Braves Offseason Preview – Position Players
Well, it’s on. The offseason has officially arrived, with free agents now allowed to sign with new teams. The general manager’s meetings are this week, which is the time when many bring up potential trade ideas and some even get consummated.
So, it’s time to go and refresh Twitter every couple of minutes. The big moves could now happen at any time.
For the Atlanta Braves, this is a critical offseason. They have just finished an overachieving season, going from 72 to 90 wins and making a playoff appearance. They also have a ton of money coming off the books, and they say they are ready to spend it.
Oh, and the Braves still have one of the best farm systems in the sport. Many prospects may have graduated and there are more on the way.
This all likely makes you believe the Braves will be extremely busy over the next few months. This could be the perfect opportunity to turn a young, 90-win team into a World Series contender.
Let’s look at each position on the field for the Braves, along with their options and some possibilities:
This is easy. Freddie Freeman is locked in at first base for at least three more years. The 29-year-old is under contract through the 2021 season. Freeman has repeatedly said he wants to be a Brave his entire career, which is not surprising considering how close he is to lifelong Brave Chipper Jones.
Freeman is headed to, at the very least, the Braves Hall of Fame if he remains in Atlanta. He’s on his way to a potential 350-home run, 2500-hit career.
The Braves held off trading Freeman during the rebuild, and now he’s the leader of the team. His defense is great at first base (won a Gold Glove Award on Sunday), and he’s still a huge offensive threat. If the Braves improve the lineup, especially with another power bat, it will do nothing but help Freeman.
Remember when Matt Kemp arrived in Atlanta and Freeman’s power numbers increased? Well, if Ronald Acuna or another big bat is behind Freeman in the lineup, those power numbers should stay in the 25-35 home runs per year range, even as Freeman gets into his 30s.
Overall, Ozzie Albies was really good in 2018. He hit .261 with 24 home runs, 72 RBI, 14 stolen bases and a .305 on base percentage. It was really good since it was better than we might have expected from a 21-year old in his first full season.
There are concerns, however, as Albies tailed off tremendously in the second half of the season. After hitting .281 with a .318 OBP with 20 home runs and 55 RBI before the All-Star Break, Albies hit just .226 with a .282 OBP, four home runs and 17 RBI after the midseason break.
Albies turns 22 on January 7. Let’s repeat. He’s almost 22 years old. Therefore, don’t expect Albies to be involved in any trade talks this winter. Other teams may ask, but the Braves aren’t likely to entertain such a move.
Sure, the Braves could swap Johan Camargo to second, or maybe even have Camargo take over at short with Dansby Swanson going to second base. But it’s just highly unlikely to happen. Never say never, but anyone except Ozzie Albies being the Braves second baseman next season and in years to come would be a shock.
The Braves need Albies to be more consistent. They do not need him hitting .198 in September. He needs to strike out less and walk more often. But again, he’ll soon be 22. There’s plenty of room for Albies to improve. Plus, his energy on this team and his relationship with Ronald Acuna is very valuable.
The Los Angeles Dodgers were better than the Braves, but it certainly didn’t help Atlanta’s chances when Dansby Swanson got hurt the last week of the regular season. Swanson and Albies created a strong duo up the middle for the Braves this past season, and it was noticeably absent in the division series.
Dansby got better this past season. His defense was outstanding. Swanson’s play in Arizona on that Saturday night in September may be the best regular season defensive play since Otis Nixon’s catch in 1992 against the Pirates. Swanson was consistent all year playing shortstop.
Offensively, Swanson showed progress. He showed more power. Like Albies, Swanson needs to walk more and strike out less, but Swanson still can improve. We shouldn’t assume just because Swanson was the top pick in the draft three-plus years ago that he’s a finished product.
There is still more room for Swanson to grow. He turns 25 on February 11. We need to stop thinking Dansby is another Derek Jeter and instead perhaps appreciate that he can become a Jeff Blauser-type player for this team. Blauser was a huge part of the Braves championship run in the 1990s.
Could a team ask about Swanson in a trade discussion? Perhaps. But it’s unlikely the Braves would part with Swanson. They have another alternative, with Camargo a natural shortstop. Swanson just seems like a player the Braves want to win with instead of parting with.
If there is stability at first, second and short, there are questions at third base. You may think there shouldn’t be, considering how well Camargo played this past season.
And he did play very well. No one could have predicted that Camargo would hit 19 home runs and drive in 76, especially since he didn’t play until April 18.
Camargo played third very well, but he is a shortstop playing third. Is the soon-to-be 25-year-old the player the Braves want at third base for the next several years? Is he better suited as a super utility player? Or is Camargo a shortstop who needs to have his value maximized in a trade?
It helps that the Braves do have an alternative. Austin Riley, who will be 22 next April 2, is almost ready. Some believe he’ll be ready to start the 2019 season in Atlanta, after another impressive developmental season in the minor leagues.
Riley hit .294 with 19 home runs, 70 RBI, a .360 on base percentage, a .522 slugging percentage and a .882 OPS with three minor league teams. He missed a month with a right knee sprain.
Do the Braves trade Camargo and hand Riley third base? Does Riley simply knock Camargo out of the way when he proves he’s ready early in the season? Or are the Braves convinced Camargo can be their long-term third baseman and instead trade Riley for a larger need?
Here’s one more option to keep in mind: Josh Donaldson. The free agent third baseman was acquired by Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos when he was leading the Blue Jays. And in Donaldson’s first season in Toronto, he was the American League Most Valuable Player.
Anthopoulos still likes Donaldson a great deal, so don’t be shocked if there is at least some talk with Donaldson’s agent. The Cardinals are rumored to be the main suitor for Donaldson, but if the Braves get tempted by Donaldson’s power potential (he averaged 33 home runs between 2013-2017), maybe the Braves make Camargo and Riley both expendable.
We’re combining all three outfield spots for a reason – there could be significant movement in the three outfield positions in the next 12 months that could see people move around a bit.
Nick Markakis is likely gone. He’ll be 35 on November 17, and unless the Braves don’t get who they want to replace him, Markakis will probably sign with another team.
But who the Braves get to replace Markakis could decide who plays where. The Braves may have Ronald Acuna play any other the three spots, and Ender Inciarte might even be squeezed out by yet another talented youngster.
Acuna showed us all this season he is going to be a superstar. He’s not just a star, but a superstar. There is a difference. Forget about waiting for Acuna to become one of the top talents in the sport. He’s there right now.
But where will he play in the Atlanta outfield? Acuna could move to right, or if Inciarte is traded Acuna could move to center field – at least for a while.
The Braves have another top outfield prospect on the way in Cristian Pache, who is considered even a better defensive outfielder than Acuna or Inciarte. If Pache arrives sometime in 2019, either Acuna stays in left or moves to right.
MLB.com’s Jim Callis labeled Pache as a potential five-tool prospect last week. Callis reported that an American League front office executive said Pache should add power and even hit 20 home runs in his prime.
The belief is that Pache needs to go back to Double-A, and if he does well there then the soon-to-be 20-year-old could be ready near the All-Star Break. If the Braves believe that, will they hold a spot for Pache and hold off the probable many attempts to trade him?
Pache is a center fielder, so that could make Inciarte available. There is a thought that now is the time to maximize Inciarte’s value before Pache pushes him out of the position. If the Braves get someone to replace Markakis, and then if Pache makes Inciarte expendable, would this offseason be the best time to go ahead and trade Inciarte?
If they did, Acuna could take over in center, at least until Pache is ready. Then when it’s Pache’s turn, Acuna could go to one of the corner outfield spots. That would mean someone would need to hold down the fort in left field until Pache finishes his development, much like Preston Tucker was the placeholder for Acuna last April.
Could Camargo play in left field for a while? If Camargo is labeled as a super utility player, he’ll need to play the outfield, and those who were with him in the minor leagues believe Camargo can play there.
Do the Braves give Adam Duvall another chance? Duvall is a great defensive player, a finalist for a Gold Glove, but he just didn’t hit when he came to Atlanta in the July trade.
Who might the Braves target for right field? Well, Anthopoulos is trying to kill everyone’s dream of Bryce Harper being in a Braves uniform. Anthopoulos said Sunday he’s leery of the type of long-term contract that Harper might require.
It’s a shame if true since the Braves can afford Harper. They have close to $60 million to play with this offseason, and even more, if Inciarte (due $5.7 million in 2019) and maybe Julio Teheran (due $11.166 in 2019) can be traded away.
Harper would give the Braves two of the top talents in the sport if he were to join Acuna. That should seem tempting, especially with the chance Harper could basically pay for himself with the potential boost in attendance and revenue from merchandise.
If Harper were signed, he could replace Markakis in right field. Then the Braves would have to gauge Pache’s timetable and determine if they could go ahead and trade Inciarte.
The Giants, Dodgers, Cubs, and Mariners are the other teams that have been linked to Harper. The Yankees reportedly will not be a candidate.
Who are the other options if Harper is too expensive or not the preference? There are four free agents who deserve attention: A.J. Pollock, Andrew McCutchen, Michael Brantley, and Adam Jones.
Pollock was the player Braves former GM John Coppolella originally asked for in the Shelby Miller discussions with Arizona. He’s had trouble staying healthy the last two years, so his value has dipped a bit since then.
Pollock is 31, as is left-handed hitting Michael Brantley, the former Indians outfielder who is also a free agent. Brantley doesn’t strike out as much as Pollock, and the power numbers seem close.
McCutchen is now 32 years old, so any of these three will be similar to what Markakis was in age when he signed four years ago. The Braves will evaluate the trends on these three players to see which one can best hold up as they get into their mid-30s, as Markakis did, especially in his last year.
Jones is a bit older at 33, so he might be an even more difficult decision. There is the chance one of these four older-than-30 outfielders could be signed to a small one or two-year contract instead of the expected three or four-year deals.
The Braves will also look at the trade market to see what’s out there for the outfield. Two names to keep in mind: Arizona’s David Peralta and Pittsburgh’s Starling Marte. Both are over 30, but both are under control for at least two more years at a decent rate.
All the attention is on Miami’s J.T. Realmuto, who will likely be dealt as the Marlins continue the rebuild. Many consider Realmuto the best catcher in baseball.
The Braves wanted Realmuto last winter, and the two teams had discussions about Realmuto and Christian Yelich, who was traded to Milwaukee. The Marlins wanted Ronald Acuna in those talks, which did not have much traction as the Braves were not interested in trading him.
The Marlins got an outfield prospect in their deal with the Brewers in Lewis Brinson. They reportedly want another one now, and rumors are already out that two other teams might satisfy the Marlins’ desire for another top outfield prospect.
The Nationals and Astros are two other teams that have been linked to Realmuto. Washington has Victor Robles (rated as the fourth-best prospect in the game by MLB.com) and Houston has Kyle Tucker (rated fifth).
Atlanta’s best outfield prospect now is Pache, but it seems the Braves are unlikely to trade him. They could instead offer Drew Waters in a trade proposal. Waters turns 20 in late December, and he was very impressive in his first full season in the minors between Rome and Florida.
The Marlins do not need a third baseman, as Brian Anderson seems settled in there. So, they may not want Riley, the Braves other top position player prospect. Since Realmuto would be taking over at catcher, the Braves may feel comfortable including young catching prospect William Contreras in an offer.
With the Indians reportedly interested in moving some salary, don’t forget about Yan Gomes. He was a finalist for the Gold Glove Award and the 31-year-old was an All-Star last summer. Gomes is owed $7 million in 2019 and then there are two team options – for $9 million in 2020 and $111 million in 2021 (both options have a $1 million buyout).
If the Braves talk with Cleveland about one of their starting pitchers (like two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber), it might be easier to also take Gomes back in a trade. That might give Contreras more time to let the Braves see just how talented he is for the future. When Contreras shows he’s ready, the Braves could simply buy Gomes out for a low figure and move on.
Salvador Perez just won another Gold Glove Award. If the Royals decide to trade their team leader, the Braves would likely have some interest. Perez is just 28 and under contract for three more years. He would cost a ton in a trade, as the Royals would love to accelerate the rebuild by taking three or four top prospects from the Braves.
There are several free agent catchers to consider. It’s unlikely the Braves will go after Yasmani Grandal, considering he was given the qualifying offer by the Dodgers. Grandal’s defensive troubles in the postseason might scare the Braves off even more.
Wilson Ramos may be the free agent best option. Ramos just hit .306 with 15 home runs and 70 RBI. At 31, Ramos likely won’t get too long of a contract offer. Martin Maldonado was a finalist for the Gold Glove Award. He’s 32 now and hit only .225 last season.
A year ago, it was realistic to wonder if Brian McCann could come home to end his career. However, McCann’s right knee and his age (35 on opening day) are a concern. If the Braves strike out on Realmuto or a bigger name, keep McCann in mind as an alternative as long as the Braves believe he could catch half the season in a platoon with Tyler Flowers.
It’s possible Kurt Suzuki could return, but it seems unlikely at this point.