5 Questions the Atlanta Braves Need to Answer Before the Season Starts
Even with the well-known youth movement in place with for the Braves, there is plenty of controversy surrounding their veteran players.
Michael Bourn, Jeff Francoeur, Nick Markakis and Emilio Bonifacio are all embroiled in the team's vague outfield plans. Likewise, Atlanta will need to make some tough decisions concerning its pitching staff, which could carry more veteran arms than previously expected.
Over the next week, many of these issues will be resolved—for the time being. Until then, let's take a look at the five most burning questions, and what the most likely resolution appears to be at this point.
Is a Michael Bourn Trade Imminent?
The Braves have been quite active in the last few days, acquiring Eric O'Flaherty and Tyler Moore, while releasing Nick Swisher. Bourn could be the next to go.
Per MLB Network's Jon Heyman, Bourn is on the trade market, and could be dealt to make room for some of Atlanta's young outfielders. The 33-year-old has compiled a respectable spring training, hitting .273 in 44 at-bats.
After the Braves optioned young center fielder Mallex Smith to Triple-A Gwinnett back on March 18, it appeared that the team was leaning towards keeping a veteran or two in the outfield. While that still may be the case, Bourn may not be the preferred candidate.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle blocking a potential Bourn trade is his $14 million salary for the 2016 season. David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the team had to absorb $15 million by cutting ties with Swisher. So the Braves front office may simply elect to draw a little production from Bourn for his considerable salary.
Bourn also has a vesting option for the 2017 season, which triggers a $12 million salary if he reaches 550 plate appearances this season. It's highly unlikely that the Braves would allow him to reach that mark.
Unless Atlanta receives a great offer from another team for Bourn, it doesn't look like he'll be going anywhere in the foreseeable future. Expect him to serve as one of the team's veteran leaders, while acting as a bridge player for the inevitable call-up of Smith in the next few months.
Will Jeff Francoeur Crack the Opening Day Roster?
When Mark Bowman of MLB.com reported Francoeur signed with the Braves back on Feb. 22, it was recognized that the former Atlanta star would need a torrid spring training performance to crack the Braves' roster.
Five weeks later, the 32-year-old has met the lofty criteria to stay in The Show.
In his 49 spring training at-bats, Francoeur is hitting .327, including a 4-for-7 stretch in Atlanta's past two games against Washington and Houston. He's peaking at the perfect time, and has forced manager Fredi Gonzalez to make some tough outfield decisions.
Much like Bourn, Francoeur should profit from Swisher's release. But Atlanta's starting outfield is starting to take shape, with Hector Olivera, Ender Inciarte and Nick Markakis seemingly penciled in as starters.
Does Gonzalez feel the need to keep Francoeur on as a utility outfielder?
O'Brien wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he ultimately believes that Francoeur will earn a roster spot over Emilio Bonifacio, as a member of his "last four" players to make the 25-man roster:
Let’s start by addressing the obvious surprise: Francoeur has far more than just a small chance at a roster spot. When the Braves signed him to minor league deal just two days before full-squad workouts began, those of us who cover the team didn’t see much, if any, chance for him to make the team given the glut of veteran outfielders the Braves had already.
But it’s since become apparent how much certain team decision-makers would like to have Francoeur’s right-handed bat on the bench instead of Bonifacio, an outfielder/infielder who’s barely serviceable in the infield at this point in his career and a switch-hitter who isn’t going to provide a power threat that Francoeur still has.
Francoeur has shown the ability to warrant a roster spot, and his positive history with Braves fans is a nice benefit. It appears that he'll make the roster to begin with, but a cold streak over the season's first few weeks could change that.
Who Will Fill out the Starting Rotation Behind Julio Teheran?
When the Braves announced that Julio Teheran would be their Opening Day starter for the third consecutive year, it came as a surprise to no one. However, the order of the starting rotation behind him is rather opaque.
At this point, the strongest candidates are Mike Foltynewicz, Matt Wisler, Jhoulys Chacin, Bud Norris and Williams Perez.
Wisler and Norris have emerged as the favorites to win the No. 2 and 3 spots, although the order will be determined shortly. Norris has more experience, which could land him the No. 2 spot, but Wisler has been far more impressive this spring.
After the top three pitchers, the debate intensifies—particularly due to health concerns.
O'Brien notes that health concerns for Foltynewicz—arguably the favorite to win the No. 5 slot at this point—could further complicate the rotation order:
The Braves are set with their first three starters—Julio Teheran, Matt Wisler, Bud Norris—but the fourth and fifth spots were still undecided entering the final week of spring training, with Chacin, Foltynewicz and Williams Perez as the leading candidates barring a late trade or waiver acquisition.
If the Braves decide to hold back Foltynewicz, who’s coming back from partial rib-removal surgery following a September blood-clot scare in his pitching arm, for at least a couple of days, they might go with Perez as fifth starter the first time and use Chacin as fourth starter, or vice versa.
Foltynewicz looked like a viable No. 3 or 4 starter throughout most of the spring, but his stock took a hit on Monday after getting demolished in his third start. Assuming he doesn't suffer a relapse from his surgery, he should be ready to pitch as soon as he's needed.
Assuming Gonzalez overlooks Foltynewicz's bad start and still places him in the starting rotation, Chacin and Perez would compete for the remaining rotation spot. Both have had some poor outings this spring, but Perez appears to be the favorite at this point.
The 24-year-old Venezuelan native doesn't even have a full year of MLB experience, but having pitched for the Braves last year, the organization has better knowledge of his abilities. Perez's 7-6 record and 4.78 ERA during the 2015 season weren't great, but he showed some promise.
Of course, there's the chance that Foltynewicz suffers a setback and misses the first week or so of the season. In that case, both Chacin and Perez could each make the starting rotation early on. But once the rotation regains health, it looks like Chacin will end up being the odd man out.
How Will the Braves Handle the Ozhaino Albies—Dansby Swanson Situation?
Between Dansby Swanson and Ozhaino Albies, the Braves have a pair of young middle infielders who could form a lethal shortstop-second base combination for the next decade. But until they are major league-ready, the Braves will need to make a crucial decision right off the bat concerning where they'll start the 2016 season—and at which position.
Swanson is the more heralded of the two at this point. The 22-year-old Vanderbilt product is considered to be the No. 8 overall prospect in baseball by MLB.com, and showed off his quick hands and strong arm at shortstop this spring.
Albies, whom MLB.com ranks at No. 29, is a very good defender in his own right. He has great speed and is a good line-drive hitter, but at age 19, he might not be ready for The Show as quickly as Swanson.
Atlanta has several options, but two stick out in particular. The Braves can either play both at the same level (likely High-A Carolina or Double-A Mississippi), or start each of them at shortstop in different minor league level.
In an interview with Fox Sports South, Braves president of baseball operations John Hart noted that the team was considering both options. He praised each player for their respective abilities, calling Swanson an "American shortstop who makes the routine plays," while noting that Albies has "electric feet and very quick hands."
The latter option seems the most viable at this point, and should allow both players and their coaches to get an idea for how well they fit at shortstop. Expect Albies to start at shortstop for Greenville (or perhaps a very brief stint with Single-A Rome), while Swanson plays shortstop for Mississippi.
Will Adonis Garcia Win the Cleanup Spot in the Lineup?
The 2016 Braves lineup isn't expected to produce much, but Adonis Garcia could help it exceed expectations.
The 30-year-old Cuban, who hit .277 with 10 homers and 26 runs batted in across 55 games last season, should be given a golden opportunity to display his full worth right away. According to FoxSports.com's Cory McCartney, Garcia appears to be in line to win the cleanup spot in the order, in between Freddie Freeman and Markakis.
On paper, this move makes sense. The right-handed hitting Garcia would fit well in between the left-handed hitting Freeman and Markakis, and he provides a power bat that escapes practically everyone else in the lineup besides Freeman.
But as McCartney also points out, Garcia hasn't exactly been productive in his spring training at-bats from the No. 4 spot. Through his first 28 at-bats from the cleanup spot, he has hit only .179, and has been shown up by Gordon Beckham and his .364 average.
Of course, it's both dangerous and foolish to determine one's expected production based on a handful of spring training at-bats. But it's worth noting that Garcia has been somewhat underwhelming, and Beckham is making a case to be a platoon third baseman with him.
It wouldn't be a surprise if Garcia ends up in the No. 4 spot in the lineup come Opening Day. But if Beckham finishes spring training on a hot streak, Gonzalez could end up splitting at-bats between the two to start the regular season.
All statistics are courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.