The Braves’ surprising run to the NL East title last year was due in large part to the productivity of its infielders. While so much attention was laid on the bat of one Ronald Acuna — and rightfully so — the breakout of players like Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo last year were just as important. Let’s break them down.
Atlanta welcomes back Brian McCann this season from Houston on a short term deal, but it’s unknown at this point whether he will full-on platoon with fellow catcher Tyler Flowers, or be more of a backup. The latter option seems the most realistic for a catcher in his mid-30s and coming off a season with just 0.5 oWAR. Since arriving in Atlanta, Flowers has always served in a very even platoon situation. The issue here is defense. Both Flowers and McCann allow a stolen base about every other game on average. McCann’s performance in throwing runners out improved substantially last year though, and the Braves might hope that his playing fewer games leads to him being more reliable defensively.
Keep an eye on William Contreras, the Braves’ top catching prospect. While we won’t see him on the Opening Day roster (he’s not even on the 40-man roster now) he’s the top catcher in the system. While still not great defensively, at 21 he’s a more athletic, different profile of catcher than the two veterans that will carry the Braves through most of the season. If Contreras doesn’t show that he’s ready for the major leagues this season (the very likely scenario), this is an obvious area to upgrade.
Freddie Freeman is gonna Freddie Freeman again this year, barring injury. He’s obviously the most consistent offensive weapon in the Braves’ lineup, and there’s not a whole lot more to say about him. He’s one of if not the best first basemen in the game both at the plate and in the field. Best case scenario here is a league MVP award, a race in which he came fourth-placed last season.
Ozzie Albies broke out in a big way in 2018 and showed a surprising amount of power hitting more home runs last season (24) than he had in his entire minor league career (16). Even more impressive is that 20 of those 24 home runs came before the All Star break. While that can be seen as a huge positive on one hand, on the other, it’s worrying that he struggled so mightily after break, when he hit just .226 and had a .642 OPS. Improvement for Albies will be in his consistency, as it is for so many young players. That said, the sky is the limit here for Albies, who is also one of the best in the game at fielding his position.
It feels like a real make-or-break year for Dansby Swanson in 2018, who continues to struggle to live up to the lofty expectations set for him at the plate. The good news is that Swanson improved dramatically in the field last season, and perhaps the issues at the plate had to do with a wrist injury that lingered throughout the season. Swanson had surgery in the offseason to correct the issue, and hopefully it leads to improved performance at the plate.
Atlanta is hoping for Josh Donaldson to regain his form this season after a throwaway 2018 saw him only 52 games, none of which he was completely healthy. That appears to be behind him after he told media at spring training he’s looking to prove that he can play at an MVP level again. He’s not as good with his glove as Johan Camargo was holding down third base last season, but his bat has an opportunity to be special, especially if he does indeed hit in the 2-hole with Freeman behind him.
Just because Donaldson will take over third base doesn’t mean we’ll see significantly less Johan Camargo this year. Camargo, who came out of seemingly nowhere to being one of the team’s key contributors last season, will have his opportunities. He can play just about anywhere, and while Charlie Culberson might be the backup option at second base if Albies sees time on the DL, Camargo is a good safety blanket to have on the left side of the infield where the Braves have two players that struggled with injury last season. Camargo is also the perfect type of player to use sporadically in various positions to give guys like Donaldson, Swanson and Acuna days off when needed. Camargo played in 134 games last season as a regular starter, and I still wouldn’t be surprised to see him creep up near that same amount of games in 2019 despite not holding down a regular spot at one position.