Monday was a very busy and exciting day for the Braves and their fans. First, they brought back fan favorite Brian McCann on a one-year deal to pair with Tyler Flowers behind the plate. Then, more importantly for our discussion today, the Braves made the first big free agent signing of the offseason when they were able to sign Josh Donaldson on a one-year, $23 million deal.
Let’s get this out of the way now: the Braves did not sign Donaldson to that kind of deal if he wasn’t going to get the lion’s share of the playing time at third base. Barring an injury or a severe dropoff in production, Donaldson is very likely to play 130+ games over at third base, health permitting.
One storyline that emerged from the Donaldson signing as a result is the fate of Johan Camargo. Some folks are now convinced that the Braves will trade Camargo, others are upset that he will have to lose playing time now and be relegated to the bench, and others are already planning to slot him at shortstop given Dansby Swanson’s struggles. These folks are failing to understand an important trend in roster construction in which Camargo could play a crucial role.
I would be lying if I said that I thought Camargo would be as good as he has been in the major leagues. For the bulk of his minor league career, Camargo was a slick-fielding prospect with a strong arm, but lacking in a carrying tool and featuring a below average to average bat. However, starting in 2016, he started roping some more doubles and by 2017, he had put on enough strength to have some legitimate pop in his bat, comprising an averagish hitter when he played for the Braves during the 2017 season.
We know by now the story for Camargo in 2018 as he turned from an average hitter with some interesting versatility to an above average hitter with really interesting versatility and surprising discipline at the plate. Big props to him for putting in the work to get to this point. Putting up a 3.3 fWAR season with great defense at third base is no joke.
For those that think that the Braves will now be without that production and see the Donaldson signing as a zero-sum game between The Bringer of Rain and CamarGOAT are missing the point. Signing Donaldson means you get his production AND the bulk of Camargo’s as well. That comes back to Camargo’s versatility.
Current #Braves plan is for Camargo (displaced from 3b by Donaldson) to become their Marwin Gonzalez. Already plays 2b, SS, 3b. Plan is to work in at 1b in spring, maybe corner OF to keep getting regular ABs.— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) November 27, 2018
As a switch-hitter that has sometimes hit well from both sides of the plate who can play six positions on the field, Camargo is a tremendously valuable player even if he isn’t the “everyday third baseman” anymore. Teams like the Astros, Dodgers, and Cubs, who have among the better clubs in the entire league the last couple of years, have utilized players like Camargo (Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez, Marwin Gonzalez) and deep rosters to their benefit. Being able to rest players and play matchups using the depth of a team’s roster is how to succeed in the league right now. If you think any of those teams think that having too many good players on their roster is detrimental or that they have any trouble getting those players meaningful numbers of at-bats, you are delusional.
Take Camargo as an example. While Donaldson will get the bulk of the playing time over at third base, he does have some recent injuries that may mean he needs some days off. It is easy to see a situation where the Braves will need someone else to play 25-30 games at third during the course of the season even if Donaldson is completely healthy.
Put Camargo in... problem solved.
Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies both have had their struggles, in particular against tough right-handed pitchers. While you can’t realistically sit both of them on a given day very often, in particular Albies as he does need at-bats to refine his left-handed swing, there will absolutely be match-ups where it would be better to give one of them a rest and have a better hitter against righties in the lineup.
Put Camargo in... problem solved. (Although it should be noted that Camargo only has a .293 career xwOBA against righties, it’s still better than Albies’ .291 or Swanson’s .284. Maybe not problem solved, but “problem slightly less horrific than otherwise.”)
As Sherman notes, the Braves see Camargo at first base sometimes to give Freddie Freeman a break every now and again. He could see time as a corner outfielder, too, depending on the circumstances. All of that does not even take into consideration the fact that even on days where he isn’t starting, he is a legitimate threat off of the bench as a pinch-hitter and can be a late game defensive replacement almost anywhere on the field. Let’s also not forget that injuries happen to every team and with Swanson’s and Donaldson’s recent histories with injuries, Camargo is a ready made replacement.
This isn’t just pure speculation on our part, either. In addition to the reporting from Sherman, Dave O’Brien, and others after Donaldson was signed, general manager Alex Anthopoulos was very clear that he sees Camargo as an important piece to the Braves’ success in 2019 on a number of fronts, including giving guys some rest.
During the 2018 season, Camargo played in 134 games and had 524 plate appearances. The guy that he has been compared to the most recently has been Marwin Gonzalez, who played in 145 games for the Astros and saw time at seven different positions last year while accumulating 552 plate appearances. Even if one is bearish on how much playing time Camargo will be able to carve out, if he appears in 115-120 games, he will still have over 400 plate appearances next season and, if the last couple of years are any indication, that will be meaningful production.
There are still other dominoes that could fall here. Dansby Swanson bounced back defensively last season, but his bat is still very much a question mark and it is probably more likely now than it was two days ago that the Braves could move on from him (even if the possibility still seems quite low). (The Braves should at least seriously consider playing Camargo, he of the career .347 xwOBA against lefties against a southpaw any chance they get, whether that comes at the expense of Swanson’s weak .276 xwOBA against them or somewhere else.) There is also the possibility the Braves add another bench/utility bat that could make playing time more of a crapshoot. Finally, there is the chance, as some have suggested and proposed, that the Braves move Camargo in a trade, although that seems like the least likely of these scenarios.
For the moment though, if you are a fan of Johan Camargo, you should not be upset or afraid. Just because Camargo is not the Braves’ primary third baseman anymore does not mean that he won’t be a very important part of the Braves in 2019.