The Atlanta Braves' massive rebuild took a huge step forward in 2018, culminating in the National League East championship. A combination of things happened — young players stepping up, some vets producing and staying healthy and division rivals dropping off — to spark the magical season.
The landscape in the division has changed drastically after a busy offseason, though the Braves mostly stood pat. The quest to repeat starts Thursday, so here's a position-by-position look at the defending NL East champs.
KEY BRAVES PLAYERS BY POSITION
Who's in: Tyler Flowers/Brian McCann
Last season: The duo of Flowers and Kurt Suzuki had another productive season, though not as good as 2017. The two combined for 21 homers and 80 RBIs, though Suzuki had the better stats (.271, 12 homers, 50 RBIs). Neither was considered strong defensively as the two combined to catch just 25 of 119 base stealers, though pitch-framing stats were positive.
2019 outlook: The Braves welcomed back fan favorite McCann after he batted just .212 in 63 games for the Astros last year. He managed only seven homers and 23 RBIs while also striking out 40 times and has not batted above .242 since his last season with the Braves in 2013. The team hopes familiar surroundings can turn back the clock some as he plans to get at least a couple of starts a week. The Braves also feel McCann will be a good influence on the young pitching staff and catcher-in-waiting Alex Jackson. If the vet and Flowers can combine to hit .250 with 20 homers and average defense, it should be sufficient.
Who's in: Freddie Freeman
Last season: "The Franchise" played in each of the 162 regular season games and batted .309 with 23 homers, 44 doubles and 98 RBIs. His .388 on-base percentage led the team's regulars, as did his 6.1 WAR figure. His relatively-low RBI total was more about opportunity as he batted .327 with runners in scoring position. He was intentionally walked 12 times and was pitched around many more as the team struggled to find consistent production behind him.
2019 outlook: Considering the plan is for Freeman to be surrounded by Donaldson and Acuna in the lineup, a monster season could be brewing for the soon-to-be 30-year-old. He's in the prime of his career and will have as good a lineup around him as he's ever played with. He's also still one of the top-fielding first basemen in the game and is coming off his first Gold Glove season.
Who's in: Ozzie Albies
Last season: An All-Star in his first full season, the 22-year old was one of the talks of baseball over a first 90 games, when he hit .281 with 20 homers and 55 RBIs. However, he hit just .226 after the All-Star break with four homers, 17 RBIs and 45 strikeouts, including a .198 mark in September and October. Albies, a player the Braves feel could be a strong leadoff candidate, hurt his chances with just a .305 on-base percentage.
2019 outlook: Even a slight improvement in plate discipline could send Albies to another All-Star game. The Braves feel Albies needs to adjust to more consistently seeing, and taking, breaking pitches early in at-bats and, as with most young players, concentrate on making contact instead of hitting homers. The fastest player on the team, he likely will bat leadoff against left-handed pitchers and fifth or sixth against righties. He should grow into a consistent 20-to-30 stolen-base threat. Defensively, he is rated as a plus infielder after committing only 10 errors in 2018.
Who's in: Josh Donaldson
Last season: A pair of injuries — right shoulder inflammation and left calf strain — limited the former AL MVP to 187 at-bats with Toronto and later Cleveland. In that time he hit just .246 with eight homers and 23 RBIs. The lost season helped the Braves land Donaldson on a one-year $23 million deal. Johan Camargo was productive for the Braves in his first year of mostly regular duty, hitting .272 with 19 homers and 76 RBIs and turning in solid defensive work.
2019 outlook: Anything approaching pre-2018 numbers for Donaldson will be a boon for the Braves. His 162-game averages are a .275 batting average, 33 homers, 101 RBIs and a stellar .367 on-base percentage. In a three-year span starting in his MVP 2015 season he belted 111 homers and had 300 RBIs. Before last year health hadn't been much of an issue. From 2013 to 2016 he averaged right at 700 plate appearances. The team and the soon-to-be 33-year-old have a lot riding on this season. The Braves will bring him along slowly, but there isn't a huge dropoff with Camargo, who has the better glove of the two.
Who's in: Dansby Swanson
Last season: A lingering wrist issue plagued Swanson's season, limiting him to 136 games and helping lead to a .238 batting average. He did manage to hit 14 homers and 25 doubles, drive in 59 runs and score 51. There were also nearly three times the strikeouts (122) as walks (44), helping produce a paltry .304 on-base percentage. The defense, however, was elite after Swanson cut his errors in half from 2017. Baseball Reference had him rated as a plus-6 (0 would be average) in fielding runs above average.
2019 outlook: The Braves would love to see Swanson make more contact, obviously, and they believe he will with better health. He will bat lower in the lineup and could benefit from a top half that should provide plenty of baserunners. The Braves prioritize defense, so as long as he's fielding as he did a season ago, it would take a horrendous offensive effort to lose the job. However, expect super-sub Camargo to see plenty of action here.
Who's in: Ronald Acuna Jr.
Last season: The National League Rookie of the Year, who also finished 12th in the MVP voting, lived up to the hype with a .293 average, 26 homers, 26 doubles, 64 RBIs, 78 runs scored and 16 stolen bases — mostly batting leadoff. Though he struck out 123 times, his .366 on-base percentage ranked second to Freddie Freeman. Acuna was, however, not rated highly for his defense after committing five errors. Baseball Reference actually rated him higher for his limited play in center field, for what it's worth.
2019 outlook: Braves manager Brian Snitker is moving Acuna into the middle of the lineup, where his presence alone, the team hopes, will make the first inning extremely uncomfortable for opposing pitchers. It may affect his stolen base numbers, but if the RBIs climb to triple digits, the trade would be well worth it. The 21-year-old is still learning left field, so the club believes the defense will improve with familiarity. There is very little concern about a sophomore slump from the uber-talented Venezuelan.
Who's in: Ender Inciarte
Last season: Coming off a 200-hit season, Inciarte put up decent offensive numbers with a .265 average, 10 homers, 27 doubles, six triples, 83 runs scored and 61 driven in. He also stole a team-best 28 bases (caught 14 times) and played his usual Gold Glove defense. The most troublesome offensive stats from the Braves' point of view were a .325 on-base percentage that ranked him just sixth among Atlanta's 2018 starters and 86 strikeouts.
2019 outlook: The team expects a rebound closer to 2017 numbers from the 28-year-old, who is likely to bat leadoff against right-handers and down in the order vs. lefties. As with many Braves, Inciarte tends to get pull happy instead of using his natural line-drive stroke to rip the ball into gaps. With the talented Acuna also available to slide over to center from time to time, Inciarte is likely to have a few more off days this year. Whenever he's in there, though, Braves pitchers are happy.
Who's in: Nick Markakis
Last season: Pre All-Star Game Markakis was splendid with a .323 average, 10 homers and 61 RBIs, earning the veteran his first All-Star appearance. Post break, though, was quite different with a .258 average, four homers and 32 RBIs. Overall, the numbers were better than average, including 43 doubles and 185 hits. Markakis was decent in the field, though his range and arm are rated below average. The Braves let the 35-year-old test the free agent market before signing him for a team-friendly price early in spring training.
2019 outlook: With Donaldson coming aboard it looks like Markakis will bat lower in the lineup. It also has been reported that he will be forced to take some games off this season after once again appearing in all 162 games and making 705 plate appearances. The hope was that Adam Duvall would be the fourth outfielder. He, however, did not earn a spot after a poor spring, leading to the trade for Matt Joyce. Expect Acuna to play some right field and a combination of Joyce, Camargo and Charlie Culberson to see time in left when Markakis takes time off. If he can hit near the .300 mark and keep the walks up, Markakis will still be an important part of the lineup.
Who's in: McCann/Flowers, Camargo, Culberson, Joyce
Last season: Outside of Calhoun High School product Culberson, last year's bench was the weak point of the team. The Braves went through numerous players — Preston Tucker (.240 average), Adam Duvall (.132), Peter Bourjos (.205), Jose Bautista (.143), Danny Santana (.179) and Lane Adams (.240) — but never found any impact.
2019 outlook: Donaldson's signing lengthens the bench tremendously with the addition of Camargo's bat and glove. He and Culberson (.270, 12 homers, 45 RBIs) give the Braves versatility and pop, and when they get starts the bench will stay strong. The fourth outfielder, though, is an ongoing project. Duvall was sent down after a woeful spring and Joyce had only a few at-bats after being acquired from the Giants. GM Alex Anthopolous said Tuesday the team is still exploring trades.
Who's in: Julio Teheran, Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright, Sean Newcomb, Max Fried — Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman are out with injuries
Last season: The Braves used 12 different pitchers to start games and two of those, Anibal Sanchez and Brandon McCarthy, are no longer with the team after combining for 39 starts. Foltynewicz had an All-Star season with 13 wins, 202 strikeouts and a 2.85 ERA in 31 starts. Teheran had one of the oddest seasons of his up-and-down career with a 9-9 record and 3.94 ERA. He allowed only 122 hits in 175 innings, one of the best ratios in the game, but walked 84 batters and allowed 26 home runs. Newcomb went 12-9 and flashed dominance at times, but he also walked nearly five batters a game. Gausman, after coming over from Baltimore, was solid with five wins and a sub-3 ERA.
2019 outlook: Ace Foltynewicz will start the season on the injured list with elbow soreness, while Gausman is out with shoulder issues. Both are throwing and reportedly will be back sometime in April. Their health is paramount for a staff that will be razor thin early on. Newcomb is expected to take a step forward just as Folty did last year, though command was an issue in camp. If the top four are healthy, then whoever shines early from the trio of Wilson, Wright and Fried will get first shot at a regular rotation spot. There is still plenty of young talent on the farm, including Touki Toussaint, Mike Soroka and Patrick Weigel. The Braves hope to use them when they are ready and not just because they're needed.
Who's in: Closer Aroldys Vizcaino. Set-up men Jonny Venters, Jesse Biddle, Shane Carle, Wes Parsons — A.J. Minter and Darren O'Day are out with injuries
Last season: Vizcaino had 16 saves after returning from injury, while Minter had a breakthrough season with 15 saves. The rest was hit and miss, with guys like Biddle and Carle solid for the most part but Sam Freeman, who was such a key to the 2017 pen, has been cut. The bullpen ranked dead last in the National League in walks. Thirteen of the relievers used for more than one game a year ago finished with ERA's over four.
2019 outlook: Like the rotation, early-season injuries are a major concern. Minter is reportedly getting close to returning, while O'Day, who missed last season after being acquired from Baltimore along with Gausman, is also throwing some. Get those two back and, along with Venters, the back end of the pen looks promising. Vizcaino still hasn't proven, though, that he can work back-to-back games, and the team does not want to push Venters and his bionic arm too much too soon. Expect Wilson, Wright and Fried to get pen innings when needed early and they could, if Foltynewicz and Gausman return successfully, become fixtures later in the season. Of course, a certain former Braves closer remains on the market and rumors have suggested the team has remained interested at the right price.
Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com or at 423-757-6296; follow on Twitter @youngsports22