Grant McAuley’s 2018 Braves Preview Series will take a look at each position group in advance of Spring Training. Pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 13 and their first workout is Feb. 14. Position players report on Feb. 18, with the first full-squad workout taking place on Feb. 19.

The Braves open Grapefruit League play on Feb. 23 against the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie.

The Atlanta Braves infielders will be an interesting group to watch for a variety of reasons. Heading that contingent is All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman. He was on his way to a career-year when a broken wrist put him on the shelf for six weeks in 2017. Meanwhile, Dansby Swanson struggled through his rookie season just as Ozzie Albies made his big league debut. Throw in a question mark at third base and the Braves head to spring training looking for some answers.

Freddie Freeman

Freddie Freeman (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

Freddie Freeman | 1B | Age: 28 | Contract Status: 4-years, $86 million

Oh, what could have been for Freddie Freeman in 2017. After putting together an MVP-caliber start, his season was derailed by a broken left wrist. Then things got weird. “Freddie Freeman, third baseman” became a thing for a couple of weeks. Eventually he moved back to first base, where he closed out one of the best all-around seasons of his career. Building off of a terrific 2016 campaign, Freeman set new career-highs in on-base percentage and slugging percentage as he matched his best OPS+. While Freeman made it back to the Atlanta lineup ahead of schedule, there’s no doubt that he will have benefited from some extended rest this winter.

Just how good was Freeman’s 2017 campaign going before that wrist injury on May 17? He was leading the National League with 14 home runs, a .748 slugging percentage, a 1.209 on-base plus slugging, ranked second with 26 extra-base hits and third with 35 runs scored. His .341 batting average was also the sixth best in the NL. It was an insanely hot start on the heels of a torrid finish to the 2016 season. Over a 162-game span from July 27, 2016 to September 17, 2017, Freeman posted a .332/.436/.638 line with 51 doubles, 44 homers, 124 RBI, 130 runs scored, 10 steals, 106BB/141K in 603 AB. Sure, it’s not all in one calendar year, but Freeman’s emergence as one of the premier power-hitting first basemen in the game is complete.

Last season also represented a noticeable spike in Freeman’s annual salary, which will be roughly $21 million through 2021, his age 31 season. With Freeman in the prime of his career, the Braves are hoping an influx of youth and new talent can help bring the club back into contention. While 2018 appears to be a long shot, the Braves are finally in a position to reap the rewards of their rebuild. Freeman remains a central figure in the Atlanta lineup, but will need some help in the middle of the order if the Braves want to make some noise in the National League East and beyond.

Ozzie Albies

Ozzie Albies (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Ozzie Albies | 2B | Age: 21 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

The much-heralded Ozzie Albies made his big league debut in 2017 and did not disappoint. A speedy middle infielder who transitioned from shortstop to second base over the past two seasons, Albies does just about everything well and packs surprising pop from his 5-foot-9 frame. At just 21 years old, he has routinely been the among the youngest players at each level he has played. That culminated with his promotion to the majors in August. Entering the 2018 season, Albies has still yet to face a pitcher who is younger than him in his professional career.

A switch-hitter with a high-leg kick and a quick bat, the Braves’ first look at Albies in the big leagues was certainly promising. He batted .286/.354/.456 across 217 at-bats, belting six homers among 20 extra-base hits. He has top of the charts speed and runs the bases extremely well, evidenced by his eight steals in nine attempts. Albies hit .304 in 1,555 minor league at-bats and won the Southern League batting title in 2016. Last season, he began driving the ball more and hitting it on the ground less. That’s a trend among hitters in today’s game looking to maximize production through improved launch angle and higher exit velocity. Though he won’t be eligible for Rookie of the Year consideration in 2018, Albies seems primed to be one of the top young players in the National League.

gettyimages 832224570 1 2018 Braves Positional Preview: Infield

Dansby Swanson (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Dansby Swanson | SS | Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration                                                

The 2017 season was filled with ups and downs for Dansby Swanson, a local product who was propelled through the minor leagues and straight to Atlanta just over a year after being the top pick in the 2015 June draft. Swanson started slowly at the plate and was exploited by a steady diet of breaking balls. Unfortunately for Swanson, his struggles extended to the field as well. He batted just .189 and committed 11 errors over his first 49 games, though his fielding improved in the second half (9 errors in 93 games). With the emergence of Johan Camargo as a viable option at shortstop, Swanson was demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett at midseason.

To his credit, he took the set-back in stride, said the right things and put in the work in order to rejoin Atlanta a couple of weeks later. At the plate, there was one pitch that gave Swanson a considerable amount of trouble. According to Statcast, Swanson saw sliders 20.8 percent of the time, the fourth highest percentage among qualified hitters in 2017. Invariably, he is going to have to show that he can hit the breaking ball in order to force pitcher to adjust. There were far too many peaks and valleys offensively for a player who’d been a consistent performer during his high school and college career. The rapid rise through the minors did not allow for much seasoning and required more on the job training at the big league level than most players are subjected to.

It’s safe to say that 2017 was, by in large, a disappointment for Swanson. The limited look in the minors and solid first impression in 2016 had many hoping that he’d be able to make a seamless transition to the majors. While that wasn’t the case, there is still plenty of reason to believe that he can develop into a productive every day player. An outstanding all-around talent with the makeup that helped him navigate through a challenging rookie season, Swanson will embark on a pivotal 2018 campaign with redemption on his mind.

gettyimages 852638254 2018 Braves Positional Preview: Infield

Johan Camargo (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

Johan Camargo | INF | Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Perhaps no player in the Braves organization has made a better impression in a shorter amount of time than Johan Camargo. Known mostly for his cannon-like arm, Camargo had been a light-hitting shortstop over the first three seasons of his minor league career. All of that began to change at Double-A Mississippi in 2016 when he collected a career-high 36 extra-base hits and was added to Atlanta’s 40-man roster over the winter. That move surprised some at the time, but turned out to be the right call.

Camargo’s bat took another step forward in 2017. It started in spring training when he began to generate some buzz as a dark horse candidate to crack the 25-man roster. Though he would start the season in Triple-A Gwinnett, Camargo wouldn’t stay down there for long. After a hot start, he worked his way to Atlanta to stay by mid-summer. The switch-hitter batted .299/.331/.452 with 21 doubles, four home runs and 27 RBI in 241 AB while making 30 starts third base, 23 at shortstop and another half a dozen at second base.

His emerging bat and defensive versatility lead many to wonder what the best role for Camargo will be. The Braves head into 2018 without a clear-cut third baseman, though that could change in the lead up to opening day. Camargo has certainly shown enough promise to the compete for that job in spring training, but the jury remains out on where he fits in Atlanta’s long-term plan.

gettyimages 866476006 2018 Braves Positional Preview: Infield

Charlie Culberson (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Charlie Culberson | INF | Age: 28 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

The Braves added a slick-fielding reserve option when they plucked Georgia native Charlie Culberson from the Dodgers in the December trade that sent Matt Kemp back to Los Angeles. Culberson grew up in Calhoun, Georgia, and was a first round selection by the San Francisco Giants in the 2007 draft. He’s bounced around some since then, playing parts of five seasons in the major leagues with the Giants, Colorado Rockies and Dodgers. Culberson’s bat has not produced enough to earn him regular playing time or a regular spot. That was not the case in the postseason in 2017, however. Culberson filled in for the injured Corey Seager in the NLDS and came through with some key hits in the NLCS as well. Altogether, he batted .500 with four extra-base hits and four runs scored in his 16 playoff at-bats.

Upon taking the general manager post with Atlanta, Alex Anthopoulos said he would like to take steps to improve Atlanta’s defense. The Braves were tied for 26th in the majors with -43 defensive runs saved in 2017 according to FanGraphs. Divesting themselves of Kemp (-17 DRS) was a good start. Adding the sure-handed Culberson was another good step. With a pitching staff built around young arms for the foreseeable future, run prevention is a key component to their combined success. While Culberson is just a .231 hitter and doesn’t figure to nab too many starting assignments, his value as a platoon player and late-inning defensive replacement should not be overlooked. He could ably step in should there be an injury to one of Atlanta’s starting infielders and can also play the outfield.

gettyimages 821969838 2018 Braves Positional Preview: Infield

Rio Ruiz (Photo by Patrick Duffy/Getty Images)

Rio Ruiz | 3B | Age: 23 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

One of the many prospects acquired via trade as Atlanta began its rebuild after the 2014 season, Rio Ruiz got his first extended taste of the big leagues in 2017. Originally a fourth round draft pick by Houston in 2012, Ruiz has worked tirelessly to improve his conditioning and glove work over the past two seasons. After bouncing between Triple-A Gwinnett and Atlanta last summer, Ruiz was never able to seize the starting third base job. He’ll come to spring training hoping to get another opportunity. With Johan Camargo also looking for regular at-bats, it will be an interesting competition between two young players at third base for the Braves. Of course, that is barring any further offseason acquisitions that may occur in the coming weeks and months in advance of opening day.

Ruiz’s power numbers spiked in 2017, with a career-high 20 home runs among his 52 extra-base hits between the minors and majors. However, he batted just .193 and struck out 41 times in 173 plate appearances for Atlanta. That 23-percent strikeout rate is high but not terribly out of line in a game where punch-outs are becoming more and more accepted as the price to pay for increased offense. Ruiz will have to demonstrate his ability to produce those power numbers in order to cement his value at the hot corner. His .231 batting average on balls in play was the lowest by any Braves position player with at least 100 plate appearances. League average is annually around a .300, so a little more luck could have Ruiz’s BABIP trending closer to the norm and his average on the rise. It’s also worth noting that Ruiz sported the highest ground ball rate (56.3%) and lowest line drive rate (13.4%) of any Braves hitter with at least 150 AB. Both of those numbers were noticeably below his rates at Triple-A, so there is reason to believe he could see improvement in those categories.

Non-roster options:

Christian Colon, 28, signed a minor league deal just before the Winter Meetings and will come to camp hoping to earn a spot on the Atlanta bench. Colon was the No. 4 overall pick in the 2010 June draft by Kansas City. A career .282/.347/.381 minor league hitter, he has big league time with the Royals and Marlins, batting .252 in 386 career plate appearances in four seasons. Colon can play second, short or third and will provide some organizational depth if nothing else… Ray-Patrick Didder, 23, has seen much of his time in the minors in the outfield, but spent some time at both shortstop and second base last season. He has a knack for finding his way on base, relying on hit-by-pitch as one of his methods. However, he batted just .230 (with a .331 OBP) in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League last season. The Aruba native signed with Atlanta in 2013 and cracked Baseball America’s Top 30 Braves prospects in 2016… Sean Kazmar, 33, is the elder statesman among these non-roster invitees. He began his career in 2004 as a 5th round pick by the Padres. A lifetime .258 hitter in 5,300 minor league at-bats, he got a cup of coffee with San Diego in 2008. The versatile Kazmar has become a beloved figure in Triple-A Gwinnett, where he’s spent the last five seasons… Austin Riley, 20, was a competitive balance pick in 2015 and has made a name for himself as a slugging third baseman. A two-way star out of DeSoto Central, Southaven, Mississippi, Riley is among the Braves’ Top 10 prospects after posting back-to-back 20 home run campaigns. Riley is regarded by many as a potential long term answer at third base and could begin the season back at Double-A Mississippi or jump to Triple-A Gwinnett in 2018.

 

Comments (6)
  1. Grant, I’ve been a Braves fan since 1982 (I was 10 years old when we opened the year 13-0..and won The Division on the last day of the season when The Giants beat The Dodgers). I’ve lived through the worst of 1985-1990….to the amazing consecutive playoff streak of 1991-2005 (that ultimately led to The Braves with winning The World Series in 1995)…to the current Rebuild that began with Coppy selling off our offensive players (and Kimbrel) after The 2014 Season ended.

    While far from perfect, in general I have to say that I’m very pleased with the results of Coppy’s Rebuild. Now it’s AA’s turn to take it to The Next Level (he’s off to a good start. 1. The Matt Kemp Trade not only cleared his salary from The 2019 Season, but NO prospects were attached as ‘sweeteners’, lol. 2. AA refrained from sacrificing our high ceiling prospects by staying away from acquiring Christian Yelich. Thank you, lol).

    Here’s what (and why) I would do to improve The Braves going forward:

    The 2018 Season..is about giving The Braves PLETHORA of talented pitching prospects (along with Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna) PLENTY of playing time in 2018…..to show us what they have! Julio Teheran, Mike Folty, Luiz Gohara, Sean Newcomb and Brandon McCarthy (not sure what Atlanta is going to do with Max Fried….however I feel that long term, due to his past injury issues, Fried would be better off eventually being transitioned to the bullpen, where he has the potential to be an Andrew Miller-like pitcher) with Lucas Sims as the long relief man/spot starter if someone gets hurt/needs rest in the 1st half of the season. Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard will be doing their thing in Triple A, gearing up for a possible promotion to Atlanta in the 2nd half IF their Triple A performance warrants it. And of course, we have the likes of Kyle Wright and Tooki Tousiant in Double A….and Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz, Bryce Wilson and Kyle Muller in High Class A. In addition, Patrick Weigel will be coming back from his ACL injury in Triple A by the end of 2018, gearing to be in full force by Opening Day 2019 in Triple A.

    Unless our GM, AA, changes course, I see him dealing at least one of McCarthy/Kazmir by The Trade Deadline (giving them some starts to showcase them being able to stay healthy, lol). However, I’d love to see both of them gone by Opening Day (if the right offer comes along, because I want no one blocking our young guys once they are ready)! If someone gets hurt, we’ll still have the likes of Aaron Blair and Matt Wisler in Triple A to plug in until Soroka and Allard are ready later in 2018. No need to waste a roster spot for veteran pitchers whose only purpose is to take away spots in the rotation from the youngsters!

    As far as The Bullpen….we’re set (no need to find a true closer for 2018…..we’ll get one in The 2018 Free Agent Offseason, when we’ll be positioned to offer Craig Kimbrel $18 mil a year-ish to return to The Braves). In the meantime, we’ll have PLENTY of youngsters to pick from to build a bullpen in 2018 (with an eye on who can excel long term starting in 2019!).

    One idea that AA may be pondering….is to wait until after Spring Training is over (you know, every year, someone/someones always gets hurt pitching-wise. Maybe it would be wise to hold onto McCarthy and Kazmir….and see who is healthy on Opening Day 2018. If everyone is…then we trade both of them (shouldnt be that hard). If some are hurt…then the next step depends on who is hurt. If McCarthy and Kazmir both excel, then our return in a trade could be nice.

    At the end of the day…the Matt Kemp Trade was ALL ABOUT giving our young players a chance to SHOW US what we have going into 2019 (by absorbing Kemp’s money into The 2018 Season, I seriously doubt that AA is going to ALSO spend serious money this offseason). Also……it clears our payroll for us to be SERIOUS PLAYERS come The 2018 Free Agent Offseason! Dare I say MANNY MACHADO, BRYCE HARPER & Craig Kimbrel ‘could’ be Braves Opening Day 2019? I know, fat chance/too pricey, right? Well if you’re willing to follow me, in a few paragraphs, I will SHOW that signing all three can work (not only for 2019 BUT ALSO beyond!):

    Projected 2018 Line-up:

    1. Ozzie Albies…..2nd
    2. Ronald Acuna…RF (once he gets called up by late April)
    3. Freddie Freeman…1st
    4. Tyler Flowers/Kurt Suzuki…C (righty-lefty balance…DO NOT want Markakis hitting clean-up)
    5. Nick Markakis…Left
    6. Rio Ruiz/Culberson…3rd (I’d rather see Johan Carmago be our everyday supersub)
    7. Ender Inciarte…..Center
    8. Dansby Swanson….SS (he’s suited to hitting 8th, draws lots of walks/gets the occasional bloop hit….clearing the pitcher’s spot in The National League has value. I’d rather see Dansby focus on that…as well as being a leader who focuses on playing STELLA DEFENSE. The offense will come IF it’s meant to come for him).

    While far from playoff worthy…..it’s somewhat respectable. What I’m more focused on…is how Albies and Acuna WRECK HAVOC at the top of the order/setting the table for Freddie! AA can work on the 4-5-6 spots (3rd base, Left Field and Catcher, long term, lol) in the order by Opening Day 2019! We’ll have THE MONEY…..will AA be able to convince Liberty to go “ALL-IN” in The 2018 Free Agent Offseason?

    Do the math now….on whether $150 mil Braves payroll in 2019 (a $20 mil jump from the likely 2018 $130 mil Payroll is more than reasonable, given that this team would generate likely additional revenues by participating in The Playoffs)..can absorb paying Machado and Harper $35 mil a year-ish long term contracts…as well as Craig Kimbrel $18 mil a year-ish (either 4 or 5 year contract)….for a total of $88 mil combined starting in 2019 (which would, in theory, leave $62 for the other 22 roster spots). Well, when you factor in Freddie Freeman’s $21 mil and Ender Inciarte’s $5 mil 2019 salaries…then that leaves only $36 mil for 20 roster spots (after Machado, Harper, Kimbrel, Freeman and Inciarte).

    However, the remaining non-minimum wage players left are Julio Teheran ($11 mil in 2019)….Mike Folty (3 years of arbitration left after 2018…expected to make around $5-$6 mil in 2019).. Adroys Vizcaino (approximately $5-$6 mil in 2019…Free Agent in 2020)..and Dan Winkler ($1.5-$2 mil in 2019…a FA after 2020). Depending on how those four perform in 2018 (and ESPECIALLY how our PLETHORA of high profile young pitching prospects performs in 2018)…all four could either return OR be traded by The End of The 2018 Season.

    Albies, Acuna, Swanson, Minter, Soroka, Allard, Gohara, Fried, Wright, Newcomb, Lane Adams, Johan Carmago, Lucas Sims, Jose Ramirez and Anyelo Gomez (who we drafted from The Yankees in The Rule 5 Draft….if he stays with The Braves in 2018)….(that’s at least 15 players slated to make The MLB Minimum Opening Day 2019)…which leaves 5 spots to fill (15 times $550k MLB Minimum….equals approximately $8.25 mil)…out the remaining $27.75 mil in remaining salary to fill The approximate hypothetical $150 mil 2019 Team Payroll.

    With Dan Winkler ($1.5-$2 mil in 2019)….along with one more year each (hypothetically speaking) of Tyler Flowers/Kurt Suzuki (same contracts as 2018 for 2019), a combined $7.5 mil. That’s 3 players at a combined cost of $9.5 mil. That’s a total of 23 players for a total of $132.75 mil.

    If I had to make a decision today, I feel that either Teheran or Folty will rise up in 2018 and stake a claim to be THE ACE of this staff going into 2019. My guess…is that it will be Folty. Teheran could…but chances are Sun Trust Field is in his head….and even if he has a decent season, he will probably be traded. Folty’s stuff is simply TOO GOOD to be a mediocre pitcher. Add Folty’s projected $5-$6 mil 2019 salary to the mix…24 players/$138.75 mil total…leaving 1 player left/$11.25 mil left.

    That would leave $11.25 mil to fill out the last reserve player (I’ll leave that up to AA to find…assuming we’d be going into 2019 with a 4 man bench like in 2018…..2019 bench would be Carmago, backup catcher-Flowers/Suzuki, Lane Adams, and AA’s choice).

    2019 Starting 8 could be:

    1. Ozzie Albies…2nd…$550k
    2. Ronald Acuna…RF…$550k
    3. Freddie Freeman…1st…$21 mil
    4. Manny Machado….3rd….$35 mil
    5. Bryce Harper….LF….$35 mil
    6. Flowers/Suzuki..C….combined $7.5 mil
    7. Ender Inciarte…Center…$5 mil
    8. Dansby Swanson…SS….$550k

    2019 Projected Starting 5 Rotation:

    1. Mike Folty….$6 mil
    2. Luiz Gohara…..$550k
    3. Mike Soroka…..$550k
    4. Kolby Allard……$550k
    5. Kyle Wright….$550k (to be honest, we’re going to have Tooki Tousiant, Joey Wentz, Bryce Wilson and Ian Anderson waiting in the wings to make a push by Opening Day 2020, lol…that is how SICK our depth is, lol. Not to mention Patrick Weigel and Kyle Muller, lol).

    2019 Projected Bench:

    1. Johan Carmago….$550k
    2. Suzuki/Flowers….$0.00 (already accounted for in the starting lineup)
    3. Lane Adams……..$550k
    4. AA’s choice………(he has $11.25 mil to play with).

    2019 Projected Bullpen:

    1. Craig Kimbrel….$18 mil
    2. Dan Winkler…..$2 mil
    3. AJ Minter……..$550k
    4. Sean Newcomb….$550k
    5. Max Fried………$550k
    6. Anyelo Gomez….$550k
    7. Lucas Sims…….$550k
    8.Jose Ramirez…..$550k

    To be honest, a number of those bullpen arms will be interchangeable/rotated between Triple A/The Disabled List/Atlanta throughout the 2019 Season! We’ll have the likes of Akeel Mooris/Jacob Lindgren, Grant Dayton, Josh Ravin, Devan Watts, Corbin Clouse, Josh Graham, Mauricio Cabrera (if he ever gets his act together), Adam McCreery, etc. to slide in when needed!

    Now doesnt that have the makings of A POTENTIAL DEEP PLAYOFF RUN type team? Unless AA went with a really PRICEY bench piece with the $11.25 mil left I ‘gave him’ to spend…..I think I did AN AMAZING JOB ‘spending’ $138.75 mil on this roster! Or AA could use the $7.5 mil allocated for Flowers/Suzuki and go in a different direction and get a younger, long term catcher (either via trade or Free Agent). Regardless, the flexibility that AA has going into The 2018 Offseason…is AMAZING!

    Depending on what we’d gotten back from trading Teheran (in this scenario)…as well as Kazmir and McCarthy….we could either have some more Lower Minor League Depth…OR a more valuable bench piece than Culberson, lol!

    I know that many felt that there would be NO WAY for The Braves to spend $150 mil and field a competitive playoff team….NOT ONLY did I do so…but I did so with $11.25 mil LEFT (again, assuming AA didnt go for a PRICEY bench piece..he’s going to have around $10 mil left to ‘play with’ during the season IF a need arises…with the option of increasing the $150 mil payroll to $160 mil or so IF something happens). However, given our depth in The Minors…we’ll be fine pitching-wise. However if a Harper, Machado or Freeman got hurt…then yes, we’d need to make some sort of move to address that for the short team! Barring that….this hypothetical team would be STACKED/LOADED/and more importantly…HELLA YOUNG! Also, the payroll would be virtually the same come 2020 (Dansby Swanson the only 2019 pre-arbitration player who’ll be eligible for arbitration…unless he drastically improves, he wont be due a huge raise for 2020). Sure, 2021 will see a number of arbitration eligible players…however the ability to afford the increased payroll will also go up (because revenues will be increasing). I see the payroll increasing to over $160 mil in 2020..to over $175 mil in 2021…and $190 mil in 2022 (as well as revenues increasing over that time…ESPECIALLY if The Braves have started another playoff streak).

    I’m not saying that The Braves WILL go after Machado, Harper and Kimbrel…I’m saying that IF a number of things happen during The 2018 Season (like 1. Albies and Acuna showing that they are The Braves Version of Altuve and Correa at the top of our order..2. If our young, high ceiling starting pitching develops/rises like they did in 2017…then The Braves SHOULD pull out all stops and SIGN Machado, Harper and Kimbrel. Those three players would PERFECTLY fit what The Braves need to take THAT NEXT STEP (3rd base, left field, batting #4-#5 in our order providing power/ability to knock in runs…as well as Kimbrel being THE HAMMER to close out games, giving our young pitcher some confidence that if they can get it through 6-7 innings, Kimbrel will be there to CLOSE THINGS OUT, especially come playoff time)!

    Your thoughts?

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