Projecting the Braves Opening Day Lineup... for 2016

‘The answer to your question is: ”Go to the mattresses.” ‘

‘You’re at war.  It’s not personal, it’s business. It’s not personal.  It’s business.  Recite that to yourself every time you’re losing your nerve.  I know you worry about being brave. Don’t. This is your chance. Fight! Fight to the death! It’s not personal. It’s business. Just fight! Fight!’

This is Tom Hanks as Joe Fox in the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail.  His character could very well have been named ‘Stan Kasten’, now the President of the Dodgers.  Opposite him (we’ll ignore the romantic angle to this movie) could be the role of Kathleen Kelly, played today by Frank Wren.  He’s the owner of the Shop Around the Corner that is being pushed out of business by the big, mean corporate-sized bookstore Fox Books/LA Dodgers.

Sadly, it seems that today’s Atlanta Braves – like the Kathleen Kelly of that movie – are woefully short of the resources to compete against the Fox Books and L.A. Dodgers of this era, regardless of their will to fight.  Oh, there may be successful skirmishes here and there (witness the 2013 season), but if nothing changes from here, the authors of future Braves’ successes will be signing autographs in other cities.  Chipper Jones was the last of an era.  Brian McCann was merely the first of many.

Friday’s arbitration news was disheartening.  It signaled that the clock is ticking with regard to our current crop of young stars.  And it lead me to think hard about what the future entails for this Atlanta Braves club.  Having given those thoughts some time to simmer, it’s time to share them.

And thus, we now project a starting lineup for your 2016 Atlanta Braves… written about our future, from our future

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LEFT FIELDKyle Wren.  Having made the quick hop, skip, and jump through the minors, Frank’s son is now a starting major leaguer.  His speed is a big asset, not to mention his ability to get on base.  Scouts are still curious about how these tools will play at this level, but so far he hasn’t been seriously challenged at any prior level.  It will be very interesting to see how it works with him in the leadoff slot, as the Braves had so many issues with this last year.

SECOND BASETommy La Stella.  No longer considered a rookie, La Stella has continued the hard work that made him a sensation in 2015.  His work at the bottom of the batting order was just too good to ignore, and he’s now a fixture as the #2 hitter for the Braves.  While his uncanny ability to avoid the strikeout, move runners over, and get on base made us forget the homers lost when Dan Uggla roamed that area on the diamond, his glovework has indeed been better than advertised.  He was 3rd in the 2015 Rookie of the Year balloting, and that kind of under-the-radar performance is just fine with him – and the team.

THIRD BASEChris Johnson.  Chris is back for what looks to be one final turn in a Braves’ uniform this year.  Nonetheless, he has had himself a career in Atlanta, posting eerily similar stats since becoming a regular in 2013.  Anyone else would be a star with numbers like his (slashing .322/.360/.458) like his… but he just continues to go about his business with quiet confidence.  His $14,000,000 salary for 2016 made a lot of people (including this author) think that the Braves would try to move or possibly non-tender him this past off-season.  But there weren’t a lot of options available – at any price – for the hot corner.  We’ll see after the season whether he gets the $16,500,00-ish qualifying offer.  If not, then at least we’ve got a couple of minors guys who might be able to step up (Peraza and Caratini).

FIRST BASEFreddie Freeman.  It’s precisely because the rest of the team is signed up so cheaply that Atlanta was actually willing to go one more round with their RBI machine, even at this arbitration-induced $18,500,000 – and the Braves are fortunate to have won his arb case this year.  But the league’s leading run-producer is all but assured to head for even greener pastures next season after becoming something akin to a cult figure here in Atlanta.  At least we’ll get an extra draft pick back.

CATCHEREvan Gattis.  But of course there’s another cult figure in town, and this one is about to turn 30 this year.  Yet the platoon thing seems to be working between him and Christian Bethancourt, with the latter taking more reps as time goes on.  Gattis is still affordable, at least, though one wonders how long that might continue if he keeps putting up 40 homers a year as he did in 2015… a shocking number considering that he started only 60% of the time.  But the Braves still have him under control through 2018 – if they want to keep him.  Certainly his body seems to be holding up, likely a direct result of the reduced workload.

CENTER FIELDB.J. Upton.  Maybe, possibly, finally – will we see an improvement to B.J.’s game?  He will never admit it, but it certainly seems as if B.J. wanted to keep up with Justin with every homer, every RBI.  But now that little brother is gone (and don’t the DBacks relish having him in L.A. now?), we’ll have to see if there’s a more relaxed and more confident B.J.  At least we all sure hope so.  I do like extra draft picks, though.

SHORTSTOPAndrelton Simmons.  Okay, yeah – he’s still the best shortstop on the planet.  But can he just stop going after the shoulder-high fastballs that he keeps launching to the stars?  And I swear, if there’s another bad infield fly call this year, I’m gonna harm something.  At least we have some decent speed in this lineup… if he and Schaf can get on base this year.  I guess we can tolerate another .250 year out of this position, but I continue to shake my head about the potential that he’s still got with the bat.

RIGHT FIELDJordan Schafer.  Back to the 8-hole.  Whatever the reason, that leadoff thing just isn’t working for him.  But it does work better in this slot – go figure.  But if it doesn’t work this year, then he’ll certainly be hearing the footsteps of both of the guys we got in the Heyward trade deal (it was only a year ago – but it still seems like a surreal thing – trading an All-Star right fielder on a team expected to win its division.  I show hope the returns pan out).

PITCHERMike Minor.  Last year’s rotation started with Minor, Medlen, Teheran, Wood, and Graham.  This year it’s gonna be Minor, Teheran, Wood, Hursh, Sims.  I don’t like swapping out 40% of the rotation every year, but it seems like that’s almost the norm for Atlanta (and next year we’ll do that on the field – not just the mound – when the Cobbapalooza venue opens… or whatever they end up naming it).  Whatever.  I guess we’re continuing to reload and re-arm.  That worked for the Rays, I guess.  Regardless, all of these guys better have Cy Young-like years if we’re gonna compete with Miami.  Minor doing it alone (once again he finished as an also-ran in the voting thanks to all of the aces loaded up in the NL) won’t be enough.  I still hate Frank for trading Beachy, though.

CLOSERShae Simmons.  Yes:  we were spoiled.  The other Simmons did okay in 2015, but – okay, everybody repeat the mantra:  “He’s Not Craig Kimbrel.”  Nobody else is.  Although I suppose the Yankees thought they could never replace Mariano Rivera, and now they have Craig (Mariano who?).  Well, if Shea can at least save 35 for us again, then maybe we have a shot.

SUMMARY.  I suppose we should be happy that the lineup has remained this stable over the past few years – given the payroll remaining nearly constant at $100-105 million.  We should have just enough offense to overcome most teams not named LA or St. Louis, and that should keep us competitive if the pitching holds up (but I guess you’ve heard that before).  Not dominant, but competitive.  So as Miami rises, Washington falls, Philly comfounds, and the Mets… are the Mets…; we should be fighting (once again) for a Wild Card slot.  Welcome to 2016.

When can we start drafting Chipper’s sons?

 

 

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