Ed. note: Every year we publish a series of articles entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” in which we analyze what the Braves need to do in order to get better the following year. Here’s the intro to the series.
The outfield seems like a strong spot for the Braves. It is not. One memory that the past couple of seasons have drudged up from the late ‘80’s Braves teams is – one forgets what a good ballplayer looks like.
Nick Markakis, who just turned 33, is coming off of a 1.7 WAR in 2016, and has not had a WAR above 2.0 since the 2011 season. Markakis had a .269/.346/.397 slash line in 2016, and was able to increase his home run total from 3 to 13 as he continued to recover from neck surgery performed prior to the 2015 season. The low double digit home run total is typical of his recent seasons.
Since the 2012 season, Markakis has been consistently in the 1.7 to 2.0 WAR range, and it’s not a bad gamble to hope he can squeeze out another such season in 2017. That would make him good enough for the kind of team the Braves appear to be assembling for this season, but, realistically, his age and his borderline performance level make him a bad gamble for seasons going forward. Mark right field down as another position that will need to be addressed before there is a next great Braves team.
Matt Kemp just turned 32 and is coming off of a Blutarsky-esque 0.0 WAR in 2016 (0.0 in San Diego, and comically, -0.0 in Atlanta.) Despite contributing 35 home runs and a .268 BA, his value was affected by his .304 OBP and negative dWAR. It was supposedly once said after a Willie Mays triple that the only man who could have caught the ball, hit it. The next time Kemp flies out to left, we might say that the only person who couldn’t have caught it, hit it.
However, to be fair to Kemp, the idea that he is only a replacement level ballplayer doesn’t totally pass the smell test. His power is a scarce and valuable skill, and there is reason to be optimistic that his offensive output will continue to be aided by his departure from San Diego’s Petco Park. In 241 plate appearances with Atlanta, Kemp posted a toothsome .280/.336/.519 line. A final grasp at optimism is the note that after moving from right field in San Diego to left field in Atlanta, Kemp posted a range factor per 9 innings of 2.15 in 54 games in left, compared to a league average of 1.80.
Still, there remains the -0.0 WAR to temper the shiny objects and the small sample sizes. At age 32 the clock is ticking, and numerous injuries and arthritis have ground his wheels nearly to a halt, as he’s declined from 40 stolen bases in 2011 to just one swipe last year. It’s hard to be optimistic about what role Matt Kemp might play on the next great Braves team.
Ender Inciarte is the bright spot of the outfield, and is everything that one wants in building a team. Inciarte turned 26 in October, and is entering his prime. He is coming off of a 3.8 WAR season in 2016, and a 5.3(!) 2015, after which Arizona found him to be expendable. He provides value both offensively and defensively, and in 2017 he will be looking to build on a career .292/.337/.381 line in 1586 plate appearances, and to defend his first Gold Glove award. Inciarte got off to a slow start in 2016, reminding us not to get too excited over small sample sizes, and watching his defensive smarts and hustle softened the blow of losing that same type of entertainment that Andrelton Simmons had provided.
Mallex Smith had a breakout season in 2015 with a .303/.371/.378, 56 stolen base season, splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A. He followed up with an injury shortened MLB rookie season in 2016, where he posted a .238/.316/.365 in 215 PA’s. He stole 16 bases, but was caught 8 times. To my eye, it looks like there is room for improvement in his technique, which should result in an acceptable caught stealing percentage going forward if he can refine it.
Smith, who will be 24 in May, has the physical tools to be an excellent center fielder, and in limited time there he had a range factor / 9 innings of 3.15 compared to a league average of 2.39. Smith is not quite as polished as Inciarte is defensively, but they are similar enough defenders for me to say that for Mallex, glove is a mini-Ender’d thing.
Smith does not have enough power to play the corner outfield traditionally, but he could be a shutdown corner outfield defender, and that’s good, so who knows? Still, it’s unlikely that the Braves would settle on an Inciarte / Smith combo in their regular outfield. Smith, who is only 2 years younger than Inciarte, will need to demonstrate soon that he can be the offensive equivalent of Inciarte. He has not yet.
Recently-acquired Sean Rodriguez played 7 different positions for Pittsburgh in 2016, none of them remarkably well. Rodriguez, who will be 32 in April, is coming off a career year offensively, with 18 home runs part of a .270/.349/.510 line. When projecting his 2017, it’s important not to lose sight of his career 2435 PA’s and career line of .234/.303/.390. In his career, he’s played the infield more than the outfield, but he’s played everywhere but pitcher and catcher, so his versatility makes him a useful bench player.
Dustin Peterson is the Braves’ 18th-ranked prospect according to mlb.com, and the outfielder closest to the Majors. As a 21-year-old in Double-A, Peterson hit .282/.343/.431 with 12 home runs in 524 at bats. My understanding is that Mississippi is a poor park for home runs, and it will be interesting to see how Peterson’s power develops in 2017. He was quite young for his league, and there is reason to be optimistic that he will keep his OBP up as he matures into the next levels. Peterson was originally a 3rd baseman, but has been moved to left field.
Ronald Acuna is the Braves’ 17th-ranked prospect. The 18 year old spent most of 2016 at Rome, where he put up solid numbers in 171 PA’s, while a thumb injury limited his action. It’s premature to make projections on low-A stats and small sample sizes, but the scouting reports are exciting.
Braxton Davidson is the Braves’ 24th-ranked prospect. The 32nd pick in the 2014 draft, the 20-year-old already has 1196 career PA’s mostly in A and High A, and apart from a good OBP, the early numbers are not encouraging (.224/.344/.360.) Davidson has been young for his leagues, though, so there’s still reason to keep an eye on him. He’s a corner outfielder, so it’s extremely important that Braxton ups his offensive output as he matures.
Alex Jackson has just been acquired from Seattle, and there is no report yet where Jackson stands on the list of Braves prospects, but Jackson was the number 6 prospect in the Mariners system, after having been taken with the 6th overall pick in the 2014 draft. He seems, at first glance, to be similar to Braxton Davidson; a high draft pick who, while young, has not produced much offensively to date even in the low minors. Interestingly, mlb.com notes that Jackson was a catcher when drafted, but moved to the outfield after signing.
There are a number of interesting free agent outfielders remaining, but the Braves don’t appear to be in on any of them. High profile names include: Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Bautista, Dexter Fowler, Mark Trumbo, Ian Desmond, and Carlos Gomez, plus familiar names such as Gregor Blanco and Jeff Francouer. http://www.spotrac.com/mlb/free-agents/outfield/
There was some talk of trading an outfielder, but it seems to have dissipated, perhaps not coincidentally around the time of Mallex Smith’s injury and struggles in winter ball. That is sensible enough for 2017, but the interesting question is: what do the Braves want their outfield to look like in 2018 and beyond? Markakis and Kemp are getting older and seem to be expendable. But what kind of return could you get, and should it even be a replacement outfielder? Inciarte would likely bring the best return, but Inciarte is the kind of player the Braves should be trying to acquire, and it is far from guaranteed that Smith will be a full replacement.
It looks to me as if the Braves are going to take another year to see what they have with Smith, and that they expect Dustin Peterson to take an outfield spot in 2018.