The Upside of Getting Blown Out (or The Way-Too-Early Preview of the 2020 Atlanta Braves)

I don’t know if you’re anything like me, but if you are, you probably turned off yesterday’s Game 5 of the NLDS in the 1st inning.

The St. Louis Cardinals opened up to a 10-0 lead before every fan at Suntrust Park could get a 2nd beer in their hands. The series was, for all intents and purposes, over.

To be sure, there are a lot of folks who will over-analyze this series, questioning Atlanta manager Brian Snitker on all sorts of things…from sticking with Brian McCann the entire series (even though Tyler Flowers was better against RHP, which made up the entire starting staff of the Cardinals) to waiting to Game 5 to barely jiggle the lineup, inserting Adam Duvall over Matt Joyce.

Snitker played matchups, trying to get as many left-handed bats that could make a difference offensively as he could, but now that the series is over, we probably know the answer to why McCann played the whole series.

It was the veteran’s curtain call.

McCann, with very little fanfare, announced in a postgame interview, that this was it for him. He’d be retiring after 15 great years as one of the better offensive catchers in baseball. He got a chance to go out with the team he started with, and helped lead them back to the playoffs. He said he figured out he wanted to retire over a month ago, and I’m sure the conversation between Snitker and McCann was poignant.

You can understand why Snitker, a player’s manager through and through and a Braves man, wanted to give McCann the chance to play all 5 games of the NLDS. It was McCann’s swan song.

If you’re looking for any more analysis of the Braves 2019 season, you’ll have to look elsewhere, because this is not about that. Instead, like any good hangover, let’s drink down some Hair of the Dog and get this season in the rear-view.

The fact is the 2020 Atlanta Braves 25-man roster could look a lot different than this year’s squad, for a lot of reasons. First off, there are a fairly large number of guys who are free agents or free agents-to-be. That list is long:

Josh Donaldson
Dallas Keuchel
Julio Teheran ($12MM team option/$1MM buyout)
Nick Markakis ($6MM team option/$2MM buyout)
Tyler Flowers ($6MM team option/$2MM buyout)
Billy Hamilton ($1MM buyout)
Francisco Cervelli
Darren O’Day
Chris Martin
Adeiny Hechavarria
Josh Tomlin
Matt Joyce
Jerry Blevins

On top of those guys, Ender Inciarte, Johan Camargo, and Charlie Culberson (all under contract for 2020) will be coming back and ready for spring training.

First, let’s talk about the people who I think will not be returning in 2020. I don’t expect the Braves to extend Cervelli, even though now it’s just he and Flowers as primary catchers. With Alex Jackson at AAA and really having done all he can do there (28 HRs in 2019), I expect him to come to spring training in 2020 as the #2 catcher behind Flowers.

Flowers has the 3rd best WAR of all the free agent catchers, and is still one of the best pitch framers in baseball. I fully expect them to pick up his $6MM option for 2020 and Flowers and Jackson will be your catchers for the 2020 campaign.

For many reasons, I don’t think Dallas Keuchel will be given an offer to stay with Atlanta. His postseason was fairly abysmal and outside of good home numbers, was really mediocre as a Brave. Couple that with a plethora of arms in the minors chomping at the bit to make the big league club, and I think that equals out to Keuchel being gone.

Speaking of starting pitchers, I think we’ve seen Julio Teheran’s final day in Atlanta. With his buyout only $1MM, and the option being more expensive than he’s worth (in my opinion), I think we’ve seen ol’ Julio pitch his last game in a Braves uniform. Again, all you have to do is peak at the Braves farm system to know that we’re ready to make this club a bit younger.

The other big name on that list that I don’t expect to be in Atlanta next year is Nick Markakis. Throw out the fact that his trademark durability took a hit in 2019 with his stint on the IL, his production at the plate is just not worthy of a full-time spot. Adam Duvall and Rafael Ortega would make a good platoon option in LF, and with Inciarte coming back, until Cristian Pache is ready, I think you move Ronald Acuna, Jr. back to RF and thank Markakis for his service and send him on his way with a $2MM buyout.

And now we come to the payoff. To me, the biggest question mark for the Braves this season will be what they do with Josh Donaldson. Postseason scuffle aside, he had a memorable 2019 campaign, and put to rest his history of staying injured and not playing a full year. I don’t have the stat in front of me, but I think at one point, he started in 113 or so straight games.

Combine that with his power at the plate and his defense at 3rd, and I think needing Austin Riley to be ready right now to take over at 3rd base is not necessary. As everybody who follows the Braves knows, Riley got off to a torrid start, just crushing baseballs. Then pitchers found a Mack-sized hole in his swing, specifically sliders away, and Riley didn’t adjust.

Then Riley got hurt and never really regained any of that early form at the plate. He did get a lot of good experience playing 3 different positions this year (LF, 3B, 1B) and that will only go to help his value, but if he can’t sort out his plate woes, he’ll be stuck in a bench role.

I think the Braves give Donaldson a decent offer, considering they won’t be paying Teheran or Markakis their full salaries. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Braves offer Donaldson 2 years/$44 MM with a 3rd year option. I think Donaldson really bonded with the team mid-year and is a favorite in the clubhouse.

There’s no doubt other teams will come calling on Donaldson’s services, but in the end, I think he ends up coming back to Atlanta.

Considering Inciarte, Camargo and Culberson will all be back in 2020, I don’t expect the Braves to find room on their roster for Billy Hamilton, Matt Joyce, or Adeiny Hechavarria. To me, the only one of those three that might find themselves on the roster is Hechavarria, since he showed late in the year he could play anywhere on the infield. Of course, so can Camargo, and the fact that, before he got injured in September, Camargo was showing signs of finding his way at the plate, I think he’ll be given every chance to regain his 2018/late 2019 form at the plate.

That leaves Darren O’Day, Chris Martin, Jerry Blevins, and Josh Tomlin as free agents. I fully expect O’Day to be on the roster, since he had a good showing in September, didn’t really hurt himself too bad in the postseason, and is finally healthy. As far as the other pitchers go, I think they’ll probably all get fairly inexpensive offers to stay. To me, the only question is if anybody wants Tomlin to start, he’ll probably bolt Atlanta for that.

Let’s take a stab at what I think the 25-man roster will look like come Opening Day, first the starting lineup:

RF Ronald Acuna Jr.
2B Ozzie Albies
1B Freddie Freeman
3B Josh Donaldson
LF Adam Duvall
SS Dansby Swanson
C Tyler Flowers
CF Ender Inciarte

Pitchers
SP Mike Soroka
SP Max Fried
SP Mike Foltynewicz
SP Kyle Wright
SP Bryse Wilson
RP Shane Greene
RP Josh Tomlin
RP Luke Jackson
RP Jerry Blevins
RP Chris Martin
RP Mark Melancon
RP Sean Newcomb

Bench Players
C Alex Jackson
OF Rafael Ortega
UT Charlie Culberson
UT Johan Camargo
UT Adeiny Hechavarria

I think Riley starts the year back at AAA after spending most of spring training with the Braves. Ortega is a piece that makes sense because of his left-handed bat. He’s the 2020 version of Matt Joyce. I know it’s a risk starting two young guys in the rotation like Wright and Wilson, but Wright showed a lot in September after call-ups, with an improved slider, and everyone raves about Wilson’s make-up. If it doesn’t happen to be one of those two guys, don’t be surprised to see Ian Anderson or Tucker Davidson be given a shot.

Some minor league names to watch in 2020 (either to start the year or during the year…)

OF Cristian Pache
OF Drew Waters
SP Ian Anderson
SP Tucker Davidson
OF Trey Harris
SP Patrick Weigel

I think any of those guys could see the big club in 2020, with Pache and Waters at the top of the list.

The future is bright, Braves fans. Let’s put the misery of this year’s postseason behind us and look forward to the 2020 season. Just 136 days until the Braves open up their spring training schedule with the Orioles on February 22nd!

#ChopOn!

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