So, the Braves head into Feb. 13th's report date for pitchers and catchers having not signed a free agent. They still have a healthy offensive center piece and their most heralded prospect on the cusp of his major league debut.
The point being, Atlanta has no shortage of storylines as it opens spring training ... and yes, Ronald Acuña figures prominently as we dive in.
Reinhold MatayReinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Just healthy is lottery ticket Scott Kazmir?
Out last season with hip and back issues, Kazmir is basically considered a lottery ticket as part of the deal that sent Matt Kemp back to the Dodgers.
The three-time All-Star -- who is due $16 million in his final year before free agency -- saw a major dip in velocity back in the spring of 2017. A fastball that once averaged 93.5 mph was sitting in the mid-80s, though he told reporters in June that the pitch had touched 92 in a Class-A rehab starts.
He wound throwing 12 innings over four minor league appearances in 2017 with three starts and posted a 4.50 ERA, striking out six and walking six.
The reality is taking on Kazmir was part of the puzzle in removing Kemp's deal and ultimately opening up a spot in the outfield for Ronald Acuña. The 34-year-old, who has dealt with recurring hip issues that have hindered his ability to push off his back leg and ultimately led to a back injury and neck inflammation, may press for a spot in the rotation. Though with the number of high-end young arms, that seems a stretch.
If anything, Kazmir may open the season at Triple-A or find himself in a bullpen role, though he hasn't done that since his rookie season of 2004.
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New-look coaching staff makes its presence felt
Eddie Perez and Terry Pendleton, the last remaining assistants from Bobby Cox's last coaching staff are gone, replaced with Eric Young Sr. and Walt Weiss.
Weiss takes over Pendleton's role as Brian Snitker's bench coach, while Young is moving into the spot Perez vacated as first base coach. Meanwhile, Sal Fasano steps in as the catching coach.
No doubt a difficult decision to replace mainstays Perez and Pendleton, Weiss does give the Braves another voice on the staff with managerial experience (four years at the helm of the Rockies).
Meanwhile, Young who swiped 465 bases in his career, has worked as a baserunning instructor with the Astros and could benefit a lineup that since 2015 is 21st in the majors in steals, but has the likes of Ender Inciarte (22 steals in '17), Lane Adams (10), Ozzie Albies (eight) and Ronald Acuña (44 across three minor league levels last season).
Fasano will add to a position of strength as Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki gave Atlanta the highest catching fWAR at 5.1. But he was a respect defensive catcher in his 11 seasons in the majors and was in the Blue Jays organization when Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos was in Toronto.
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How will the bullpen fill out?
Just three teams -- the Reds, Padres and Tigers -- had lower fWARs than the Braves' bullpen produced last season at 1.1. But to anchor the state of the relievers on that number of lone would be misleading.
In September, Atlanta was tied for 10th (1.1) and was better in that stretch than three postseason teams, including the World Series champion Astros (0.3), along with the Dodgers (0.8) and Twins (0.5).
That stretch even included seven appearances and a 6.75 ERA from the since-traded Jim Johnson, as A.J. Minter set a Braves record by not allowing a walk until his 14th MLB game and struck out 17.74 per nine, Dan Winkler had 10.45 K/9 and Arodys Vizcaino had 11.0 K/9 and Sam Freeman stranded 84.6 percent of runners over 11 1/3 innings.
The point being, with those pieces in place -- and Jose Ramirez, who took a step back in '17 with minus-2.0 fWAR and an elevated 1.31 HR/9, but still produced a high strand rate (79.8 percent) -- the Braves have the potential to be an improved bullpen in 2018. But who will join what's expected to be an eight-man relief corps?
Veteran Rex Brothers was strong against lefties (.282 wOBA and .216 batting average against) and could slide into a specialist role, though he'll be pushed by former Dodgers arm Josh Ravin. The righty limited lefties to a .065 average in '16, though he had a 6.48 ERA and 5.80 FIP in '17.
The long-relief options are where Atlanta could see the most intrigue, with Chase Whitley (claimed off waivers from the Rays) some of those potential starters sliding in. That could mean Max Fried, Lucas Sims, Aaron Blair or Matt Wisler. The belief here is two of those names end up making the cut.
Steve MitchellSteve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Which prospects will make the most noise? (Non Acuña)
We're leaving the majors' No. 1 prospect (via everyone but MLB Pipeline, which went the Shohei Ohtani route instead), out of this conversation for now and instead focusing on the other highly-touted prospects to earn spring invitations.
Pitchers Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka and Kyle Wright, third baseman Austin Riley, outfielder Cristian Pache, catchers Alex Jackson and William Contreras and outfielder Dustin Peterson will all join Acuña (sorry, he has a tendency to be omnipresent) at camp.
The pitchers, in particular Soroka, Allard and Wright -- last year's No. 5 overall pick -- would seem to have a real chance to reach Atlanta at some point this season, making this a (pardon the pun) major opportunity to impress.
Riley, the power hitter whom the franchise's current and future decisions at third base seem to be swirling around, will no doubt be under a microscope and the same could be said for Contreras Jackson and Kade Scivicque. The Braves don't have a no-brainer catcher of the future and all could be options down the line.
Also, don't sleep on the story of 33-year-old infielder Sean Kazmar. He's set a number of Gwinnett records and hasn't played in the majors since a 19-game stint with the Padres in 2008.
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Was Luiz Gohara’s small sample size enough to guarantee a rotation spot?
Small sample sizes can be a dangerous things ... but man can they also be fun.
Gohara's five starts in 2017 tantalized. The 21-year-old sturdy left-hander threw 29 1/3 innings with a 4.9 ERA, 9.51 K/9, a 2.75 FIP and a 97.0 average fastball velocity that was only bested by the Mets' Noah Syndergaard (98.3), the Yankees' Luis Severino (97.6) and Reds' Luis Castillo (97.5).
The book on Gohara was he was going to be one of the hardest-throwing lefties in all of baseball and he didn't disappoint. But the more pressing question after that small sample size is whether he already secured a rotation spot along side Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz, and Brandon McCarthy?
If the Braves have a litany of anything it's options for the final two spots on the staff with Sean Newcomb, Max Fried, Lucas Sims, Aaron Blair and Matt Wisler -- all of whom have made MLB starts -- all having designs on seizing the spot. Not to mention the next wave of arms in Mike Sorokoa and on, and on.
Newcomb, who made 19 starts and posted a 4.32 ERA and 1.570 WHIP feels like he'll make the cut to break camp, though he's had a long-standing issue with walks, allowing 5.1 per nine, though that was at 4.75 down the stretch.
Considering Gohara's strong run of starts in Atlanta came at the end of a career-high 153 innings stretched across three minor league levels and the majors, and that he was still posting that 97.0 FBv, the Brazilian has the look of a workhorse. Despite making just five starts, he may be more of a sure-thing for this staff than even Newcomb, and potentially may have an even higher ceiling.
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What did Dansby Swanson learn from first full season?
If Dansby Swanson's season was narrowed down to his performances in June and August, when he had wRC+s of 95 and 127, respectively, we're talking about a strong first full year in the majors.
The problem is what he did in April (11 wRC+), May (74), July (0) and September (64), hitting .232/.312/.324 with minus-7 defensive runs saved and 20 errors in an erratic season that included an 11-game stint in Triple-A that was cut short after Johan Camargo's freak knee injury.
After 107 wRC+ in 38 games in 2016, Swanson was 34 percent below league average in '17, but he'll get the chance to prove he can hold down the shortstop position -- though the Braves have added some insurance. They traded for former Giants, Rockies and Dodgers utilityman Charlie Culberson. He has 229 2/3 innings at shortstop with 22 starts, and Camargo had his moments at the position last season for the Braves despite minus-2 DRS.
Projections via Steamer have Swanson hitting .258/.335/.385 and 87 wRC+, still below average, but a step in the right direction.
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How will Ozzie Albies build off strong debut season?
The first taste of Albies in the majors met the hype, and it was made all the most stunning that he did it at 20 years old. In hitting .286/.354/.456 with six homers and 112 OPS+, Albies is just the 25th player in history to have an OPS+ of 112 or higher with a OBP of .350 or better at age 20 or younger.
The other names to join that list in the last 40 years includes Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Jason Heyward, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper -- but none of that is meant to set the ceiling for the Braves second baseman.
So what should we expect from Albies as he enters his first spring as a part of the big-league roster?
He had his ups and downs against right-handed pitching, hitting .273/.337/.436 with a 91 tOPS+ in 165 at-bats compared to .327/.407/.519 with 129 tOPS+ against lefties in 52 ABs. More interesting, the strikeout rate was lower (14.8 percent) than it had been at any point in Triple-A and he had a career-high .171 ISO and his best OPS (.810) since rookie ball.
Steamer projections have Albies dipping a little with a .273/.329/.417 slash line, 12 homers, 27 doubles, eight triples and a 95 wRC+. If those numbers are close to reality, it would put Albies in line to be a 2.0 fWAR player, something the Braves haven't had at second base from a qualified player since Dan Uggla's 3.4 fWAR in 2012.
Adam HagyAdam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports
Is another third baseman coming ... or is it Johan Camargo's job?
With the belief that Ronald Acuña will sooner than later seize the job in left field (more on that later), the biggest question mark in the everyday lineup is at third base. There's the potential that Johan Camargo -- who played 286 innings at third last year with 11.9 UZR/150 and zero defensive runs saved -- gets the brunt of the season to prove he can be an everyday player.
The other option is the Braves bring in someone else. Todd Frazier is off the board, and Mike Moustakas may not be gettable at a deal that Atlanta is willing to digest from a length or dollar amount, especially with Austin Riley on the horizon.
The Braves have, though, reportedly shown interest in former All-Star Eduardo Nunez. The 30-year-old, who had a career-high 110 OPS+ last season that was buoyed by a 129 in 38 games with Boston, has 255 career starts at third and is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to get $14 million for two years. But that was before market-shifting deals like Frazier's two-year $17 million contract with the Mets.
A 2.2 WAR player in '17, Nunez makes sense if the Braves want to get older and more proven at third, but does that scenario let them see what they have in Camargo?
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Freddie Freeman and his fully-healed wrist
The two-time All-Star first baseman's wrist was the story of the 2017 season as he missed 10 weeks with a fracture, prompting the Braves to acquire Matt Adams. Then, upon his return, Freeman pushed for a move to third base, only to switch back to his natural position after 16 games.
Amid all this, he equated his swing to swinging a wet newspaper, though even with that water-logged piece of print he he still managed 138 wRC+ in August and 126 in September.
But the good news is that at Chop Fest in late January, Freeman said he wrist was back to full strength and he told FOX Sports South that he's already been swinging in 25-degree temperatures to see if he'd deal with any aches or pains.
He did undergo surgery in the offseason ... though it was Lasik, which should prevent the dry eye irritation he's experienced while wearing contact lenses.
In all, he's set up for a monster season as he enters the fifth year of his $135 million contract.
Freeman was playing at an MLB-level before his injury, with a ridiculous 222 wRC+ in April and 173 in May before he went down. But the major question with Freeman may not be his health, but whether the Braves can supply him with a right-handed bat in the order to take pressure off.
Which brings us to ...
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When will Ronald Acuña make his MLB debut?
Without question, this will be the most compelling part of Braves spring training. Snitker said at Winter Meetings that the then-19-year-old looked ready for the majors a year ago, and it's an inevitability that everyone's minor league player of the year -- who hit .325/.374/.522 with 31 doubles, eight triples and 21 home runs and stole 44 bases across three levels in 2017 -- will be up in Atlanta in 2018.
Even if he has a massively productive spring, the collective thinking is the Braves will hold off to make sure that Acuña gets no more than 171 days of service time, making certain that they secure another year of club control. It's just makes too much sense to give up a a few games in '18 to guarantee Acuña around that much longer, especially if he lives up to the immense hype being thrown his way.
If that delay does happen, it could put his debut around the Monday, April 16 home date with the Phillies and it's a thought process that Acuña himself said he was well aware of.
"I've talked to a couple people and I think the debate of if they had me down in (Triple-A) Gwinnett for two weeks or a month or whatever, how that works contractually and the benefits for the team on that," the outfielder said at Chop Fest. "I try not to focus on any of that.
"My goal is to just compete for the roster spot and hopefully make the team."
The Braves, who opened a spot for the phenom in trading Kemp, do have options in the interim. Lane Adams was more than serviceable with minus-1 DRS in 85 innings in left last season and there's former Preston Tucker, who was acquired from the Astros and didn't see the majors in '17. That gives Atlanta a righty (Adams)/lefty (Tucker) combination until Acuña's arrival, and the thought here is that Adams will serve as a part-time complement as the young Venezuelan adjusts to the majors.
Everyone knows Acuña is coming; it's just a matter of when, and with the unlikelihood that he breaks camp with the team, his expectedly lengthy spring training run is simply going to be can't-miss.