SSG Firebirds 2021 Preseason Primer – Part One

We’re less than 2 months away from opening day in the SSG OOTP Baseball league. After a .500 2019 season, the Atlanta Firebirds had a disappointing 2020 season en route to a 4th place finish in the NL East. Despite a fantastic pitching staff, the abysmal offense could not provide enough support to be competitive in a tough division. Today we’re starting our look at the 40-man roster to start 2021. We’ll look at the hitters here, and the pitchers in part two next week.

Catchers

As a rookie in 2019, Tanner Norton had 5.4 WAR, won a Gold Glove and was selected to the All-Star Game. He came down to earth pretty hard in 2020; in 103 starts (thanks to some injuries) his wRC+ dropped from 137 to 87. He was still very good defensively, though (+2.5 ZR and 3.64 cERA). Year three in 2021 will be telling for him. Having a strong franchise catcher would be a huge boost for Atlanta in the coming years. As for the backups, either Gimenez or Gonzalez look acceptable. Gonzalez grades out as slightly better defensively, and he had a .367 OBP in 55 starts in AAA last year.

Infielders

Freddie Freeman remains the face of the franchise, and he signed a $110 million pact to stay with the club through 2026. In each of the past 3 seasons, Freeman’s had at least 25 HR, .335 OBP, .468 SLG, and 3.1 WAR. He’s not putting up superstar numbers anymore, but as the organization doesn’t have any standout first base prospects, Atlanta hopes he will be a steady presence in an otherwise young line-up over the next few years.

Third baseman Jake Lamb declined Atlanta’s qualifying offer in the off season and is still a free agent. The Firebirds made a lower profile signing in Derek Dietrich to replace him (at least to start the season). Dietrich was around league average in Houston last season. Over 121 starts (most of them at DH) he hit 15 HR with a .312 OBP and .418 SLG. His defense grades out as average to below average overall, but he’s got a good arm. He’s made only 24 starts at third in the big leagues, but Atlanta feels that his skills are well suited for the position. 

Dietrich may only be keeping the hot corner warm for one of the team’s top prospects in Gilbert Lara. At AA Mississippi last year, Lara hit 21 HR, with a .715 OPS. He made 5 starts for AAA Gwinnett at the end of the year as well and thats probably where he will start this spring. His plate discipline is the biggest area that he needs to work on, as he had a walk rate of 8.8% and a strikeout rate of 32.0% in 2020. His glove and arm, however, grade out as above average. Expect him to be playing in Atlanta, possibly as the starting third baseman, before the end of the new season. 

Atlanta also added corner infielder Carlos Santana, though the intention will probably be to play him in the new DH spot. In 2019 before a finger injury, Santana hit 19 HR with a .384 OBP and .471 SLG in 91 starts for the Spiders and Angels. He was also selected to the All-Star game, but he went unsigned until April last season and settled for a minor league deal with the Tigers. He played in just 35 games for the Tigers’ AA team but looked good at the plate with 9 homers and a .941 OPS. He inked a 1 year, $7.5 million contract to join the Firebirds major league roster for 2021 and the front office feels like he could be a good value for a team that finished dead last in the NL in almost every offensive category last year.

Cecchini and Peraza are the projected starters at SS and 2B respectively at this time, though they both had rough 2020 seasons at the plate. After posting a 111 OPS+ with Colorado between 2017-2018, Cecchini’s first two seasons in Atlanta have totaled just a 78 OPS+ and 1.3 WAR. His defense at SS took a major dip in 2020 as well (-4.5 ZR, down from +2.6 in 2019). Peraza’s offense and baserunning was abysmal in 2020; his wRC+ was down to 56, compared to a more acceptable 84 in 2019. He also only swiped 12 bases, compared to 54 and 43 in the previous two years. Amazingly, because of his defense, he still posted a positive WAR of 0.3 thanks to a +6.0 ZR at 2B on his way to a 5th straight Gold Glove award.

The middle infielders will get some pressure from Micah Johnson, who was signed in the offseason. He had a .362 OBP in 141 PA for the Pirates last year, thanks in large part to an 11.3% walk rate. His defense is mediocre, however, which will relegate him to the bench. But he looks like a perfectly acceptable understudy.

Brandon Drury also returns and provides some versatility in the infield; His natural position is first base but he’s played well at second and third too. At the plate over the last two seasons, he’s posted an OPS+ and wRC+ near 100, an OBP of.318, and a SLG above .420.

Finally, Chris Rivera and Alex Blandino are longshots for the opening day roster. Rivera plays very good defense at second, third and short, but hasn’t hit much in the upper minors (career .649 OPS at AAA),. Blandino, meanwhile, had an .802 SLG in AAA and his defense at third is good, but as stated above, there’s a lot of competition at the hot corner.

Outfielders

There are a lot of question marks in the outfield in Atlanta. Ender Inciarte was the starting center fielder to begin 2020, but due to an inept bat, he was traded. Top prospect Don Jones lacks the glove skills to play center, but his 19 HR and 27 SB through 101 games at AAA last year earned him a call-up to the starting left fielder job. He had a .340 OBP and 13 SB for the Firebirds in the last 2 months of the year, but his power did not transfer to the big leagues yet as his SLG was only .346. Because of the bat potential he’s probably the locked-in starter in left.

To make room for Jones in left, Raimel Tapia was moved to center. He was a good left fielder, and he could make a decent centerfielder as well with more experience. At the plate, he had a lot of regression from his All-Star 2019 campaign; his OBP decreased 20 points, his slugging decreased 65 points, and his stolen bases decreased from 13 to 3 despite 79 more plate appearances in 2020. The big positive for him according to the Atlanta front office was that his BB rate increased from 6.0% to 7.9%, and his SO rate decreased from 20.0% to 16.7%. 

In right, Stephen Piscotty had a surprising year, slugging .489 with 28 HR and a decent .310 OBP. He also remains one of the best defensive right fielders in the game. He’ll be 30 this season and a free agent afterward, so if the Firebirds are not competitive look for him to be on the trade block come July.

Atlanta added right fielder Jorge Soler on a 1 year deal this winter. He struggled a lot at the plate in 2020; in 92 games his wRC+ was a pitiful 54. However, just 2 years ago in 2019 his wRC+ was 124 and his SLG was .532. Like with Carlos Santana, the Firebirds are hoping last season was just an aberration for Soler. If so, his $1.3 million salary could be a bargain.

Veteran Aaron Altherr had an .855 OPS with 22 HR in 96 games at AAA last season and plays great defense as well. Meanwhile another defensive stud, Rikyu Ichihara, could be a name to watch this year as an eventual fourth outfield candidate as well. He’s called 3 different organizations home in the last 6 months; he was taken by the Nationals from the Firebirds in the Rule 5 draft last winter, traded to the Spiders in July, then released back to Atlanta later that month. His bat needs a lot of work, though, so right now he’s probably not a contender to make the opening day roster.

Thanks for reading. Watch out for part two of the preseason primer next week, and an article about Atlanta’s top prospects closer to opening day.

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