McAuley’s 2017 Braves Preview Series: The Infield

The Atlanta Braves enter 2017 with reasons to be hopeful about the future of the franchise. A rebuilding process has taken place over the past two years, replenishing the minor league system and infusing the pipeline with scores of talented players. However, that took a toll on the big league club. After suffering through a pair of 95-plus loss seasons, the Braves seemed to turn the corner collectively in the second half of 2016. As they move into SunTrust Park and begin writing a new chapter in the franchise’s rich history, Atlanta is hoping that strong finish was a sign of things to come. This five-part preview series will focus on a different aspect of the club over the five weeks leading up to spring training. Braves pitchers and catchers report to Disney on February 14 and the first full squad work-out is February 18.

 

 

 

Freddie Freeman (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Freddie Freeman (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Freddie Freeman | 1B | Age: 27 | Contract Status: 5-years, $106.5 million

The All-Star stalwart and face of the franchise, Freddie Freeman has seen it all over the past two years. Through it all, he went on to have a break-out campaign in 2016. After trade rumors were snuffed out by GM John Coppolella last winter, Freeman was able to turn his attention to on-field matters and that resulted in the finest season of his career. He put up numbers that may have earned him MVP honors on a pennant contender. Freeman posted a career-best 6.1 fWAR, which ranked third in the National League, ninth in MLB and was tops among all first basemen in baseball. He batted .302 and set career-highs in virtually every offensive category, including hits (178), doubles (43), triples (6), home runs (34), runs scored (102) on-base percentage (.400), slugging percentage (.569) and weighted runs created-plus (152). That’s impressive work for a guy who was coming off a season in which a wrist injury had cast some doubt about his health heading into 2016. Though he finished sixth in the MVP voting, there was a strong case to be made that his production may have warranted a Top 3 finish. Freeman was that good.

All of that begs the question: Is this the kind of annual production we can expect from Freeman? The easy answer to that is, of course, no. At least until he racks up a few similar campaigns. However, there is reason to believe that he can at least approach this kind of production on a regular basis. The arrival of Matt Kemp paid huge dividends for Freeman, who slashed .365/.484/.730 with 16 homers, 17 doubles, 48 RBI, 48 runs scored and 42 walks over the final 50 games. Those are video game numbers, a term I don’t like to throw around haphazardly. That production was fueled by an unsustainable .408 batting average on ball put in play (BABIP), but seeing Freeman enjoy the best production of his entire career after getting a legitimate clean-up hitter to protect him is an extremely encouraging sign. While Freeman may have been tempted to press prior to the acquisition of Kemp, it appears that some of that weight was lifted over the final two months of the season. Who is Freddie Freeman? MVP candidate or simply steady producer? We may find out the answer to these questions and more in 2017.

Brandon Phillips (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Brandon Phillips (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Brandon Phillips | 2B | Age: 35 | Contract Status: 1-year, $14 million

A late addition to the Atlanta infield, Brandon Phillips came over from the Reds in a trade just before spring training. An injury to Sean Rodriguez forced the Braves back out on the market to look for a solution to second base, a position at which the club has ranked among the least productive in baseball in recent years. Phillips, 35, is a three-time All-Star and four-time gold glove award winner and has been one of the steadier producers at the position over the last decade. After failing to land Phillips in a trade earlier this winter, Atlanta got him to waive his no-trade clause in February. This marks a home coming for the 15-year veteran, who grew up in nearby Stone Mountain. He does a little bit of everything, blending power, speed and defense to establish himself as one of the best second basemen in the National League over the last decade. Phillips’ production has not approached the 30-30 campaign of 2007, but he has averaged a .279/.325/.429 slash line with 17 homers, 77 RBI, 18 stolen bases and a 2.8 WAR over the past 11 seasons in Cincinnati. Phillips does not draw many walks, but does not strikeout at an alarming rate either. However, he has grounded into 179 double plays since 2006, tied for seventh most in baseball over that stretch.

Phillips batted .291/.320/.416 with 11 homers, 64 RBI and 14 steals last season, but his defense regressed. Phillips committed 14 errors – easily his most since 2006 – and finished with a career worst -2.3 UZR/150 and -7 DRS (defensive runs saved) per FanGraphs. He was a 2.7 fWAR player in 2015, but slipped to 0.9 last season due in large part to the defensive woes. However, a major aspect of this trade is the fact that Atlanta is getting an extreme discount on the veteran’s services. Cincinnati is paying $13 million of the $14 million Phillips is owed in 2017, leaving Atlanta responsible for just $1 million. The Braves traded a pair of arms who were non-factors in clubs future plans as well in Andrew McKirahan and Carlos Portuondo. Basically, the Reds were ready to move on and the Braves provided that opportunity. It’s one that could benefit all parties as it turns out. Phillips was unlikely to be guaranteed regular playing time with a logjam of younger infielders on the rise in Cincinnati, but he should see substantial action with Atlanta. If he performs to anywhere close to his career-norms, this will trade will have paid for itself several times over. Atlanta also has incumbent second baseman Jace Peterson, who could be groomed for a super-utility role beginning in 2017. If Phillips struggles or needs the occasional day off, Peterson could provide that. The future of the position is top prospect Ozzie Albies, 20, who is coming back from a broken elbow and could benefit from extended experience at the Triple-A level. It’s nice to have an All-Star hold things down until Albies is ready.

 

Sean Rodriguez (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Sean Rodriguez (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Sean Rodriguez | INF | Age: 31 | Contract Status: 2-years, $11.5 million

Coming off a career-year with the Pirates, the Braves were hoping Sean Rodriguez could bring both his versatility and newfound power stroke to Atlanta. Unfortunately, a January car crash has put his season in jeopardy. In late January, Rodriguez and his family were riding in their SUV when it was struck by a man driving a stolen Miami police cruiser. His wife and children were hospitalized, but Rodriguez did not initially require medical care. With his family recovering, Rodriguez has dealt with a lingering shoulder issue which eventually required surgery. That procedure will reportedly sideline Rodriguez for 3-5 months. After losing their projected starting second baseman, the Braves moved quickly to acquire veteran Brandon Phillips from the Reds. The team maintains hope that Rodriguez will be able to return in 2017.

As for what a healthy Rodriguez was projected to bring, power was high on the list. It’s not that Rodriguez has never shown that home run potential, because he had in the minor leagues, but he altered his stance and employed a high leg kick that allowed him to tap into it more regularly last season. Rodriguez belted a career-high 18 home runs in just 300 at-bats – one every 16.6 AB. For comparison, Matt Kemp slugged 35 homers at a rate of one every 17.8 AB. That illustration makes Rodriguez’s accomplishment that much more impressive, but it’s not just a big year with the bat that makes him so valuable. Versatility has long been his calling card. Rodriguez has played every position on the field over the course of his nine-year career except for pitcher and catcher. He hit well both home and away and against lefties and righties last season as he played in 140 games for Pittsburgh. Though Rodriguez is technically a platoon player, the ability to perform well in virtually any match-up scenario is yet another feather in his cap and could have allowed him to push 500 at-bats this season were it not for the injury. The changes he made in 2016 led to his improved power, but making necessary tweaks and adjustments will remain the key to continued success. Eno Sarris of FanGraphs wrote a detailed account of Rodriguez’s metamorphosis, which is recommended reading for those with an analytical slant. It’s probably unrealistic to expect Rodriguez to continue belting home runs at his 2016 rate, but a productive bat and capable glove at multiple positions gives the team an added layer of depth that should prove valuable when Rodriguez returns.

Jace Peterson (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

Jace Peterson (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

Jace Peterson | 2B | Age: 26 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

The 2016 season was quite the odyssey for Jace Peterson. Atlanta’s opening day second baseman found himself in Triple-A a month later, only to reclaim his job and become a steady contributor during the team’s resurgent second half. It’s entirely possible that Peterson felt the need to press after a misdiagnosed ligament injury in his thumb led to severe slump in 2015. He spent most of last winter with his hand in a cast, which no doubt hindered his ability to prepare for the season. Couple that with being placed all over the field during spring training games and you have a player who just never seemed to be comfortable. Perhaps he was pulled in too many different directions. Peterson was hitting just .182 before being sent to Gwinnett to get back on track on May 1, but once there his bat remained ice cold. He batted just .186 over 26 games in Triple-A. However, Peterson was needed by the big club in June and returned to finish the season strong. Over the final four months, he batted .265/.362/.389 with 23 XBH, 25 RBI and 38 runs scored in 94 games as he earned 77 starts, primarily at second.

Peterson’s excellent athleticism has won favor in the organization. A hard-worker with a football mentality, he has seen both stretches of success and struggle at the plate. If he can strike a balance and avoid those peaks and valleys, he has demonstrated the ability to be a productive hitter. Peterson has shown a good approach at the plate and will take what he’s given. He showed moderate improvement as a hitter by raising his walk rate from 10% to 12.7% all while cutting his strikeout rate from 20% in 2015 to just under 16.9% last season. Ultimately, versatility may be the thing that helps Peterson carve out a spot on the roster in years to come. With Sean Rodriguez on board, we may see a shift toward moving Peterson around yet again. The difference between this spring and last is that he isn’t coming in off an injury or after a prolonged slump. Though second base is still the most logical place for Peterson, he may see some time in the outfield as well as third base as a defensive replacement in 2017.

Dansby Swanson (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Dansby Swanson (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Dansby Swanson | SS | Age: 22 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

The centerpiece of one of the best trades in franchise history, Dansby Swanson burst onto the scene in Atlanta last summer and showed why he has a chance to be a franchise fixture for years to come. Blessed with off the charts makeup and a well-rounded tool set, Swanson has drawn rave reviews for his all-around game from Braves executives. The local kid from nearby Marietta handled his call-up with the kind of grace and consistency the team expected, while establishing himself as an asset on a nightly basis. Swanson batted .302/.361/.442 with a 115 OPS+ in 38 games after making the jump from Double-A Mississippi to the majors just over a year after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft by Arizona. He did everything the club asked on the trek to the big leagues, opening the season with Carolina before an early promotion to Mississippi, where he batted .261 with eight homers and 45 RBI in 84 games.

Some were surprised initially that Swanson got the call, given that his minor league numbers don’t jump off the page. He put any concerns to rest relatively quickly, however, as he settled into the everyday shortstop job with Atlanta. Swanson was one of the catalysts for the Braves’ second half surge. After hitting just .236 in his first 15 games, he batted .351/.417/.568 over his final 23 contests and ended the season just two at-bats shy of surpassing rookie status. A contact hitter who can spray line drives all over the ballpark and possesses the ability to work counts, the Braves are likely to move Swanson up to the No. 2 spot in the batting order in 2017. Swanson is a standout player defensively as well. He displayed his quickness, range and arm strength throughout his major league orientation. As Braves president of baseball operations John Hart put it recently, “Swanson is a player whose overall game is better than the sum of the parts.” He does everything well, though he does not possess one stand-out tool. What Atlanta loves about Swanson is that he is a steady contributor with a winning mentality. In other words, the intangibles may be hard to quantify, but they give him a chance to be an All-Star player for years to come. That could begin in 2017 as the Braves move into SunTrust Park. (Read more about the Braves Top 30 Prospects for 2017)

Adonis Garcia (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Adonis Garcia (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Adonis Garcia | 3B | Age: 31 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Much like Jace Peterson, the Cuban born Adonis Garcia had a somewhat bumpy ride in 2016. With his fellow countryman, Hector Olivera, moving to left field during the spring, it appeared the door was open for Garcia to become the team’s everyday third baseman. After all, Garcia had flashed surprising power in limited playing time in 2015 by hitting 10 home runs in 191 at-bats. There was no initial carryover effect for Garcia, however. His defense, which was already questionable, left much to be desired over the first few weeks and his bat was ineffective. After Olivera found himself suspended for legal trouble, there was some thought that Garcia could transition to left field given his struggles at third. Unfortunately, that was also an adventure defensively. Garcia was dispatched to Gwinnett to spend some time getting comfortable in the outfield, only to return to the hot corner for Atlanta just three weeks later. The surprising result was a third baseman who was doing his best Brooks Robinson impression from that point on, with far fewer miscues.

Garcia was batting .260/.319/.308 with just three extra-base hits – one homer – and eight RBI when he was demoted on May 6. Bear in mind, this was coming from a player who was serving as Atlanta’s clean-up hitter and getting starts in the three-hole. Not only was his defense much improved upon his return, but he slashed a much more acceptable .276/.310/.430 with 40 XBH – 27 doubles and 13 homers – with 57 RBI and 57 runs scored over his final 106 games. Despite the uptick, Garcia is still not providing All-Star production for a third baseman by any stretch of the imagination, a point clearly illustrated by his 90 wRC+ for the season. However, when you consider the quiet start and factor in the improved play both at the plate and in the field, it’s easy to start feeling a little more comfortable with Garcia returning to man third base in 2017. That said, his hold on the position will be tenuous at best. Garcia posted just a .700 OPS against right-handed pitchers and if that drops any further then it would probably be in Atlanta’s best interest to explore its options and search for ways to add production to a projected lineup that falls off notably after the five-spot. Garcia’s second half numbers were encouraging – .293 with a 119 OPS+ in 67 games, but there is also enough reason to question whether or not he’ll be able to duplicate that production over the course of a full season. If he falters, Sean Rodriguez figures to see more time at third base unless or until another option can be found. Atlanta will continue to keep tabs on prospect Rio Ruiz as well.

Chase d'Arnaud (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Chase d’Arnaud (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Chase d’Arnaud | INF | Age: 30 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

The affable Chase d’Arnaud comes from a baseball family. His younger brother, Travis, plays for the Mets. The elder d’Arnaud has bounced around some over the course of his nine-year career, but happened to be in the right place at the right time with Atlanta last season. After being drafted in the 4th round and spending seven seasons in the Pirates organization, the speedy infielder has taken to playing wherever and whenever over the last two years. Originally a shortstop, d’Arnaud has also seen time at second, third and all three outfield spots as he’s begun carving out a niche as a utility type. As discussed with both Sean Rodriguez and Jace Peterson, Atlanta has put a premium on finding players that can serve the team in a variety of ways. d’Arnaud is another example of this.

He did not have much of a chance to get rolling in Gwinnett before Atlanta began shuffling the roster in May after getting off to a dreadful start. d’Arnaud came in and batted .345/.402/.452 over his first 25 games, easily the best stretch of his big league career. While he proved useful throughout the season, he saw his playing time scaled back after the arrival of Dansby Swanson and the return of both Jace Peterson and Adonis Garcia from Triple-A sabbaticals. With his starts fewer and further between, d’Arnaud cooled off considerably over the final 100 games, hitting just .188 (with a bad-luck .231 BABIP). Given the current roster construction, d’Arnaud can still provide some value as a pinch-hitter, pinch-runner and late inning defensive replacement. Atlanta certainly doesn’t mind having yet another versatile player in the fold.

No. 17 - Rio Ruiz (Getty Images)

No. 17 – Rio Ruiz (Getty Images)

Rio Ruiz | 3B | Age: 22 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Acquired from Houston in the Evan Gattis trade, Atlanta was hoping to have added a potential third baseman of the future in Rio Ruiz. However, prolonged struggles at the Double-A level were assuaged only slightly by a solid final month of the 2015 season. Following that rocky debut in the organization, the Braves challenged Ruiz heading into last winter. Many, if not most, figured that a return to Mississippi was in order as Ruiz was sent home for the winter with the goal of dropping some weight and improving his approach. The results, however, exceeded expectation. Ruiz went to work and returned this past spring 25 lbs. lighter and ready to tackle what would come next – a somewhat aggressive promotion to Triple-A. Ruiz put some things together in 2016, so much so that he found himself in Atlanta by September.

Though a fast start gave way to some May struggles, Ruiz navigated his way through those to put together a respectable .271/.355/.401 line on the season with 10 homers and a team-high 62 RBI in 133 games for Gwinnett last year. That was a major improvement from the .229/.331/.318 campaign he posted with Mississippi in 2015. The power is there, though it may not necessary result in a high home run total annually. Ruiz is a good judge of the strikezone and that should allow him to work counts and find pitches to hit. He also improved his footwork and general play around the bag at third base last season. Ruiz is an adequate fielder who could develop into a productive hitter, but it is important to keep in mind that he was among the youngest players in Triple-A last season. Ruiz will get a look by the Braves this spring in big league camp, but a return to Gwinnett seems to be the most likely scenario. Heading into his age 22 season, that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. (Read more about the Braves Top 30 Prospects for 2017)

Ozzie Albies (Photo by Karl L. Moore/Gwinnett Braves)

Ozzie Albies (Photo by Karl L. Moore/Gwinnett Braves)

Ozzie Albies | 2B | Age: 20 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Ozzie Albies has been a fast-riser since signing with Atlanta nearly four years ago for $350,000. The speedy Curacao native wasted little time establishing himself as one of the best contact hitters in the minor leagues. Despite being one of the youngest players in his league annually, Albies is a lifetime .310/.377/.419 hitter with 81 stolen bases in 293 games and even flashed some extra-base hit ability last season. He has rocketed through the ranks and accomplished all of this while never facing a pitcher younger than him in his minor league career. With an excellent blend of offensive and defensive skills to go along with a tremendous competitive spirit, it’s no wonder Albies has enjoyed success wherever he’s gone. It has him knocking on the door of the major leagues.

The Braves have not been hesitant to challenge Albies, whose gregarious nature helps him fit right into any clubhouse. He speaks four languages and has tremendous makeup as well, which certainly plays in his favor. Albies was the youngest player in the Double-A Southern League in 2016, where he won the batting title with a .321 average despite a stint in Triple-A in the middle of the season. Though he’s an excellent defensive shortstop, the Braves decided to go ahead and move Albies to second base last season and even paired him with Dansby Swanson upon his return to Mississippi. The club hopes that double play duo will be together for years to come. After an excellent all-around season, Albies suffered a bizarre injury in the Southern League playoffs when he fractured the olecranon bone in his right elbow on a swing. Though it ended his season and scuttled any thoughts of a September call-up, Albies is on schedule to be ready for the start of spring training. He will come to camp to compete for Atlanta’s second base job, but could begin the season with Triple-A Gwinnett, where he showed signs of figuring things out before dropping back down a level to play alongside Swanson. If his past is any indicator, it won’t be long until Albies is ready to make the jump to SunTrust Park. (Read more about the Braves Top 30 Prospects for 2017)

Other Options:

The Braves have a handful of other players who will come to camp to compete for reserve roles and provide depth at the Triple-A level. Well-traveled veteran INF/OF Emilio Bonifacio has had a couple of stints in Atlanta, returning last season to see limited time with the big club. A career .258 hitter with 166 steals in 793 games for 8 teams over the 10 seasons, the 31-year-old will likely begin 2017 in Gwinnett, where he batted .298 with 37 steals in 107 games last year … INF Micah Johnson was acquired from the Dodgers in mid-January to add another speedy, versatile option in the upper minors. Johnson, 26, was the White Sox opening day second baseman in 2015, but failed to produce and was dealt to Los Angeles in the Todd Frazier trade last winter. He’s batted .226 in just 43 big league games, but is a .292 hitter with 179 steals in 505 minor league games. The Dodgers started moving him around the diamond last year, with starts at 2B, 3B, CF and LF. Johnson is young enough that he could work his way into Atlanta’s plans if he remains productive … INF Colin Walsh got his first taste of the majors with the Brewers last season and signed a minor league deal with Atlanta this winter. Walsh, 27, had a truly odd slash line for Milwaukee, batting .085/.317/.106 thanks to 15 walks in 63 plate appearances. The former Cardinal farmhand joins his fourth organization and is a career .277/.394/.419 hitter across seven minor league seasons. Walsh can play 2B, 3B and the OF and will likely factor into Gwinnett’s plans in 2017 as he remains on the ready for a possible call-up… 1B Balbino Fuenmayor is a fun name, for a couple of reasons. One of those is rather obvious, while the other is tied to the rampage he went on during winter ball, hitting .342 with nine HR and 37 RBI over 38 games in his native Venezuela. He found his way back into organized ball with the Royals in 2015 after playing for a Canadian independent league. Not known for his glove, Fuenmayor is likely earmarked for a season in Gwinnett.

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.

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