Bill Shanks

Dialing long distance could be a challenge for young Braves

Atlanta Braves' Ozzie Albies watches with New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez after hitting a single during their March 2 game in Tampa, Fla.
Atlanta Braves' Ozzie Albies watches with New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez after hitting a single during their March 2 game in Tampa, Fla. AP

There are a lot of positives here at spring training. The Braves have a bunch of young talent. It’s spring and they are still undefeated. There’s a lot to look forward to this season.

There is a major issue drawing whispers around camp that’s a possible concern. The Braves have a power problem, or rather a lack of power problem.

Last season, the Braves had the third-fewest number of home runs in baseball with 165. Matt Kemp, who had 19, was traded to the Dodgers in a salary swap. Matt Adams, who also had 19 with Atlanta, was non-tendered and is now in Washington.

In fact, players who accounted for 36 percent of Atlanta’s home runs last year are now playing elsewhere. So, where will the power come from for this year’s team?

One player you don’t have to worry about is Freddie Freeman, who has averaged 24 home runs per season in his seven seasons as a regular. Freeman hit 62 home runs the last two seasons (even missing 45 games last year), mainly with Kemp protecting him in the lineup.

Atlanta’s catchers last season, Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki, combined for 31 home runs a year ago. Last season, Flowers had 12, the second most he’s hit in a single season. Suzuki’s 19 were also a career-high number. Who knows if the Braves can count on that again.

Brandon Phillips had 11 last year playing second and third base. Ozzie Albies is ready to take over full time at second, and the 5-foot-8 Albies has never been known as a power hitter. He hit a career-high 15 last year between Triple A and Atlanta (six in 57 games). But truthfully, hitting home runs is the last thing the Braves want Albies to do, particularly from the two-hole in the lineup.

Shortstop Dansby Swanson hit six last year, and he’s never been projected to hit more than 15 per season in best estimates. Johan Camargo, expected to be the third baseman, hit four in 82 games with Atlanta in 2017 and six more in the minor leagues. The Braves may get just 10 out of Camargo at best.

Perhaps the Braves could sign free agent Mike Moustakas, who hit 38 home runs for Kansas City last season and can’t find a job yet.

Ender Inciarte hit 11 home runs last year, the highest total of his four-year career and of his professional career. His norm may be eight. Nick Markakis hit eight dingers last year, which is what he’s averaged in his three years in Atlanta. The Braves will be lucky if Markakis hits 10 home runs this season, even in a contract walk year for the 34-year-old.

Then there’s rookie Ronald Acuna, Jr., who hit 21 last season in his 139 minor league games at three different levels. It’s so difficult to project what a rookie, even a very talented rookie, can do in his first season. But so far in spring training, Acuna is giving the Braves no reason to doubt his ability to possibly hit 20 home runs, which would be right where Kemp was last season.

There are two power-hitting prospects to keep an eye on, and they may be in Atlanta sooner rather than later. Third baseman Austin Riley will either go back to Double A or up to Triple A this season. Riley has averaged 20 home runs per year in his first two pro seasons. Several compare Riley to a Scott Rolen-type player. Rolen averaged 20 home runs in his 17-year MLB career. Riley could be ready for Atlanta by midseason.

Catcher Alex Jackson has opened eyes this spring. The 22-year-old Jackson hit 19 home runs last season between High A and Double A, and the Braves have seen more of his power during the Grapefruit League games. With Flowers and Suzuki both free agents after this season, Jackson could be on track to take over as the starter in 2019.

If Acuna, Riley and Jackson come around quickly and perform well, then maybe the power will not be an issue. It just may be a lineup that is a work in progress as it transforms to what it’s going to be throughout the season. Until then, the Braves may have to play more A-B-C baseball (get them on, get them over and get them in) to score runs.

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