2020 Braves Positional Preview Series: Infielders
Updated: Mar 19, 2020
Grant McAuley’s 2020 Braves Preview Series breaks down a different position group as the club gets set for the regular season. While MLB continues to monitor the current coronavirus pandemic, this series offers an in-depth look at the men who will make up Atlanta's big league roster as well as candidates to contribute at some point this season.
Freddie Freeman | Age: 30 | Contract Status: 2-years, $44 million
It was the best of times and yet ultimately the worst of times for Freddie Freeman in 2019. Though he ascended to arguably the premier first baseman in all of baseball with another strong season, Freeman was limited down the stretch by an elbow injury that caused him significant pain. It's fair to wonder how much that ailment affected him in the NLDS, a series in which several of Atlanta's top hitters went cold at the plate. It was a frustrating, if not forgettable series for Atlanta's longtime first baseman.
There may be some lingering debate about playing hurt, but Freeman's commitment to being on the field has been one of his defining attributes throughout a 10-year career. If there was any way he could play, then he was going to play. Given the club had no better option at the position and that hindsight plays no role in the moment, it was the correct call. After offseason surgery to remove two bone spurs and three bone fragments from his right elbow, Freeman is pain-free for what he said is the first time in nine years.
As for what Freeman accomplished on the field in 2019, it was another banner year. He set career-highs with 38 home runs, 121 RBI and 113 runs scored while slashing .295/.389/.549 in 158 games. That resulted in another All-Star appearance, another Top 10 finish in the MVP voting and his first career Silver Slugger Award. He posted a 4.0 fWAR season, somewhat surprisingly fourth on the club behind Ronald Acuña Jr. (5.6), Josh Donaldson (4.9) and Ozzie Albies (4.6) in 2019. That could be explained by a quiet September in which Freeman hit just two homers and posted a .754 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) over his final 22 games. Both he and the Braves are hoping the elbow surgery will insure a healthy Freeman for the duration of the 2020 campaign. He experienced some soreness once games started and was given a few days off to rest. Freeman returned and showed no ill-effects, going 4-for-10 with four walks and just one strikeout in his 16 plate appearances in Grapefruit League play.
The Braves have Freeman under contract through 2021 but could look to extend him well in advance of that. Freeman has made no bones about wanting to remain a Brave for life, much like his friend Chipper Jones did throughout his career. The club will once again have significant money coming off the books following this season and has also increased payroll for three consecutive years upon moving into Truist Park in 2017. While there is plenty of time to chart out the future, Freeman will remain a fixture in the three-spot of the Atlanta lineup again this season.
Ozzie Albies | Age: 23 | Contract Status: 6-years, $34 million
The Braves may have initially been wondering which Ozzie Albies they'd be getting in 2019. As the Atlanta offense came together last summer, Albies stepped up and erased any doubt created by his sluggish second half in 2018. He returned to his All-Star form and cemented a place in the club's long-term plans by inking an extension that could keep him around through 2027. Even with modest projections of what Albies may annually provide over the life of that deal, the term "team-friendly" doesn't begin to cover the value of the contract. While that topic has been discussed at length elsewhere, the focus here is on what Albies accomplished on the field in 2019.
Spoiler Alert: It was a lot.
The dynamic second baseman slashed .295/.352/.500 with 43 doubles, 24 homers, 86 RBI and 15 stolen bases. Albies posted a 4.6 fWAR, fourth best among all major league players who qualified as second basemen and the best mark among those who played at least 100 games at the position. If you're curious, the higher fWAR belonged to Ketel Marte (7.1) D.J. LaMahieu (5.4) and Max Muncy (4.8), three men who moved around quite a bit defensively. When it comes to glovework, however, Albies was also one of the best in the majors at the keystone. He played the most innings at the position (1,405) while committing just four errors, the fewest by any qualified second baseman. His advanced fielding metrics were also routinely in the top five, matching the eye test and confirming his status as a gold glove contender. Albies will once again team with Ronald Acuña Jr. in the top spots of the Braves order in 2020. If his first two full seasons are any indication, then Atlanta can expect heavyweight production from the middleweight middle infielder fighting out of Curaçao.
Dansby Swanson | Age: 26 | Contract Status: 1-year, $3.15 million
Just when Dansby Swanson was finally putting it all together, an injury derailed what could have been a breakout season. The former number one pick combined strong defense, consistency at the plate and more than a few clutch hits during the first half in 2019. Following the All-Star break, however, those numbers suffered as Swanson was slowed by a heel injury that forced a month-long stint on the injured list. Despite that, he set career-highs in virtually every offensive category. Swanson slashed .251./325/.422 with 26 doubles, 17 homers, 65 RBI and 77 runs scored in 127 games. It was truly a tale of two halves for Swanson. He struggled at the plate down the stretch, batting .194 with a .552 OPS in his final 27 contests. All 17 home runs came in the first half as well.
That slump did not carry over to the NLDS, however. Swanson hit .389 (7-for-18) with three doubles, a pair of RBI and three runs scored. Though the series did not go as planned for Atlanta, Swanson was one of the bright spots. It was definitely an encouraging sign to close out a sometimes challenging season for the Atlanta shortstop. Swanson batted in various spots in the lineup but enjoyed most of his success in the two-hole, where he hit .269 with an .801 OPS and 12 homers in 65 starts. The injury opened the door for Ozzie Albies to take over that spot in the order, something that is likely to continue in 2020. Swanson's steady glove work and penchant for big hits makes him an everyday asset. He and the Braves are hoping for a full, healthy and consistent season in 2020.
Johan Camargo | Age: 26 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.7 million
While there were bumps in the road for others, Johan Camargo's career momentum seemed completely halted last season. Atlanta's starting third baseman in 2018 lost his job to former MVP Josh Donaldson and then struggled to gain any traction as a super-utility type. There's little doubt that the adjustment from knowing where he'd be each day to bouncing around positions and sitting out played a part in the down year. Camargo finished his season with a .233/.279/.384 slash line and just seven home runs in 98 games.
It was a steep fall from a 3.3 fWAR in 2018 to an abysmal -0.5 mark in 2019. Camargo floundered at the plate and in the field, ultimately forcing the Braves to demote him to Triple-A in the second half. That move stirred something up. After torching the International League for a couple of weeks, Camargo returned as a completely different hitter in September. Just as he found his groove, Camargo fouled a ball off his leg and suffered a fractured shin. That ended a disappointing season in which he ended up being Atlanta's least valuable hitter, evidenced by a paltry 67 OPS+ (park adjusted number in which 100 represents league average production),
Camargo spent his winter rehabbing his leg and shedding some extra weight that contributed to his sometimes sluggish play in 2019. That seemed to be most evident in his defensive regression, particularly at shortstop. Though he can play all around the diamond and even added a first base mitt to his collection last year, Camargo's best defensive position is third base. It's a good place to show off his plus arm strength. That's where he established himself as a productive regular in 2018, and that's where he'll be fighting for regular at-bats again this season. Camargo will have to prove he's healthy and productive while fending off Austin Riley to win the job at the hot corner. Atlanta would love for both men to bounce back and make that a difficult decision. Camargo did his part in the spring, batting .286 (8-for-28) with a homer and six RBI's. Atlanta has more time to mull things over as MLB awaits the all-clear to resume activities.
Austin Riley | Age: 22 | Contract Status: Pre-Arbitration
The arrival of Austin Riley provided Braves fans with a glimpse of his substantial power. It also provided a reminder that sustained success in the big leagues is not easily achieved. Riley destroyed International League pitching for Triple-A Gwinnett to begin the season, batting .299 with 15 homers and a 1.059 OPS in 37 games. After Ender Inciarte landed on the injured list, Riley was summoned to Atlanta and hit the ground running. He homered in his major league debut on May 15 and continued his minor league power exploits. Riley proceeded to hit .298/.336/.628 with 11 homers and 32 RBI in his first 30 games. And he did all of that while playing a serviceable left field, a position Riley had played exactly four times in Gwinnett. The hot start provided another big lift for an Atlanta lineup that really began to hit its stride in May. Riley's run would slow considerably heading into the All-Star break. He batted .182 with five homers and an alarming 42% strikeout rate over his final 19 games in the first half.
Strikeouts were definitely a cause for concern. Riley fanned 108 times in 80 games with Atlanta. Throw in an extremely low 5.4% walk rate in 297 plate appearances and the areas that Riley will be looking to improve are fairly obvious. The good news is that Riley has made measurable adjustments each year throughout his minor league career. More good news is that his power is real. It is not the result of a livelier baseball in both Triple-A and the majors. He has legitimate 30-homer power and could be a regular threat in the heart of the Atlanta order if he solves some of the contact issues that plagued him in 2019. The second half was marred by a long slump and a knee injury. Riley batted just .161 with two home runs in 95 plate appearances and earned just 21 starts over the final 71 games of the season. With his knee healthy and plenty of hard work put in over the winter, Riley comes to camp looking to beat out Johan Camargo for the starting third base job following the departure of Josh Donaldson. At the very least, Riley would like to break camp with the big club. The fact that he played the corners in both the outfield and the infield last season only serves to enhance his value. However, Riley has options available and beginning the season in Gwinnett in order to get regular at-bats is a viable possibility when it comes to roster construction. His spring results give reason for optimism, however. Riley hit .357 (10-for-28) with two homers and also drew four walks against just five strikeouts. If the plate discipline is there to go along with the power, Riley could force his way into the equation to stay. For now, that decision will have to wait.
Adeiny Hechavarria | Age: 30 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1 million
The Braves struck gold when they signed Adeiny Hechavarria last August. Cast off by the Mets after batting just .204/.252/.359 in 60 games, he morphed into a completely different player upon joining Atlanta. Thrust into regular playing time with Dansby Swanson on the shelf and Johan Camargo demoted to Triple-A, Hechavarria enjoyed the best run of his career at the plate. He batted .328 with a 1.039 OPS, four homers, 15 RBI and 14 runs scored in 24 games down the stretch. It was just what the Braves needed to solve what was, at the time, an ongoing shortstop dilemma. That success at the plate was accompanied by his usual strong work with the glove and earned Hechavarria a guaranteed one-year deal this winter.
If he performs well enough at the plate, then Hechevarria should be able to provide a serviceable option at both middle infield spots and third base. Though it's not realistic to expect an eight-year veteran with a .642 career OPS to replicate last year's offensive numbers, Hechavarria showed the Braves enough to believe he could factor into their plans as a reserve infielder capable of stepping up should the inevitable injury strike. While bigger needs attracted the headlines, general manager Alex Anthopoulos entered the winter looking to add a defensive-minded backup shortstop. He accomplished that by bringing back Hechavarria. The new 26-man roster will afford every club with the option to rethink how the bench is comprised. Though several infielders are hoping to earn roster spots as non-roster invitees, Hechavarria comes to camp with a leg up on the competition.
Also in camp:
The Braves will be bringing a number of infielders to camp. Of course, they'll fill a variety of roles. From the youngsters just getting a taste of big league spring training for the first time to the veterans looking to crack the 26-man roster, there's a mix of players aiming to make an impression. Fans clamored for the club to bring back the popular Charlie Culberson. The versatile veteran has enjoyed plenty of big moments over two years in Atlanta. His season ended in mid-September when he was hit in the face by a pitch in Washington and suffered multiple facial fractures. Culberson has provided a .267/.316/.457 line in 466 plate appearances in a Braves uniform. Though he regressed slightly with decreased at-bats in 2019, Culberson still made the most of his playing time before a second half slump and the injury took the shine off his season. He'll be fighting for a spot on the big league roster after being non-tendered and signing a minor league contract this winter.
Among those with big league time also hoping to carve out a spot are former Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma, the well-traveled Yangervis Solarte and the recently signed Yonder Alonso. While Kozma and Solarte could move around the infield when needed, Alonso is a power-hitting first baseman. Given Freddie Freeman's typical workload, Alonso would provide a bat off the bench and get the occasional start at best. Minor league veterans Sean Kazmar, Jack Lopez and Riley Unroe are all likely to be part of Triple-A Gwinnett's roster. They would see big league time only in the event of an injury-related emergency.
First rounder Braden Shewmake will attend his first big league camp. After being selected by Atlanta with the 21st overall pick in the 2019 draft, the talented shortstop batted .300 with 40 RBI in 65 games between Low-Rome and Double-A Mississippi. The Braves believe he'll grow into some power and already possesses the speed to be a well-rounded player as he develops. Atlanta also extended an invite to young slugger Bryce Ball. The burly 21-year-old was selected in the 24th round of the of June draft last summer. He turned heads with 17 homers and a .329/.395/.628 line in 62 games across three levels in his professional debut, ending at Low-A Rome. His power was on display again this spring.