ATLANTA — Happy Opening Day!
11Alive Sports offers a get-to-know-'em guide for the 2019 Atlanta Braves, as the club launches their quest to repeat as National League East champs today in Philadelphia.
The Braves' four-man rotation appears to be set in stone, with Ronald Acuna Jr. (left field ...reigning NL Rookie of the Year), Ender Inciarte (center field ... team-high 28 stolen bases last year) and Nick Markakis (right field ... .366 on-base percentage last season) occupying the starting slots.
Adam Duvall, last year's trade-deadline pickup, had a shaky run with the Braves, failing to collect a single homer or RBI in 53 plate appearances (33 games).
As such, instead of riding the pine in Atlanta, he'll be getting full-time reps with the Triple-A club in Gwinnett.
In Duvall's stead, it'll be Matt Joyce, who belted 25 homers for the Oakland Athletics just two years ago.
The explosive Acuna, who accounted for 26 homers, 78 runs and 16 steals in only 111 games, also has the range to handle center field when Inciarte's out of the lineup.
Freddie Freeman (first base ... three-year average: 28 HR, 87 RBI, 93 runs, .306 batting, .946 OPS), Ozzie Albies (second base ... 30-homer candidate in 2019) and Josh Donaldson (third base ... 2015 AL MVP with Toronto) are seemingly healthy locks for 145-plus games at their respective positions.
Shortstop will begin with Dansby Swanson manning the 6-hole.
However, given how Swanson owns deflating two-year averages of .235 batting and a .308 on-base percentage ... that position could become the property of Johan Camargo or Charlie Culberson in due time.
Both Camargo and Culberson could be super-utility options this year, where they garner a lot of weekly starts at various options.
At catcher, expect a platoon system between previous Braves legend Brian McCann (averaged 21 HR, 80 RBI from 2006-13) and Tyler Flowers. Both backstops are in their 30s.
This time last month, things were looking good for Mike Foltynewicz (13-10, 2.85 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 202 Ks last year), Julio Teheran (9-9, 3.94 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 162 Ks), Sean Newcomb (3.90 ERA, 31 starts as a rookie) and Kevin Gausman (2.87 ERA after being dealt to Atlanta) serving as the full-time rotation, along with a platoon system of high-end prospect options at the No. 5 spot.
Fifth-spot candidates: Max Fried, Touki Toussaint, Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright and Luiz Gohara.
However, injuries and inefficiency have wreaked havoc with the Braves' staffers:
**Foltynewicz has been dealing with an elbow issue for a few weeks. As such, he could miss 2-4 starts during April.
**Gausman has been experiencing some shoulder discomfort ... but appears to be on track for an April 6 start.
**Mike Soroka, the Braves' top-ranked prospect, fared well in five major-league starts last season (age 20): 2-1, 3.51 ERA, 21/7 K-BB.
However, that optimism has diminished over the last eight months, with Soroka confronting various injury concerns.
In the present, Soroka's shoulder soreness will likely keep him in the minor leagues until the end of April, presuming no setbacks.
**Newcomb had an odd spring. On the plus side, opposing hitters had a so-so batting average of .227 against the southpaw.
On the ugly side ... Newcomb posted sub-par marks with strikeout-walk ratio (14/15), ERA (5.14) and WHIP (1.52).
As such, the Braves will trot out a quirky trio of starting pitchers for the opening three-game series against the Phillies: Teheran, 21-year-old Bryse Wilson (three career MLB starts) and Kyle Wright, the Braves' No. 2 prospect who'll be making his inaugural MLB start on national TV (Sunday night).
NOTE: Today marks Teheran's sixth consecutive Opening Day start for the Braves – tying Hall of Famer Warren Spahn's franchise record from 1957-62 (with the Milwaukee Braves).
Covering the last six seasons, Teheran owns robust annual averages of 11 wins, 32 starts, 168 strikeouts, a 3.61 ERA and 1.19 WHIP; and in case you're wondering, here are the cumulative tallies for Teheran's last five Opening Day appearances:
1-1, 2.73 ERA, 20-14 K-BB rate (29.2 total innings)
CLOSER: Arodys Vizcaino enjoyed a strong season with the Braves, posting a 2.11 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 40 strikeouts and 16 saves in just 38.1 innings of work (39 appearances).
However, Vizcaino must avoid the injury list for long stretches this year.
Simply put, Atlanta's bullpen likely doesn't have the depth to absorb major role changes for a month or two during the season.
SETUP MEN: Jesse Biddle (6-1, 3.11 ERA last year), A.J. Minter (3.23 ERA, 69/22 K-BB) and Dan Winkler (4-0, 3.43 ERA, 69/20 K-BB) each possess tremendous upside.
At the same time, they must also demonstrate a willingness to dominate opponents ... when placed in situations outside their comfort zones.
Including Vizcaino, the Braves have a rock-solid group of late-inning fixtures. As such, they're expected to post better results than last year's bullpen tallies (counting National League clubs only):
**2nd in home runs allowed (52)
**7th in opponents' batting average (.241)
**8th in saves (40)
**8th in strikeouts (556)
**10th in ERA (4.15)
**12th in WHIP (1.40)
**14th in walks allowed (273)
WHO'S THE 2019 BREAKOUT STAR?
For me, it's Touki Toussaint.
The 22-year-old righty has electric stuff and great presence on the mound; and with 530 innings logged in the minor leagues, Toussaint has seemingly built up enough arm strength and trust among the Braves' front office to become a permanent fixture in the rotation.
And if that's not the case in a month or two, perhaps Atlanta should trade the likes of Gausman, Teheran or Newcomb to guarantee a full-time spot for Toussaint ... who should be an annual lock for 13-plus wins and 180-plus strikeouts, sooner than later.
IS THERE A CORRELATION BETWEEN EXHIBITION AND REGULAR-SEASON SUCCESS?
The Braves finished sixth in Grapefruit League action this year, at 16-16 overall and with a minus-9 run differential.
Should this matter?
Here's a breakdown of how Atlanta fared from 2010-18 ... counting preseason results and regular season, as well.
REGULAR SEASON: 90-72 (NL East champs)
REGULAR SEASON: 72-90 (3rd in NL East)
REGULAR SEASON: 68-93 (5th in NL East)
REGULAR SEASON: 67-95 (4th in NL East)
REGULAR SEASON: 79-83 (3rd in NL East)
PRESEASON: 20-15 (3rd in Grapefruit)
REGULAR SEASON: 96-66 (1st in NL East)
REGULAR SEASON: 94-68 (2nd in NL East ... wild card)
PRESEASON: 17-13 (4th in Grapefruit)
REGULAR SEASON: 89-73 (2nd in NL East)
PRESEASON: 17-12 (3rd in Grapefruit)
REGULAR SEASON: 91-71 (2nd in NL East ... wild card)