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Debating the Braves Trading for Adam Duvall

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Eric and Ivan discuss a player whose name was floated in the past, but seems to have dropped off the table.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Chicago Cubs Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Eric: Much has been made over the Braves’ interest in Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich and with good reason. Yelich is a very good player, has a very reasonable contract given his production, and he has several years of team control remaining. All of these things are very good, especially when you think of an outfield that could potentially consist of Yelich, prospect wunderkind Ronald Acuna, and defensive whiz Ender Inciarte.

Speaking of Acuna, the big topic of conversation lately has been the Marlins’ insistence in early talks that Acuna be a part of any trade for Yelich. Given how appealing Yelich is, they have every right to ask for him and the Braves have every reason to not do the deal. That makes the deal a tough fit in some respects, but the Braves still have a wealth of young talent in the minors and could still get a deal done if they were so inclined, if the Marlins became more flexible. Whether or not that happens is very much up in the air.

However, one name that was floated early on in the offseason that hasn’t received much traction lately but could be an interesting fit (assuming the Braves would be able to move on from Nick Markakis) is the RedsAdam Duvall. In this scenario, Duvall would be in left field, Inciarte in center, and then Ronald Acuna eventually in right.

Duvall has had an interesting career thus far. After a good year by most metrics in 2016 that saw him post a 2.9 fWAR with 33 home runs, 103 RBIs, and strong defense in left field, 2017 saw his WAR drop to 1.8 despite having fairly similar offensive production. Given that this was weird to me and he was interesting as a trade candidate that would be less costly to acquire than someone like Yelich, I did what I often do when I get curious… I started chatting with Ivan.

Our chats are always fun because neither one of us ever have our minds made up about a given topic unless there is a very clear reason one way or the other. This one was no exception, so we thought it would be fun to do a bit of a debate, as it were, regarding the merits of a trade for Adam Duvall trade as a result of that conversation. Keep in mind that neither Ivan or I have anything invested in either side as a lot of it comes down to price and some speculation either way.

For me, the case for Duvall is that he would be less costly to get in a trade (something like a 60 FV pitcher and a little more or two 55 FV players would get in the ballpark, at least according to the usual Fangraphs Top 100 prospect valuation that came out prior to the start of last season) than it would cost to get Yelich. His performance on the road was better than at home (Ivan will have more on that in a second... it is definitely a weird split given that his home park was a VERY friendly one), which gives me some cause for optimism that he could be a hitter closer to the 2016 version of himself than the 2017 one, while providing some power production for a team that could use some more in that department. While he is absolutely not as good a player as Yelich, I would feel good about fielding a Duvall/Inciarte/Acuna outfield, which would allow the Braves’ other assets to be deployed in other ways. Alright Ivan, you are up… tell me how wrong I am.

Ivan: So, let’s start out this way -- I don’t think you’re wrong. In fact, I think, in general, assessments of Duvall are not going to vary very much. Rather, my case “against” Duvall is really the case for a more idealized roster construction. We can get into the math (and the weird splits) you noted a bit later, but taking stock of the three projection systems that we have easy access to:

  • Steamer really doesn’t like Duvall, and pegs him for a below-average contribution offensively (89 wRC+) while providing only somewhat above-average defense in a corner. Steamer’s estimate for Duvall is 0.8 fWAR/600, which is basically a bench player.
  • The difference between ZiPS and Steamer is essentially that ZiPS has him as an average bat (99 wRC+). I believe their defensive expectations are the same, but that difference is essentially the difference between Steamer having him as a fourth outfielder and ZiPS having him as an average regular. Hitting is important. (So is everything else!) ZiPS pegs Duvall at 2.0 fWAR/600, or thereabouts.
  • IWAG, which I’m partial to (because I made it and it reflects a chunk of my thoughts on how to project players… which is why I made it…) is slightly more positive than ZiPS… slightly. IWAG has Duvall at a 102 wRC+ and 2.1 fWAR/600. It’s also somewhat higher on his defense, figuring he can essentially be a net zero defender, even with the positional adjustment for playing a corner.

So, he’s average. I can expound more on why I think he’s unlikely to vary his performance much from the “bucket of averageness,” so before I get into that, let me ask a question: do you think Duvall is basically an average outfielder? If that’s the case, why should the Braves target him particularly? If not -- then I’m more interested in acquiring him, but why should we believe in Duvall’s ability to repeat 2016, or do something that goes beyond his most recent season?

Eric: Well here are my things about Duvall that make him interesting to me. The first is that while I do not fully understand why this is the case, given that his home park was the hitter’s paradise that is Great American Ball Park, he was a significantly better hitter on the road, which gives me more optimism in the bat. His road wRC+ was 111 (as opposed to 85 wRC+ at home) and he showed more power away from home as well. While I absolutely don’t think that SunTrust Park is more friendly to righties than GABP, there seems to be some reason to be hopeful, since it does seem safe to assume that the large majority of the parks he was producing well in were in line with what one could hope he could produce in SunTrust (I could easily be wrong here).

My other cause of curiosity with him has to do with his defensive value. I think we can both agree that he would be a pretty drastic defensive upgrade over Matt Kemp because... well, this is Matt Kemp we are talking about. However, a chunk of his value that he lost from 2016 vs. 2017 was due to drop-offs in measurable production on the defensive side of the ball. Despite being near the top of the qualified leaders defensively in left field in 2017, there was a bit of a drop-off in his production that altered his bottom line WAR numbers. He had 14 defensive runs saved in 2016 versus 8 defensive runs saved in 2017 and his range metrics and UZR all went down a little bit. I don’t have any real insight into why that happened, but without an injury or obvious thing to point to, it gives me reason to chalk up some of that to the volatility that defensive metrics can have. Could he be the 2017 defensive version of himself from here on out? Sure, but given how many high-quality plays he makes (top 25 among all players with 25 or more outfield opportunities in 2017 at converting five-star and four-star opportunities into catches, and similarly top 25 among all outfielders in Statcast’s Outs Above Average and Catch Probability Added metrics), I feel comfortable in thinking he is closer to the 2016 version than the 2017 one.

I guess my question here is that what is so appreciably different or concerning about Duvall now to make one believe that his level of production isn’t sustainable and could trend positively in new surroundings? While it would certainly be weird, it is possible that he just didn’t hit particularly well in GABP for some reason and a change of scenery could lead to him producing better across the board as some of his home/road splits seem to indicate. If we are right about the prospect cost to get him, what makes that a less than ideal fit?

Ivan: Let’s take these in order. First, the park thing is indeed super-weird. Sometimes, you get players whose swings or batted ball profiles are geared towards a particular type of park, right? That’s a cool roster construction thing that’s useful to think about. In 2016, Duvall’s split was 97 wRC+ at home and 112 wRC+ on the road. In 2017, it was even more dramatic: 85 wRC+ at home, 111 wRC+ on the road. In fact, the deeper you look at it, the weirder it gets.

That’s for his entire career. They’re not too different… except his home ballpark, the bandbox in Cincinnati, is tiny. You’d figure he’d have a higher HR/FB% there, and it is… but just barely. (By the way, 17.0% is the league average HR/FB for visiting players at his home park, so nothing’s out of whack there.) But, why is he hitting more grounders at home? Shouldn’t he being doing the opposite? That’s super-weird. It gets even weirder when you isolate 2017:

Also, the Reds have the highest park factor for homers for a righty hitter (+14%). Yet, here Duvall is, somehow not hitting prodigious homers as often as you’d expect at home, en route to being severely penalized for being a righty not benefiting from the friendly confines of his home park. It’s not like he’s an Eric Hosmer type who mostly hits grounders, either. He just somehow hasn’t managed to profit from fly balls at home to the extent you’d figure. It’s very strange.

(By the way, this is what Duvall’s homers tend to look like. If you browse through his homer highlights, they’re pretty much all this:

This actually gets into one of my fit concerns. We don’t have great park factors for SunTrust Park yet, but from what we do know (courtesy Baseball Prospectus), SunTrust Park was very favorable to lefty hitters (+8%, one of the highest factors for any park and handedness), and unfavorable to righty hitters (-5%, among the lower factors for any park and handedness). Duvall is a righty who mostly pulls the ball (he’s almost in the top 10 percent of hitters with 400+ PAs for pull percentage, and is a top 10 hitter overall, or 97th percentile, for fly ball percentage for these hitters). This is one of the reasons I think he’d a bit of an odd duck in terms of placement into a contemporary Atlanta Braves lineup.

But, here’s an interesting facet in which you might be exactly right: what if Duvall doesn’t pull a lot of his fly balls? Then, he’d make sense at STP, and it could also explain his pretty bleh results at home so far. However, things don’t play out that way. Righty hitters pulled 14 percent of their fly balls (401 wRC+ on those balls, though!) in 2017; Duvall actually pulled 26 percent of his fly balls (362 wRC+). So, no, he’s a pull-first guy and a fly ball guy, and also a pulled fly ball guy. Yeah, I think the fit is awkward.

Now let’s pivot to the defense. Duvall has accumulated about 2,600 innings in the outfield thus far, which is two seasons, or about two-thirds of the usual “three year sample of defensive data” we cite as a rule of thumb for a sufficiently large sample to analyze. But, as you note, the components of that are super-weird over these last two years:

  • In 2016, he had +9 range runs per UZR, and +13 by DRS. That’s elite. By 2017, though, these fell to +2 by UZR, and -1 by DRS. Very steep drop.
  • In 2016, he had +2 arm runs per UZR, and +1 by DRS. But, in 2017, these went up to +4 and +7, respectively.

In total, you’ve got a guy whose range dipped, but whose arm “got better.” In total, UZR and DRS aren’t too far apart, because DRS has him as a +11 fielder over a full season (or +7 if regressed to cover the season he hasn’t played yet), while UZR’s is at +8.5ish (or +6 if regressed). Incidentally, this is pretty close tow here IWAG has him, as essentially a +7 fielder.

If he’s more like a +9 or +14 fielder (UZR, DRS, respectively), as he was in 2016, then there’s your extra runs that push him from an average player to an above-average one. In fact, half of his difference between his 2016 and 2017 fWAR totals (2.9 vs. 1.8) can be explained by his defensive variation (+4.4 after positional adjustment to -1.4 in 2017). So I guess it comes down to how much you want to bet that one is an anomaly versus another. I feel more comfortable just averaging and regressing the two, at which point he looks average.

I’ve touched on this a bit, but these things combine to make him a bit of an awkward fit. To be clear, he’s not by any means a bad player. Usually, when a team gets a league-average player who’s under team control for a while, that’s awesome. All teams need those players. My question is whether those teams need to pay market rates on the trade front for those players… especially when the following worry me about them:

  • The aforementioned handedness split at SunTrust Park working against Duvall;
  • The likelihood that he would need to replicate 2016 both with the bat and the glove to be above-average, and otherwise he’s just average;
  • The idea that as a righty, it’s tempting to make him the weak side of a platoon, therefore opening up the question of now needing another player to represent the strong side of said platoon;
  • The potential downside risk of MLB doing something (who knows what) to the probably-juiced ball, making Duvall struggle even more relative to his peers given his profile; and, while I didn’t mention this until now
  • A very strange trend in his plate discipline stats that saw him increase his o-contact but decrease his z-contact last year relative to 2016, paired with declining exit velocity (88.6 to 87.3), declining exit velocity on fly balls (94.4 to 92.5), percent of balls hit at 95 mph or greater (42.4 percent to 32.7 percent), and a decline in the percent of PAs resulting in a barreled ball (7.9 percent to 5.9 percent). Combine this with a decreased tendency to pull, and you have something at least somewhat reminiscent of the Braves trying to change Andrelton Simmons ineffectually. My understanding is that Duvall is a big donkey (meant lovingly) who wants to pound the snot out of the ball… so he should probably be doing that in the juiced ball era, rather than moving away from it. I’d rather try to fit a guy on the upswing into the roster, than a guy on the downswing, is what I think I’m saying.

So, all that aside, though, you’re the prospect guy, so let me turn it back to you while artfully deflecting your original question.

According to the table below, given that Duvall is controlled for four more years, his surplus value (using $8M per win, for consistency with prospect values that will come up in a bit) is short of $50 million.

Prospects have some value, but not many have value to approximate a $50 million price tag. Given what the Braves actually have in hand, what would you feel comfortable trading for Duvall, in terms of actual names? I’ll prompt the discussion a bit by noting that according to the Fangraphs top 100 valuation article, as you noted at the very start of this, a 60 FV pitcher is worth only $34 million, while two 55 FV pitchers would be worth about $44 million. Assuming that you’ll need to provide headliners worth at least 80% (say $38 million) of Duvall’s value before filling the rest in with other types, how would you arrange a trade for him? And, if so, would you feel comfortable with that trade? Would you pull the trigger on it?

(I’ll also note before turning it over that per the famous and great Point of Pittsburgh study, a top 25 prospect pitcher is worth around $39 million, a top 50 pitcher around $30 million, and a top 100 pitcher around $16-$17 million.)

Eric: I accept your artful deflection and will propose my own shortly. I am on board with the valuations you proposed and the PoP study is a great read that everyone should pore over. For me, you have to look at an organization’s needs when evaluating these sorts of proposals. If the Reds are serious about rebuilding, then quantity may be more appealing than a single 60 FV guy. I think a proposal that sends, say, Joey Wentz and Touki Toussaint to the Reds would be a good starting point as the Reds will need pitching going forward, Wentz is likely to be a top 100 guy and Touki has tantalizing potential that I could see being intriguing for the Reds with the Braves maybe adding a lesser or further away player as well. I love both of those guys and have no reason to jettison those two in particular, but that seems like the the sort of package to get a conversation started for a guy who has multiple years of team control and is debatably good.

Ivan: Wait. Before we move on -- c-c-c-c-c-combo breaker. Let me roleplay for a second. I’m now robo-Walt Jocketty. I don’t know why I’ve done such a bad job recently, I don’t want to talk about it. I’m entertaining moving Adam Duvall to you, robo-friend-GM-of-the-Braves. I think about Joey Wentz, and say, okay, he is worth $17 million to me. I think about Touki Toussaint, and think, perhaps I will be magnanimous, he will also be worth $17 million to me. You are now at $34 million. Add another player of similar-ish value to Touki Toussaint and we will make this a deal. I hear you recently ranked Bryse Wilson similar to Toussaint on the Talking Chop top prospects list. Would you make this trade?

Eric: Hi Robo-Walt! Before we get to why in the hell you still have Bryan Price employed as your manager (seriously, why?), I would say to you that you are likely to value Touki higher than we would as while we do have pitchers arguably ahead of him right now on our list (shameless plug alert!), I feel confident that Touki’s electric fastball and back-breaking curveball will appeal to you given that there is a dearth of big upside in your farm system. You like Hunter Greene, right? While there is risk with Touki, he also has big upside and is just a year or two away. I know some publications have Touki at a 45 FV, but I am wagering you have him higher than that. Worst case scenario for you? Touki ends up as a reliever with a chance to be a really good one. Your bullpen needs the help. Bryse wouldn’t be on the table but a guy like Tucker Davidson or Ricardo Sanchez could be (we all know that you were going to take Ricardo in the Rule 5 before we protected him….yuk yuk yuk). But seriously…..Bryan Price? You can do better.

Ivan: I think this was a good demonstration of why a trade for Adam Duvall is unlikely. To avoid belaboring the point, it’s very possible that if Duvall was projected at three wins and not two wins, you could probably tease out another good prospect for him. His value would certainly deserve it (probably?). But who wants to give away fair value for an average player, when the team has legit holes, and some of those holes might be potentially filled by the prospect depth you’re trading away? Baseball is hard.

Eric: Well I guess my thinking there is that you have to operate under the assumption that the Reds’ perception of fair value for Duvall would be somewhat skewed towards the only an average player range. It isn’t like they would not be acutely aware of his struggles at home and the other issues you have pointed out. I look at this as a potential buy-low opportunity, although I freely admit that is problematic for a guy that has had a good year and has multiple years of team control.

As for the usage of the Braves’ assets the most efficiently, this is trickier because I tend to agree with you that the Braves need to be careful of how they use the bullets in their gun on the trade market even though their system is so deep. That is one reason that Duvall is actually appealing to me, BECAUSE he would not cost as much. For example, I love Touki and Joey... truly. But can we say that they are appreciably more valuable than Ian Anderson, Bryse Wilson, or Patrick Weigel? We aren’t talking about the top tier of prospects, but two guys from the expansive second tier where you will find wide-ranging evaluations of who is better or worse. I am betting that tier is where the Braves will be best served to trade from for guys like Duvall (potentially valuable, at least reasonable) without preventing them from making a big move down the line to fill other holes with more impact players.

Alright, where were we…oh, right. My question to you, good sir, is in regards to how you would handle left field going forward. Let us assume a few things here: the Braves are going to have Ronald Acuna on the big league roster for a large portion of the year and, as a result, a trade for Christian Yelich is off the table as much as we would love to have him. If you wouldn’t trade for Duvall because he an awkward fit (and you have plenty of very reasonable reasons to suggest that), who would you go get? Would you prefer a backloaded deal with Lorenzo Cain (lets say for the MLB Trade Rumors’ projected amount of 4 years, $70 million)? How would such a deal compare value-wise to the above trade “proposal” for Duvall?

Ivan: I think the types of players I would target would fall into two camps, but before I discuss those camps, I want to note the specific roster construction issue I have with giving up assets for Duvall. Let’s say that IWAG and ZiPS are mostly right, and Duvall is basically a 2-win player. Let’s also say that the rotation ends up being decent at some point in the future (12 wins), the bullpen is pretty good (5 wins), and Freeman/Albies/Inciarte/Acuna are pretty good and in line with expectations (14 wins across the four of them). That’s 31 wins, and you’ve got C, SS, 3B, and LF that I haven’t accounted for. Your 31 wins make you a 78-win team, and you need 7 more wins to get to 85. You have Duvall, so now you’re at 80 wins, and have three positions to upgrade. Let’s say that Swanson is average, and you have the capability to target some generic, Duvall-esque roster fillers for C and 3B. So now you’ve got 86 wins. That’s cool, that’s a contender for a Wild Card slot, but probably won’t win a division.

Now you want to win a division. Crap. You’re basically going to have to start upgrading your average players. Duvall might be first on that list to upgrade. In the past, you traded some assets for Duvall and his modest production for cheap prices. But now, you’re trying to push your roster over the top, and here you are, essentially having to either ship Duvall out to upgrade his spot, or do kind of the same thing with the other hypothetical slots you perhaps filled in the same way (3B, C, etc.). If you’ve already acquired Duvall, but still have 3B and C as open questions (or Swanson hasn’t developed/etc.), now there’s more pressure to get an above-average player for one of those slots, and there are generally fewer of those players available. But, if you didn’t lock yourself into Duvall, then you’d have a wider array of players from whom you could try to get three or more wins, and only need to backfill wherever you weren’t able to fit in an above-average performer with an average player akin to Duvall.

Sure, this is a hypothetical, and it’s one where the Braves are already in good shape, but it’s not a huge problem. But, in case the narrative above wasn’t helpful, I’ll just say it plainly: there is a (minor) concern with filling the roster with average-type players that cost assets to acquire, because eventually you will want to have a roster of mostly above-average players -- so maybe target those instead to begin with.

To get back to the actual question, though: the two camps I’d try to target are: 1) extreme buy-low candidates that might be above-average producers; and 2) actual above-average producers . With regard to the first camp, I could not pick Raimel Tapia out of a lineup, but we got him in the GM sim this year, and he may have had a 55 FV label on him at some point, despite the fact that his MLB performance and projections are super-gnarly (in a bad way) to date. If the Braves are indeed punting 2018 (sigh), giving a Tapia-esque player that can be acquired for cheap as essentially a reclamation project could be interesting. Keon Broxton has a lot of weirdness to his game, but there you go. The Cardinals traded Randal Grichuk for not that much as we have been debating this -- I think you get the general idea. And if you don’t because I’m not providing enough names, it’s essentially anyone who has perhaps a 60th percentile or 75th percentile outcome of 3 WAR and a clear path to get there assuming they’re able to do X, Y, or Z to change up their game, but could be available for much less than that because their 50th percentile outcome is very low. I’d need to do more research to provide a complete list, but this is the general idea for the first camp.

For the second camp, I’m thinking basically of lower-variance players that provide that above-average production. Some of these are older free agents, and you are probably going to take a bath on them as their contracts end. My main issue with the current crop of free agents is that the Braves are probably punting 2018 (sigh again), so there’s no point in signing Lorenzo Cain right now when he’s going to be even older in 2019; you want to sign a guy who will immediately give you stable production. Even if said guy drops off later, you can hopefully graduate a prospect to replace him by then. If I could have Cain timeshifted a year into next year’s FA market, yeah, I’d think long and hard about that. Cain is probably good for above-average production “next” year, and it seems like he’s going to be getting a bit of a shave (if not a big shave) on his contract for various reasons. That sounds fine to me… just not this year, if the Braves are going to waste that year.

To actually answer the question as posed, though, I used IWAG’s 2018 projection for Cain, and then mapped some basic decline. This is posed against the proposed contract of $70 million and four years:

The thing is, as indicated above, Duvall’s cost control gives him more surplus value, while Cain gives you the better overall production. Note that this still holds even if you remove the first year from each player’s surplus value calculation. Since a Front Office should seek to maximize not just surplus (or $/WAR), but also total WAR, it’s hard to say, without additional context, which one the Braves should do. Duvall, despite being only average, might give the Braves the resource flexibility to add more total wins to their payroll. But, if the Braves don’t really have the discrete blocks of funds to make other upgrades, or if they have more resources than they can reasonably spend on roster upgrades over the next few years, Cain is a better way to fill that position in and of itself.

So I’d probably rather have Duvall than Cain at the proposed contract. But if Cain can be negotiated down to $14M AAV or lower (no idea whether this is even feasible, as that’s a significant haircut for him on the contract), he starts to look more attractive from a surplus value perspective. And Cain, of course, is just one option -- and we really need a better sense of what exactly the Braves are going to do with the roster as a whole before we make proclamations about whether trading assets for a worse but cheaper player, or committing a decent chunk of payroll to a better player makes more sense.

Eric: Ivan, it is always a pleasure, sir. As for all of you that followed along, we hope this helped to illustrate the difficulties with constructing trades that can actually happen as well as the factors (we did not name all of them here, but I think we performed admirably towards that end; if Ivan and I get talking and play the contracts numbers games we like to, well… this could have gone on a while longer) that go into constructing a competitive roster and what we hope the Braves are and are not looking for.

If it sounds like neither one of us have our minds completely made up here, it is because they aren’t. I am most certainly not sold that Adam Duvall is the answer the Braves should be searching for due to a variety of reasons (many of which Ivan outlined above) and while Ivan may sound completely against trading for Duvall, he would likely be the first to tell you that taking these sorts of trade proposals in a vacuum and without knowledge or consideration of broader roster/trade considerations is tricky. If signing Duvall allowed the Braves for one reason or another to make a move to acquire one of the more “true” upgrades that Ivan talked about above for a different position, then that is likely a completely different situation. [Also Eric wrote this before I even wrote my last few paragraphs above, so you can see how on the same page we are…]

That, I think, is the most important thing that I want to close with. We are all operating with incomplete information, moreso now that we have a new general manager in Alex Anthopoulos. We don’t know exactly how much the Braves’ front office values a guy like Duvall or even the prospects that we have all come to know and love. Team officials throughout the league have their own biases and their own sets of data/information that inform their decision-making.

It has become commonplace these days for takes like “trading Ronald Acuna would be a disaster” or “Christian Yelich would make the Braves a playoff contender” or “the Braves should just extend Nick Markakis, he won a Gold Glove!” (okay, the last one doesn’t actually happen) to take the place of really looking at the game and team that we all know and love. I will not pretend to know all of the answers... if I did, I wouldn’t have to get Ivan to explain things to me using small words that I can understand. Building a great team is really hard… rather than just expect it or wallow in the depths of the void accepting that the Braves will never do what you want them to, work hard to understand what could happen and understand the pros and cons of a given move or point of view.

Ivan, I leave the last words to you sir.

Ivan: If you read all of the above, congratulations. Now, I’m going to blow your mind. Imagine having this same debate a year ago, after Duvall had just posted a 2.9 fWAR season in his first full go-around as a professional. The price would be higher, but what would the projections have said then? I bring this up only to illustrate the patina of uncertainty on all of this -- we make judgments and decisions using what we know, but baseball has a great way of making many highly certain statements look dumb in retrospect. What I do know, though, is that the Braves are eventually going to need to stop fielding a Franken-roster and actually try to shore up their organizational talent and depth to try and win some games. Maybe that’s by targeting a player like Duvall for a few slots, or maybe it’s something completely different. But the reason we can have these discussions is because the Braves are still facing a variety of dotted lines tracing possible future paths -- there’s no obvious path for them to ride to contention just yet.