Spring has sprung… or, at least, baseball’s back — and, as such, it’s time to get down to brass tax.
For months now, folks have been arguing about where the Phillies might stand in comparison to the rest of the National League East, so, I thought it might be fun to delve deep into the Phillies’ primary competitors to discover just that.
Today, we delve into everyone’s favorite, the Atlanta Braves. Let’s get started:
Key pieces added:
OF Marcell Ozuna
LHP Cole Hamels
RHP Will Smith
C Travis d’Arnaud
Key pieces lost:
3B Josh Donaldson
LHP Dallas Keuchel
C Brian McCann
First Impressions: Meh.
A lot of things broke right for the Braves last year — and I mean a LOT of things. They needed Josh Donaldson to return to MVP form, and he did. They needed Ozzie Albies to show more of his first half of 2018 in his game, and he did. They needed Dallas Keuchel to serve as a passable number 2 starter, and he did. They needed Mike Soroka to step in as the ace of their staff… need I go on?
In the end, they had an unbelievable 2019 — but are, once again, crossing their fingers that things go right in 2020.
Overall, it’s hard to say that the Braves really ‘improved’ this year. At best, they remained stagnant, even with the plethora of moves they managed to execute.
Their biggest loss of the offseason? Josh Donaldson. Not only have they been stripped of their offensive lynchpin, but they’ve also lost an elite defender at 3B — which is going to be tough on their ground-ball-reliant rotation.
The Braves managed to replace The Bringer of Rain’s bat with that of Marcell Ozuna, who had some solid peripherals in 2019, and is not a presence that should be taken lightly. There is no possible way he fills the massive shoes left by his predecessor in Donaldson, but he’s certainly going to try — especially following a disappointing 2019.
Atlanta also managed to supplant Dallas Keuchel with an aging Cole Hamels, who, post-injury in 2019, looked… not great. His peripherals scream decline, and he’s going to have to battle to stay healthy this year — especially when he’s due to play an incredibly important role in this Braves rotation. But, folks said the same things about Keuchel last year, and he certainly didn’t disappoint.
Every Phillie fan should be thrilled to see Travis d’Arnaud replace Brian McCann, who has utterly murdered the Phillies over his entire career. While d’Arnaud flashed some improvement in the second half of 2019 after he was traded to the Rays, he’s struggled with keeping healthy over his entire career, and has done nothing to prove he’s any different than the previous, league average iteration of himself.
The one true upgrade the Braves made this offseason was at closer. Will Smith has been about as reliable as any bullpen arm over his last few years in the bigs. He’s made the Braves’ back-end bullpen woes a thing of the past.
CF, Ronald Acuna Jr, .280/.365/.518, 41 HR, .883 OPS, 122 OPS+, (37 SB)
2B, Ozzie Albies, .295/.352/.500, 24 HR, .852 OPS, 114 OPS+
1B, Freddie Freeman, .295/.389/.549, 38 HR, .938 OPS, 136 OPS+
LF, Marcell Ozuna, .241/.328/.472, 29 HR, .800 OPS, 107 OPS+
3B, Austin Riley, .226/.279/.471, 18 HR, .750 OPS, 86 OPS+
RF, Nick Markakis, .285/.356/.420, 9 HR, .776 OPS, 98 OPS+
SS, Dansby Swanson, .251/.325/.422, 17 HR, .748 OPS, 89 OPS+
C, Travis d’Arnaud, .251/.312/.433, 16 HR, .745, .98 OPS+
It has to be said: this lineup is purely comprised of the 1-4 spots — the rest of it might as well not exist.
Braves position players accumulated 27.9 fWAR in 2019, 19.1 of which was posted by the quadrangle of Acuna Jr, Albies, Freeman, and Donaldson alone. They are/were the entirety of the Braves offense, and one of them has fled the coop.
It’s also worth noting that Freddie Freeman is coming off of a worrisome injury, and Ozzie Albies still has many question marks surrounding his peripherals… but that Ronald Acuna Jr guy is pretty good.
RHP, Mike Soroka, 174.2 IP, 2.68 ERA, 3.45 FIP, 1.11 WHIP, 169 ERA+, 7.3 K/9, 2.1 BB/9
LHP, Cole Hamels, 141.2 IP, 3.81 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 1.39 WHIP, 117 ERA+, 9.1 K/9, 3.6 BB/9
LHP, Max Fried, 165.2 IP, 4.02 ERA, 3.72 FIP, 1.33 WHIP, 113 ERA+, 9.4 K/9, 2.6 BB/9
RHP, Mike Foltynewicz, 117.0 IP, 4.54 ERA, 4.97 FIP, 1.25 WHIP, 100 ERA+, 8.1 K/9, 2.8 BB/9
LHP, Sean Newcomb, 68.1 IP, 3.16 ERA, 4.24 FIP, 1.32 WHIP, 144 ERA+, 8.6 K/9, 3.8 BB/9
THIS is the part of the Braves’ game that fans should be worried about — the ridiculously fragile rotation. The only pitcher in this rotation to throw 200+ innings in a single season in their career? Cole Hamels. The last time he did it? 2016.
The Braves, akin to the Phillies, have ONE “proven” ace, (Mike Soroka/Aaron Nola) have ONE “upside” ace, (Max Fried/Zack Wheeler) have ONE declining veteran, (Cole Hamels/Jake Arrieta) and then TWO major question marks. (Folty + Newcomb/Eflin + ???) They also each have one impactful pitching prospect — both of which could possibly contribute in 2020. (Ian Anderson/Spencer Howard)
It’s strange, but the Phillies and Braves are both in very precarious pitching situations — which I’m sure is not ideal for either club.
There’s not much to be said here — the Braves’ bullpen is really good. They acquired Tigers’ closer Shane Greene at the trade deadline last year, and, while his peripherals look pretty awful, he’s nothing to turn your nose at. Same can be said for fellow deadline acquisitions Mark Melancon and Chris Martin, both of which were big contributors to the Braves’ late-season success.
Chad Sobotka, AJ Minter, Darren O’Day, Touki Toussant, Luke Jackson, and many others round out a stacked, but volatile, Braves ‘pen. It is easily the strongest part of their game.
Where do the Phillies stack up?
So, where do the Phillies stack up versus the 2019 National League East Champions?
Here’s how the Phillies’ lineup looks to project going into 2020:
LF, Andrew McCutchen
2B, Jean Segura
RF, Bryce Harper
1B, Rhys Hoskins
C, JT Realmuto
SS, Didi Gregorius
3B, Scott Kingery
CF, Adam Haseley
Rather than just explain it, I’ll show my rationale to you:
Catcher: JT Realmuto VS. Travis d’Arnaud = JT Realmuto (P)
First Base: Rhys Hoskins VS. Freddie Freeman = Freddie Freeman (A)
Second Base: Jean Segura VS. Ozzie Albies = Ozzie Albies (A)
Shortstop: Didi Gregorius VS. Dansby Swanson = Didi Gregorius (P)
Third Base: Scott Kingery VS. Austin Riley = Scott Kingery (P)
Left Field: Andrew McCutchen VS. Marcell Ozuna = Andrew McCuthchen (P)
Center Field: Adam Haseley VS. Ronald Acuna Jr = Ronald Acuna Jr (A)
Right Field: Bryce Harper VS. Nick Markakis = Bryce Harper (P)
Sure, the Braves 1-4 is scary, but what happens after you set those guys down? What if one of them gets injured? They’re playing a precarious game, and putting all of their eggs into one (four) basket(s).
The Phillies, contrary to popular belief among Phillie fans, actually have a formidable 1-8, and have added what should be a big bat in Didi Gregorius. Every single guy in the Philadelphia lineup (sans Jean Segura) has the ability to hit 20+ dingers in a single season — a feat which only the Braves 1-4 hitters accomplished last year.
We won’t truly know which lineup is “better” until we get further into the regular season, but, as things currently stand, I think the Phillies’ lineup is more rounded, and packs more overall punch — ESPECIALLY if some of their key hitters (Rhys Hoskins in particular) bounce back as expected.
The Rotation: Braves… kind of.
As I mentioned earlier, these rotations are in two very similar conditions, and will each need to see their fair share of luck to have any hope of succeeding.
Braves’ pitching easily had a more successful 2019 than Phillies’ pitching, but many of their arms benefited from luck. Soroka’s 3.45 FIP suggests that he overachieved in a major way in 2019 — and his hefty ground-ball rates will work to his detriment without Josh Donaldson’s elite defense at third. Max Fried, however, underachieved in 2019, and is sure to take a big step forward this coming year. As for the rest of Atlanta’s rotation, who the heck knows? Cole Hamels’ arm might fall off, Sean Newcomb might fail as a starter (again) — it’s all up in the air.
As for the Phillies rotation, Aaron Nola is, obviously, way better than his 2019 suggests. We’ve seen what he is capable of — his 2018 was out of this world. Zack Wheeler may or may not be the ace Phille fans want him to be, and that’s a big part of what will make or break this rotation. The rest of this staff is, like the Braves’, up in the air. Jake Arrieta, facing a contract year, could have his best season since 2015 — who’s to say? Nick Pivetta might actually be a ‘Dark Horse Cy Young candidate’ as MLB.com dubbed him during the 2019 preseason. We won’t know until we see these guys in action in 2020.
The Bullpen: Braves.
Yeah, again, not much to be discussed here. The Braves built an elite bullpen last July, and capitalized upon it this offseason. The Phillies dumpster dove and put together an NRI list of low-risk high-reward arms that may, or may not, present them with a fieldable bullpen come Opening Day.
Baseball is a volatile game. We won’t know who is truly better than who until we see the results at the end of the year.
What’s important is that you remember — with each year comes a clean slate. Just because one team was dynamite last year doesn’t mean they’ll put up the same, or even similar results the next year. This works both ways — Just because the Braves won the East last year, doesn’t mean they’ll do the same again in 2020. Just because the Phillies were a 4th place team in 2019, that doesn’t mean they’re doomed to 4th place again this time around.
Sit back. Enjoy the ride. Baseball is finally here again.