Prepping for SunTrust Park: 5 key questions for Braves offseason
The Atlanta Braves handled their first order of offseason business without delay, filling their managerial opening with franchise staple Brian Snitker. Larger questions loom, though, for as even Snitker and the front office have said improvement falls primarily on the players. In an effort to put a better product on the field in Year 1 at SunTrust Park, the front office should have its hands full (again) this winter. FOX Sports South highlights five notable position groups worth keeping an eye on after the playoffs end.
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5. What happens with the outfield logjam?
Five outfields were more valuable than Atlanta's in the second half: Three made the postseason (Cubs, Red Sox, Indians), one boasted Mike Trout and the other, the Reds, came out of nowhere. The Braves' late-July addition of Matt Kemp cannot be understated — he outperformed realistic expectations in every way and, along with significant improvement from Ender Inciarte and Nick Markakis, gave Snitker a formidable trio night after night. Can the Braves trust them to repeat in 2017?
There's a good possibility the franchise enters SunTrust Park with the same outfield and young speedster Mallex Smith coming off the bench as the fourth option and pinch-runner. Still, with Smith and Minor League Player of the Year Dustin Peterson hitting his way up the pipeline, it's at least worth noting that the team has options.
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4. Are any major additions needed for Atlanta to piece together an excellent bullpen?
Atlanta's bullpen posted the seventh-best WAR after the All-Star break, propped up by the addition of rookie fireballer Mauricio Cabrera. After August, the relief corps allowed just two home runs in 453 plate appearances and posted a 2.79 ERA. Though the organization rebuilt around young starting pitching, a notable byproduct has emerged: The franchise is closer to building an elite bullpen than it is an top-tier starting staff.
It's unclear if the team has any major offseason plans to add relievers. It may not need to. A year after highlighting the bullpen as his No. 1 priority, general manager John Coppolella re-signed veteran Jim Johnson and could get the likes of injured arms Arodys Vizcaino, Daniel Winkler and Paco Rodriguez rejoining Cabrera, Johnson, Shae Simmons, Ian Krol and Jose Ramirez, among others. The franchise also boasts A.J. Minter, Akeel Morris and a host of other prospects knocking on the door. This could be the team's top strength even without potential offseason additions.
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3. Has Adonis Garcia solidified the third base spot — or will the organization look elsewhere?
At 31 years old with just two seasons under his belt, Adonis Garcia has proven himself a viable major-league bat and much-improved defensive player. He remains a questionable starting option, but a strong second half (nine homers, 109 weighted runs created plus) appears to have eased the front office's concerns at the hot corner. Coppolella backed away from free-agent talks concerning third base after Garcia's impressive finish while often hitting No. 2 in Snitker's lineup.
There is one high-ticket free agent option out there — Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner, who earned himself a serious payday with a career year — and the trade market is always available, but the franchise could even look in-house if confidence in Garcia wanes. Prospect Rio Ruiz received a September call-up after a quality season as one of the youngest players in the International League and could push for a roster spot, and playing time, in the spring. Garcia is the choice at the moment. That doesn't mean the organization will (or should) assume the position is wrapped up.
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2. Will Tyler Flowers remain the starting catcher?
The franchise is still trying to find its longterm solution behind the plate in the post-McCann Era. Impressive spurts from Evan Gattis and A.J. Pierzynski led either to trades or steep declines, leaving Tyler Flowers as the top option in 2016 — and perhaps moving forward. The former White Sox mainstay pieced together a solid first season in Atlanta — hitting .270/.357/.420 as an under-the-radar offseason pickup. It was the best offensive season of his eight-year MLB career. After months of speculation revolving around names like Wilson Ramos and Matt Wieters, Flowers might now be considered the favorite to start on Opening Day 2017. (Wieters may price himself out of the Braves' comfort zone and Ramos tore his ACL in September.)
One question is how much does the organization trust Flowers' bat? The other concern: Flowers posted the worst defensive numbers of his career as baserunners practically stole at will. He finished dead last among catchers with at least 100 innings played with minus-12 defensive runs saved. Coppolella mentioned the team wants another catcher to complement Flowers, which could mean moving on from second-half backup Anthony Recker.
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1. How much trust will the front office place in its young starting pitchers?
For the past two seasons, the Atlanta Braves have leaned on young starting pitching more than any other team in baseball. The organization handed more than 1,500 innings to 25-and-under starters since the start of the 2015 campaign — no other franchise reached the 1,000-inning mark — and that youth movement was a significant factor in transitioning to pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, who has helped develop elite young arms from Justin Verlander to Jose Fernandez.
But how young will the Braves staff be next season? Coppolella has mentioned adding two or three arms via free agency on multiple occasions, and in a barren market that could simply mean more veteran pieces. (If the Braves are going to find a significant upgrade it will likely have to arrive through trade by leveraging their deep farm system, which the front office shied away from during exit interviews.) The franchise has an opportunity to trust its youth once again with Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz, Matt Wisler and a long list of talented prospects, but that does not appear to be the direction the front office is leaning.