Which team is going to surprise us in 2017?
Just briefly: this is an on-going project. Every year I use a checklist of indictors and try and identify which teams have a chance of surprising the baseball world over the coming season. It's ‘junk’ metric, just something to do for fun. Don’t bet the house on us, please.
The system is a work-in-progress, tinkered around with every year. Sometimes we've gotten things right and sometimes the system has looked pretty foolish. Last year we looked foolish: we came up with Oakland and Miami as the best candidates to ‘surprise’ us: they surprised us by winning 69 and 79 games, respectively. The year before that we guessed on the Mets, who ran into the World Series. You lose some, you win some.
Because this is a perennial effort, there’s a risk of reader fatigue. I like writing this column, mostly because I have no idea what the results are going to be. I set some criteria and then look up information on all of the losing teams and see who comes up on top. It’s fun, and not-so-very scientific. Best of all, it gives me a team to root for during the season.
But it’s pretty boring to read the mechanics of how I come up with a team each year, so we’re going to skip all of that noise and jump right to the conclusion. Then we’ll loop back talk about it.
The team that will surprise baseball in 2017 is the Atlanta Braves.
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Looking at the losing teams from 2016, the Braves don’t leap out as the obvious contenders to improve dramatically.
Just on instinct, I’d have guessed that the Angels were the most likely team to leap into contention, entirely on the basis of Mike Trout’s existence in the world. And the Minnesota Twins look like a fun team. The AL Central is soft this year, and I’m expect big things from Sano and Byron Buxton in 2018. Over in the National League, the Rockies are getting a lot of buzz about their young pitchers, and they’ve made moves like they expect to contend this year. And it’s not crazy to imagine the Pirates winding up in another Wild Card game.
But the system picked the Braves, so we’re going with ‘em. Atlanta is going to surprise us in 2017.
What are the positives for Atlanta?
The first thing that stands out is that the Braves are really young. The Braves had the youngest hitters in baseball last year, and they had the second-youngest pitchers. Young teams tend to improve, and there is no team younger than the Braves. No team is close, really.
That was last year, of course. Atlanta has added R.A. Dickey, Bartolo Colon, and Jamie Garcia to their rotation for 2017, so it is unlikely that they’ll pull a repeat on the youngest pitching in baseball this year. And they’re getting a full year of Matt Kemp and Brandon Phillips, who are old-ish position players. I sort of forgot that Matt Kemp existed, actually. We’ll come back to Kemp.
What helps Atlanta that the guys behind most of veterans are pretty good. Depending on your source, the Braves have either the #1 or #2 farm system in baseball. They have a lot of talent in the minors, and no huge obligations to play their veterans if they find themselves leaping into contention this year.
So they have youth on their side, and good young players. That’s one factor.
But the really compelling factor for the Braves is that they played like a contending team for second half of the season. The Braves played at a .514 clip (37-35) during the second-half of the season. Most of that improvement came in September, a month that saw the Braves went on an 18-10 to close out the season.
It’s important to remember that plenty of bad teams have good months, and it would be foolish to assume that the Braves are going to contend in 2017 just because their last month happened to be their best one.
That said, the wider view of the Braves at least jibes with their late success in 2016: it is understood that Atlanta is a team on the ascent, a team that is rising on their win-expectancy curve. They have a talented pair of players in Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran. Ender Inciarte is a good player, and Dansby Swanson is probably going to be an all-star this year. The Atlanta bullpen is stocked full of guys who notch a lot of strikeouts.
To bolster that core, the team has made some quietly useful moves through the offseason, picking up three inning-eater veteran starters (R.A. Dickey, Bartolo Colon, Jamie Garcia) who can help keep a few games close. If one of those guys pans out, they’ll look smart. If two of them are productive, we can count it as a good deal.
And Atlanta has improved their production at second base by adding Brandon Phillips. Phillips is on the decline, but he still has a decent bat and a fine glove, and he’s a Georgia native. At worst, he can be a placeholder and mentor for prospect Ozzie Albies.
Objectively, I like what Atlanta is doing. They’ve making inexpensive commitments to veteran players, while gearing up to contend when their new ballpark opens in 2018. The Braves are trying to win baseball games this year, but they’re not jumping the gun on their longer-term strategy. If they luck into contending, they are in a good position to make deadline deals, and if they have another losing season, there will be plenty of positives going forward.
And it’s not crazy to think that they have a shot. The National League East has two teams who figure to contend, and two teams that are going to struggle. The Phillies are in full rebuild-mode, and with the Marlins franchise on the seller’s block, it’s unlikely that Miami will be making aggressive moves to compete this year.
I think that the Nationals are a strong team. I figure they’ll win the NL East by a comfortable margin, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the World Series.
But I am much less convinced that the Mets are going to be a good team this year. I root for the Mets, but I have some worries about their offense, which seems creaky and one-dimensional. If I had to pick one playoff team from last year to freefall, I’d be tempted to pick the Mets. Or the Orioles, but that’s not pertinent to this article.
So the door open for Atlanta. Or at least the door is little ajar. I wouldn’t count on the Braves winning the NL East, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if they snuck in and grabbed a Wild Card spot.
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So how could it happen? What are the scenarios that would allow for Atlanta to contend in 2017?
1. Freddie Freeman puts up an MVP season.
This doesn’t sound unreasonable. Freeman had a terrific second-half in 2016, posting a .323/.433/.634 batting line after the All-Star break. He’s twenty-seven this year, which remains a great age if you’re looking to win an MVP award. More significantly, he improved his performance against left-handers, posting a .902 OPS last year that improved his .759 career mark.
2. Dansby Swanson and Julio Teheran play like All-Stars.
Again, this seems like it should happen. Swanson, the first overall pick in 2015, managed to hit .300 during his call-up stint in the majors. And Julio Teheran is coming off one of the better 7-10 seasons I can remember.
3. Some of the veteran pitchers defy their age.
R.A. Dickey probably won’t repeat his Cy Young performance, but he’s turned into knuckleballing version of Mark Buehrle-lite: an innings-eating defensive player who can be counted on for 200 IP and a 2.0 WAR. I have a lot less faith that Bartolo Colon is going to make any gains in his twilight push for 300 career victories, but it wouldn’t shock me if Jamie Garcia puts up a solid comeback year.
4. The Braves get some more dingers.
I don’t know if you noticed this, but Matt Kemp was a decent hitter last year. I certainly didn’t notice it: the Padres and Braves weren’t on my radar in 2016, for obvious reasons. But Matt Kemp was pretty good with the stick: he hit 35 homers and drove in 108 runs, and while his walk rate continues to spiral down towards Joe Carter territory, his numbers spiked (.855 OPS in 56 games) after he was traded from San Diego to Atlanta.
The Braves finished dead last in the majors in homers (122), so power is something they need. It’s not outlandish to think that Kemp can repeat his performance in a more hitter-friendly environment, and while Brandon Phillips won’t hit 20 homers this year, him and Swanson at the keystone should provide more pop than the nine combined homers that Erick Aybar and Jace Peterson hit last year.
5. The bullpen turns out to be great.
For me, the big ‘hinge’ for the Braves season is what kind of performance they get from Arodys Vizcaino in 2017. Vizcaino has the talent to be a top-notch closer, and he’s shown occasional stretches of brilliance, but injuries, control issues, and a pesky 80-game suspension for a failed drug test have kept him from developing into the bullpen anchor that the Braves have wanted since they dealt away Kimbrel. Vizcaino is opening this year as the set-up man for Jim Johnson, but it wouldn’t surprise me if those roles switch pretty quickly. If Vizcaino puts it together as a closer (with underrated lefty Ian Kroll adding to the mix), Atlanta could wind up having the best bullpen in the division.
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So that’s the story we’re sticking with: the Braves are going to jump the gun a bit on their master plan, and contend in 2017. Maybe the story will be that the Braves have followed the Royals model of winning by timely hitting and a great bullpen, and maybe the story will be about Freeman or Teheran or Swanson joining the ranks of the very best players in baseball. Maybe they’ll win because some kid on the farm turns out to be John Smoltz or Tom Glavine, and maybe they’ll win because R.A Dickey learns that knuckleballs only work in the NL East.
However it happens, the Braves are going to surprise us in 2017.
Dave Fleming is a writer living in New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at firstname.lastname@example.org.