While the Atlanta Braves’ rotation may feature a host of fresh faces, their projected lineup will look fairly similar to the one that finished the 2016 season by averaging just 4.03 runs per game, good enough for the second-worst mark in the majors. The Braves simply have to hit more home runs after they went 625 plate appearances without a homer to begin the year.
Their lineup looks much more capable of hitting homers, while Atlanta will also typically run out a nice blend of youth at the top as well. Without further ado, let’s get into my projected lineup.
1. Ender Inciarte, CF: Entering his second season with the Atlanta Braves, Inciarte hit leadoff in the team’s first three games of 2016 and in 51 of Atlanta’s final 53 outings. He finished the year with a .291 batting average and a .351 on-base percentage, both higher than the MLB average of all leadoff hitters with at least 70 plate appearances.
Most importantly, Inciarte drew almost double the number of walks last year than he did previously in 2015, while he was also a lot smarter on the base paths as the speedy Venezuelan was caught just seven times. If he’s able to keep that up, he’s going to provide a lot of opportunity for the guys behind him to do some damage on the scoreboard.
2. Jace Peterson, 2B: Initially, Peterson was penciled in as the number eight hitter in my lineup but now he finds himself with the added responsibility of hitting in front of Freddie Freeman and Matt Kemp. With Atlanta averaging only four runs per game in 2016, the onus is going to be on Peterson to get himself on base. For the first time in his career, he was able to do that job with great effectiveness last year as he had a .350 on-base percentage thanks largely to his 52 free passes.
Peterson seems to have the second base job locked down now after starting just 77 games there last year. He’s going to face some competition from Chase d’Arnaud and Sean Rodriguez, but his fit in this lineup gives Peterson the first shot at the position.
3. Freddie Freeman, 1B: One of the more underappreciated hitters in the game, Freeman is the one remaining franchise cornerstone in Atlanta after previous departures of Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons, and Brian McCann. Without Freeman, the Braves would be the worst team in the game and not even people from Atlanta would pay attention to them. 2016 was another great year for the 27-year-old as he hit .302 while amassing 43 doubles, 34 homers, and 91 RBIs in 158 games.
With an OPS close to 1.000, Freeman was also one of the more productive hitters in baseball last year. Most notably, he was also the one to break their homerless streak at the start of the season. If Atlanta is to make any inroads in the NL East, he’s going to have to replicate that form once again.
4. Matt Kemp, LF: Coming over from San Diego at the trade deadline, Kemp made a real impact with the Braves as he hit .280 with 12 homers in a little over 200 at-bats. He continued to strike out with regularity, but Kemp was able to draw more walks than he had in the nearly 400 appearances he had earlier in the year.
Entering his age-32 season, it’s unlikely the right-hander will return to his All-Star form of 2011 and 2012. However, the outfielder has averaged 28 homers, 36 doubles, and 100 RBIs in each of the last three years, hitting to the tune of roughly a .275 average in the process. That skill set makes him the ideal candidate to hit behind Freeman in the Atlanta lineup, even if Kemp strikes out nearly 150 times each year.
5. Adonis Garcia, 3B: When Adonis Garcia signed with the Yankees as an amateur free agent out of Cuba in 2012, many had hoped that he might be able to transition his strong all-around approach to the majors. Since making his debut two years ago, that doesn’t seem to have been the case. The third baseman has averaged just 12 homers, 20 doubles and 46 RBIs each of the past two seasons, far from ideal production from a position that has a lot of offensive talent.
Garcia is almost a guarantee to play at least 140 games in 2017 simply because Atlanta don’t really have anyone else on their roster capable of being a productive third baseman. There are a number of options for the hot corner still left on the open market and it’s possible the Braves might be interested in the likes of Aaron Hill, but the 33-year-old is going to get the first chance during spring training and other avenues will only be looked into if he fails to do so.
6. Nick Markakis, RF: One guy who could easily hit just about anywhere in this lineup is Markakis, who has over 300 career plate appearances in each of the top five spots in the lineup. Though he has spent very little time as the sixth hitter, Markakis hasn’t displayed the long ball that one may want from their fifth hitter in more recent times.
Since signing a four-year deal with Atlanta in 2015, Markakis has averaged 38 doubles, 71 RBIs and a .282 batting average each year while putting up a very solid strikeout-to-walk rate. The 33-year-old isn’t likely to hit 15+ homers as he did early in his career, but his mix of on-base percentage and doubles power make him a nice fit for this Braves lineup.
7. Kurt Suzuki/Tyler Flowers, C: After signing Suzuki very late in the offseason, Atlanta may be looking at going with a platoon behind the plate in 2017. Though Suzuki and Flowers have served as everyday catchers throughout their career, both are now over 30 and aren’t getting any younger.
Last season, Flowers hit .270 with 18 doubles and 41 RBIs in 83 games, though he certainly performed better against right-handers as his batting average went up to .277 against them. Suzuki meanwhile had one of the better offensive years of his career, but he hit .275 against southpaws and only .250 when a righty was on the mound. Depending upon how things play out during the spring, Suzuki and Flowers could split time behind the dish in 2017 and hit just in front of the pitcher.
8. Pitcher: In 2016, Braves pitchers owned a combined .122 batting average that placed them as the fourth-worst overall in the National League. They struck out in over 34% of all appearances and were one of only three teams (Miami and Philadelphia the other two) who failed to hit a homer all season. Making matters worse, their seven RBIs were also the fewest of anyone. Bringing in the likes of Colon and Dickey may help though, as both have historically been reasonable hitters when they have had the opportunity to swing the bat on a regular basis. Any production they can provide will almost certainly better than what Atlanta were able to put together a season ago.
9. Dansby Swanson, SS: When I first was writing out this lineup, I had Swanson as the Braves’ number two hitter with no questions asked. His .361 on-base percentage and .302 average at the MLB level seemed like the perfect fit to hit in front of Freddie Freeman. Having thought about it for a little longer though, those numbers also seemed to work well in another spot in the lineup – hitting behind the pitcher’s spot.
Recently, we’ve seen a lot of National League managers experiment with hitting the pitcher eighth, and I think it may work for Atlanta. Swanson also doesn’t steal bases, but he does draw a walk while not striking out much. That is the perfect formula for a number nine hitter.
I really like a lot of different aspects of this lineup and believe that Atlanta would more than hold their own if they made a few slight changes to give different players greater opportunity. This certainly isn’t the lineup that we’re likely to see on opening day simply because many managers have traditions that they like to abide by, but change is a good thing and I think it would have a positive impact on the way Atlanta is able to create offense.