Third base, pitching rotation are the biggest question marks for Braves during spring training

As baseball season quickly approaches, the Atlanta Braves have some crucial adjustments to make before Opening Day rolls around.

After an eventful but arguably lackluster offseason, Atlanta is left with a serious hole to fill at third base. This is a result of the Braves failing to sign All-Star caliber third baseman Josh Donaldson to an extension, which allowed him to receive offers from other clubs. Donaldson eventually declined the Braves’ contract offers and signed with the Minnesota Twins for a four year, $92 million deal.

The Braves failed to sign another third baseman on the free agent market, and now face a difficult situation at the hot corner for the coming season. The options the Braves will have to choose between will be Austin Riley and Johan Camargo.

Riley, while a formidable power bat that got off to a hot start after his debut last season, has had problems with plate discipline and pitch recognition. Even after his hot start last year, Riley accumulated just a .226 batting average in 274 plate appearances in 2019, according to Baseball Reference. This batting line also included a concerning 108 strikeouts. While Riley does have a great upside, he will need to make significant progress before he can be a legitimate piece of a contender such as the Braves.

Atlanta’s other candidate is Camargo, a utility infielder that has been with the team since the 2017 season. While Camargo was inconsistent as a hitter in 2019, he did not start many games due to Donaldson’s presence, which likely impacted his ability and stats at the plate. His 2018 season was very solid in Atlanta, and he proved to have a great bat in the clutch, hitting .339 with a 1.023 OPS (On Base Plus Slugging) with runners in scoring positions that season, according to Baseball-Reference. 

The 2018 season of Camargo, combined with the fact that he has a cannon arm at third base, currently put him in a good place to make the push for the third base position. Spring Training can reveal things about any player, however, and the games played before the start of the season will be the real test to see whether Camargo or Riley lock up the hot corner.

Another issue in Atlanta is pitching. The rotation has its promising young arms in the forms of ace Mike Soroka and the talented Max Fried, but beyond those two pitchers little is set for the Braves on the mound for the year.

A long-time fan favorite pitcher for the Braves, Julio Tehran, was allowed to walk in free agency, signing with Los Angeles Angels on a one year deal. Numerous pitchers that would have helped boost Atlanta’s rotation, including Zach Wheeler and the menacing Gerrit Cole, were not pursued at all by Atlanta’s front office. The only two pitching acquisitions made by Atlanta were two very strange ones: one-year deals for both Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez.

Both Hamels and Fernandez are aging pitchers who, while formerly intimidating foes on the mound, have notably declined in recent years. 

Hamels, a former World Series champion and World Series MVP that notably terrorized the Braves with the Phillies during their 2008 championship campaign, spent last season with the Cubs battling injuries and inconsistent performances.

Fernandez, a career Seattle Mariner with a Cy Young under his belt as well as a perfect game, struggled tremendously in Seattle in recent years, notching an eye-popping 6.40 ERA in 2019 according to Baseball Reference. 

While it is good that Atlanta’s front office has made some moves, the fact that these two players are the biggest signings of the offseason is hopeful at best and very concerning at worst. The two veterans will undoubtedly provide valuable clubhouse leadership for the younger arms of Soroka and Fried, but beyond that little is sure. Their performances will likely make the front office of the Braves look incredibly cunning or very lazy.

The Braves jump into action and try to solve these problems in Spring Training games on Feb. 22, while the regular season begins with Opening Day on March 26 against the Arizona Diamondbacks.