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Braves Player Projections: Infielders

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Freddie Freeman, Erick Aybar, and a lot of possible pain points

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Before and throughout the 2015 season, discussions regarding position player production for the Atlanta Braves largely centered around Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons, two guys comprising half of the infield and much of the team's projected (and actual) productivity. Both players were safe-ish bets for 3-4 WAR, even with Simmons coming off a poor 2014 that saw him only net 2 WAR. Fast forward to 2016, and even that half of the infield may potentially not look so solid anymore, albeit for different reasons. Simmons, of course, has been traded; Freddie Freeman, meanwhile continues to be bedeviled (and bedevil fans) with a will-it-won't-it drama regarding the health and sanctity of his wrist.

The rest of the infield, then as now, is something between a question mark and a portent of despair. Given their track records, or a lack thereof, below average seems like a decent bet for the other infielders the Braves have amassed going into 2016, and a few may be more like below-replacement-level guys who may produce less than the proverbial warm body.

A summary of the projections for these guys (for a summary to what stuff means or why I am/am not using specific  measures, see the catcher projections post) is below.

A few notes here. First, I don't really know what positions some of these players will be deployed at. The "Position" column is really a guess of where the players are likely to be deployed if/when they play, but Bonifacio may only be used as an outfielder (if he makes the club at all), and I suppose that Nick Swisher could also play in a corner (though it would be a terrible idea). I'm also not considering Adonis Garcia or Kelly Johnson playing left field, or Jace Peterson playing shortstop when Erick Aybar takes a game off, but those are all very real possibilities. Basically, don't take that column too seriously; the infield (and outfield) situations are likely going to be fairly fluid in 2016.

Additionally, the infield chunk of the roster is currently made up of a set of fairly predictable (at least, we'd like to think so...) veterans and some guys that might be harder to pin down for various reasons. Emilio Bonifacio's defensive acumen varies widely depending on where he's deployed; Daniel Castro, Adonis Garcia, and Jace Peterson all have limited major league track records, especially defensively, on which predictions can be based. The gray shading reflects numbers that I'm just plain not that confident in. You'll see that when compared to the overall set of players, as well as the Steamer/ZiPS projections, the WAR projected by IWAG does not always make sense in the context of summing together the player's overall offensive and defensive production. This is mostly by design: when projecting, it seemed to me less likely that each player would "pan out" and be at their pegged talent level on both sides of the ball, so the IWAG-projected WAR tends to undershoot. (In other words, compare the projections for Peterson and Aybar - they don't suggest they should be off by 1.5 wins, but that's essentially because I'm skeptical that Peterson will combine his offense and defense at those levels, though I could see one or the other happening like that more easily.) All in all, WAR projections are hardly a precise thing (WAR itself is not exactly a knife-edge of precision), and for those gray-shaded cells, consider them to have extra-large spoonfuls of uncertainty baked in.

Erick Aybar

Aybar's been somewhat of a strobe light his last three seasons, going from 1.5 fWAR in 2013 to 4.3 in 2014 and then down to 1.0 in 2015. Both his hitting and defensive results have bounced around over this stretch, with the wRC+s going 91, 101, 80, and him being rated a poor defender in the bookend years but a very good one in 2014. (DRS actually had him similarly below average in 2014 and 2015, but even worse in 2013.) Still, Steamer and ZiPS are mostly in agreement on Aybar's 2015 outlook: a below average but not poor bat, and a livable-but-below average defensive contribution, combining for a somewhat below average, but better than bench quality player.

I think his power will bounce back a bit from what really seems like a trough in 2015, and he's shown the ability to hit fairly well before, so I think he'll hit a bit better. He also tends to put up good baserunning numbers and he should get a decent chance to run and take extra bases given the lack of over-the-fence power in the lineup, so I think he'll get pretty close to being a league-average player despite what might be some below-average shortstop defense.

Gordon Beckham

For someone who's been around a while, Gordon Beckham has really not hit much at all, and he seems like your generic "utility guy for when an infielder has an off-day" guy from a numbers standpoint. Steamer seems to be very down on his defense even though he generally does not play the infield below-averagely, and ZiPS has the more traditional "Gordon Beckham as role player" outlook. I'm more with ZiPS here, but it's worth mentioning that the outlook for him is some really poor offense across the board, meaning that he's unlikely to approach "quality backup" territory in whatever playing time he does get.

Emilio Bonifacio

Let me preface this section by saying that I really don't like Emilio Bonifacio, the player. I joke about it a lot, but the real reason I'm not a fan is because Emilio Bonifacio represents the confluence of an array of overvalued skillsets that don't really mean much from a value or production standpoint in today's game. He's "flexible" defensively, but that doesn't matter much because he's probably not very good at the higher skill fielding positions (and he's moved around so much it's hard to get a good read on his defense anyway). He's fast but with poor on-base skills, and he's a little better at making contact than average, but it doesn't really help him offensively. He's the sort of guy that I think appeals more on a fantasy sports "I need a guy that can fill in everywhere" level than a situation where you want production from your role players and backups more than a warm body.

To that end, and because his game is so BABIP-dependent, Bonifacio's value tends to variegate between "poor backup" and "hey, this guy is pretty good!" which is part of what makes him so maddening. You may want "flash of success" Bonifacio but you'll probably get "hit for a wRC+ of 1 in 2015" Bonifacio, and that's not exactly the kind of veteran presents anyone's interested in. In any case, the general expectation is that Bonifacio ends up below replacement in 2016. I actually think that in general, he might hit better than predicted by Steamer/ZiPS, and might actually be a plus on defense (assuming he plays somewhere where he's not a liability), but in terms of composite performance, I think he'll be abysmal. There have been some rumblings that he may not make the roster out of Spring Training and the Braves will eat his guaranteed salary, which will be kind of a waste of funds, but better than throwing good PAs after bad money.

Daniel Castro

There's not much to say about Castro given his relatively low exposure at the major league level. The defense has seemed fairly legit and average-y or better so far, across the metrics (which mean pretty much nothing at his exposure level to date), the eye test, and scouting reports. The bat wasn't there in 100 PAs last year and he hit nearly as poorly at Gwinnett (.029 ISO... it's hard to get it that low!), so there shouldn't be any expectation that he'd be a good bench contributor. Still, he's probably above replacement level on the basis of his defense if nothing else, which is something that can't be said for every prospective infielder on the 40-man and non-roster invitee rosters right now.

Freddie Freeman

Freeman can be thought of, at this point, as a perennial above-average player. Sure, he's only got three seasons of track record of doing this, but three seasons can be an eternity in effective baseball production (there have been only 59 hitters who have averaged 3+ fWAR over the past three seasons; Freeman has been the 27th-most valuable position player since 2013, despite his wrist ailments last year, and that only Chris Davis, Jose Bautista, and Miguel Cabrera have been more valuable than him with greater detriments to value from their defense).

ZiPS and Steamer are on board with this interpretation of Freeman, as well they should be: he once again projects as well above average, potential wrist issues or not. My own thoughts are slightly more optimistic: his defense is at least slightly positive relative to his average peer at this point, I'd guess, and I think his bat will be closer to 2014 than 2015. The reasoning on the latter point is that despite the wrist issue, which cost Freeman a month of good production last year, he seemed to bounce back even while it was bothering him as he got further removed from date of injury. Even in Spring Training this year, the pattern is somewhat similar: even if he's ailing, it doesn't seem to impact his on-field results much. (Again, the exception is the actual month of down production he suffered after coming back from the wrist injury.)

Part of what makes Freeman so ripe for a bounce-back (and in this case, it's not even a large bounce-back, we're talking 10 or fewer points of wRC+ here) is that many of his peripherals did not suffer even given the wrist injury: his overall ISO, HR/FB, and quality of contact stats seemed pretty good in 2015 even with one poor month thrown in the mix. On top of that, he showed an ability to just avoid swinging and draw more walks rather than taking some of those hacks that often result in line drive loopers over the infield: his walk rate started to spike in August even as he was hitting kind of poorly, bolstering his overall stats. (Then, in September, he got back to both hitting the ball hard and walking a ton.) I'd look for him to get back to his 2014 levels of production, but even if he doesn't, he shouldn't be that far off that pace, either.

Adonis Garcia

Boy, Garcia is a toughie to project. He has legitimate, big-time power, yet somehow that power did not really manifest itself or come into play during his lengthy minor league journey. The seeming aberration is very evident if you just glance at his stats: the SLG and wRC+ were off the charts in his 200 PAs in Atlanta last season compared to his track record, and the only thing that comes close is a short stint in AA back in 2012. Even with his big-time physical power, Garcia likely won't sustain a HR/FB north of 20%. Still, that doesn't mean he can't sustain one at 15% or so, which should give him a decent bat even if he never walks. Steamer and especially ZiPS are more skeptical, and I don't blame them, because right now he looks and quacks more like a duck on a hot stretch than a hidden gem of a duck that will be very productive in the immediate future, but I'm willing to be more optimistic.

Defensively, Garcia is also somewhat tough to forecast, because he looked really sloppy (and continues to, if Spring Training is any indication_ while manning third, yet he paired that with some decent range and was basically average by UZR. By DRS, meanwhile, he was considerably worse and "pretty bad" at third in his small sample, but if we regress positive deviations from league average, we should regress negative ones too, so I figure he'll be close-ish to league average there. This is another case where component-wise, I think he might have the chops to be a 2-win, league average player. But, I think the chances of those breaking fortuitously for him and the Braves aren't so high, so on a composite, I'd expect him to be in the "decent bench bat" category, even though he'll likely be drawing starts for the club. Still, given his track record, the error bars are very high: I wouldn't be surprised at marginally above replacement nor a 2-win season from him, though ZiPS does seem to be overly pessimistic about his chances to me.

Kelly Johnson

Kelly's back, again! In one sense, the biggest question for him is where he'll end up defensively, and how many runs that ends up costing the team (hint: it'll be a lot). With that said, despite him aging, he still showed he could hack it in part-time duty last year, and is not a lefty that is commonly outmatched by exposure against lefty pitchers. His HR/FB was anomalous last year, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him come in closer to 100 wRC+ than 90 for a second consecutive year. To that end, I figure he'll be more of the same run-of-the-mill bench/backup type that the Braves have amassed a ton of this year, and not necessarily a worthy starter. But hey, at least I figure he'll be better than replacement level, unlike Steamer, which is expecting a serious dropoff from his hitting next year.

Jace Peterson

I really don't know what to make of Jace Peterson, after taking a bunch of time to look over his stats and performance. The recently-surfaced information about his injuries and playing through them over the course of 2015 further muddies those waters. Long story short, Steamer and ZiPS think he'll continue to be a pretty poor hitter, with defensive contributions ranging from slightly below average to slightly above average. I think he's shown enough that assuming he doesn't get into bad habits at the plate again (those fly balls, sigh), he can get in the mid-80s as far as wRC+ goes, which is basically a composite of his first half, mixing in some luck on fly balls and avoiding the long tail of bad habits and possible lingering injuries. It's somewhat the same defensively, though not having Simmons as a partner up the middle may very well harm his metrics there.

Overall, those components suggest a repeat or a bit of an improvement over his 2015 line, but I realize there's a lot of risk there, both due to defensive volatility and because there are serious issues in his offensive game (exposure against lefties, not much real power) to work with. So again, giant error bars, but I figure he'll be somewhere between replacement level and a 1-win player over 600 PAs. Still, he's very young and has the tools to be kinda-decent at everything, so maybe he'll take a step forward and we'll all look dumb as far as Peterson goes by the end of 2016.

Nick Swisher

Last, and perhaps least, we have Nick Swisher. Swisher can't really play the field anymore without costing his team a bunch of runs, and duck and cover if he ever plays the outfield again. Offensively, the once-reliable source of power and OBP is kind of washed up. The consensus seems to be that he's either replacement level or worse, and to me, the question is just how far below replacement level he is, given that there's a ton of defensive liability there. Of course, he may just be cut, in which case we won't find out, and that may be the best outcome.