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How watchable are the Atlanta Braves going to be in 2017?

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Bargain veterans are always a risk for a rebuilding team, but the Braves have built a surprisingly compelling lineup and rotation.

Cincinnati Reds v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It’s hard to create a truly unwatchable roster. Even bad teams, the teams in danger of losing 90 or 100 games, often sprinkle in just enough young talent to allow their fans to daydream. There are position battles and rookies. There are raw, young pitchers with obvious talent and limited command. Every so often, the young players will pull back the curtain and let you glimpse the future. It’s glorious.

The trick to creating an unwatchable roster, then, is to take a bad team and stuff the starting lineup and rotation with mediocre-or-worse players who won’t be there in two years. There’s nothing worse than a losing team filled with depressing placeholders.

Which brings us to the Braves trading for Brandon Phillips, who will turn 36 next season and probably won’t be around for the next postseason game in Atlanta. The Braves acquired him because of an injury to Sean Rodriguez, partially, but also because their offseason goal has to make a watchable team in preparation for their new stadium. The only thing worse than building an unwatchable roster is building an unwatchable roster to play in a shiny, taxpayer-subsidized ballpark that probably wasn’t necessary in the first place.

The only thing worse than that is building an unwatchable roster to play in an unnecessary new ballpark that will keep people stuck in traffic before and after the games, thinking about how awful the product is.

The Braves are trying to thread a fine needle, in other words. They want competent veterans, but not enough to pay market price for All-Stars and award winners. That’s sensible, considering they aren’t exactly one $100 million All-Star away from the postseason. But when veterans come out of the bargain bin, that means they have warts. Veteran warts can lead to veteran disappointment. Veteran disappointment leads to the unwatchable older rosters that every team should be terrified of building.

So how watchable will the Braves be in their first season in SunTrust Park?

Catcher

No one is coming to the game to watch Tyler Flowers and/or Kurt Suzuki, but then again, there are about two or three catchers in the entire league that make people pay attention.

Grade: Watchable enough

First base

Freddie Freeman is a star, a beloved homegrown player, and now you see why they didn’t trade him when they were busy dealing their other players. He fits very, very well for a team looking to sell the promise of a new era.

Grade: Very watchable

Second base

Brandon Phillips isn’t an All-Star anymore, and second base is a position known for chewing bodies up without warning. So be afraid.

That written, 35 isn’t that old, and Phillips was a high-average, slick fielding middle infielder, which is something that’s very fun to watch. Here, take two players:

  • Player A - .240 BA, .370 OBP, .410 SLG
  • Player B - .290 BA, .320 OBP, .410 SLG

The top player is more valuable. The bottom player is just as watchable, though. Lots of hits. Lots of balls in play. Lots of teammates scurrying around the bases on account of him. And that’s before you get to this specific player’s charisma. Phillips should do just fine for what the Braves are looking for.

Grade: Watchable

Shortstop

Dansby Swanson might break out this year, like Kris Bryant. Or he might have a pleasant season on his way to stardom. Either way, he might be the most watchable player on the roster.

Grade: Very, very watchable

Third base

It’ll be a little different when Rodriguez is healthy again, but until then, it’s Adonis Garcia, who might be the sneakiest old player in baseball. Sounds like a prospect because you’ve been aware of him for just a season or two, right?

Dude’s just about the same age as Matt Kemp. Beware of stuffing the roster with too many of these players. They’re the ones I was warning you about.

Grade: Not very watchable until Rodriguez is healthy again, when they’ll become “watchable enough”

Left field

Matt Kemp is not a good baseball player, according to WAR. This is not a secret. He fields like he’s tweeting out a live play-by-play of what each limb is doing on his way to the ball, and the numbers reflect this.

However, I’ve watched enough lumbering, no-glove sluggers in my time to know that they’re still fun. You might get a ball in the outfield every other game that makes you cringe, but you’ll get four or five at-bats where the slugger knows what he’s doing at the plate.

Kemp might hit 40 homers and be worth 0.5 WAR, but guess what? That’s supremely watchable. The defensive bugaboos are more subtle. The dingers will help win games in a totally unambiguous fashion, and you’ll remember some of them.

Grade: Very watchable

Center field

Ender Inciarte is a high-average defensive demigod with speed. Every team should have one of these.

Grade: Very watchable

Right field

Nick Markakis had a .744 OPS last year, which is perfect, considering he’s the .744 OPS of baseball players. If he can boost that average back to where it was, he has a chance to be watchable in that Brandon Phillips way up there. Until then, he’s not bad, exactly, which means he’s offering something to a team that wants to be relevant and interesting. He’s ...

Grade: Watchable enough

Starting pitcher No. 1

Julio Teheran is a young ace, and another rebuilding/reloading team might have traded him away for something just below what the Red Sox gave up for Chris Sale. The Braves didn’t. This is why.

Grade: Very watchable

Starting pitcher No. 2

Bartolo Colon.

Grade: Very, very, very, very, watchable, in a way that will make you quit your job if they won’t give you the time off to attend the games.

Starting pitcher No. 3

R.A. Dickey will get lit up a lot, but I might be biased because of a knuckleball fetish. If you’re going to mess around with veterans on a team that’s not projected to be good, at least make them unique and interesting. Dickey is both of those things.

He’s also quietly put up 32 starts of league-average pitching over the last three years. The Braves could have made do with a minor-league free agent, or someone like Doug Fister, with a chance of competence at a lower price, but they’re paying a premium for something just a little more reliable.

Grade: Watchable

Starting pitcher No. 4

Jaime Garcia probably won’t make it through the season, so think of this like it’s Garcia plus whichever of the Braves’ million golden arms rises to the majors this year. He’s a good pitcher when healthy, though, which makes him a fine gamble for a team looking to balance the present and the future.

Grade: Watchable enough

Starting pitcher No. 5

Mike Foltynewicz is the perfect pitcher for a team like this — flash, power, and upside to dream on. Even better, he’s going to be in a rotation that doesn’t have four starting pitchers just like him. That’s important because it’s easy to get Young Arm Fatigue by June, when it seems like every 97-mph goofball on the team can’t make it through four innings, and you’re stuck watching bullpen game after bullpen game.

No, with Foltynewicz, you’re getting peeks behind that curtain, where you can see the future of the next contending rotation, but you’re not eating bowls of ice cream for every meal and getting sick.

Grade: Very watchable

Conclusion

The Braves might not be very good. Baseball Prospectus and PECOTA have them at 77-85 and in fourth place. FanGraphs and ZiPS have them at 74-88 and in fourth place. This means that they’re about as likely to lose 100 games as they are to contend.

Still, the Braves have built a team that’s easy to watch. There are veterans who will help act as a bridge to the next good Braves team, and they’ll prevent the whole mess from being swallowed in an avalanche of incompetence. There are rookies and young players who will help keep the paying customers optimistic about the future. There are a couple homegrown stars to put on ballpark giveaways. Even some of the bad players might be more watchable than you expect, just by virtue of how they’ve allocated their skills.

The Braves might surprise, sure. But even if they don’t, they probably won’t be hard to watch. Give me a game with Bartolo Colon and Dansby Swanson every time. Considering where the team was a year ago, it’s a pretty impressive trick they pulled off.