Braves players Freddie Freeman and Matt Kemp PHILADELPHIA, PA – SEPTEMBER 04: Matt Kemp #27 laughs with Freddie Freeman #5 of the Atlanta Braves after the top of the sixth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on September 4, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Braves defeated the Phillies 2-0. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

End of season post-mortem: 2016 Atlanta Braves

The Atlanta Braves were the second team eliminated from the playoff race during the 2016 season. But considering how terrible their first half was, it’s a miracle that the Braves mathematically were still in the race on the morning of Sept. 11. While the Braves have just about wrapped up last place in the NL East and are still in the hunt for the top overall pick in next June’s MLB Draft, this season actually provided more highlights than many would have expected.

Preseason Prediction: The Braves will be battling the Phillies for last place in the NL East. They’re not going to go on a run after a Wild Card berth like some insanely hopeful optimists may believe. And as I’ve said so much with this rebuilding teams this offseason, their success or failure in 2016 won’t be determined by wins and losses, but by the progression of their young talent. I think that by the end of the year, for better or worse, the Braves will know which players they can count on in 2017 and beyond – and I don’t think they’re done moving talent. (Joe Lucia, March 22)

Braves pitcher Julio Teheran

PHOENIX, AZ – AUGUST 24: Julio Teheran #49 of the Atlanta Braves delivers a first inning pitch against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on August 24, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

What Went Right: Freddie Freeman turned in a MONSTROUS campaign, hitting .292/.391/.551 with a career-high 29 homers. No other Braves hitter has more than 13 dingers on the season. After getting off to an awful start and serving some time on the disabled list, Ender Inciarte rebounded to post a blistering .356/.405/.455 line after the All-Star Break along with 11 Defensive Runs Saved in center field, the third-highest mark among all center fielders in baseball. Tyler Flowers had a career year behind the dish, hitting .266/.362/.421 in 70 games.

Matt Kemp did what the Braves expected after coming over from the Padres at the trade deadline, launching seven homers and hitting .272/.324/.477 in his first 38 games with the team. Rookie hitters like Mallex Smith and Dansby Swanson held their own in their major league debut seasons, looking like contributors in 2017. Also, Adonis Garcia, Anthony Recker, and Jace Peterson all made claims to 2017 roster spots with strong seasons of their own.

On the mound, Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz look like a solid one-two punch for the future – Teheran pitched to a 3.01 ERA in 164 2/3 innings, while Foltynewicz rebounded from shoulder surgery last season to post a 4.16 ERA in 114 2/3 innings. In the bullpen, reliever Jim Johnson had a brilliant season and wasn’t moved at the deadline, saving 15 games and notching a 3.07 ERA in 55 2/3 innings. Another pair of relievers, Mauricio Cabrera and Ian Krol, grabbed roster spots by the throat and didn’t let go – Cabrera pitched to a 3.03 ERA in 32 2/3 innings while flashing a triple digit fastball, while Krol’s ERA was a tick higher at 3.04. Krol was also effective against both left-handers and right-handers, effectively shedding his label as a “LOOGY”.

And then, there are the other guys. The Braves managed to turn Bud Norris, Jhoulys Chacin, Lucas Harrell, Dario Alvarez, Kelly Johnson, and Jeff Francoeur, all of whom were acquired for little to nothing before the season, into younger talent. Now *that* is impressive.

What Went Wrong: Hector Olivera hit .211/.238/.263 with zero home runs in six games, was arrested in April for a domestic violence incident, earned himself a half season suspension from MLB, and was salary dumped on the Padres for Kemp at the trade deadline. Erick Aybar was terrible, hitting .242/.293/.313 in 97 games before finally getting dealt to the Tigers in August. A,J. Pierzynski was also awful, hitting .219/.243/.301 in 81 games before effectively retiring in September. Nick Markakis took another step back, hitting just .268/.341/.390 – but he did hit ten homers!

Arodys Vizcaino spent two stints on the DL, and wasn’t right after the first one – he ended his year with a 4.42 ERA, 50 strikeouts, and 26 walks in 38 2/3 innings. Matt Wisler didn’t take any steps forward, pitching to a 4.76 ERA over 136 innings after notching a 4.71 mark in 109 innings last year. Jason Grilli couldn’t reclaim the value he had last season before tearing his Achilles, notching a 5.29 ERA in 17 innings before being given away to the Blue Jays. Williams Perez, Rob Whalen, Joel De La Cruz, Aaron Blair, and Tyrell Jenkins all received five starts, and all were varying degrees of awful – Blair had an 8.23 ERA and Jenkins walked more hitters than he struck out, to name two such examples.

The main issue with the Braves was depth – there wasn’t much middle ground with this team. You were either a current or future building block (Freeman, Inciarte, Kemp, Swanson, Teheran, Foltynewicz, Cabrera, Krol), or you were just a placeholder (Pierzynski, Aybar, Perez, De La Cruz). Hey, it makes some decisions easier for next season.

Most Surprising Player: Let’s play a game. Which first baseman leads baseball in fWAR? It’s not Paul Goldschmidt. It’s not Miguel Cabrera. It’s not Joey Votto. And nope, it’s not Anthony Rizzo – it’s Freddie Freeman, who turns 27-years old today (happy birthday, kid). Freeman is having the finest offensive season of his career, and he’s doing it during a year in which before the acquisition of Kemp, Atlanta’s primary cleanup hitters were Markakis and Garcia, who have combined for 23 home runs. Since Kemp came along, Freeman is hitting .319/.456/.659 with 11 homers and 13 doubles.

It’s not likely Freeman will be that good in 2017 with a full season of Kemp hitting behind him, but if he is, we could be looking at an MVP candidate on a team that will struggle to sniff .500.

Braves outfielder Hector Olivera

MIAMI, FL – SEPTEMBER 27: Hector Olivera #28 of the Atlanta Braves hits a fifth inning double against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park on September 27, 2015 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Skipper/Getty Images)

Most Disappointing Player: There are way too many options here, from underproducing veterans to underwhelming rookies. But I’ll go with a guy that manages to stick a foot in either pool while also throwing in some good ol’ fashioned off the field scandal – Hector Olivera. This is a guy the Braves traded Alex Wood, Luis Avilan, Jim Johnson, and former top prospect Jose Peraza to the Dodgers to acquire (along with draft picks, relievers, international slot money, a fruit basket, one of those “dump desserts” cookbooks, and maybe a pony), and he expected to be a long-term solution at third base.

Well, the Braves discovered last year that Olivera couldn’t play third base, so they stuck him in left field. He couldn’t play that either. They also realized that he couldn’t hit at all. Olivera was arrested in Washington DC during the team’s first (yes, FIRST) road trip of the season following an alleged domestic violence incident in his hotel room, received an indefinite (later clarified to be 81 games) suspension from MLB, and was shipped to the Padres at the trade deadline without ever reaching the majors once again.

San Diego immediately designated Olivera for assignment and released him, and he was eventually sentenced to a whopping ten days in jail for his crime. The headache that was Hector Olivera played 30 games for the Braves over his two seasons with the team and hit .245/.296/.378 with two homers. He played as many positions as he hit home runs, and was arrested as many times as he started on Opening Day for Atlanta. Good riddance.

The Future: Yeah, watching the major league team was a chore this season. But three of the Braves’ four-highest minor league affiliates (AAA Gwinnett, AA Mississippi, and Class-A Rome) all made the playoffs, and those three clubs (along with High-A Carolina and the two short season affiliates in Danville and the Gulf Coast League) are loaded with young talent. With the August MLB debut of Dansby Swanson, that young talent that Braves fans have been told to wait for over the past year and a half is starting to make an impact on the majors. The stream will continue, and likely quicken, in 2017, and Braves fans will be in for quite a fun season – even if it’s quite painful at times.

About Joe Lucia

I hate your favorite team. I also sort of hate most of my favorite teams.