It has been an interesting, and sometimes strange, 12 months for Atlanta Braves fans. Coming off a disappointing 2014 campaign, the Braves signaled a dramatic change in direction beginning with the trade that sent star outfielder Jason Heyward to St. Louis last November. Subsequent deals saw established, useful Major League pieces and stars such as Justin Upton, Chasen Shreve, Evan Gattis, Trevor Cahill, Craig Kimbrel, Alex Wood, and Andrelton Simmons shipped out of town as the Braves targeted younger players in an effort to establish a new core.
The Braves struggled to their worst finish since before the glory days of the 1990s. The merit of each of Atlanta's moves in the past year have been debated by insiders and fans alike meeting with decidedly mixed reviews. Heading into 2016, many of the Braves recent acquisitions will be in the spotlight as they attempt to lay the foundation of the next winning teams in Atlanta. Here we will examine some of the names to watch this year.
Top Candidate: Hector Olivera. Acquired from the Dodgers in the controversial July three-team blockbuster, Olivera comes into 2016 with a great big bulls-eye on his back from Braves fans who felt the price of acquiring him was too steep. There is precious little reliable data available on Olivera at this stage of his transition to the United States, so we are reliant on scouting reports in evaluating his prospects for his first full Major League season. Fortunately, he has received plenty of scrutiny since he signed with the Dodgers in May.
Although he will be 31 this season, Olivera is seen as a high floor prospect due to his strong track record in Cuba. John ranked him in the top spot on 2016 Braves list with a B+ grade. Baseball America also had him in the system's top spot on their list. Reasonably optimistic projections for his performance call for around 20 homers and a decent OBP fueled by a potentially excellent contact rate and solid control of the strike zone. A more pessimistic view might have him hovering around league average offensively which, although not as impressive if he indeed moves to left field, would still be among the best hitters in a gutted Atlanta lineup.
The baseball world has been fairly successful at projecting the performance of elite Cuban players in recent history. Olivera is regarded as a safe bet to be a solid offensive contributor through his early 30s. Whether or not the value he provides the Braves over the remainder of his career compares favorably to that of Jose Peraza and/or Alex Wood is an open question, but there is a good chance Olivera will be the most valuable player at the Major League level from that deal in the short run at least.
Dare to Dream: Adonis Garcia. Another Cuban corner player who figures into Atlanta's plans, Garcia is a fascinating player to watch in 2016. After signing with the Yankees in April, 2012 Garcia bounced around their system with varying degrees of success before being released in April, 2015. The Braves pounced and within a week, Garcia was headed to Triple A Gwinnett.
By the end of July, he was in the Majors where he spent the rest of the season posting a .277/.293/.497 line good for 113 wRC+ over 198 plate appearances. It is safe to say the Braves were not expecting this level of performance, but Garcia now appears to have inserted himself into the picture going forward. While small sample caveats certainly apply when evaluating his brief Major League trial, there are some interesting points to note.
First, he can hit. In 1194 minor league plate appearances since coming over from Cuba, Garcia has posted a total line of .285/.324/.411. While not the numbers of an elite prospect, he has always hit for solid contact and gap power. Second, his Major League line seems at least partially sustainable. A .291 BABIP actually sits on the low side of league average, so there is nothing particularly fluky about this aspect of his performance.
The real question with Garcia will boil down to whether or not his power surge is permanent. Garcia's .497 slugging and .220 isolated power markers in the Majors are both well above his established level of production in the high minors. Even if he cannot sustain that exact level of power, he could still be a useful regular if his defense at third base remains respectable. Given that power is often the final skill to manifest, Braves fans can #daretodream that Garcia will hold on to at least some of his new found pop going forward. In that case, he would be a wonderful find for a team in desperate need of Major League offense.
Rookie Watch: Mallex Smith. Acquired from the Padres in last December's Justin Upton trade, Smith's stock has been steadily climbing since 2014. In his last year in the San Diego system, Smith split the year between Ft. Wayne in the Midwest League and Lake Elsinore in the California League posting a combined .310/.403/.432 line with 88 stolen bases. With true 80 speed as an elite carrying tool, Smith vaulted onto the prospect map with his offensive breakout in 2014.
He kept the train moving for Double A Mississippi in his new organization going .340/.418/.413 with 22 steals before a mid season promotion to Gwinnett. The International League proved a little tougher as Smith finished .281/.339/.367 with 34 steals. With a hit tool that projects to around average and incredible speed which makes him a terror on the bases and a potential plus defender in center, Smith has set himself up for his first taste of the Show in 2016.
Michael Bourn presents no real obstacle for Smith in the big picture. Indeed, Bourn's 2009-12 peak provides what may be the best-case scenario for Smith going forward. In his prime, Bourn parlayed elite speed and defense along with solid contact skills into a four year run where he averaged 4.8 fWAR per season. It remains to be seen if Smith's defense will play to peak-Bourn levels, but even if he's just solid in center, that should be enough to lock down the position in Atlanta for the next five years.
Final Notes: Much has been made of Atlanta's efforts to acquire young starting pitchers with big upside in the past year. Mike Foltynewicz, Matt Wisler, and Manny Banuelos all made their Braves debuts with mixed success. Each of them was reasonably successful in their partial Triple A seasons in 2015, but much less so in the Majors. All three are former Top-100 prospects who will look to solidify their roles with the big club this year.
Less heralded arms such as Williams Perez, Ryan Weber, and John Gant all figure to be in the mix for Major League time this year as well. Factor big arms Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims into the mix as well, and Atlanta figures to be the scene of some fascinating competition for the spots behind Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran this year.