It gets that way when you don’t have a General Manager in place, or really even know what your front office is going to look like, or how many of your prospects are going to be cast into free agency. One thing that is clear is that the 2018 Braves need to get substantially better in every area.
Focusing on the offensive side, the Braves finished 2017 11th in the National League in Runs Scored, largely “fueled” by a 9th place finish in On Base Percentage, an 11th place finish in Slugging Percentage, and a 13th place finish in Home Runs. Third base is the position, for good or ill, where the new leadership has the most flexibility. It will be disappointing if the Braves don’t try to upgrade their power numbers here.
Got it? Now let’s talk about Johan Camargo, Rio Ruiz, and Adonis Garcia. The trio played 43, 41, and 39 Major League games respectively at 3rd base last season, representing no single true incumbent.
Camarago had the best season, coming out of nowhere to produce some impressive numbers in a limited number of appearances. He had a .299/.331/.452 batting average / on base percentage /slugging percentage “slash” line in 256 plate appearances, and accumulated 1.1 WAR. Camargo had not shown much offensive promise before 2017, hitting .267 with 4 homers in 446 AA at bats in 2016, and .258 with 1 home run in 391 AB at A+ Carolina in 2015, and with no AAA record at all.
The switch hitting Camargo will turn 24 in December, and has played mostly shortstop in the minors. The Braves could do worse than to turn some positions over to some guys with some upside and try to get lucky. My preference here is to have Camargo battle for a middle infield spot where his bat would play better, and to try to to get lucky with a guy with more power potential at 3rd base.
Rio Ruiz will also be 24 in 2018. The left handed hitter delivered some needed improvement at AAA in 2017 in his power numbers, hitting 16 home runs in 388 AB, although his OBP went down somewhat. Ruiz got 150 AB in Atlanta, batting only .193 with 4 home runs. He still managed a .283 on base percentage in Atlanta, and he has consistently displayed a skill at getting on base throughout his minor league career. Ruiz now has 853 AAA at bats, slashing .260/.340/.461 with 26 home runs. None of this inspires much confidence that Ruiz is ready to provide the power to be the 3rd baseman the Braves need in 2018, but it will be interesting to see how he develops as he gets closer to his baseball prime 2 – 4 seasons from now.
At least Ruiz falls into the category of guys you might get lucky with. Adonis Garcia will be 33 in 2018. Plagued by injuries in 2017, Garcia was not able to duplicate his passable 2016 season where he hit .273 with 14 home runs in 532 at bats. At age 33 in 2018, it’s unlikely Garcia will ever exceed those numbers, were he to be given the chance. Contra Ruiz, Garcia consistently provides little additional value through OBP. He could be a useful right handed bat off the bench, but provides little position flexibility for a bench player, beyond a little left field. He could also be a right handed platoon partner for Ruiz, but I will be disappointed if the Braves go with any of these internal options.
How you feel about how aggressive the Braves should be in the Free Agent or Trade market probably depends on how you feel about Austin Riley. At age 20, Riley got his first taste above low A ball in 2017, and matched his age in home runs. Eight of those came at AA Mississippi, in 178 AB. Riley tacked on 306 AB at A+ Florida, and produced a combined .275/.339/.446 slash line. I’m concerned about how Riley’s on-base numbers at that level will translate to the Major League level, and I’ll be interested to watch if Riley can get on base at the next level at a sufficient rate. If so, he will likely be in Atlanta by 2019. At 21, he’ll be young for his league in 2018, whether he is in AAA or AA, so I would not consider it a disappointment if he is not ready for Atlanta in 2019. Riley is the 10th ranked 3rd base prospect according to MLB.com,and 10th overall in the Braves system.
Travis Demeritte is another player like Rio Ruiz, who the Braves would be wise to keep an eye on and see where he stands when he is closer to maturity. Currently a 2nd baseman, Demeritte has the power and arm to play 3rd, if he is blocked at 2nd. At age 23, coming off 15 home runs in 458 at bats at AA, and with a long history of inability to get on base, he will not factor into any Major League plans in 2018.
The trouble with most free agents is that they are already past their prime. That does not mean that you can’t pick up a useful player in his 30s, it just means that at best get what you pay for, and at worst you get Melvin Upton. There’s no upside to it.
The marquee names are Mike Moustakas and Todd Frazier. Moustakas actually won’t turn 30 until September of next year, and is coming off a career year in home runs with 38. A .314 OBP and the first negative dWar of his career contributed to a calculated WAR of only 1.8 though. For his career, Moustakas has a .251/.305/.425 slash line.
Frazier hit 27 home runs between the White Sox and the Yankees, in 474 at bats, and managed a .344 OBP despite a .213 BA. Frazier will be 32 in 2018. With a career batting average of .245 and OBP of .321, his 2017 season could be a warning to watch for Bill James’ old adage that an older player starts to walk more when he realizes he can’t hit any more.
Danny Valencia and Mark Reynolds posted competent seasons. Valencia will be 34 in September, and I don’t project him to be a huge upgrade over a Ruiz/Garcia platoon. Reynolds has not played 3rd base since 2015. The rest of the list is old or uncompelling, or old and uncompelling.
It is possible that we will look at bringing Brandon Phillips back as a 3rd baseman. I enjoyed watching Brandon play. Bringing him back would be a clear signal the Braves do not intend to get any better in 2018.
Once upon a time there was a Plan, and the Plan involved trading established ballplayers for prospects, with the idea some would succeed, some would flame out, and some would be traded for established ballplayers. I’m not sure the Plan understood the conservation of mass, but now the Plan is dead. Long live the Plan, whatever it is.
Here are some players with variable levels of upside who may or may not be acquirable for various sized packages of prospects and/or money, all dependent on what kind of splash the new management wants to make, if any.
Maikel Franco, Philadelphia. Turns 26 in August , and has regressed each season, posting -0.2 WAR in 2017. Franco has a .247/.300/.426 career slash line and hit 25 home runs in 2017. The Phillies need to make room for J.P. Crawford, probably by trading Freddy Galvis or Cesar Hernandez, but one can ask.
Eugenio Suarez, Cincinnati. Suarez will be 27 in 2018, and had 3.7 WAR in 2017.
Miguel Sano, Eduardo Escobar, Minnesota
The Twins don’t need both these guys, right? Escobar will be 29 for the 2017 season, and would be a placeholder. Realistically, we are not getting Sano.
Wilmer Flores, Mets. Has always seemed underappreciated in New York. Will be 27 in 2018.
Cory Spangenberg, San Diego. Will be 27 in 2018. Might be worth a shot to get him out of Petco.
Jedd Gyorko, St. Louis. Will be 30 in 2018. No upside left really, but better than what we have, and probably available.
And so they lived happily ever after. Get it done, _______.