The Reds outfield has probably snuck up you.

Those Sneaky Reds –  Talent From Corner To Corner
by Jim Silva
    The Reds are an old franchise – one of the five oldest continuous franchises in baseball – and unlike the A’s, Braves, Giants and Dodgers, they’ve stayed in their original city the whole time. The Cubs and Braves are older, but the Reds have been around long enough to see every World Series and all the rule changes in the history of baseball. So it must be painful to watch a franchise like that struggle and then enter a rebuilding phase like the current Reds are in. Hey, everyone goes through the ups and downs of building, competing, and rebuilding – yes – but the Reds franchise that has been around for 127 years has won the World Series only five times in their long history and the last time was in 1990. The Cincinnati club has never finished first more than two seasons in a row, including their Big Red Machine teams of the ‘70s. That team finished first six times in a 10 season span and won back to back World Series in 1975 and ‘76. So the peak of the Reds’ franchise history was in the ‘70s and they’ve been good a couple of times since then. But enough history for now – the primary questions are whether or not their current rebuild will result in sustained success, and if they are now close to the peak or still tearing down and building up. We will examine their outfield to see if at least there the Reds are close to a finished product.
    In Billy Hamilton (no, not THAT Billy Hamilton, the Reds have one of the fastest players in the game in the last decade. Hamilton has game-changing speed but runs afoul of the adage, “You can’t steal first base”, because he continues to sport a low on-base percentage hampering his development as a leadoff hitter. While Hamilton has nabbed 217 bases at an 86% clip in his first 1900 or so plate appearances, his career on-base percentage sits below .300. As a leadoff hitter what that means is Hamilton is making a boatload of outs. How fast is Hamilton? He is the fastest player in all of baseball as measured in the Statcast era. He has the fastest double and the fastest triple this season and while a couple center fielders are close, no other position players are in his league. It is difficult to compare him to players from other time periods because nobody tracked their times on the bases. Jim Thorpe was pretty fast – Olympic Gold Medals and junk – and so was Bo Jackson. There have been base-stealers in the past who were way ahead of the rest of the league – Ty Cobb, Lou Brock, Vince Coleman, Maury Wills – and it would be exciting to line them all up in their prime and have them race, but Hamilton is unusual in that he was already somewhat of a legend before he arrived in the majors after swiping more than 100 bases in a season twice including 155 in 2012.
In spite of his elite speed he is no better than a mediocre contributor on offense including this season where at the halfway point his oWAR is 0.0 – so exactly replacement level – and his career wRC+ is a disappointing and well below league average 70. Hamilton has almost no power, having totaled 15 home runs in the equivalent of three full seasons of plate appearances, so he has to make up for his lack of muscle by getting on base and stealing his way into scoring position. There is almost no reason for pitchers not to pound the strike zone against Hamilton, so they do. He gets about 4% more first pitch strikes than the rest of the league averages and sees slightly more strikes than the average hitter. Hamilton doesn’t draw nearly enough walks (career high of 36 in 2016) and strikes out way too often (career high of 117 in 2014 but on a pace to eclipse that this season).
    With all of that frustrating news about Hamilton’s offense why would the Reds continue to run him out to center field almost everyday? The main reason is actually his defense. Speed certainly can translate into defensive chops because no matter how good your reads are on balls hit to you, if you are slow you aren’t going to chase them down. Hamilton uses his track star-like speed to put up excellent range numbers while playing nearly error-free ball and throwing really well. He isn’t the best centerfielder in baseball but he is near the top season after season. That is why Billy Hamilton continues to notch 2.5-3.0 WAR seasons in spite of his disappointing offensive production. As long as he can do that he is definitely worth the starter’s role. As soon as his wheels slow a bit, and his range decreases to mortal proportions, then he will cease to be the answer, unless he can figure out how to get on base more often. It is already clear that the Reds should stop batting him first so that he can make fewer outs. Hamilton should be near the bottom of the order to keep his excellent defense in the game while limiting the damage that his weak bat does to the offense. And heck – he can still steal bases from the seven or eight hole.
    Standing off to Billy Hamilton’s right (from the batter’s perspective) is right-fielder, Scott Schebler. Schebler was a decent prospect with the Dodgers and finally made it to the majors to stay, not long after coming to the Reds in the three-way trade that sent “The Toddfather” to the White Sox. As a baby, Scott would probably belt home runs from his crib into the street, but his ability to get on base has always been just average in part because his game has a lot of swing and miss in it. His minor league slash line is .276/.342/.499, so while his power has drawn attention, his “just average” average and on-base percentage made him expendable to the Dodgers. Schebler slashed .311/.370/.564 in Louisville after the trade and the Reds called him up where he put up a wRC+ of 101 in roughly half a season. In roughly half a season to start 2017, Schebler has  a wRC+ of 120 – so roughly 20% better at creating runs than your average major leaguer. His defensive numbers have been a bit disappointing since he spent a decent amount of time in centerfield in the minors so you would expect a good translation to either corner outfield spot. To be fair, his range numbers have looked good this season as has his arm, but he has booted a few too many balls and that should even out based on his minor league numbers. I would expect defensive metrics to show him to be a slightly above average right fielder in the majors as soon as this season. Schebler looks to be a five or six hole hitter on a decent offensive team – one who can contribute average to good defense in a corner outfield spot – and that has value. While he probably won’t be a star, he certainly could be better than a 2.0 WAR player (already 1.6 this season) and that would make him a keeper on a rebuilding team even when the rebuild is done.
    Left field is the home of Adam Duvall. He didn’t become a starter in the majors until 2016 when he played as a 27 year old. That is a late start for most hitters, but Duvall is Schebler-like in that he hits a lot of home runs but doesn’t hit for a high average or get on base often enough to look like a star. In fact Duvall’s minor league slash line (.268/.338/.503) is almost identical to Schebler’s, making it seem like the Reds have identified an undervalued type of player that they can acquire on the cheap. Duvall hits a bunch of home runs, strikes out too much, and doesn’t quite walk enough but still managed a wRC+ of 104 in his first full season in the majors and 122 so far this season – sound like a familiar pattern? Duvall is most definitely a corner outfielder and actually has good defensive numbers showing good range and a strong arm. While he might not be the natural outfielder that Schebler is, he can play both corner outfield spots decently well and both corner infield spots. Due to small sample size constraints it’s hard to say exactly how good he is on the infield, but it is clear that he is a good left fielder – and a good left fielder who doesn’t create too many outs and is likely to hit 30 bombs a year – 33 last season and 19 in half a season so far. Who doesn’t want that? And if he can be a multi-tool able to shift positions to make the lineup work then he is even more valuable.
    Two of the Reds top 10 prospects, according to Keith Law, are outfielders – Jesse Winker (#2 for the Reds and #49 overall) and Taylor Trammell (#7 for the Reds). Both young outfielders are having excellent campaigns in 2017, Winker at triple-A and Trammell at full season A-ball). Winker is close, but Trammell has the much higher ceiling. Both men could potentially unseat the incumbents when they arrive, although Winker hasn’t demonstrated the power usually associated with a corner outfielder. Winker gets on base, hits for average and slugs in the .450s by hitting doubles and 10+ homers, but doesn’t steal bases because he isn’t the athlete that Trammell is. Taylor Trammell is fast and powerful, and at 19 is already holding his own in full season ball. He steals bases, drives extra-base hits and gets on base at a .360 clip so far in his young career. Both players look to be major league regulars with Trammell the more exciting of the two, while being much further away, and Winker, who is big league ready now, needing to increase his power numbers to have star potential. Both players differ from the incumbents in that they project to hit for average and walk enough to post good on-base numbers. Reds faithful should be excited to see what becomes of these two outfield youngsters.
    On the big league club, Hamilton is clearly the guy who has more star potential (although he is 26, so…) than the other two guys in the outfield, but based on his limited offensive ability and the sneaky goodness of Schebler and Duvall, he might be the worst bet of the three moving forward. The starters in the Reds outfield are all plus defenders and two of the three are already offensive pluses while falling short of star level. Hamilton has the raw talent to be a star for sure but if he can’t get on base then he might just top out as a really good fourth outfielder on a contending team. The youngsters on the way could give the Reds a really nice problem possibly pushing them to trade someone like Joey Votto for pitching and moving Duvall to first to make room. The Reds have a lot of offensive tools in place with more on the way. Their rebuild has worked in the outfield, and with more outfield help on the way it looks like the Reds are moving in the right direction.

Prospecting in Milwaukee has produced some gems, and a shiny future for Brewers fans.

The Baseball Equivalent of Dumpster Diving
by Jim Silva

    It isn’t so much that the Brewers found hidden gold, which they did, in the person of Eric Thames, but that they are rebuilding with an open mind and staying true to the rebuild. They have put together a competitive team without denting their standing as a top minor league system. Don’t get me wrong, they still have work to do and patience to exhibit before they can say the rebuild is done and the process was a success. However, one place where Milwaukee has creatively put together a competitive group on the field without hurting their future has been the infield where none of their regular starters from 2015 still hold their position and only one starter from the 2016 crew is still sporting a giant M on their cap. And so, I bring you the Brewers in transition, as illustrated by their infield.
    When teams attempt to rebuild, if they are not careful they can fall into the trap of change for the sake of change. Author Ellen Glasgow said, “All change is not growth, as all movement is not forward,” and that may best illustrate one of the pitfalls of rebuilding a major league baseball team and most of the history of the Chicago Cubs. The Brewers were a winning team as recently as 2014 when they missed a wild card spot by six games. Their club was reasonably young and they had All-Stars at catcher and center field who were both in their primes. Their rotation was topped by a 25 year old coming off a 17 win season and their top four starters all posted ERA+ over 100 – the fifth starter was one of their best prospects and had just completed a rookie campaign with solid peripherals, if not a good ERA. Unfortunately, the future didn’t materialize as the Brewers hoped it might. The team was in first place as late as August 31st and then stopped scoring runs. Ryan Braun, in his first year back from a suspension for PED use just wasn’t himself and put up a 1.0 WAR season. The pitching actually held on until the end, but it just wasn’t enough to support the sagging offense. The Brewers wisely decided that their best chance was to capitalize on what star power they had to get a jump on rebuilding their team through their farm system. In 2014, the Brewers organization was widely ranked as one of the worst two or three systems in all of baseball, so that meant the core they had on that 82 win team wasn’t going to get any help anytime soon.
    The best trade chips were catcher Jonathan Lucroy, their All Star catcher and pitch framer extraordinaire, Carlos Gomez, the All Star center fielder, and members of their bullpen including Will Smith, Tyler Thornburg, and Francisco Rodriguez. The front office in Milwaukee probably ordered a lot of dinners delivered as they traded all those players plus a few more in an attempt to rebuild their minor league system and acquire cheap, useful pieces for their parent club. Mission accomplished for both goals as the Brewers went from nearly dead last in their system rankings to a top five system in just two seasons, while creating a team on the field in Milwaukee capable of winning enough now to at least be in the wild card conversation.
    Their catcher, Jonathan LuCroy, was one of the most coveted trade chips that any team possessed so they had to make sure they got something pretty sweet in exchange (which they did in Lew Brinson, Luis Ortiz, and Ryan Cordell). The trade left them without a starting catcher until backup Martin Maldonado stepped up and showed that he could at least hold down the position – that is until he was also traded. The Brewers jettisoned their top two catchers and brought in three young catchers to see who could handle the job. Spring training saw Manny Pina, Jett Bandy, and Andrew Susac competing for the starting spot or a share of some kind of platoon. When you choose to cash in your star catcher, this is a pretty good way to cover the position since catchers take a beating over the course of the season. Three solid catchers to cover 162 games leaves you with the position adequately covered and resources freed up to use elsewhere. When all three catchers hit well in the spring, the Brewers were faced with one of those good problems. Susac, a former top prospect for the Giants who was blocked by some guy named Buster, got hurt first so Bandy and Pina got to start off splitting the job at the major league level with Bandy and his power bat receiving the lion’s share of the job. Susac is back from the DL and playing at triple-A, while Pina is hitting the snot out of the ball and playing good defense in a backup role to Bandy, who is batting around .280 and has four homers. The Brewers might find themselves in the position of having extra catching to trade if Susac can push up from triple-A and challenge Bandy or Pina – nice problem to have. Bandy has a strong arm and hits for power but doesn’t have a history of high batting averages or on-base percentages, while Pina has turned himself into a good defender who gets on base a lot. Susac has had a hard time staying healthy the last couple seasons but profiled as a catcher who could hit and hold his own behind the plate. The Brewers appear set at catcher for now and they did it on the cheap.
    One measure of organizational creativity in baseball is being willing to look in unusual places for talent. First baseman Eric Thames was lighting up the league in Korea after not quite making it in the majors through his age 25 season. While there is not a history of players from the states going to Korea, coming back, and earning starting jobs here, Thames isn’t the only position player to come to the states from Korea and earn a starting job. Jung Ho Kang put together a 4.0 WAR season for the Pirates in his first season in MLB after leaving Korea. That’s the kind of gamble teams take when they don’t have deep pockets and have to shop for bargains and take chances. The Brewers’ signing of Thames for three years for a total of $15 million with a player option for a fourth year is exactly the kind of gamble the Brewers should be taking and so far it looks like a crazy-great bargain. Reading interviews of Milwaukee’s new first baseman, it seems as though he has become a student of hitting and matured into the kind of player you’d want on your team for as long as you can have him. In Korea, Thames was a power hitter, but also hit for a high average while having some swing and miss in his game, but one who learned to take walks. A convert to zone hitting, Thames has become selective, learning that when he hits “his pitch” he will experience success. He practices the approach in some non-traditional ways and more traditionally studies video. His success in the majors is making it look like he has in fact become a different hitter – one without a plethora of holes in his swing. Thames is currently slashing .315/.435/.693 and is tied for the NL lead with 13 home runs. His wRC+ of 183 is making him look like a star, and even if he slows down a bit, the investment the Brewers made is looking like a huge steal.
    Speaking of huge steals, Jonathan Villar piled up huge stolen base numbers last season – 62 swiped bags to lead the league – in his first season with the Brewers after being traded from Houston for Cy Sneed, who is repeating double-A this season (the trade is the real huge steal, so far). It wasn’t clear that Villar would turn out to be a useable, speedy leadoff type when he was fighting for playing time with the Astros, who were and are full up with young prospects. Villar is only 26 and despite his early season struggles, looks like he might be the solution for the Brewers at second base and in the leadoff hole. His 79 walks and a .285 batting average combined to make Villar the leader in on-base percentage for Milwaukee, and 4.0 (ok, 3.9) WAR second basemen don’t grow on trees (or ferment in kegs – you know – the Brewers). Villar came up as a shortstop and was subpar with the glove which might account for why the Astros gave up on him. In addition to his speed Villar has shown surprising power, but at the expense of big strikeout totals – 174 strikeouts in 679 plate appearances last season. This season, the second baseman is leading the league in strikeouts already registering 51 and sporting a .287 BABIP which contrasts to his .373 BABIP of last season. It is unlikely that he will continue to struggle as mightily as he has so far with an on-base percentage under .300 and an OPS of .685. It is also unlikely that he will have the season he had in 2016 which appears to be partly due to some luck (the high BABIP). If he can find his way back to somewhere in the middle, Villar will still have value. To be sure, Villar isn’t a star, but his speed and ability to draw walks, hit for some power and average, and not be a disaster at second should make him the starter as long as his strikeouts don’t destroy his value. If he can repeat what he did last year then the Brewers have a viable starter and good leadoff hitter for the next few years, and that would be an incredibly valuable return on the trade, even if Cy Sneed turns into a major league starter.
    Villar’s double play partner, Orlando Arcia, was signed shortly after his 16th birthday and is the one Brewer who is a starter on the infield who began his career with the Brewers. Their top prospect, Arcia has struggled to hit in his first 300 or so plate appearances in the majors, and it seems that the organization has rushed him because of his excellent defense at short. Offensively, Arcia has yet to show that he can control the strike zone. In fact his walks to strikeout ratio has dropped every year as a professional to 0.32. When you strike out three times for every walk and you strike out 20% of the time, you need to hit .300 to have a viable on-base percentage and Arcia has been hanging around .220 since he arrived in Milwaukee. Arcia has shown speed and some extra-base power in the minors and occasionally will drive one out, but right now he is an offensive black hole with a great glove. He never hit more than eight home runs in a season in the minors but his minor league career average is .282 and he has swiped 104 bags while slugging .404, so there is clearly some talent there. Since the Brewers aren’t going to make the playoffs in the next year or two, perhaps the front office has decided that he finish developing at the major league level. If Arcia’s bat comes around and he turns into Andrelton Simmons light, then the Brewers are secure at shortstop for a long time, but they can only carry a gloveman like Arcia for so long when he is getting on base at only 27% of the time. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Brewers send him down and finally teach him to take the occasional pitch in hopes that he can learn to control the strike zone well enough to take advantage of his power and speed.
    Travis Shaw came to the Brewers in a last season trade for a reliever after disappointing the Red Sox as their third baseman last season. Small market teams like the Brewers have to scout their opposition well and go after players who are disappointments to other teams but still have ability – guys like Shaw and Villar. If they work out it’s a boon to the small market team, and if they fail then the investment isn’t so great that it crushes the team for years to come. For the Red Sox, Shaw was a backup corner infielder until Pablo Sandoval was lost for the season. It is unclear what the Sox were expecting, but Shaw produced similar value from the year before trading some offense for better defense and was a serviceable third baseman. So far this season, the 27 year old third baseman is hitting for power and a higher batting average. His swing profile looks quite a bit different from his usual pattern. Shaw is swinging at about 5% fewer pitches, around 6% fewer pitches outside of the strike zone, and making contact with approximately 4% more pitches than his career rate. He is also hitting a lot more ground balls which might mean there is some luck in his .283 average, but his BABIP is mundane and in line with his career rates so it is quite possible that this is what he is, and that ain’t bad. The defensive metrics are conflicted about his work so far this season, but he is at worst average, and probably better than that based on his last two campaigns at third base. With a wRC+ of 119 so far, he has been one of the better third basemen in the NL. Even if he slides back to just average, the Brewers have themselves a starting third baseman with some pop and a good glove. One man’s trash…
    Rebuilds are only as good as the minor leaguers developing in the organization and the Brewers have some good ones. The top two infield prospects are Isan Diaz, whom they received in the Jean Segura trade and Mauricio Dubon, who came over in the Thornburg for Shaw trade. Diaz is 20 and has hit for power at every stop – 43 homers in the equivalent of two full seasons. He’s currently at high-A Carolina and is a top 50 prospect in all of baseball. He might stick at shortstop or he could end up at second base, but the power appears to be real and if he draws walks like he did last season in full season A ball, his strikeouts won’t destroy his ability to get on base. Dubon has already reached double-A and, at age 22, profiles more as a high average hitter with speed, although he crushed 46 extra-base hits last year split between high-A and double-A. Dubon is a solid enough shortstop but has been tried at several positions, increasing his flexibility and the chances that he finds a spot on the roster in the next season or two. Lucas Erceg, the Brewers 2016 2nd round pick, was a top hundred prospect at third base on some lists before the season started but has struggled at high-A as a 22 year old. Gilbert Lara is another shortstop prospect, and like Erceg, he has struggled this season. Lara (19) is younger than Erceg and in his first year of full season ball. He has yet to hit at all anywhere, has shown no control of the strike zone, and has yet to demonstrate his projected power, so he might fall off prospect lists if he doesn’t find a way to produce this season.
    The young Brewers and future Brewers on the infield portend good things for fans in Milwaukee. The team is at a point in their rebuild where they need to see continued development from their youngsters and they must remain patient. Their good start – they currently sit in second place within a game of first – could prove detrimental to their future if management decides they should push some of their chips in to make a run. The team isn’t good enough at this point to make much of a postseason run if they can even get there. If the Brewers can stay the course, catch a few breaks with prospect development – Arcia in particular needs to turn into gold –  and have a few more good drafts, they could legitimately contend soon and for a decent stretch. Any divergence from the course could set their development path back, which for a small market team like the Brewers could prove dangerous to their future fortunes.

Rebuilding in Atlanta and the young players who might be the building blocks.

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.