It’s time to talk about the Braves and their left field situation in 2016, and the Braves had themselves an adventure at this position throughout the entire season. Before we talk about the current situation and what the future may hold, it’s worth going back to the halcyon days of the 2015 offseason — the days when we were all preparing ourselves for the possibility of a third baseman learning the ropes of the position on the fly.
Indeed, the Braves went into the 2016 season with the hopes that Hector Olivera could figure out how to play left field after coming to the conclusion during winter ball that the 31-year-old was not going to work as a third baseman. By the time the regular season rolled around, Olivera had earned the job in left field, but it wasn’t due to his defense — he crushed he ball at the plate during spring training, and the Braves figured that it was worth having his bat in the lineup while taking whatever he could give them as far as defense was concerned.
Hector Olivera played six whole games in 2016 and went 4-19 at the plate with five strikeouts and two RBIs. The extremely brief season was due to the fact that he got into a domestic violence incident (which he was found guilty of), and was eventually suspended for 82 games. The game on April 11th ended up being Olivera’s final game with the Braves, and he was eventually traded to the Padres (more on that later), who immediately designated him for assignment and unconditionally released him shortly after that. There’s a very good chance that Olivera is done as a major leaguer and his shameful actions brought an abrupt end to a brief and bizarre major league career.
Olivera’s actions really left the Braves in the lurch, as left field eventually turned into a revolving door. I was going to run down a few names to to let you know just how much of a revolving door the position was, but instead I’ll let Baseball-Reference tell you.
The Braves actually toyed with the idea turning Adonis Garcia into a left fielder. He was actually sent to Gwinnett to learn that position, but he ended up returning to the major league squad as a decent third baseman, so sometimes life will throw you a curveball. Either way, left field became a position of uncertainty for the Braves — when Mallex Smith went down for an extended period of time with a hand injury, Jeff Francoeur played the majority of games in left field. It was evident that he was not in any way a long-term solution to the position (with the slash line of .249/.290/.381 with a .287 wOBA and 77 wRC+ during his time in Atlanta), and the Braves eventually traded him to Miami.
The second half of the season brought about a completely different story, and it came from an extremely unlikely source. The Braves somehow managed to convince the Padres to take Hector Olivera in exchange for Matt Kemp. At the time, it was viewed largely as two teams exchanging toxic assets — the Padres wanted to shed money, and the Braves were willing to take on part of Kemp’s contract in order to rid themselves of Olivera and put a warm body out in left field.
Although Matt Kemp is nowhere near the level of player that he was during his prime with the Dodgers, he came to Atlanta motivated to play well. While he was just as advertised when it came to the defense (meaning that he wasn’t exactly impressive), he had a solid second half of the season at the plate for the Braves. He had a slash line of .280/.336/.519 with 12 homers, .354 wOBA, and a 120 wRC+ over 56 games, which was an improvement over the numbers that he put up with the Padres (.262/.285/.489 with 102 wRC+ and .322 wOBA). His impact on the Braves’ offense down the stretch was undeniable, and he played a major role in the offense making an unlikely resurgence in the final months of the season. You don’t normally see players of Kemp’s age get better at defense as they get older, but if he can keep hitting then it’ll definitely be reasonable to keep Kemp around for the time being.
Meanwhile, it could be argued that the Braves probably wouldn’t have made the trade for Kemp had Mallex Smith not gone down for an extended period of time. It appeared that the Braves were ready to throw Smith to the wolves as one of the starting outfielders for the majority of the 2016 season (he saw some time in center field while Ender Inciarte was on the disabled list), but once he returned from injury during the final stretch of the season, he became a fourth outfielder. That will probably be his role going into the 2017 season unless he takes a huge leap during the offseason and spring training. With that being said, that role won’t be the worst thing in the world for Smith at this point in his career — his speed and defense will make him a great fit for being a defensive-minded sub late in games, and if he progresses into becoming a starter then he’ll also be a great fit for being a leadoff hitter. The future is definitely interesting for Mallex Smith.
2016 was an odd, odd year for left fielders in Atlanta. The Braves went from having their hopes for a future mainstay in left field completely dashed to trading that player for a guy who could contribute for the next year or so if all goes well. It was a long, winding road from Hector Olivera to Matt Kemp, but we’re here now.