The last player to start and finish a season as the Atlanta Braves starting second baseman — without any interruptions — was Dan Uggla in 2012. The franchise has featured a revolving door at the position for the better part of four seasons. Jace Peterson has provided the most stability in the interim, but a thumb injury and a minor-league demotion have interrupted his two seasons as the starter.
Peterson’s strong second half brought his numbers up to replacement level by the final game, but the Braves’ overall production at the position was problematic in 2016. With Reid Brignac, Gordon Beckham, Kelly Johnson and Daniel Castro all struggling in various stints, Atlanta second basemen finished 29th in wins above replacement— ahead of only the Oakland Athletics — and graded out as the worst fielding collective in terms of defensive WAR.
Help is on the way, though.
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How high should expectations be set for Ozzie Albies?
Relative to his age and competition level, no Braves minor-leaguer pieced together a more impressive 2016 season than Ozzie Albies, the 5-foot-9 wunderkind who, at 19 years old, torched Double-A pitching and gave Triple-A arms occasional headaches.
By the end of the season — one cut short by a strange and unfortunate elbow injury in the playoffs — Albies won the Southern League batting crown after hitting .321/.391/.467 in 371 plate appearances for the Mississippi Braves, cementing his place near the top of one of baseball’s best farm systems.
The clock has been ticking ever since the Braves stole headlines at the 2015 Winter Meetings with the Dansby Swanson blockbuster, a countdown to the franchise’s middle infield of the future playing together in SunTrust Park. That time is just around the corner. The Braves expressed confidence that Albies, despite his recent injury, will be 100 percent by camp and ready to compete for the starting job on Opening Day.
Atlanta could choose to be patient with Albies early on — much in the same way the organization slow-played Mike Foltynewicz’s transition into last season’s rotation — citing his age, elbow injury or the need for further refinement in the International League.
Regardless, it would be a surprise not to see the young infielder make his MLB debut before the All-Star break. He’s all but guaranteed to be be the first Braves player to break into the majors before his 21st birthday since Julio Teheran and Arodys Vizcaino both debuted during the 2011 season.
Albies will upgrade the Braves’ middle-infield defense from Day 1.
For a franchise that graded out as MLB’s worst, a 60-grade arm and 55-grade glove, per MLB Pipeline, will provide instant impact in the same way Swanson’s call-up elevated Atlanta’s defense from the Erick Aybar days. Per Baseball America's scouting report: "The definition of a quick-twitch athlete, Albies' first-step quickness, soft hands, above-average arm strength and baseball instincts make him a plus defender at both middle-infield spots."
Keep in mind: 20-year-old difference-makers are rare, particularly at the plate.
Only seven players this century have hit above league average (100 weighted runs created plus) and posted a 2 WAR or better in their age-20 season: Mike Trout, Manny Machado, Jason Heyward, Bryce Harper, Carlos Correa, Jose Reyes and Giancarlo Stanton. Albies does not come with the hit tools those players possessed as top prospects, and he struggled at times against Triple-A pitching last season. There will likely be growing pains.
In 55 games with Gwinnett last season, Albies hit .248/.307/.351 with two home runs and nine stolen bases. With his speed and gap-to-gap power he should be posting a better on-base percentage, but that could provide a baseline of expectations as he will likely hit at the back of the lineup.
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What becomes of Jace Peterson?
In his first two MLB seasons, Jace Peterson has proven he's capable of holding down a 25-man roster spot.
An under-the-radar piece in the Justin Upton trade in 2014, the former first-round pick has slashed .245/.328/.347 with a playable glove in 267 games with the Braves. However, the acquisition of Dansby Swanson — giving the franchise two middle-infield stud prospects in the high minors — set an expiration date on Peterson's starting days at second.
Peterson's athletecism allows for a contingency plan, though.
The 26-year-old logged 106 innings in left and center field last season and both the Braves and Padres, his previous team, have given him looks at third. If Peterson does not become a trade chip, he could slot into a valuable utility option with plus running ability off the bench.
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Where does Sean Rodriguez fit into the equation?
Signing a player who hit 18 home runs with a .349 on-base percentage and accounted for 1.9 wins above replacement for less than $6 million annually is larceny in this free-agent market. Yet that's the price the Braves paid for Sean Rodriguez, the former Pirates utility option whose 2016 numbers warrant starting consideration for at least two position in Atlanta.
Looking at the roster's past production, the easiest place to slot Rodriguez's bat in would be at second base. He's logged over 2,000 innings and 23 defensive runs saved there over the course of his nine-year career and, as previously mentioned, Peterson was merely a replacement-level player last season. If Albies does not make the Opening Day roster, Rodriguez is the likely frontrunner heading into camp.
Still, Albies is on the way, and the front office is not going to call him up simply to watch him sit on the bench. Manager Brian Snitker could very well give the phenom rest against top pitching — just as he did early on with Swanson; subsequently opening the door for occasional starts from Rodriguez or Peterson — but it will be Albies' job.
Given the remainder of Rodriguez's potential starting spots are filled by Swanson, Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis and Matt Kemp, the next place to look will be third base. Sean Rodriguez is a better player than Adonis Garcia. The 31-year-old Garcia continues to outperform his minor-league numbers, but if Rodriguez's swing adjustments can be trusted (John Coppolella and John Hart believe they are tangible), he offers a more productive bat and better glove.
When Albies arrives, expect Rodriguez to spend most of his time at the hot corner, perhaps even as the everyday starter.