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2020 NL East Preview: How do the Washington Nationals stack up to the Atlanta Braves?

Rounding out our 2020 NL East Preview series is a look at how the World Series champion Washington Nationals compare to defending division champion Atlanta Braves

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Time for the home stretch in our 2020 National League East Preview with just three more weeks remaining until the Washington Nationals begin to defend their World Series crown.

This week, we have a series of articles previewing each of the other NL East teams to see how the defending champs compare to the main foes.

In each piece, we look at the team’s offseason, lineup, rotation, bullpen, and prospects who could make an impact in 2020.

Last but not least are the defending NL East champions, the Atlanta Braves...

Notable Arrivals

  • RP, Will Smith
  • SS, Pete Kozma (MiL deal)
  • C, Travis d’Arnaud
  • SP, Cole Hamels
  • OF, Marcell Ozuna
  • INF, Yangervis Solarte (MiL deal)
  • SP, Félix Hernández (MiL deal)
  • 1B, Yonder Alonso (MiL deal)

Notable Departures

  • 3B, Josh Donaldson
  • SP, Dallas Keuchel
  • RP, Jerry Blevins
  • RP, Anthony Swarzak
  • C, Francisco Cervelli
  • OF, Matt Joyce
  • C, Brian McCann (retired)
  • OF, Billy Hamilton
  • SP, Julio Teheran

Offseason summary: It was a strange offseason for the Braves, who seemingly continue to steer into the skid of their fruitful prospect pool rather than spending big in free agency.

Their biggest overall contract came early on in the winter when they splashed out on a three-year, $40 million deal for Will Smith.

The left-hander is coming off an outstanding year with the San Francisco Giants and should be one of the best setup men in baseball. With Smith now in Atlanta, the Braves’ bullpen, which was already a strength at the end of last season, might be one of the best in the NL.

The other moves the Braves made were more supplemental pieces rather than one big piece to try and put them over the top. Both Hamels and Ozuna came in on lucrative one-year deals to help give some veteran experience to both the rotation and lineup.

But, what shouldn’t get overlooked here is that the Braves are entering the new season without their second-best offensive player from a year ago in Josh Donaldson.

The third baseman was a force in the middle of the order as he looked like he returned to his MVP-form posting a .259/.379/.521 slash line with 37 home runs and a 132 wRC+ which was second on the team behind Freddie Freeman, and 15th in the National League.

While Ozuna should at least partially fill that hole, if he can rebound from a down 2019, just like the Nats, the Braves are hoping that adding in other areas can replace their MVP caliber third baseman.

Potential Lineup

  1. RF, Ronald Acuña Jr.
  2. 2B, Ozzie Albies
  3. 1B, Freddie Freeman
  4. LF, Marcell Ozuna
  5. C, Travis d’Arnaud
  6. CF, Ender Inciarte
  7. 3B, Johan Camargo/Austin Riley
  8. SS, Dansby Swanson
  9. Pitcher

Last season, the Braves finished with a 102 wRC+ which was good enough for fourth in the NL behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, and the Nationals. Though it’s likely to take a step back without Donaldson this year, there’s still more than enough to like.

Obviously, it all starts at the top with the first three who could make a case for the best top three in all of baseball with Acuña, Albies, and Freeman.

Acuña might be the best five-tool player in the senior circuit and is a real 40-40 threat, even if 30-30 is much more realistic. Albies is an incredibly underrated asset with a good power-speed combo, and the Nats need no introduction to Freeman, a constant thorn in their side.

But outside of those three, someone else is going to have to step up to lengthen the lineup.

Maybe that guy will be Ozuna who will hope to rebound after two underwhelming seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. Combined, the outfielder slashed just .263/.327/.452 with 52 home runs in his time in Missouri. Solid, but hardly spectacular by any means.

The other potential wild card in this lineup could be Riley. Though he’ll be fighting for playing time this spring with Camargo, the youngster showed a glimpse of his potential with a blazing hot start where he slashed .291/.345/.619 in his first 34 big league games.

Finally, one element this lineup preview doesn’t cover is the impressive depth on the bench.

Nick Markakis, Adam Duvall, Charlie Culberson, and Tyler Flowers will likely hold four of the five bench spots and all represent tough pinch-hit at-bats for opposing pitchers as well as acting as solid options to fill in when the regulars need a breather.

How do the Nationals compare?: Both offenses are in similar spots this offseason with big bats departing and no real major additions brought in to try and fill the void.

The bottom half of both orders are pretty negligible with the Nationals and Braves both having a combination of average-ish veterans and high-upside youngsters from 5-8.

However, Atlanta holds the slight edge at the top of the order, where Acuña, Albies, Freeman, and Ozuna will likely be better than Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, Starlin Castro, and Juan Soto. But let the record show that the word slight is doing some heavy lifting here.

Verdict: Small advantage Braves

Potential Rotation

  1. Mike Soroka
  2. Mike Foltynewicz
  3. Max Fried
  4. Sean Newcomb
  5. Félix Hernández

This Braves’ rotation is bound to look very different not just next season, but even as early as the second half of this season with the young talent that is surging through the minor leagues.

Those young arms will be hoping to follow that path that Soroka created last season as he rose from promising young big league arm to having one of the best seasons in baseball.

As something of a throwback pitcher who lives to induce soft-contact, he sported a pristine 2.68 ERA, which was fifth in the majors among qualifiers. This was a product of his 51.2 groundball rate that was sixth-highest in the bigs and nobody above him had a better soft-contact rate.

Soroka should easily be the ace of this staff next season, but beyond that, it’s incredibly risky.

After a largely dominant 2018 season, Foltynewicz took a step back to the inconsistency and home run-prone ways he had endured earlier in his career, even needed a Triple-A stint.

Meanwhile, Fried started strong in 2019, and it looked like he and Soroka would head the new young rotation. However, the left-hander slowed as the dog days of summer rolled on by and he eventually ended up in the bullpen ready for the postseason.

As of right now, Newcomb and King Félix will round out the rotation, though these spots are up for grabs this spring with neither looking particularly strong the last couple of years.

Then, at some point when he recovers from his shoulder issues, $18 million man Hamels will join the fray and be the experienced head in a rotation that will get younger as the season goes on.

How do the Nationals compare?: Maybe in a couple of seasons, this could be the Braves in a landslide with all of the young pitching talent that they possess in the majors and upper-minors.

But right now, there’s no other way to put it than that the Nationals have arguably the best rotation in baseball and the Braves’ starters beyond Soroka are all huge risks entering 2020.

Verdict: Advantage Nationals

Potential Bullpen

  • Shane Greene
  • Luke Jackson
  • Chris Martin
  • A.J. Minter
  • Mark Melancon
  • Darren O’Day
  • Will Smith
  • Josh Tomlin

At the trade deadline last season, the Braves weren’t all that far off competing with the Nationals for the worst bullpen in the senior circuit. They knew something had to change.

Since then, their relief corps has undergone a massive facelift, as four of the eight projected relievers were not on the staff on July 29th last year, and only two remain from Opening Day.

Former National Melancon is one of those new faces after he was acquired at the trade deadline. After the trade, he posted a solid 3.86 ERA in his new digs, but perhaps was slightly unlucky given his 1.83 FIP, so he should slot back into Atlanta’s closer’s role.

Right behind Melancon is where this bullpen really shines through though. Greene and Smith were both outstanding closers with their previous teams and should form a dynamic setup unit.

In middle relief, the Braves boast two of their talented but inconsistent former closers in Minter and Jackson. Both have the potential to be high-leverage relievers in the long run, so being able to slot them in in medium-leverage spots right now is perfect.

And you know the bullpen is deep when Martin and O’Day may only be the sixth and seventh-best relievers in the bullpen, though the former could arguably be slightly higher than that.

There are a few candidates to round out the bullpen, likely coming down to who performs well this spring, but Tomlin might be the front-runner after a solid spell in long relief last year.

How do the Nationals compare?: Both of these units are vastly improved from where they were around 12 months ago heading into the 2019 season. Both made upgrades at the trade deadline and one significant addition to their respective bullpens this offseason.

But overall, the Braves’ bullpen seems much deeper with six of the team’s eight projected relievers holding at least 19 career saves and as relievers, only one has a FIP above 4.00.

As has been said in other previews, with the volatility of relievers, usually it’s the safer bet to take the experience at the back-end of the bullpen and the Braves have the advantage there.

Verdict: Advantage Braves

Prospects to know for 2020

  • OF, Cristian Pache
  • OF, Drew Waters
  • SP, Ian Anderson
  • SP/RP, Kyle Wright
  • SP/RP, Bryse Wilson
  • C, Alex Jackson
  • SP/RP, Philip Pfeifer
  • RP, Corbin Clouse

Even though we’ve seen plenty of the team’s stud prospects such as Acuña and Soroka debut and thrive over the last few seasons, there’s plenty more where they came from.

Their best remaining prospect, Pache, profiles similarly to the Nats’ young stud, Victor Robles.

The 21-year-old outfielder is a wizard with the glove in center field with a rocket for an arm. His bat is a little way behind, but he’s been improving at the plate with every year in the minor leagues and should be an above-average hitter when all is said and done.

Now on the 40-man roster, Pache should crack the big leagues today, especially if some of the other outfielders on the roster are struggling towards the end of the season.

In the outfield, the Braves also have Waters in Triple-A entering 2020, and he could also get the call later in the season if he’s hitting well. But ideally the Braves will still want him to work on his approach in the minor leagues, ready to claim a full-time role in 2021.

But where this farm system really thrives is with the number of almost-ready quality arms.

Both Wright and Wilson have spent brief stints in the majors over the last two seasons with limited success. Both still have starter’s profiles with multiple promising pitches, it’s just that the command they’ve shown in the minors hasn’t translated to the bigs yet.

While those two right-handers could deputize in the rotation if someone goes down injured, Anderson might be their best pitching prospect and the most likely to perform at the big league level right away. Expect him to make his debut sometime this season.

The final player to focus on is Pfeifer. After stalling in the upper-minors as a reliever, the left-hander converted to a starter last year with promising results.

He even impressed enough to be added to the 40-man roster, so could have the chance to be both a depth starter or flip back to the bullpen again depending on the big league team’s need.

Final Thoughts

It’s tough to pinpoint how the Braves will do as they search for a third-straight NL East title.

On paper, they appear to have taken a step back in terms of the players that are currently on their big league roster, potentially opening the door for their division rivals to steal a march.

However, that doesn’t factor in that there are plenty of players on the roster who could very easily bounce back from poor recent seasons. It also doesn’t account for impact prospects coming and performing immediately, which can’t be discounted with this farm system.

PECOTA may underrate the reigning division champs as they project the Braves at just 82.7 wins. That’s only the third-highest projection in the division behind the Mets and Nationals.

There are probably more talented teams in the NL East right now than the Braves, but their continued upside, which is probably the highest upside of anyone in the division, is undeniable with a young core that’s still getting better and a strong farm system.

In a highly-competitive division, it’s going to be tough for the Braves to three-peat this year, but they flew under-the-radar last year and proved plenty of people wrong, so don’t overlook them.

Thanks for reading along with these 2020 NL East season previews and hopefully, you’re all caught up with the offseason activity from around the division. Expect it to be a fiercely competitive year between the top four teams with top spot truly up for grabs this season...