5 Questions the Atlanta Braves Need to Answer Before the Season Starts

Before their 2016 regular season opens on April 4 against the Washington Nationals, the Atlanta Braves have a few questions to answer.

Even with the well-known youth movement in place with for the Braves, there is plenty of controversy surrounding their veteran players.

Michael Bourn, Jeff Francoeur, Nick Markakis and Emilio Bonifacio are all embroiled in the team’s vague outfield plans. Likewise, Atlanta will need to make some tough decisions concerning its pitching staff, which could carry more veteran arms than previously expected.

Over the next week, many of these issues will be resolved—for the time being. Until then, let’s take a look at the five most burning questions, and what the most likely resolution appears to be at this point.

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Why Carson Smith Will Be the Steal of the Offseason

In the midst of an offseason shopping spree meant to restore its success, the Boston Red Sox pulled off a largely unheralded trade, acquiring Carson Smith from the Seattle Mariners.

The full deal, which the teams completed back on Dec. 7, sent Smith and left-handed pitcher Roenis Elias to Boston in exchange for pitchers Wade Miley and Jonathan Aro.

It's never easy to draw major interest to a reliever acquisition—especially when the reliever won't be a closer for his new team. But make no mistake: Smith will prove to be the steal of the offseason.

At only 26 years old and having only one full season in the majors under his belt, Smith has yet to touch the prime of his career. Based on his 2015 numbers, he could become the best reliever in the game shortly.

Last season, Smith made 70 appearances out of the bullpen for the Mariners, mostly in late-game situations. His 22 holds ranked ninth in the American League, and he also notched 13 saves.

When taking a closer look at Smith's numbers, we see just how good he really was.

He struck out 11.83 batters per nine innings pitched, ranking No. 12 among qualifying MLB relievers. He also kept his pitches largely unpredictable, as his 0.26 home runs per nine innings pitched ratio was tied for third-best in the league.

Perhaps the most impressive number is his 2.1 WAR, tied for fourth among MLB relievers. It shows just how much he boosted Seattle's bullpen.

Smith has quickly taken notice as one of the best strikeout relievers in the game, and his highlights show it well. Take a look at his five-strikeout performance against the Detroit Tigers back on July 7, arguably his best of the season:

Keep in mind that these aren't bad hitters Smith mowed down; All-Stars J.D. Martinez and Jose Iglesias were two of the victims.

Smith goes right at the hitters, and he isn't afraid to go to his off-speed pitches to get the strikeout. He loves to locate his sinker and slider on the outer half of the plate, either getting the hitter to chase or placing it right on the corner for a called third strike.

In his profile of Smith, FanGraphs' Zach Sanders raved about the young reliever:

After a dominant season with the Mariners in which he struck out nearly a third of the batters he faced, Smith was traded to the Red Sox for some reason, and he’ll likely make the Mariners regret that move for his next five years of team control. The 26-year-old right-hander features a low-90s sinker and wicked slider thrown from a funky angle, helping him neutralize left-handed hitters despite his typically split-heavy repertoire.

Smith's talent is undeniable, and the fact that Boston was able to acquire him and Elias for a serviceable starter like Miley was nothing short of trade robbery. But the question persists: What role will Smith play in the Red Sox bullpen?

The acquisition of Craig Kimbrel rules out Smith as the team's closer (barring an injury), and Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa's presence have forced Smith into a role as the team's "bridge reliever"; someone who comes in for the sixth and perhaps even seventh inning to hold the score.

Even if that remains Smith's role all season, it's still a major benefit for Boston.

Every team needs a strong bullpen to boost its chances at a World Series, and it's hard to argue with the strength of Boston's pen. It's clear that Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has learned from his Detroit days, where a poor Tigers bullpen ruined several promising seasons for an otherwise loaded roster.

Even if the worst-case scenario does hit the back of Boston's bullpen, Smith can step right in as the closer, and the team won't skip a beat.

Given the lack of clarity behind David Price in the Red Sox starting rotation, its nice to know that the team can count on Smith to guide it through countless must-win games over the duration of the season.

And all it cost them was two dispensable pitchers.

 

Advanced stats courtesy of FanGraphs.

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10 Pitchers Most Likely to Be in the Cy Young Race This Season

What does a pitcher need to win the Cy Young Award?

This list will undoubtedly feature some of the top arms in the game. Several of the pitchers here have won the award before, while others have come close—but not close enough. 

The top pitchers in baseball also have that certain pitch that they throw as well as anyone in the gamea true go-to pitch to get that elusive third strike. Clayton Kershaw has arguably the best curveball in the game, while Felix Hernandez's changeup has fooled many a hitter. Chris Sale's slider is as dominant as either of the former two pitches.

Cy Young contenders not only have a go-to pitch but also have the consistency and situational awareness to win games. This gives them the ability to win those 1-0 and 2-1 games that simply "good" pitchers can't always win.

The criteria for this list are mostly comprised of those elements, in addition to how well they can command those pitches and truly dominate their starts. Previously winning the award (or coming close) is a big help as well.

You'll notice that each slide is accompanied by a video of the pitcher, showing him dominate or complete some sort of amazing feat. These are crucial elements in the making of a Cy Young-caliber pitcher.

For the sake of this list, there is no league bias. Obviously, there is a separate Cy Young Award for the American and National Leagues, and typically one emerges as the more competitive race. However, this list is simply about individual abilities and will stand independent of league affiliation, although I will give my prediction for the Cy Young Award winner in each league when the corresponding player's slide appears.

Now, let's take a look at the most likely candidates to win the Cy Young this season.

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Todd Frazier Will Prove to Be the Biggest Steal of the MLB Offseason

In a league where overpaying for talented players is commonplace, the Chicago White Sox broke that trend when they acquired All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier from the Cincinnati Reds back on Dec. 16.

The three-team deal included the Los Angeles Dodgers, who landed outfielder Trayce Thompson, pitcher Frankie Montas and infielder Micah Johnson in the trade. The Reds received prized infielder Jose Peraza, fellow infielder prospect Brandon Dixon and outfielder Scott Schebler, while the White Sox came away with Frazier.

It became clear in the aftermath of the trade that the public viewed Chicago as big winners in the deal and the Reds as chumps:

Part of the negative reaction surrounding the trade stemmed from irked Cincinnati fans. The 30-year-old Frazier was a fan favorite in Cincinnati, a notion best exemplified when Reds fans gave him a nice ovation after he won the 2015 Home Run Derby in front of the home crowd:

Adding Frazier to the middle of Chicago's lineup will strike a newfound fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers, something that surely excites fans and players alike.

In an interview with USA Today's Nancy Armour, White Sox first baseman and fellow All-Star Jose Abreu expressed his own excitement about the acquisition of Frazier with a very concise statement:

"He’s a good player who can hit," Abreu said. "I love it."

Giving up three good (but not great) prospects for an All-Star third baseman is simply nothing short of a steal. The most heralded prospect given up in the trade didn't even come via Chicago. Rather, it was Peraza, the No. 71 overall prospect in baseball according to MLB.com, given up by the Dodgers. 

Frazier's contract situation is great for the White Sox in the short term, although there could be some issues long term. Having signed a two-year, $12 million deal before the 2015 season, Frazier will be up for arbitration after the season.

Should the White Sox wish to sign him to a long-term extension, however (and there's no reason to think they wouldn't), they certainly have the money to do so. At worst, the team could deal him at the 2016 trade deadline next July for some prospects if things don't work out this season.

White Sox fans are surely hoping that the Frazier trade ends up becoming this year's version of the infamous (unless you're a Toronto Blue Jays fan) Josh Donaldson trade and for good reason.

The parallels between the two situations are eerily similar. Both players were approaching their age-30 season on underachieving teams at the time of their trade, and both were All-Stars the previous season.

Take a look at their stats in the season before their respective trades:

We all know how the Donaldson trade worked out, as the Oakland Athletics dealt their star player to Toronto for third baseman Brett Lawrie and a trio of prospects. Donaldson went on to become the American League MVP, Lawrie is ironically now the White Sox second baseman after the Frazier trade and the A's finished with the worst record in the AL.

It would be a stretch to say that Frazier will now become the MVP, especially since Donaldson had the benefit of landing in a loaded Blue Jays lineup. Frazier and Abreu are practically the only power threats in the entire White Sox lineup—aside from an occasional blast from Lawrie or the aging Adam LaRoche, of course.

But regardless of the lineup disparities between Toronto and Chicago, the White Sox will almost certainly improve on their 76-86 record last season. Manager Robin Ventura certainly feels that way, per Colleen Kane of the Chicago Tribune:

We’re also in the division that has the World Series champion. We know it’s a tough division. Everybody in that division is getting better, and this is our way to improve and make ourselves a viable candidate. So we’re much improved from last year -- just look at the people that we’ve got. But you’re going to have to play to be able to make an impact and make it happen, because it doesn’t happen on paper.

As Ventura noted, the White Sox have the misfortune of playing in the same division as the Kansas City Royals, who are coming off a 95-win regular season. Still, the club has a respectable chance to be playing baseball deep into October.

Todd Frazier, easily the steal of the offseason, helps gives the White Sox that chance.

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MLB Spring Training: Latest Buzz as Pitchers and Catchers Report

It was a long, grueling stretch of nearly four months without baseball, but those days are finally behind us.

Wednesday brought about the first batch of pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training for their respective teams, and other teams will follow suit until Feb. 22. By the time position players for the Minnesota Twins report on Feb. 27, each team will have its full spring training roster in place. 

For now, though, the focus lies primarily on pitchers and catchers as they shake off their offseason rust and try to make a definitive case for their spot on the MLB roster.

Many teams—like the Arizona Diamondbacks—have the front end of their starting rotation locked in but will use spring training performances to determine the rest of their rotation:

It is practically a given that Shelby Miler, acquired in an offseason trade with the Atlanta Braves for a king's ransom, will be the No. 2 pitcher behind Greinke, but the rest of the rotation is anyone's guess at this point.

One of the hottest stories of the offseason has been the future of Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, and it has not subsided with the presence of spring training.

Already an All-Star and one of the best pitchers in baseball at only 23 years old, he is poised to land a ludicrous contract extension. However, Fernandez has been adamant about his focus on the upcoming season and leaving contract discussions to his agent, Scott Boras

Of course, there also exists the very distinct possibility that Fernandez will have these contract discussions with another team next offseason.

Baltimore Orioles pitcher Dylan Bundy is another interesting pitcher to watch during the spring, as he attempts to rebound from the series of injuries that have plagued him since 2013. 

Bundy's talent is undeniable, but those injuries have derailed his career ever since he reached the majors as a 19-year-old back in September 2012. Now 23, a healthy season from Bundy could help the Orioles claim the AL East title.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know about the San Francisco Giants' even-year World Series streak. Every even year since 2010, the Giants have won the World Series, and another World Series victory this season would continue that streak.

If they are to do so, however, ace Madison Bumgarner will need to regain his sensational 2014 World Series performance. Whether he'll do so remains to be seen, but for now, Giants fans have to be thrilled with their first Bumgarner sighting of the season:

Perhaps the most notable spring training event thus far concerns not a pitcher, but rather a former catcher. Kyle Schwarber of the Chicago Cubs, who is well-known for his monstrous home runs, hit another one during batting practice on Wednesday.

Unfortunately for this poor fan, it came at a hefty price:

Fortunately, Schwarber went on Twitter to help the fan get his car fixed, and he was successful in doing so.

Even though spring training is but a few days old, there has been no shortage of hot storylines and big events surrounding it.

With additional pitchers and catchers reporting over the next few days, there will surely be more to come.

 

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Latest Buzz Surrounding the Atlanta Braves Ahead of Spring Training

After an offseason spent dealing away several starters, the Atlanta Braves have shown no signs of immediate improvement for the 2016 season.

Spring training could be the only thing Braves fans can look forward to this year, but for now, there's a sense of optimism and promise for the future.

The 2016 Braves will be a very different team from their 2015 predecessors, and whether that's a good thing remains to be seen. Center fielder Cameron Maybin, shortstop Andrelton Simmons and pitching ace Shelby Miller have all been traded, and the former two players will likely be replaced by Ender Inciarte and Erick Aybar, respectively.

Atlanta's most notable free-agent signings included a pair of Georgia natives—Roswell native Tyler Flowers (catcher) and former University of Georgia standout Gordon Beckham (third base)—neither of whom are projected to start at their respective positions.

While these are all players to watch during spring training, the Braves' top minor league prospects will draw most of the attention and rightfully so. Three of Atlanta's top prospects—Dansby Swanson, Sean Newcomb and Aaron Blair—received special recognition from Minor League Baseball's official Twitter page:

After several years of gutting the team's best players, President of Baseball Operations John Hart has quietly been assembling a deep, talented farm system. In fact, ESPN.com's Keith Law even named it the No. 1 farm system in all of baseball, and MLB.com placed six Braves prospects on its top 100 prospects list.

Another player to keep an eye on is pitcher Matt Wisler, who should crack the starting rotation again this season. Before the team left for Florida last Friday, he and a few other pitching prospects joined bullpen coach Alan Butts for some long toss:

A rapidly developing storyline this offseason is the possibility of Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez becoming an MLB manager. Perez coached the Venezuelan national team this offseason, bringing it to the Caribbean World Series championship game.

In an interview with David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, former Braves legend Chipper Jones expressed his support for Perez, believing that he will be an MLB manager someday:

I’m not surprised at all of Eddie’s success as a manager. It is just a matter of time before he is experiencing success as a big league manager. He’s learned a ton, as have many coaches, from the great Bobby Cox. Some of the same traits that made him an all-time favorite teammate for countless players, are also what makes him a great manager now, and in the future.

This is a very unique spring training for the Braves; it's almost as if it has more of an impact on the 2017 season than this upcoming season. We've seen what established Braves veterans like Freddie Freeman, A.J. Pierzynski and Nick Markakis can do, and even newcomer veterans like Flowers and Beckham have already shown their modest potential.

Cultivating the young pitching prospects is by far the most important task of spring training. Four of the five projected starting pitchers for the Braves this season will be 25 years old or younger, and they have many more sprinkled throughout their farm system, including Newcomb and Blair. 

Overall, the Braves have shown little reason to believe that they'll be a winning team this season, much less a playoff team. But with a strong coaching staff, the top farm system in the game, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 MLB draft (another pitcher!) and another full season to develop its young players, Atlanta is on the right track to regaining its dominant form of the 1990s and early 2000s.

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