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MLB Preview: Will Brandon Phillips and Dansby Swanson Be Able to Boost the Braves in 2017?

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Braves may be looking to the future by opening a new ballpark this season, but they were looking at the past with their offseason additions by acquiring veteran pitchers. In November, the Braves signed 40-something SPs R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon. Then in December, the Braves traded three prospects to the Cardinals in exchange for SP Jaime Garcia, who is coming off of a rare healthy season. That trio will slot into the middle of the rotation, behind SP Julio Teheran at the top of the rotation and a No. 5 role that will likely be determined during spring training. Just days before the start of spring training, the Braves sent a couple of minor leaguers to the Reds in exchange for veteran 2B Brandon Phillips. More exciting for Braves fans is SS Dansby Swanson, a former No. 1 draft pick who the Braves acquired from the Diamondbacks prior to the 2016 season, who should get his first full season in the majors in 2017.

The team is in¬†rebuilding mode, coming off a 68-win season and last-place finish a year after winning just 67 games. The Braves’ .255 batting average last season was a slight improvement from 2015¬†and right on the average among all 30 MLB teams last season — and higher than 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper’s .243 average last season. They ranked last in the majors with just 122 home runs on the season and next-to-last with 615 RBI. They also ranked near the bottom of the league in OPS, which all helped lead to a second-worst 649 runs on the season. Their best hitter was 1B Freddie Freeman, who hit .302 with 34 home runs and a .968 OPS that was the third-highest in the National League. His 6.5 WAR also placed him third among all players in the NL. Swanson showed some promising signs in his limited time in the majors, hitting .302 with 3 home runs in 129 at-bats.

Teheran led a starting rotation that was among the worst in the majors. Despite posting a 3.21 ERA over 188 innings, he had his first sub-.500 season with a 7-10 record due in large part to the lack of run support from the Braves’ struggling offense. Teheran’s 1.053 WHIP was the fifth-lowest in the NL and his 4.8 WAR ranked 10th among National League pitchers. None of the team’s other regular starters finished the year with an ERA better than 4.31, with that mark held by SP Mike Foltynewicz, who appears to be the favorite to land the No. 5 spot in the rotation to begin the season. The team’s 39 saves was a few below the MLB average, with RP Jim Johnson leading the team with 20 saves over 65 appearances. His 3.06 ERA was higher than you’d like to see from a closer.

Looking ahead to 2017, the Braves will be relying on Swanson and Phillips — who they traded for to replace 2B Sean Rodriguez, who is expected to miss three to five months after being injured in a car accident — to help their offense have a better season than the production their hitters put up in 2016 because the rest of their lineup is the same as last year and not very inspiring.

Likewise with the rotation. Teheran should put up good numbers at the top of the rotation, but the recently acquired starters all have question marks associated with them. Dickey and Colon are both in their 40s and the former is coming off his worst season since 2013. And while Garcia started 30 games last season — just the second time in his seven-year career he made at least 30 starts — he had a career-worst 4.67 ERA and gave up 26 home runs. If he can’t get his ERA closer to the 3.00-3.50 range, that won’t be good for a Braves team that is expecting him to be able to perform well in the middle of the rotation. Johnson had his best season in a while in 2016 but he’s not an elite closer and probably doesn’t have a long leash if he doesn’t get off to a good start in the season because RP Arodys Vizcaino, who saved 10 games in 14 chances last season, is lurking behind him on the depth chart.

With the moves the Braves made this offseason, they are an improved team and should do better than they have the past couple seasons, but that doesn’t mean they’ll compete for the NL East title. The Mets and Nationals are still the cream of the crop of the division and the Braves will likely be fighting with the Phillies for the bottom two spots in the rotation. The Braves are probably about a 75-win team this season. Better than last season but still a year or two away from competing for a playoff spot.

Sources: http://www.atlantabraves.com, http://www.baseball-reference.com

Scott Jenkins
I am a writer who enjoys writing about sports, with a focus on baseball. You can read more of my writing on my blog at http://thoughtsfromscottj.wordpress.com
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