Braves Big Signing Puts Their Outfield In The Spotlight

When one door closes another one opens or so Braves fans will now believe after they saw Josh Donaldson sign with The Twins this offseason, only to have the Braves wrest Marcel Ozuna away from the Cardinals. Donaldson was the Braves big free agent signing before the 2019 season and he stepped in front of Johan Camargo to take the third base job after Camargo broke out in 2018. Now Camargo has a shot at his old job if he can stave off a charge by another youngster, Austin Riley; the Braves have some nice options to fill the spot vacated by Donaldson. Meanwhile, Atlanta now has a new outfielder to work into the lineup. They also have a glut of outfielders so this will take some sorting. Let’s do just that!

It might seem that Ronald Acuña Jr. has it all figured out at age 22 – and maybe he does – but there might still be room for growth there. A 5.6 WAR season as a 21 year old clearly establishes Acuña Jr. as a budding superstar, but comparing his minor league numbers to his big league numbers shows that he might still improve his command of the strike zone. Acuña Jr. slashed .280/.365/.518 last season and each of those numbers was down a bit from his debut – still he hit 41 bombs, scored 127 runs, and drove in 101 for a wRC+ of 126. That is a hell of a season, and he accomplished that while fanning 26.3% of the time and walking 10.6% of the time, numbers that he bested at several minor league stops. Yeah, I know – he probably won’t hit the same way in the bigs that he did in the minors, but remember that he just turned 22. Acuña Jr. is just coming into his power game so there will be some adjustments as he reacts to pitchers adjusting to him. His average dropped in the second half and he whiffed a bit more, but his power numbers increased – 21 homers in the first half in 412 plate appearances and 20 long balls in the second half in only 303 plate appearances. Defensively, Acuña Jr. improved from his debut season and saved runs afield according to both DRS (9 runs saved) and UZR/150 (2.9 runs saved). Add that to his 37 stolen bases and you have a guy who can do everything – and that is Ronald Acuña Jr..

With Acuña Jr. mostly playing center, Ender Inciarte is listed as a 4th outfielder. Having a three-time Gold Glove winner on your bench is quite a luxury and the Braves are hoping that Inciarte’s leg injuries that cost him half of the 2019 season are behind him. 2019 broke Inciarte’s consecutive Gold Glove streak at three seasons, but Ender’s game is not just defense. He was starting to show signs of more patience, at least according to his walk rate which climbed to 11.3% – his career rate is 6.9%. The 29 year old Inciarte has become a more aggressive hitter over the years, but pitchers have a hard time sneaking pitches past him – his contact is always more than 10% above league average as it was again last season. After three consecutive campaigns contributing between 2.9 and 3.1 WAR he has to be disappointed to be a fourth outfielder, but he will get his chances both as a defensive replacement and spelling all three starters, if he is healthy. His best chance to take someone’s starting job might be in right field.

Inciarte’s main competition for a starting job, right-fielder Nick Markakis, is 36 and the Braves just re-signed him to a one year deal for $4 million. Defense is not Markakis’ game, and after putting together a string of negative dWAR seasons stretching back to 2009, it will be interesting to see what the Braves prioritize in 2020. With the bat, Markakis has remained pretty steady contributing between 94 and 115 wRC+. His career slash line is pretty much what he does every year – .288/.358/.424 and while most teams have a use for that, it is hard to defend running him out there everyday to watch him give back a good chunk of what he contributes offensively with his frankly shoddy defense. Markakis only has one season as a Brave at or above 2.0 WAR – 2018 where he put up 2.6 WAR. The batting average and solid OBP are nice, but would you rather have a Gold Glover who contributes a bit less with the bat and is no slouch (Inciarte), or Markakis who is universally hated by the defensive metrics and is 7 years older than three time Gold Glove winner Inciarte?

Marcel Ozuna now owns left field in Atlanta and the signing should pay off mightily. It was a surprise that Ozuna took a one year deal, but it makes sense for him because he is coming off a bit of a down year and is most definitely betting on himself to bounce back in 2020. If I were a Braves fan I’d be drooling at the prospect of a highly motivated Ozuna looking to improve upon his disappointing 2019 where he still hit 29 home runs, put up 2.6 WAR, and slashed .243/.330/.474 for a wRC+ of 110. He accomplished that with a .259 BABIP, well below his .315 career average. With a move from a pitchers park to a good hitters park and a positive BABIP regression, Ozuna could put up a really big year. His career metrics in left field have been quite good so the Braves should get help on both sides of the ball. Projections have Ozuna hitting 30-31 homers and slashing around .272/.341/.490 – and that is projecting a positive BABIP regression still below his career mark. Don’t be surprised if Ozuna surpasses those numbers and gets some MVP love if the Braves find their way into the postseason.

Adam Duvall is probably a bench bat for the Braves, assuming health for the starters, and more time baking for the top outfield prospects. In spite of his serious pop, Duvall has some offensive limitations because of his lack of plate discipline and the strong swing and miss flavor to his game. Duvall’s career slash line is .233/.292/.461 to go with a career K rate of 27.3% and walk rate of 6.8%. At 31, Duvall is pretty much what he is – a decent bat to come off the bench when you need a home run. He also has a solid rep as a defender in the outfield in spite of metrics that disagree with that assessment – he looks average or a tick below. His time with the Braves will probably be short because of the talent already on the big club and the youngsters pushing up from triple-A.

And quite a pair of youngsters they are – Cristian Pache and Drew Waters both reached triple-A in 2019 and both are only 21. They are the Braves #1 and #2 prospects respectively and are both talented center fielders. Pache – ranked 12th overall among baseball prospects – could push Acuna to a corner right now but needs more time in the minors as his bat catches up to his elite defense. Waters – ranked 36th overall –  has plus raw power, but like Pache, needs more time to get his bat closer to his projections before the Braves will commit to him at the Big League level. If both prospects get close to their projections, the Braves will have an incredible outfield for years to come with the potential for three Gold Gloves every year. Pache started to come into his power last year so keep an eye on him. If his bat develops quickly it will be hard to keep him down on the farm.

When the Braves make me GM any second now, I will strongly encourage manager Brian Snitker to put Inciarte in right and move Markakis to the bench. Ozuna will start in left with Acuña in center until Pache is ready. I can see why they started Markakis in the past – mainly because he doesn’t work as a 4th outfielder because he can’t hang in center. Duvall doesn’t cut it in center either, but you can always push Inciarte over to center when Acuña is out and leave the corner spots to Duvall and Markakis when Ozuna sits or when a matchup dictates that Inciarte sits. The amount of talent the Braves have in the organization is amazing and that goes in spades for their outfielders (pitchers too). Obviously the Braves aren’t shy about aggressively promoting young hitters – see Ronald Acuña and Ozzie Albies – and Pache is such a special talent with the glove that it will be hard to avoid the temptation to bring him up if they are in the hunt. The Ozuna signing was smart and makes it so the Braves don’t have to push Pache or Waters, but that won’t stop them from bringing up one of their young studs if a need arises. Watch out for the Braves outfield as they have the potential to become one of the best units in baseball as soon as this season.