MLB: Can Brian Snitker rally Atlanta Braves’ youth in 2018?

Brian Snitker quietly took the Braves a step forward in 2017, but can he get the most out of Atlanta’s young core this coming season?

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(Photo Credit: Josh Hallett)

Brian Snitker is probably the best manager in baseball nobody has heard of. Since assuming control of the Atlanta Braves following the firing of Fredi Gonzalez in May 2016, he has posted a record of 131-135 on the MLB level after spending two-plus seasons as the skipper of the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate at Gwinnett, and the team’s young core has responded incredibly well to him.

Atlanta’s front office is surely hoping that an offseason marred by scandal, in which former GM John Coppolella was found to have knowingly exceeded the team’s international spending limits on young prospects and thus banned for life following an MLB investigation, can be forgotten with Snitker continuing to do his job well. The minor league system is stinging from the forfeiture of top infield prospect Kevin Maitan, but the good news is that Atlanta’s future is bright despite that thanks to deep talent down on the farm.

A surprising 2017

2017 marked a big year for the Braves as the team moved from Turner Field into a brand new facility, SunTrust Park. Notable names were added to the roster in anticipation of the new stadium’s opening, with veteran pitchers RA Dickey and Bartolo Colon starring behind ace Julio Teheran in the starting rotation and veteran second baseman Brandon Phillips acquired from the Cincinnati Reds to man the infield alongside star first baseman Freddie Freeman.

Neither Colon nor Phillips finished the season in Atlanta, and all seemed lost after Freeman went down with a broken hand in May. The acquisition of Matt Adams from the St. Louis Cardinals helped stop that bleeding for the month and a half Freeman missed, and the team’s playoff hopes were only sunk thanks to an inconsistent pitching staff that ranked 24th in MLB with a staff ERA of 4.72 and further inconsistencies at the plate. The Braves ranked just 21st in baseball with 732 runs scored.

But a new day dawns in 2018 and if Snitker can improve upon a better than expected 72-90 finish last year, which put Atlanta in third place in the NL East, Braves playoff contention could once again become the norm in the baseball world.

 

Tomahawks in 2018?

Snitker is no spring chicken at 62 years old, but to say he doesn’t know the Braves would just be wrong. He served as the team’s third base coach for seven years before going to manage the Triple-A squad and is well-liked throughout the organization, and that both ownership and new GM Alex Anthopoulos trust him to lead the incoming wave of youth in 2018 speaks volumes.

Helping Snitker and the Braves’ fortunes is that the NL East, at least at this point, is looking relatively non-competitive. The Miami Marlins are bound for the cellar after trading their best players in a massive fire sale while the New York Mets are hoping the injury bug does not strike as it did in 2017. The Washington Nationals are in a make-or-break season with Bryce Harper’s free agency looming, and the Philadelphia Phillies are very much in the same position as Atlanta in that hyped prospects are set to debut, though their pitching staff comes with more question marks than that of the Bravos.

This could pave the way for Atlanta’s young players to make an immediate and major impact on the MLB level, led by 20-year-old outfielder Ronald Acuna. The young righty bat posted an impressive line of .325/.374/.522 across three levels of the minors last year while slugging 21 home runs with 84 RBI, plus 44 stolen bases and if he can keep that up on the MLB level, Atlanta has nowhere to go but up.

Snitker’s biggest challenge, however, comes in the form of former first overall pick Dansby Swanson. Atlanta acquired him from the Arizona Diamondbacks after the 2015 season as part of the Shelby Miller trade, and the former Vanderbilt star debuted in August before hitting .302 with three home runs and 17 RBI in 38 games. As he approached his age-23 season in 2017, there was hope he would continue to develop and help get the Braves back towards contention.

That never happened as Swanson had a major down year. He batted just .232 with six homers and 51 RBI in 144 games and was even briefly demoted to Gwinnett for a short while in the summer. A walk-rate (BB%) of just 10.7% likely contributed to that, and Swanson’s isolated power was a lowly .092, but he also saw his hard contact drop from 34.7% in 2016 to 29.3% last year.

That said, in order for 2018 to mark another step forward for Snitker and the Braves, the skipper has to make sure Swanson is cured of whatever his bug-a-boo was in 2017. Between him, Acuna, second baseman Ozzie Albies and an already established star in Freeman, not to mention newly acquired arms Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy, Atlanta is in a position to surprise everyone with Snitker at the helm so long as everyone performs up to par and also stays healthy.

Snitker has already proven he can do the job. Now, it’s time to see if he can take it to the next level rather than just stay a particular course.

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