The Braves had big hopes for left field last year. Matt Kemp, who came over in a 2016 trade filled with the pomp and circumstance of his very own The Player’s Tribune proclaiming his long-standing love for the Braves, hit .280/.336/.519 down the stretch that year. The blemish on his 2017 prospects was that he needed to shed some weight, but those concerns were quelled when he came to camp in in better shape. But the season didn’t turn out how he or the Braves would like as he missed time to injury, gained weight, and finished the season playing 115 games and hitting .276/.318/.463 while playing mostly poor defense.
2018 may not be any better in left field than 2017 was, but it will sure be different. The Braves traded Kemp this past offseason to open the door for mega prospect Ronald Acuna (or Rrrrrrrrronald Acuuuuuuuuuuna, as he’s known in our home). There has been lots written about Acuna, most of it tantalyzing hype, but what should we expect from Acuna? First, don’t expect to see him the full season. They’ll undoubtedly keep him down long enough to avoid Super-2, but he still should make 450+ plate appearances assuming he’s healthy. Second, don’t expect him to win the MVP. Acuna is probably a future centerfielder, and has played centerfield mostly in the minors, so you should expect to see strong defense in left field. Kemp somehow managed to post a -13.9 fWAR last year in only those 115 games, so expect left field defense to be vastly improved from the previous year. Between offense and defense of all positions on the diamond, left field defense will see, by far, the biggest improvement. It won’t turn the Braves into a contender, but our young pitchers benefiting from even more defensive improvement will go a long way.
It’s also no stretch to say that you should see more speed out of that spot in the lineup. Kemp stole no bases, but surprisingly attempted to do so unsuccessfully twice (how bad were those catchers?), and only managed one triple in his 467 PAs. Acuna stole 44 bases at his three stops last year, but he did get caught 20 times as well. So while we should see some stolen bases, we won’t see those lofty stolen base numbers until he improves his reads and success rate. At the end of the day, we should see several instances where Acuna finishes a base ahead of where the incumbent would have. How many additional runs that creates, no one knows.
Offensively, we may not see much difference between Acuna and Kemp in his rookie season. That .276/.318/.463 line Kemp put up last year would be a perfectly acceptance line for Acuna to manage, and it’d be unreasonable to expect much more. But just like with second base, we will undoubtedly see better speed and defense from the replacement, but the offense may be more on par with 2017’s counterpart.
Another improvement we should expect to see is at the backup position. Last year, Danny Santana, Emilio Bonifacio, and Jace Peterson all logged innings in left field, all of which were sub-replacement level in production. Lane Adams was the lone player to produce in the positive in left field, but he only got 122 PAs across all 3 outfield positions. And he accumulated 0.7 fWAR, so if he is able to continue that production and make the roster, the backup position should be improved. Preston Tucker will battle Lane for a backup position, and while Tucker has a better prospect pedigree, he has not been productive since his 2015 rookie season. In 467 career PAs, Tucker has a -0.4 fWAR. Neither option is exciting if an injury were to occur to Acuna, but if you believe Lane’s sample in 2017, he may be the better option going forward. Tucker or Adams will most likely be an improvement over Santana, Bonifacio, and Jace, at least.
But like I said, left field may not better, but it will be very different.