The Braves may be forced to send down to Triple-A a player who, at some point, was thought to be a central cog of the team. Unless another unfortunate injury to a position player occurs in the next few days before Dansby Swanson returns from the Injured List, the Braves will likely send either Johan Camargo or Austin Riley to Triple-A Gwinnett to make room for Swanson on the active roster. (Note: Ender Inciarte was removed from Monday’s game, but it was said to be precautionary.) While Swanson will likely need a rehab game or two before being activated, decision time for the Braves is coming soon.
To be sure, the Braves theoretically have several options to make room for Swanson’s return. Adam Duvall still has options, but he’s hit five home runs, put up a 201 wRC+, and provided 0.7 fWAR in 10 games since being called up, so he’s not going anywhere any time soon. Any other realistic options would require the Braves to designate a player for assignment, almost ensuring that they would be lost. Why give up a player when you could simply demote Camargo or Riley, who both could benefit from some time in Triple-A, and call them back up later?
The Braves could have worse problems (and probably do after seeing their new closer Shane Greene come apart in his first two appearances and not being able to find a serviceable option for the fifth spot in the rotation). They currently sit perched atop the NL East with a healthy lead over the Nationals and Phillies, and have an 81.1% chance of winning the division and 98% chance of making the playoffs, per FanGraphs. However, the poor performance of Riley and Camargo is still concerning.
Camargo had a breakout year in 2018, hitting to a 115 wRC+ and providing 3.3 fWAR while holding down the hot corner. He was so productive that many Braves fans wondered why the Braves signed Josh Donaldson to a lucrative one-year contract when Camargo was already on the roster (a signing that looks increasingly brilliant, by the way). The Braves envisioned using Camargo as a super-utility player in 2019, giving him lots of plate appearances by filling in all over the field and giving players rest with little or no drop-off. However, that vision has not come to fruition.
There is no way to put it politely – Camargo’s 2019 season has been a disaster. He has slashed .217/.264/.333 with a 51 wRC+ and a -0.8 fWAR this season. Camargo’s -0.8 fWAR is tied for the ninth worst fWAR of any position player with at least 200 plate appearances. This is indicative of a player who does not have a spot on the active roster for a contending team. In fact, none of the other players with a worse fWAR than Camargo are on a contending team.
To be fair, it seemed initially that Camargo was not getting enough playing time to establish any consistency at the plate. And while that may have been the case early in the season, Camargo has not responded well to regular playing time while Swanson has been out. While filling in at shortstop in 12 games since Swanson went to the injured list, Camargo has hit .116/.224/.186 with a 6 wRC+ over 50 plate appearances. Thus, it appears that Camargo’s issues at the plate stem from something else.
Riley, on the other hand, has had a much different path to being on the brink of losing his position on the active roster. He provided a massive boost to an already good lineup when he was promoted to the Braves’ big league roster on May 15. Riley would mash 15 home runs in his first 45 games for the Braves and propel them to one of the best records (30-15) in baseball during that period. But then pitchers made adjustments. In 69 plate appearances since July 4, Riley has hit .175/.232/.302, good for just a 26 wRC+ with two home runs while striking out 42 percent of the time.
The most concerning part about Riley’s struggles has been his inability to hit fastballs recently. Riley has hit 11 of his 17 homeruns on fastballs and managed xwOBAs of .472 and .367 on fastballs in the months of May and June, respectively. However, he has not hit a home run on a fastball since June (despite seeing 55.7 percent fastballs thrown to him) and only managed an xwOBA of .169 against fastballs in July. It appeared Riley was so focused on not getting fooled by breaking pitches that fastballs started getting by him, too, which is supported by a jump in his swing-and-miss percentage on fastballs from 22 percent in June to 43.8 percent in July. Riley has always been vulnerable against breaking balls, but if he can no longer hit fastballs either, then a prolonged slump with a lot of strikeouts comes as little surprise.
However, Riley has shown some glimmers that he is making adjustments of his own in recent at bats. While it is a small sample size, Riley has looked much more comfortable at the plate during his last couple of games, going two-for-seven with a double, a homer, and a near-home run against the wall that only went for an out when Nick Senzel made a nice catch. Most encouraging was Riley homering on a breaking ball, a pitch that he had an xwOBA of .231 during the months of June and July. If Riley can continue to hit breaking pitches as well as he has recently, then he might be able to build backwards from there and bounce out of his funk.
Overall, Camargo’s and Riley’s similarly awful offensive outputs since the All-Star break indicate both could use some time in Triple-A to work on their offense:
Since the all-star break
In deciding whether the demote Camargo or Riley, the Braves will undoubtedly take positional versatility into account, which clearly helps Camargo’s case. While Riley’s ability to capably play first base, third base, and corner outfield has been a pleasant surprise, Charlie Culberson is the only other Braves player besides Camargo that can play middle infield. With Swanson’s bruised heel taking longer than expected to recover, the Braves might feel better about having another middle infielder on the bench should Swanson have another setback after being activated. (Bear in mind, the player optioned to the minors would have to stay there at least 10 days unless replacing a player going to the Injured List.)
The Braves’ decision on what to do upon Swanson’s return comes down to what they value more - positional versatility or offensive production. While both Camargo and Riley have struggled offensively of late, Camargo’s troubles seem much deeper, whereas Riley’s are more about minor adjustments, which he seems to be in the process of making. As painful as it is to say, Camargo has not proven worthy of roster spot on a team trying to make the playoffs, in my opinion. Hopefully some work in the minors can get him back to some semblance of his 2018 self. We should know in the next few days what the Braves will decide to do.