Three weeks after Braves pitchers and catchers reported to spring training and 13 games into their Grapefruit League schedule, I figured today, the first of two off days in the schedule, would be a good time to point out 10 things that have impressed me in camp. Ten being the number of recently elected Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, who has spent time in camp as a special assistant.
Mind you, I haven’t changed my mind about this team not being a division contender, nor do I believe they have a decent shot at a wild-card berth; it would take several other teams falling short of expectations and the Braves surpassing expectations for that to happen.
But there is plenty to be excited about with this team, which should be better than last year’s Braves and a big step closer to becoming a contender again. Many reasons for that optimism are in this camp, and by late season we could see the debut of more prospects who figure to have major roles in the Braves’ future.
So here we go, 10 things that have impressed me so far at Dark Star:
1. Ronald Acuna: Not that I’m surprised the 20-year-old phenom has performed at such a high level in the field and at the plate. After all, he’s the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball and rose to the challenge with each promotion last season, hitting better the higher he got in the minor leagues and playing like a man among boys in Triple-A despite being the youngest in the classification. Through nine Grapefruit League games, he’s hit .423 with a .500 OBP and 1.038 OPS in 30 plate appearances. The kid is the most can’t-miss prospect I’ve covered in 24 years as a baseball beat writer.
2. Ozzie Albies: He singled on the first pitch of each of the first two Grapefruit League games and hasn’t cooled since, batting .360 (9-for-25) with only four strikeouts and a team-best three stolen bases. It’s easy to forget that Albies is only about 5-foot-8, turned 21 only in January and has only two months of big-league experience. Nevermind all the “onlys” and focus on the fact that this kid is a dynamic player who gives the Braves a second leadoff option and a potentially potent top of the order coupled with Ender Inciarte to assure that 3-hole hitter Freddie Freeman usually has a runner or two on base when he comes to bat.
3. Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard: The two are buds who spent the 2017 season together in Double-A and have adjacent lockers at spring training. The tall, mature and cerebral Canadian (Soroka) and the undersized (don’t believe Allard’s 6-1 listing), laid-back Californian who looks like a surfer and, in fact, is one back home in San Clemente. They’re impressive when you talk to them off the field and when you watch them more than hold their own in early spring-training games. Soroka, in fact, looks so advanced that his No. 27 prospect ranking by Baseball America looks as if it might be too low. Don’t be surprised if he’s up in September – or sooner.
4. Charlie Culberson and improved bench: Not improved pinch-hitting, as the Braves excelled in that department in 2017. What I’m talking about is vast improvement in terms of defensive strength and versatility with the subtraction of Matt Adams (all bat) and additions led by Culberson, a solid and versatile defender who I think is going to surprise some people with his offense. It’ll be his first chance at significant playing time since working in recent years to develop a better approach and swing. Hitting coach Kevin Seitzer loves his swing and told Culberson there’s no reason he can’t hit .300 if he keeps working on his approach vs. righties.
5. Catching depth: In just a couple of years, the Braves have gone from having almost no catching depth in the minors to have strong catching at virtually every level in their minor league system, including prospects Alex Jackson, a slugger who could be Atlanta’s catcher in a year or two if he matches the strides he made last season in his first year back behind the plate, and William Contreras, the 20-year-old brother of Cubs catcher Wilson Contreras. And if anything happens to either of the Braves major league veterans Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki (one of baseball’s most-productive tandems in 2017), the Braves can plug in another veteran from an inventory that currently includes Rob Brantly and Chris Stewart.
6. Brandon McCarthy: After missing half of the 2017 season with a shoulder injury to his non-throwing arm, McCarthy returned and was added to the Dodgers’ World Series roster. I can see why. When healthy, as the 6-foot-7 veteran is this spring, McCarthy can still pitch at a high level, the operative word being “pitch.” He moves the ball around, keeps it down, is working on honing his slider and asked to pitch three innings in his spring debut instead of the customary one or two innings so he could get real work in. He sets a good example for younger pitchers to follow and has been spotted frequently this spring sharing his wisdom and experience with prospects and others. Most of us figured the Braves didn’t get anything of consequence other than dumping Matt Kemp’s contract when they made the complicated trade with the Dodgers in December, but both McCarthy and Culberson are looking like guys who could make valuable contributions in 2017.
7. Peter Moylan: The mere fact he’s pitching at age 39, after six surgeries including three back procedures and two Tommy John surgeries, is extraordinary. But what’s impressed most about the indefatigable Moylan is that he still looks like he can be an effective part of the Braves’ bullpen, not just an amiable Aussie who keeps everyone loose and laughing. The sidearmer not the full-inning type reliever he was in earlier stints with the Braves, but remains extremely tough to hit against right-handers. He had a .189 opponents’ average last season with Kansas City in 79 appearances – tied for the major league lead – and had 46 strikeouts in 59-1/3 innings.
8. Good vibe, energy: I see it from the players and from the coaching staff as well as manager Brian Snitker, who is acting like himself again, upbeat and friendly to everyone. That wasn’t the case late last season when his job appeared to be in jeopardy and the team’s former top baseball-operations officials were often critical of his decisions. A trio of new coaches have fit in seamlessly, a bevy of prospects have been made to feel welcome in the clubhouse, and some veteran players who seemed ambivalent or acted like they didn’t want to be here no longer are here. All in all, it seems like a marked improvement in clubhouse chemistry.
9. Austin Riley and Alex Jackson: Along with super-prospect Acuna, who does everything including hit home runs, Riley and Jackson are the others in a trio of young sluggers that the Braves hope and believe can give the team a much-needed, long-term boost in power and do it while being inexpensive for several years and under contractual control for six years apiece. Acuna could arrive as soon as the first weeks of the 2018 season. The big boys, Riley and Jackson, still have work to do could be ready at some point in 2019, with Riley perhaps even poised for a late call-up this season if he keeps developing as rapidly as he did late last season at Double-A.
10. Freddie Freeman: His conditioning and strength were noticeably improved when he reported this spring, and Freeman hit a couple of line drives in his first game. Like Chipper Jones, he’s the proverbial dude who could roll out of bed and hit .300. Not that Freeman was ever in bad shape, but this offseason he got both leaner and stronger, doing concentrated upper-body work including forearm and wrist strengthening after spending seven weeks on the disabled list last summer with a fractured wrist (an injury originally expected to sideline him 10 weeks). He was on an MVP pace before he got hurt, and MLB Network last month rated Freeman the second-best first baseman now in baseball behind Joey Votto. If Freeman can stay healthy and play like he did before his mid-May wrist injury, I think he’s No. 1 among first basemen.