Placeholders, A Young Star, and The Future in Atlanta
by Jim Silva
So Braves fans, you got a new stadium, some new starting pitchers, and you are already watching some fun new youngsters run around on your new field showing what they can do. How are you feeling? I hope you aren’t thinking about the playoffs because you are highly likely to be disappointed. For a team still in the midst of a rebuild, your GM did some weird things, like picking up three guys over 35 to play prominent roles on your club. Moving into a new ballpark probably is the main reason why the Braves acquired some seriously old veterans to put a smiley face on their attempts to be competitive in 2017, but seriously it won’t change the fact that your club is still bad, albeit young and improving. Aside from these moves to put some lipstick on the pig, the Braves made a lot of great moves to build a club that will be ready to compete in a couple of years, and none were bigger than the deal in which they acquired their starting shortstop, so let’s take a look at the infield now, and the infield of the future for the Braves of Atlanta.
Chipper Jones was the face of the Braves for quite some time and only retired after the 2012 season as the last holdout from the great Braves teams of the ‘90s. Star shortstops aren’t just lying about in the okra fields waiting to be harvested. The Braves drafted Andrelton Simmons who developed into a star with the glove but not with the bat – although he was not a black hole at the plate. But the Braves flipped him for some young arms and a stopgap shortstop – and they were just getting started. The trade was a bit shocking at the time – trading away the best defensive shortstop in baseball – and I wonder if it would have happened now, just a few years later, as defense has become more valued. So why did they do it? Simmons is playing this year as a 27 year old so really he is still on the upward part of the development hill and the Braves traded him in 2015. He had a 17 home run season under his belt and has already contributed 131 defensive runs saved (DRS) in his young career. He is off to a hot start with a wRC+ of 137 – yes it is very much a small sample size, but interestingly he is hitting the ball harder than he ever has as measured by exit velocity and his hot start is not due to luck – his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is only .316 so far. So why do you trade a guy like that when he is young? Wasn’t he looking like a nice piece to build around? Well, not compared to Chipper Jones. The Braves vision of a star shortstop around whom one builds a team was the power hitting variety in the mold of Chipper Jones, not the slick fielding type like Andrelton Simmons. Is that why they traded him? Who knows really, I mean they got a top 100 pitching prospect in Sean Newcomb in the deal and another arm they flipped in a later deal, but when the trade raises eyebrows like that one did, you have to wonder.
One of last season’s biggest swaps was the Braves deal that netted them a couple young arms and their new star shortstop of the future, Dansby Swanson. Nabbed with the very first pick of the 2015 draft, only 83 at bats into his professional career, and finding himself already traded must have been a head-spinning beginning for Dansby, but then he found himself in the majors in 2016 with only 411 minor league at bats under his belt. That whooshing sound you heard was the speed of Swanson’s ascent and the potential for his undoing if he finally falters, as unlikely as that is to happen. Very few position players rocket so quickly through the minors these days and when they do they are usually supremely talented and in possession of great make-up (or their club is desperate). Position players take, on average, approximately 2000 plate appearances to work their way up to the big club – about five times what it took Swanson. So is he ready? He certainly appeared to be ready with the bat during his debut last season when he slashed .302/.361/.442 in 145 plate appearances as a 22 year old. He also played about league average D at shortstop as evidenced by his warring UZR and DRS which were both around zero – one over and one under. Swanson is already a solid major league player who can handle shortstop and hit some, but the Braves are hoping that he is their new star who will be the face of the franchise as they move into their nifty new digs. While it is unlikely that Dansby or really anyone can be Chipper Jones, when you have a young shortstop who comes up and immediately hits, and hits with some power, the comparisons are inevitable. It is unclear that Swanson will be the kind of hitter that a team can build around, like Chipper Jones was. What Swanson is right now is a solid – not flashy – shortstop with an excellent hit tool but not much speed or over the fence kind of power. It is very early in the season, but so far Swanson is popping up more, his exit velocity is down, and he is hitting more fly balls with fewer of them (by percentage) leaving the park. He is seriously struggling with the bat but looking better in the field. Players can certainly develop power, and if Swanson maintains his ability to rap out base hits and adds five to ten home runs, over the next few years, then he can be that guy. If he is “only” a .270 with 10 homer power who gets on at .320 clip (about where his projections predict), well then the Braves will have a good shortstop who is not a superstar. Will they be tempted to move Swanson for more young moving parts to their rebuilding machine because Dansby isn’t Chipper? We’ll see how that plays out. In the meantime, they have excellent depth and high value talent, so even if Swanson is only good and not great the Braves will be fine although they might have to find another face of the franchise.
Last year, Jace Peterson showed possibly once and for all that while he might have some value as bench player, he is not a starting second baseman. Peterson does a few things well, like getting on base at a decent clip and playing multiple positions (albeit not very well). He also does several things that drag down his value. He is not strong defensively at any of the multiple positions he plays. On the offensive side of the ball, he doesn’t hit for power or a high average, and for some reason last season, he didn’t run the bases well, in spite of his speed that was enough to swipe 52 bags for the Padres A league team in 2012. As this was his second season playing full time in the majors and he will be 27 in a few weeks, it appears that Peterson is what he is – a guy who can play second on a second division team or who can provide some positional flexibility and draw a walk on a team with some depth. The Braves apparently agree because they went out and traded for a 35 year old second baseman to take his place seemingly ending the Jace Peterson “era”. The guy they traded for, Brandon Phillips, has been around long enough to have been drafted (in a different millennium) by a team that no longer exists – Les Expos de Montreal – and to rank 25th all time in games played at second base.
Middle infielders are not usually known for their longevity (yes, yes, Cal Ripken Jr.) so just walking out to that spot between 1st and 2nd as a 35 – soon-to-be 36 year old is an accomplishment all by itself. But Phillips put up a 3.5 WAR season as recently as 2015 and is off to a nice start for the Braves having already bagged four steals without being caught. Obviously, Phillips is not the long term solution for the Braves who are only paying $1 million of his $14 million contract – a contract that ends this year. The Reds were ready to move on from Phillips for a couple years now, but he had veto rights over all trades, so until it became apparent that they were willing to eat his contract and have him become a bench player in 2017, the veteran chose to block all trades. Perhaps the new environment has refreshed his joi de vivre on the baseball field, the impact of an inflated average on balls in play (his BABIP sits at .350) or perhaps we are seeing the effects of a small sample size, but right now he is providing offensive value for the first time since 2012 and he has always been an excellent defender (except last season – cue ominous music). Don’t expect him to get on base much or to hit more than ten homers anymore, although he will steal you a handful of bases. In short, he should do a solid job of keeping second base warm for the first wave of Braves prospects to hit the infield some time this year or next when his contract is up.
Speaking of guys unlikely to be on the roster when the Braves next make the postseason, their current third baseman, Adonis Garcia is 32 and was signed as a 27 year old once he left Cuba and became eligible. The lure of striking gold with Cuban ballplayers is MLB’s version of playing the lottery, only your ticket costs millions of dollars. Garcia made it to the majors with the Braves in 2015 and became the starting 3rd baseman last season proving to be the type of lottery ticket that gets you a free lottery ticket instead of allowing you to quit your job and move to Hilo to grow coffee on your farm you bought with your winnings. The Braves are starting the season with Garcia at the hot corner because, like Phillips and second base, the youngster who will man 3rd base for the future Braves needs more time to develop (and Garcia is dirt cheap by major league standards). In the meantime Garcia will provide some power, but not cleanup hitter power like the Braves might have hoped. His glove work is mediocre enough that the Braves tried mid-season to send him down to convert him to left field – and then brought him back to play third again. Garcia might turn into a corner outfielder/corner infield bench guy who can hit the odd home run and fill in nearly adequately when injury strikes the starter, but I am getting ahead of myself. Like many baseball players who have some offensive talent but also possess a fatal flaw that keeps them from being a long term starter, much less a star, Garcia eschews the walk and relies on his ability to put the ball in play. The man with the great name just flat out makes too many outs and doesn’t do anything else well enough to make up for it – you know, like belting 40 home runs like Kris Davis or stealing 50 bags and playing elite level defense in center field like Billy Hamilton. Both of those players I mentioned are starters in spite of their flaws because of their elite talent at other aspects of the game that make up for their flaws. If only having a cool name were one of those skills.
The Braves lone legit position player star is their first baseman, Freddie Freeman and while alliteration in one’s name is cool, it is far from Freeman’s only virtue. Only 27, Freeman has been the starting first baseman for Atlanta since 2011 and he appears to have found 5th gear if last season is the new normal. Freeman has always been an excellent hitter with good power. He draws walks (about 80 a year) which make up for his career 21.5 strikeout %. A few important things changed in his game last season that portend happy days ahead to match the happy days he experienced in 2016 – his best season so far. 83 extra base hits have to be due to something, and that something might just be a spike in both fly balls hit (up almost 5% to just over 40%) and a jump of around 4% in the percentage of fly balls that left the park. Freeman also increased his hard hit ball rate by right around 5% so it wasn’t just home runs that increased but balls that were just plain hard to snag. After starting his career as a doubles hitting, good batting average first baseman with just enough home runs to avoid being labeled the next Mark Grace, Freeman has become the prototypical power hitting first baseman who also gets on base making him either a three hole hitter or a cleanup hitter depending on who else you have on the roster. People who watch Freeman play say that he is an excellent defender at first and happily the defensive metrics agree, making him one of the most complete first basemen in baseball and the best player on the Braves – the cornerstone of the next Braves playoff run assuming they can get there in the next couple seasons.
To really understand where the Braves infield is going – indeed, where the entire organization is going – one needs to consider their top prospects because with one of the best minor league systems in baseball that’s really what the Braves are all about right now. They are still building for the future and stockpiling youngsters. Three (if we still include Swanson as a prospect) of the Braves top 10 prospects are middle infielders which ultimately means they have three guys coming who could play 2nd, shortstop, and third. Their number one prospect still in the minors is one of the top 25 best prospects in all of baseball. Ozhaino Albies is a shortstop who is playing a lot of second base because of Dansby Swanson. At the tender age of 20 he was pushed to triple A Gwinnett and had his first experience of not hitting over .300. Albies game is about getting on base mostly through his high batting average. He still needs to learn patience if he is to become an elite leadoff hitter, which is his top end projection. He has excellent speed that he still needs to learn to unleash against pitchers and catchers. He has stolen 86 bases in the minors at 77%, but hasn’t been one of those guys who swipes 80 bases yet – his highest total is 30 which he accomplished last season. Braves fans are clamoring for him to arrive already, but at least a half season at triple A would do a lot to insure that once Albies arrives in the majors, he sticks. With an elite speedster who is an excellent defender at shortstop, the Braves would be wise to bring in a great base stealing coach and to push him to control the strike zone better. If Albies can maintain his high average and add 70 walks (he has improved each season and walked 52 times in 2016) he would be a star, creating a ton of runs for the Braves for the next decade. If the young infielder appears ready at mid-season it is highly likely that the Braves will try to trade Brandon Phillips for something young and install Albies at second base. Braves fans will get the vapors and possibly faint watching their exciting pair of middle infielders – the future of their team moving forward.
The other young shortstop is 17 year old Kevin Maitan – and yes, at 17 he has a very long way to go before he is anywhere near a known quantity. That said, he has already received a top 100 ranking by Keith Law, a top 5 Braves prospect ranking by Eric Longenhagen, and the undying love of several scouts who compare his offensive potential to Miguel Sano and (gulp) Miguel Cabrera. Of the three shortstop prospects, Maitan is the guy most likely to grow out of his shortstop pants and get pushed to third, thus completing the infield picture for the 2021 Atlanta Braves. He is a switch hitter with power, a good hit tool, and a strong arm so Braves management is understandably excited at the prospect of Maitan developing somewhere close to his potential. The Braves have guys who might develop enough to play third in the bigs while they wait for Maitan, but nobody likely to turn into a star, so they might end up signing a series of stopgaps while they wait to see what they have in Maitan. It’s hard not to get excited about a guy considered one the best international signings in this decade, but the Braves will be patient while rubbing a hole in their worry stone.
It’s a good time to be young and in love, or a Braves fan with some patience – either works really. But for the patient Braves fans your time is coming soon. Love is unpredictable as are young prospects, so here is my advice to you young lovers. Find as many excellent prospects, be patient with how things develop, then don’t hesitate to commit to the right one when you find them, unless they run afoul of the PED rules or something like that. Pretty sure my wife would agree with me in this even if we disagree about the relative importance of pitching. Oh, you thought I had digressed from baseball.