If the 2020 calendar year for the Braves was developed in the form of a sitcom, the season debut for the month of January could be appropriately titled “Browsing for the Big Bat.” Unfortunately, the opening act involved preferred target and fan favorite Josh Donaldson signing with the Minnesota Twins, despite his own perceived preference of wanting to stay in Atlanta. Whether it was ultimately money or the duration of a commitment, the Braves must now turn elsewhere for another desired anchor for their lineup. However, as that question only gets louder, the path to a satisfying answer becomes less clear.
#Braves have prospects to trade for Bryant or Arenado, but haven't been gung-ho on either -- Arenado because of multi-prospect outlay, long-term financial commitmant & contract opt-out after '21. Bryant 3B defense not great at this point, plus don't know yet if 1 or 2 yrs control— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) January 15, 2020
The Braves have no shortage of sensible options to consider. The could go the trade route for a third baseman, such as Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, or Kyle Seager. They could go the same route for an outfielder, such as Starling Marte or Mitch Haniger. However, while each of these targets makes good sense as a fit for the Braves, the obvious deterrent is it would cost prospects to acquire each of these players. Furthermore, the brevity or uncertainty regarding the control of some of these targets adds to the complexity of completing a trade.
#Braves more likely to pivot to either Ozuna or Castellanos in FA after losing out on Donaldson. They are comfortable with Camargo and Riley at 3B and don’t want to trade away their strong farm system for Arenado or Bryant according to sources.— Jim Bowden (@JimBowdenGM) January 15, 2020
Throughout his time in Atlanta, Alex Anthopoulos has made it clear that he is resistant to parting with his best prospects. While this is a stark contrast from his days in Toronto, it also has been an astute approach as the Braves have emerged as a contender in the present and foreseeable future. Though logic might suggest that holding onto some prospects too long may be less than ideal, Anthopoulos seems content on relying on the talented young core he already has in place. As a result, as Jim Bowden and several others have mentioned above, it appears that Atlanta’s most likely route to upgrading their lineup is through free agency.
Knowing how effective Anthopoulos is at keeping moves under wraps, these reports are likely just “reading the tea leaves” or using basic inductive reasoning. Yet, there are a few intriguing bats still available that could be attractive for the Braves. Though Marcell Ozuna or Nicholas Castellanos may not have the track record of Josh Donaldson, both have established offensive profiles that would clearly upgrade the Braves’ lineup.
In a vacuum, Ozuna could be considered more sensible for Atlanta than Castellanos. The Braves have been vaguely linked to Ozuna all offseason, and they have plenty of familiarity with him from his time in Miami and St. Louis. Between the two, Ozuna is considered to be the better fielder and has produced the best offensive season of either career. Though he has regressed since his breakout 2017 season, Ozuna still offers the intriguing possibility of doing damage in the middle of the order. No team has witnessed an Ozuna rampage more recently than the Braves after their role on the receiving end of an NLDS loss to the Cardinals (.429/.478/.857, 0.41 WPA).
The one major hurdle in regards to Ozuna is that his receipt of a Qualifying Offer from the Cardinals results in the loss of a draft pick for any signing team (other than the Cardinals). While the Braves have already shown a willingness to overcome that hurdle (Will Smith), Atlanta is also regaining a pick as a result of Donaldson signing elsewhere. Current and future graduations of prospects to the majors, along with past and present restrictions to accessing international talent as a result of the John Coppolella-related penalties, have made the Braves’ farm system less formidable than it once was. Along with Anthopoulos’s approach mentioned above, any option that takes away from Atlanta’s prospect cupboard may not be preferable.
As a result, a case could be made that Castellanos may be the most sensible addition for the Braves to pursue on multiple fronts. Offensively, Ozuna and Castellanos have been quite similar in their overall offensive production over the past few seasons. Since 2017, Ozuna has produced a .832 OPS, .352 wOBA, and 121 wRC+. Castellanos has produced a .842 OPS, .354 wOBA, and 121 wRC+. Among outfielders with at least 1,500 plate appearances since 2017, Ozuna and Castellanos rank third and seventh in hard hit percentage, respectively. Without a doubt, both players have plenty of proof that they can thrive as middle of the order producers.
Though Ozuna produced better expected batted ball results in 2019, Castallanos was arguably a top 15 hitter in baseball after the trade deadline. Though the small sample size should be understood, it should also be noted that a change in environments could have played a role in Castellanos’s uptick in production. Leading up to the trade deadline, he had expressed frustration about his time in Detroit. Once he was traded to Chicago, Castellanos was a part of a playoff push for the first time since 2014.
Now satisfied with his role and motivated to play meaningful baseball, Castellanos showed indications his offensive ceiling could be a level or two higher than many had thought. Though it is hard to prove that the change to a winning environment was a direct catalyst for his improved play, it is difficult to ignore his results once he got there. In terms of his free agency, potential earnings will likely be the biggest determining factor in where Castellanos chooses to sign. Nevertheless, if bids are close and he maintains his known preference to play for a contender, the Braves likely have the best chance of Castellanos’s known suitors to offer that chance in each year of his next contract.
The ability to remain a contender could logically make Castellanos just as attractive to the Braves as they would be to him. Of the sensible middle of the order bats that have been connected to Atlanta, Castellanos is the only one that just costs money. Due to being traded to the Cubs, he was not eligible to receive a draft pick-sapping Qualifying Offer like Ozuna. Furthermore, he likely will cost the least amount of money per year of any of the aforementioned options, and could conceivably need less of a long term commitment to sign than Ozuna.
This could matter to Anthopoulos and the Braves based on stated preferences in the recent past. Anthopoulos has made comments on multiple occasions about his reluctance to offer contracts that are both expensive and extensive. His lack of significant moves involving top prospects also supports the notion that Anthopoulos places high value on the current hand he holds. As a result, Castellanos’s reasonable cost could be attractive to the Braves, not only in terms of himself but also further additions.
If signing Castellanos means less of a payroll commitment while allowing the Braves to maintain their current arsenal of trade assets, he could be the Braves’ best chance to add a middle of the order hitter and comfortably make a move for another difference making arm or bat. If the Braves were to sign Castellanos and then use another current outfielder in a trade package for a significant starting pitcher or third baseman, it could easily be argued that the Braves roster will be stronger entering 2020 than it was at the beginning of 2018 or 2019.
Obviously, if the Braves have not made the move for Castellanos by now despite his offensive upside and all the positive options that remain on the table with his addition, there has to be a pretty significant flaw in his game that cannot be ignored. Of course, that would be Castellanos’s outfield defense. In this excellent article from FanGraphs, Tony Wolfe details how the expansion of defensive analytics could be making teams more hesitant to invest in outfielders with questionable defense. Unfortunately, regardless of how much value is placed on this data, there has never been much of a question when it comes to Castellanos. By almost any measure, he has been one of the worst defensive outfielders in the majors over the past few years, to the point that many feel his future is best as a DH in the American League.
As Wolfe further explains, along with the legitimate concerns surrounding Castellanos’s defense, the past few years also offer legitimate proof that defense matters for teams to get to the postseason. The Braves have shared this same mindset when constructing their rosters over the past two years, as stellar defense has played a role in their back to back division titles. However, when considering the Braves’ current outfield options of Nick Markakis, Ender Inciarte, Adam Duvall, and Ronald Acuña Jr., none besides Inciarte truly stand out defensively. Furthermore, it is also clear none of these options, outside of Acuña, have the offensive upside of Castellanos.
Therefore, the debate of rather or not a pursuit of Castellanos makes sense boils done to rather he can offer enough offensive value to overcome his defensive shortcomings. If the Braves feel that he unlocked further potential during his time in Chicago to become a 130 wRC+ or better hitter consistently, then a favorable argument could be made to pursue him based on his offensive potential and the flexibility he allows the Braves to maintain.
However, if the Braves feel his true talent level is close to his overall line over the past three years, his case becomes less convincing. Like Ozuna and Castellanos, former Cardinals and current Rays slugger Jose Martinez also produced a 121 wRC+ over 1,270 plate appearances between 2017 and 2019. Yet, despite his offensive production, his (lack of) defensive aptitude prevented the Cardinals from fully committing to him as an outfielder. Eventually, his best value was as a trade asset to an American League team.
As a result, if Castellanos has to keep up his offensive production as a Cub to make sense as a full-time National League outfielder, it seems like a risky investment that is uncharacteristic of Anthopoulos and the Braves. While I personally feel Castellanos has more offensive upside of any outfielders that have been connected to Atlanta, I also think be carries the biggest risk of being underutilized due to his defense.
In the end, it seems that the idea of the upside and flexibility that Castellanos brings as an asset is significantly different than the overall value he actually provides as a player. In the Braves’ current position as a true contender that must be constantly mindful of how it uses its finances and trade assets, the biggest factor to consider when finding a middle of the order bat is trusting that bat can be utilized in the lineup at all times without hesitation. If the Braves cannot commit to Castellanos without that hesitation, it seems their best bet is to pay a higher price for a player that requires no hesitation to put in the middle of the lineup every time out.