a bit. I mean, he was #11 at three different outlets to start 2017: here, Baseball America, and MLB*, but he didn’t get a ton of run in fantasy prospect circles. He improved in his second go of Triple-A at age-20 – which is incredible, by the way… second time through AAA at 20! – and earned a 57-game debut after an August 1st promotion.

*They adjust their list all season and he graduated off it, so you’ll just have to believe me!

He had a career-best power output at .171 ISO with 6 HR, 5 3B, and 9 2B across the 244 plate appearances. He showed off his great bat-to-ball skills with a 15% strikeout rate and keen eye with a 9% walk rate. He wasn’t just being pitched around down in the order, either. Albies had two walks in 17 PA out of the 8th spot while sitting at 10% (14 in 146) in the 1st and 2nd spots in the lineup.

He only stole eight bases, but did so in nine tries, giving him 29 SB for the season. Throughout the minors, he stole bases at a 35 per 600 PA clip. Speaking of playing time, he has topped 600 PA each of the last two seasons with 618 across Double- and Triple-A in 2016 and then 692 in Triple-A/MLB this past season. The first full six-month run in the bigs can be trying any rookie, but it may not be as jarring for Albies having logged back-to-back full seasons. It’s easy to see why Eno is so hyped on Albies once you watch some of his games, too.

It seems once we venture past pick 100, it’s tough to get impact batting average that isn’t empty, meaning it’s the only thing they do. DJ LeMahieu, Avisail Garcia, Joe Mauer, Yulieski Gurriel, Joe Panik, and David Peralta no doubt stand out as a worthy oasis in a desert of .260 AVGs in the middle of drafts, but none of them offer 20 HR or SB and only LeMahieu crossed 600 PA in 2017. Inciarte has swiped 20 bases per 600 PA over his career and even hit 11 HR last year, two shy of his combined total from 2014-16.

Of course, the homers are icing on the cake and will likely dip back to 6-8 in 2018. A sharp glove in centerfield keeps him in the lineup when healthy, leading to a career-high 718 PA last year as well as an MLB-high 662 AB. If the Braves offense does jump forward as a group, Inciarte is poised to log his first 100-run season.

The Prodigy

Maybe Albies is overlooked because an even younger prospect was torching his way through three leagues in the regular season and capped it off with a blistering Arizona Fall League performance. Ronald Acuna, the 20-year old outfielder, put up a ridiculous .325/.374/.522 line with 21 HR and 44 SB across High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A (612 PA) and then bettered it at .325/.414/.639 in 99 AFL plate appearances (7 HR, 2 SB, MVP of the league). As I mentioned above, he’s unlikely to break camp with the team to bump the service time clock a bit, but he should be up quickly. I feel like the Braves might’ve bypassed sending him to the AFL if they planned on keeping him in Triple-A for more than a couple weeks at most.

I mentioned Acuna in my AFL standouts and I’m sure we’ll be discussing him regularly on the podcast. His price will be heavily monitored and a big spring could send his 142nd ADP skyward. His speed should give him a decent floor if he ends up being in more of the 90-110 wRC+ range as opposed to the 120+ range and Rookie of the Year consideration that many will be expecting… or at least hoping to see!

The Catchers

The Atlanta backstop yielded two Top-12 catchers last year with Tyler Flowers logging a career-best .281 AVG en route to his best season ever despite playing just 99 games. Meanwhile, Kurt Suzuki needed just 81 games to have his own career year with 19 HR (more than he logged 1355 PA from 2014-16) while also hitting .283, his second-best mark. There was nothing so far out of bounds from either player that will preclude them from having another solid season, even with regression folded in.

Both are best suited for C2 options in two catchers leagues or NL-only starters you pluck after the first couple waves go. While the platoon helps them from being overexposed at the dish, it also hampers their volume upside and make them a tough starter for 10-12 team single catcher setups. Flowers was 21st in runs and 18th in RBI among 33 catchers with at least 400 PA last year. Suzuki was 24th and 16th, respectively.

The Post Hype Hopes

There were plenty of skeptics when it came to Dansby Swanson’s 2017 potential, but the fact that he was the day one starter had many believing there was a viable floor here that wouldn’t hurt you in a middle infield (MI) slot in leagues running deeper than 10 teams. Well, he got the playing time – 551 PA curbed by a necessary demotion – but the results were putrid with a 66 wRC+ and just nine HR+SB. He did have a 91 wRC+ after his recall on August 9th, but 0 HR and just 1-for-4 on the basepaths. The hype is fully dead, though.

Swanson is going nearly 200 picks later than he was last year, down from 190 to 388 on average. His peak pick so far this draft season (281) is still lower than his latest pick in 2017 drafts (281). If you had any love for Swanson last year, you should consider buying back in. Yes, we got more data on him and it was bad, but one bad season shouldn’t erase any hope you had on a guy, especially someone who is still just 24 years old. I know we see so many low-20s guys emerge these days that is almost makes 24 feel old. Even in the shitstorm of 2017, he maintained a healthy 11% BB rate and passable 22% K rate (7%, 19% averages at SS last year). I wasn’t buying Swanson last year, but I could see myself grabbing a share this year just in case.

The clock is ticking on Mike Foltynewicz as a starter. He’s now run up 382.7 innings of a 4.87 ERA and 1.46 WHIP, 359.3 of them coming as a starter. There just isn’t a lot of evidence to suggest an uptick is imminent. There is still that lottery ticket aspect to Folty because of his electric-looking stuff when he’s on, but that’s not enough for the post hype hope.

I’m looking at him as a viable candidate to be a super reliever. Let the stuff play up for one time through the order, 2-3 inning stints a couple times a week en route to 110-130 innings that severely limit his exposure to a batter more than once in an outing. His .900 OPS against batters the second time and beyond was 4th-highest among 109 starters with 300 such PA. He sits 7th-worst (.855) since 2016 among 107 SP (min. 600 PA). It’s time to change Folty’s role.

The Beleaguered Ace

The hitting is much more intriguing than the pitching to be sure, but there’s still intrigue here. If Julio Teheran can figure out his new home park, perhaps he can get back to his mid-3.00s ERA range. Homers were a bit of an issue before 2017 with a 1.1 HR/9 from 2013-16, but it jumped to 1.5 last season and played a big role in his 5.86 home ERA. Avoid Teheran in leagues where you can’t really curate his workload. Use him liberally on the road and then at home against lefty-lite lineups.

He allowed a .927 OPS to lefties at home with a 1% K-BB rate. Compare that to .715 and 16% against righties. With the added shuffling of rosters due to the 10-day DL, there could be a market inefficiency in more sharply curating schedules of your starters instead of settling for the lesser bottom line. Sure, Teheran’s 4.20ish ERA for 185 innings is worth his 238rd pick average draft position (ADP), but you could reasonably chisel out 130 innings of a 3.60ish ERA, which ends up being a reasonable facsimile of Sonny Gray at 75% the projected workload, but Gray is going nearly 100 picks higher at 144th overall on average.

The Closer

Arodys Vizcaino had a career-best 9% BB rate last year while maintaining his K rate (27%) and upping his swinging strike rate (15%). He spent the final two months closing and had two bad outings out of 21. Six of the seven earned runs he allowed in August and September came in a pair of outings where he allowed three runs without getting an out. That means he had a 0.46 ERA in the other 19 outings with 23 strikeouts in 19.7 innings.

He finished the season with three perfect outings including a pair of 3-strikeout performances. Vizcaino burst onto the scene in 2010 prospects lists so there’s a bit of fatigue, but the 27-year old might be ready to fully deliver on the lofty expectations from his prospect days. He also has ridiculous run on his two-seamer:

The Young Lefties

Scott Kazm… I’m just kidding! I mean, he’s there, but obviously he’s not a young lefty by baseball standards (age-34). Luiz Gohara (age-21), Sean Newcomb (25), and Max Fried (24) all have a chance at making an impact in 2018. Newcomb is the only one penciled into the rotation by Roster Resource right now, but Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy (age-35, extensive injury history), and Folty (see above where I suggest a role change) are far from locked in and will open opportunities for the young bucks.

:chants: Don’t Cotton Gohara! Don’t Cotton Gohara! :chants:

I want to be careful in reacting to Gohara’s September call up after getting a little overzealous about Jharel Cotton just a year ago. Gohara’s 29.3 innings even matches Cotton’s and I sadly knew that without having to look it up because of how often I reviewed Cotton’s page and saw those 2016 numbers taunting me for overreacting to them so sharply. Gohara did give up 9.8 hits per nine and left just 62% of his runners on base so his 4.91 ERA/1.36 WHIP isn’t nearly as gaudy as the 2.15/0.82 combo that Cotton posted in September 2016.

I don’t want to torture the analogy as the two aren’t all that similar outside of appealing September call ups that generated a good amount of (and in Cotton’s case an outsized amount of) buzz the following season. Gohara is five years younger than Cotton and throws 3 mph faster from the left side. He had a massive 544-point platoon split, fueled by a .418 BABIP against righties so that will be his biggest area of opportunity for 2018. There is a nice foundation here, but keep expectations in check.

I wrote up Newcomb here and his season from that point played out as expected. He continually showed the impressive swing-and-miss arsenal, but fell behind too often and walked too many making him a mid-4.00s arm at about five innings a clip. He had just three 6-inning outings in his last 14 starts from July 5th on. All told it was a nice debut for the big lefty and his strikeout upside alone make him worth an investment.

Fried sits 92-94 mph with his fastball and can reach back for 96-98 at times, too. His mid-70s curve is the knockout pitch that delivers strikeouts and boosted the great groundball rates from the minors and as well as the 65% mark in his 26 innings with the Braves this past season. His changeup is the least consistent and fully formed of his offerings but has promise if he can refine the command of it. He’s just 24 years old and still carries the upside he had a few years ago when he was charting on prospect lists.

The Hired Gun

For some reason, I’ve always seen middle relievers in fantasy as mercenaries. Unless your league counts holds, they don’t have a ton of inherent value… or at least they didn’t until strikeout rates started soaring to levels that gave them value even without saves. So I’ve always just had this mental image of a middle reliever coming in to deliver a bunch of Ks while you wait on an injured starter and then *poof* they’re gone! However, you might consider holding A.J. Minter for the season in multiple formats.

The flame throwing lefty fanned nearly half the batters he faced (26 of 60) and shook off minor league walk issues to post a 3% BB rate in his 15 innings with the Braves. A .387 BABIP yielded just a .224 AVG because the opposition so rarely made contact. He does it with a fastball/slutter mix that groups as two pitches, but operates closer to four with distinct four-seam, two-seam, cutter, and slider looks, albeit in a tight 6-7 mph band that can stretch to 9-10 at times.

I’m not sure the Braves are looking to stretch him beyond a standard reliever workload of ~60 innings given his injury history, but that could yield 90 strikeouts let alone if he somehow maintained the strikeout rate from his cup of coffee and chased down 100 strikeouts. Minter could find himself in the closer’s role should anything happen to Vizcaino. The Braves have Sam Freeman projected to be in the mix for bullpen roles* so they’d still have a lefty for the middle innings if they wanted to put Minter in the ninth.

*The original iteration of this piece also listed Grant Dayton as an option, but he’s rehabbing from TJ surgery and unlikely to make a 2018 impact. 

He’ll be a prime target in NL-only leagues and someone to eye as a potential mixed league reserve depending on roster size. Use Minter to supplement Teheran and you can close the innings gap and send the strikeout rate of that roster spot way up.

The Other Prospects

Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka obviously don’t have an immediate path to the rotation, but both should be just a call away if the need arises. They underscore the incredible depth in this farm system as they’re essentially the second wave behind Fried/Gohara with Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, Ian Anderson, and Joey Wentz following behind. Austin Riley made my AFL standouts and could find his way into some playing time.

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Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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Great breakdown Paul. One thing I’d point out is that I think Grant Dayton had TJ surgery towards the end of last season, so it’s likely out for most of 2018.