What I’m Watching: 2018 Braves

Major League Baseball starts today, with all 30 teams opening their seasons (or at least, that’s how it was scheduled before the Reds of all teams postponed their opener against the Nats). Here’s what I’m watching on the 2018 Atlanta Braves:

1. Acuña Mañana?

Will the Braves regret losing two weeks of Ronald Acuña’s production in an interest to gain that seventh year of control? It’s an understandable decision, but not one that is at all necessary, given the uncertainty of player aging and the buckets of cash flowing into each and every MLB team in 2018. I’m also past the point of caring about the Braves making the best financial decision and simply want to see the best team. This Braves team is probably not a real contender yet, but the window is opening, and we are inching closer to answering the annual playoff question with “maybe if everything breaks right.” The Phillies improved more than the Braves this off-season, the Mets are still Metsing around and stockpiling corner outfielders and injured pitchers, and the Marlins are a total catastrophe. The Nationals are still really good and should win the East again.

2. Catch The Fever

Can Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki repeat as the most valuable position player combo in baseball? That’s actually not hyperbole when you consider the only flavor of Wins Above Replacement that includes the impact of catcher framing, Baseball Prospectus’ WARP, where Flowers was among the league’s best in 2017. The impact of framing pitches is so significant that Flowers ranked as the 10th best position player in baseball, ahead of Buster Posey as the top individual catcher, with over six wins to his credit. Suzuki added nearly three wins of his own, making the Braves’ tandem a formidable one, and one that is only under contract for 2018.

3. Ozz-Fest

Ozzie Albies—I think he can be a light version of Mookie Betts, providing solid defensive value and more power than you expect out of a player with a small frame. It’s not really even a question of “will it all come together for him?” because it already did in his 2017 rookie season. He earned 1.9 wins in just over a third of a season, which is star-level production if he can simply repeat it for a full year.

4. So Many Pitchers

Can one or two of the young arms become more than just credible big league starters this year? If that proverbial contention window is ever going to fly open, it’s going to be when several real contributors emerge from the wave currently at AAA: Soroka, Gohara, Allard, Fried, etc. There’s another wave behind that group too, and hopefully there is strength in numbers.

5. The Old Guy

What is Julio Teherán now? Lest we forget the wily old veteran, 27 years of age, his 2017 ERA was not strong, but the underlying numbers told a different story for the Braves’ de facto ace. Julio posted the 24th-best pitcher season of 2017 using BP’s DRA-based PWARP, so if you subscribe to the theory that the thirty best pitchers in the league are aces by default, Julio was one in 2017. That is probably not what I would project going forward, but nevertheless, he is a solid pitcher under control for three more seasons at reasonable rates. If the young arms progress particularly well, perhaps there is still a trade scenario the Braves would entertain, but there is still time for him to succeed as a Brave.

That’s what I’m watching this year. Freddie Freeman and company have a year to get better before Bryce Harper moves on to greener (much $$$ greener) pastures than Washington D.C. has to offer, and the NL East gets truly interesting in 2019 and beyond.