Atlanta Braves search for depth as roster stumbles to the starting line

Three key Atlanta Braves are still missing with just a week of camp remaining.

Cole Hamels. Will Smith. Freddie Freeman. If you were to pick any three players that the Atlanta Braves really needed contributing strongly in this short season, you’d be hard-pressed to name three with greater impact to the rotation, bullpen, and hitting.

Even if you were to substitute Ronald Acuna, it’s still arguable that Freeman is more difficult to replace defensively.

At this point, there isn’t any sign of panic coming from the Battery, but the signing of Yasiel Puig is certainly one big indicator that the Braves front office is monitoring things very closely.

First, though: a bit of housekeeping.  A few weeks ago, it was noted here that the idea of a fit for Puig in Atlanta seemed odd, at best. Yet another extra outfielder, and a right-handed bat at that.

Further, it looked at the time that Puig’s playing time would be severely limited – a situation that didn’t bode well for someone that needed to be getting regular work to help justify a decent contract for 2021.

Things have changed quite a bit since then: Freeman came down with the dreaded virus and Nick Markakis has opted out.

Still, the “fit” looks a bit awkward as the Braves are now significantly RHH-heavy. But as Puig has tended toward a reverse split over his career (.285 vs. RHP with a 130 wRC+; .255 against LHP, 109 wRC+), his path to the plate is better than many other possible options out there.

Seth expanded on these numbers earlier, so I’ll defer to his work for those looking for additional details.

Puig is also a decent RF option among a group of outfielders that has just one other RF mainstay (Acuna). This will allow Brian Snitker to move Acuna to CF at times – something he’d have trouble doing without Puig’s presence.

Puig may have truly been the only viable free agent option available, but the Atlanta Braves could certainly have done worse.  After apparently spurning overtures from both the Giants and Orioles as some reports have suggested, Puig has now chosen a path to winning in Atlanta as a means to showcase his talents for 2021.

But now the Atlanta Braves pitching.

Getting Will Smith as a bullpen anchor last Winter made all the sense in the world. Surrounding him with the same cast of strong arms from 2019 made more sense.

As a result, the Braves will likely be able to weather the storm of Smith’s delay in arrival. But while that depth play worked for the bullpen, it has thus far backfired for the rotation.

Atlanta has lost both of the key pitching acquisitions made over the (original) off-season in Hamels and Felix Hernandez.

It’ll never be known just how well Hernandez might have performed in a Braves uniform, but Hamels is still expected to be a key piece – every bit as important as Soroka or Fried.

His tendinitis issue is now his third different setback over the past two seasons, but unlike the ploy to plug in Puig, there is no handy frontline starter still waiting by the phone for a call.

Yes – the Atlanta Braves still have plenty of pitching. But in this case, it’s replacing a “#1 or #2” guy in Hamels with a “#5 or #6” guy that has limited major league experience.

This is going to force Brian Snitker and his staff to consider some novel options: the ‘piggybacking’ of a couple of starters that go 3-ish innings apiece or perhaps the use of a bullpen “opener” to get past the strongest part of an opponent’s lineup before a starter takes over.

This will at least leverage the Braves’ strength in numbers to hold the fort until Hamels can return, but given the strength of the NL East/AL East opposition, it’s also less than ideal.

Perhaps instead, then, Atlanta can outslug a few clubs with Puig lengthening the lineup. If nothing else, the Braves now have a bench that is actually formidable… if perhaps a bit too right-handed.

Next: How much Hamels will we get?

Make no mistake, though: the loss of Hamels, Smith, and Freeman is big. With them included, this club is close to ‘awesome’.  Hopefully, the time without them will be limited.