NORTH PORT, Fla. -- As Braves pitchers and catchers break in their new Spring Training complex, many of the players will be optimistically discussing the upcoming season and further distancing themselves from last year’s disappointing conclusion.
Some of the projections made over the offseason will inevitably be altered by health and other variables during Spring Training. So it might not be wise to make any strong predictions at this time. But here are a few things you can expect to see as the Braves prepare for the 2020 season.
Some of the Major League coaches might not even recognize the name Bryce Ball before the 6-foot-6, 235-pound first baseman arrives to camp. But they’ll be buzzing about the raw power possessed by Ball, who hit 17 homers in the 234 at-bats he compiled after being selected out of Dallas Baptist University in the 24th round of the 2019 MLB Draft. The non-roster invitee’s long-term future with the Braves will be influenced by whether the National League adopts the designated-hitter rule. But he has the potential to create a lot of batting-practice buzz during his first Spring Training.
The three-batter minimum rule will enhance the challenge that manager Brian Snitker and his staff face while filling the final available bullpen spots. There will seemingly be a need to add a lefty to a relief corps, which currently counts Will Smith as its only projectable member. Thus, there’s reason to keep an eye on Phil Pfeifer, whose career was heading in the wrong direction when he floundered at the Triple-A level in 2018, and then he was sent to Class A Advanced Florida to work as a starter last year. The former Vanderbilt lefty was effective against both right-handed (.616 OPS, 30.7 percent strikeout rate) and left-handed hitters (.617 OPS, 24.4 percent strikeout rate). The 27-year-old doesn’t have as much experience as Chris Rusin, A.J. Minter and some of the other lefty candidates, but Pfeifer has the makeup and potential to keep himself in the mix through the final days of camp.
Five is not a crowd
There was reason to debate whether the Braves should release Adam Duvall instead of sending him to Triple-A at the end of Spring Training in 2019. There was also reason to clamor for him to be in the lineup for Game 5 of the NL Division Series. It was that kind of year for Duvall, who rewarded general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ focus on protecting depth. There will once again be room for Duvall to join an outfield mix that will also include Ender Inciarte, Ronald Acuña, Marcell Ozuna and Nick Markakis. Duvall will be a weapon against left-handers off the bench and he could be a good middle-of-the-lineup option when Acuña shifts to center on those days when Inciarte sits against a lefty. Changes can be made when Cristian Pache or Drew Waters are ready. But barring an injury, neither of these highly-touted prospects will likely make an early-season rise.
Catching depth will be enhanced
The Braves can feel good about entering the season with Travis d'Arnaud and Tyler Flowers as their catchers. But they can’t confidently gamble on both remaining healthy throughout the season. Thus, there will be a need to acquire an experienced castoff who can provide better insurance than Alex Jackson at the Triple-A level. Even though Jackson has great raw power, scouts continue to doubt his ability to hit at the Major League level. So once a catcher comes available near the end of camp, the Braves will likely inquire about his interest in starting the season with Gwinnett.
Fifth starter TBD
The guy who will open the season as the Braves’ fifth starter will have spent a majority of Spring Training wearing a different uniform. Anthopoulos might not necessarily find the magical results that followed signing Aníbal Sánchez near the end of camp in 2018. But the GM could find a better option than Sean Newcomb, who could be better utilized as a reliever, or Félix Hernández, whose story might not have a successful comeback chapter. There may just be a need to find somebody to temporarily fill the spot until Kyle Wright or Ian Anderson are ready to come to the big league level and stick.