Freddie Freeman's fast start highlights Braves' early spring performers
As the SunTrust Park grounds crew covered the new park’s infield and outfield spaces with fresh sod — yet another sign that the 2017 season is fast approaching — the Atlanta Braves opened their Grapefruit League schedule with extreme highs, some early lows and plenty of intrigue.
Wins and losses are trivial at this time of year; teams do not hang banners from Grapefruit League titles. The good news for Atlanta is that MLB staples like Freddie Freeman have jumped out of the gate early and, aside from outfield prospect Dustin Peterson’s hand surgery and A.J. Minter’s “minor” arm soreness, the club received a relatively clean bill of health for the opening week of play. Here are three (extremely) early takeaways from the Braves’ first week of spring training games.
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Top offensive pieces pick up where they left off
Brian Snitker’s club capped its 2016 season as one of the hottest offenses in baseball, a 180-degree turnaround from the previous three seasons in Atlanta. Since the start of the 2014 season, no franchise has scored fewer runs than the Braves, but the additions of Dansby Swanson and Matt Kemp sparked a late-season surge that the Braves are hoping will carry over into their inaugural season at SunTrust. The early returns are positive, particularly from the unit’s key cogs.
This time last year, Freddie Freeman's wrist health dominated headlines. His late-season surge squashed any lingering concerns — slashing .302/.400/.569 with 34 home runs for his most productive campaign — and now he enters the 2017 season as an MVP possibility. His spring start will not slow down that hype train. Freeman leads the Braves with eight hits in 16 at-bats, and while the power numbers (one double) are slow to follow, Freeman is the least of Snitker's concerns.
Swanson, primarily hitting ahead of Freeman at No. 2 in spring, is not far behind.
A preseason NL Rookie of the Year frontrunner, Swanson is justifying offseason discussion of his ability to handle one of the lineup's most important spots, opening the Grapefruit League schedule with seven hits and three walks in six games while previewing formidable double-play potential with veteran second baseman Brandon Phillips.
The surprising addition to this list is Adonis Garcia, who enters his third season in Atlanta as the third-base favorite. Garcia, who could benefit from moving down in the order this season, is hitting a cool .400 in five games.
Early spring results are relatively meaningless, of course: fast spring starters stumble out of the gate and groggy spring performers have dominated April. On that note, the likes of Ender Inciarte, Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis have some work to do. However, it's hard to notice the lows with Freeman and Swanson's highs.
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Does Brian Snitker have the right bench pieces to carry an eight-man bullpen?
The talk of the Atlanta Braves carrying a four-man bench started early. With the addition of super-utility player Sean Rodriguez and the return of do-everything options Jace Peterson and Chase d'Arnaud, the front office delivered versatility and potential productivity to Snitker's bench. (Veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki completed the unit.)
But the scary car crash involving the Rodriguez family, hospitalizing three of his family members and potentially ending Rodriguez's season, reset the question: Will a four-man bench — and an eight-man bullpen — be the right call for Snitker without Rodriguez, the one true dangerous "bench" bat.
Atlanta certainly has a variety of relief options (certainly more than it does bench bats), but it's unclear if the likes of Micah Johnson, Rio Ruiz, Emilio Bonifacio, Adam Walker or Christian Walker, among others in camp, would provide enough quality production as the primary pinch hitter — a definitive need in the National League.
The Braves taxed their bullpen at a rate the front office was uncomfortable with last season — the most innings ever for an Atlanta bullpen — but the additions of veteran starters (and innings-eaters) Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia are expected to ease that burden.
At the very least, it's one of the few key remaining storylines in camp with so many of the team's everyday roster spots accounted for.
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Spring training is made for flashes of ridiculous upside
For every pressing concern a franchise faces in the build-up to Opening Day, there are moments involving shooting stars demanding only admiration. In Braves camp, such moments have been produced from two primary sources: Ronald Acuna and Max Fried.
Two of the top prospects in Atlanta's celebrated farm system, Acuna and Fried are not considered Opening Day options. (Fried is merely a dark horse 2017 option overall.)
And yet the 19-year-old Acuna, a five-tool outfielder whose electric but injury-shortened season at Single-A gave way to an excellent winter-league outing in Australia, is lighting up the Grapefruit League. Acuna has five hits in nine at-bats, including two doubles, and, perhaps more impressive, does not look overmatched against MLB talent. At all.
The same can be said for Max Fried, who opened his first-ever big-league spring actions by setting down Miguel Cabrera and walks out of the first week giving up just one hit and two walks in three scoreless innings.
Cuts will be coming soon and (eventually) Acuna and Fried will be among them. For now, the future stars are out.