For much of the 2019-20 offseason, Braves fans have closely watched the hot corner with anxious anticipation. Like the Fellowship scuttling around a distracted Sauron, the Braves have, on the other hand, addressed nearly every other corner of the roster. Catcher, outfield, the bench, the starting rotation, and the bullpen have all seen significant upgrades. Meanwhile, third base remains un-addressed. Perhaps the team will soon make yet another acquisition in this wildly busy offseason, bringing in a star like Nolan Arenado or Kris Bryant, or a reliable placeholder like Kyle Seager. If the team is done, however, Austin Riley and Johan Camargo will handle third for the Braves in 2020. While Riley is plenty interesting, considering his prospect status, his start, and his subsequent struggles, he seems a more predictable (for better and worse) option than his counterpart. What is Johan Camargo at this point, and what can Braves fans expect from Camargo in 2020?
Camargo has really always been something of an enigma. The Panamanian SS first appeared regularly on Braves prospect rankings before the 2014 season, when he ranked 15th organizationally in the composite rankings. But even then, there may not have been a more polarizing prospect in the system:
As you can see, Camargo’s placement ranged from the top 10 to outside the top 25. As the years went by, scouts would still talk about Camargo’s upside and feel for contact, but by 2017 they finally reached some consensus - he was mostly absent from pundits’ rankings. 2017 also happened to be his breakout season, as he slashed .295/.340/.473 in AAA before earning a call-up to the big league club, where he acquitted himself well, hitting .299/.331/.452. Seen as something of a doubles power stopgap, Camargo matured into a viable starting option for the 2018 division champions, hitting .272/.349/.457 with 19 HR over a full season of starts. Then, after the season, the team signed Josh Donaldson, reduced Camargo to a utility role, and he wilted in 2019, slashing .233/.279/.384. You know the narrative well - Brian Snitker couldn’t figure out how to use Camargo properly or regularly enough, and the Braves squandered a year of control over a once exciting young ballplayer.
So, as we enter 2020, what should we expect from a player who, to this point, has only offered us the unexpected? Much like the line in that prospect rankings graph from years ago, the possibilities are wide-reaching for Camargo. Let’s take a look at them all and see how we could arrive at each.
The Dreaded AAAA Label
It’s unlikely Atlanta gives up on Camargo so quickly, but a team with designs on the playoffs has to have a shorter leash than it did in its more carefree rebuilding days. And for a guy who hit like Camargo did last year, the Braves might not be able to afford him the leash he needs to get things back on track. Camargo, always a volatile prospect, could frustrate the Braves enough for the team to start seeing him as the kind of player who is mostly just depth, an injury precaution best stashed in Gwinnett. Plenty of players with Camargo’s skill-set have wound up with such an outlook, after all. 2019 was probably just a blip, an aberration. But what if 2018 was the outlier? Truth be told, glancing at his statline suggests that is more likely. It is very possible we’ve seen the best of Camargo, and 2019 was the first sign that MLB pitchers had figured out how to work him. I remain more optimistic on Camargo, however, so I’m not betting on the quad-A treatment just yet.
Why am I optimistic?
See that little uptick all the way to the right? By the end of 2019, Camargo’s bat was red-hot, but it was too late in the year, and he was too far into Brian Snitker’s doghouse, to have a chance to salvage his season numbers. His mid-August demotion came at a terrible time, too. After going 0-3 on August 5, Camargo would hit .345/.387/.724 with 3 HR in 31 PA over the remainder of the season. It’s a small sample, but the graph above is also not a BABIP-influenced sample, either. Camargo was legitimately hitting like a star for the last few weeks of 2019. Can he keep that momentum from one season to the next? If it was just a hot streak, no. But if that run of success represented something more - either a return to form or a change in approach - then there’s cause for optimism for his future. While we’re feeling optimistic, let’s go to the other extreme...
Third Baseman of the Present and Future
This seems as unlikely as the first option, but it could happen. Camargo has a rifle arm and enough of a glove to stick at the position, so it just comes down to the bat. Despite last year’s struggles, he got his K-rate back under 20% and still displayed that .150-.200 ISO power that he’s always had. Even at the terrible slash rates from 2019, over 600 plate appearances, that would have pro-rated to 29 doubles and 16 homers. Don’t mistake that for good, but it’s something to work with. Camargo hit more fly balls than previous seasons, making one wonder if it was just the first step toward his own personal launch angle-assisted makeover. If Camargo maintains his flyball rate from 2019 and hits the ball harder, as he did in 2018, or even harder, then --poof! You have a star third baseman on your hands!
And yet, “hit the ball harder” isn’t really the easiest thing in the world for batters to do. Considering they’ve spent most of their life trying to figure out exactly that, the vast majority of players already are hitting it about as hard as they possibly can. So while Camargo may have the physical talent to dream on a next level, where he’s a 3 or 4-win player, it’s not what you want to bank on. That’s a lottery ticket that changes life when it hits, but you shouldn’t earmark a lottery ticket for paying the bills.
Super Utility Attempt 2.0
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The Braves, with their star-studded lineup, could use Camargo to give regular rest to a half-dozen players while keeping Camargo regularly in the lineup enough to get quality production from him. I didn’t copy and paste this from a pre-2019 article, but I probably could have. That was the plan, at least ostensibly, for 2019 after all. But things didn’t really go that way, and the decline in use wasn’t merely linked to his poor production, though that did exacerbate things. Here is Camargo’s % of season games started at the end of each month, until he was pressed into duty replacing Swanson on July 24:
July 23: 28.4%
While I believe Brian Snitker is probably an excellent manager (don’t @ me), this was a glaring issue with his 2019 season. Not only was there no discernible plan for keeping Camargo on some kind of reliable schedule, which I think he had earned after 2018’s success, but with Camargo not giving others more regular rest, it put more pressure on the starting eight.
There’s always a possibility that Snitker might be more amenable to such a plan in 2020. He has shown a willingness to learn about and buy into some sabermetric principles, a category into which Super-U Johan would fit, though he comes around on them at too slow a rate for some fans. Still, it seems awfully unlikely. Rather than let Camargo play his way out of his funk, Snitker trusted him less and less as the year went on. There’s an argument this was the correct decision - Snitker’s job in the regular season was to win the division, which he did - but it doesn’t bode well for the likelihood of such a plan in 2020.
Austin Riley’s Platoon Buddy
By putting Camargo into a platoon with Riley until a clear champion emerges, it could help everyone. If Riley goes into a cold spell, Camargo can pick up his slack. If Riley is on a hot streak, that leaves Camargo for some old-fashioned pinch-hitting and utility-playing. By sharing time and riding the hot hand, Snitker could help maximize what the team gets out of a position that’s high on talent and low on dependability.
There’s just one problem: Both Austin Riley and Johan Camargo prefer lefties. There’s a handy statistic, deep in the recesses of baseball-reference’s splits pages, called tOPS+. It takes the OPS for that split and compares it to what the player’s typical OPS is, and it’s set to a scale where 100 is average. To put it into context, the MLB tOPS+ for batters at home was 102, and 97 on the road. This means the average MLB player was about 2% better than normal when they batted at home, and 3% worse than normal when away from home. Here are Riley and Camargo’s career L/R splits by tOPS+:
Both are much better against lefties, which makes a traditional platoon sub-optimal. They both should be in the lineup, somehow, when southpaws are on the mound.
So how might Snitker platoon them? Here’s an idea I floated on Twitter that’s outside the traditional box:
An interesting way the Braves could platoon Riley/Camargo would by not by handedness, but by pitcher type.— Brent Blackwell (@brentblackwell) January 24, 2020
Per B-R, tOPS+ vs. Power pitchers:
I don’t know if those splits are predictive of the future, meaning Camargo’s performance against similar-type pitchers from 2017-2019 may have nothing to do with how he performs against that same pitcher group in 2020. It is, however, one way Riley and Camargo have separated their trends and tendencies from one another, and that’s really what you want in a platoon: to find some way in which the players complement one another and use that complementary relationship to your advantage.
While Johan Camargo may not be the Face of the Braves, he is one of the most interesting players on the roster. There are both red flags and encouraging bounce-back indicators galore. Anything is possible. He may not be as important as he is interesting; with Austin Riley, Atlanta has what is either already a better option than Camargo or a more attractive second option than most MLB teams. Atlanta also has a horde of major league ready prospect talent, meaning the team could easily put together a trade for one of the aforementioned players like Seager or Bryant without blinking. If they don’t, and they roll with Camargo, there’s a very good chance Camargo bounces back with more playing time. There’s also a chance it fails, and if it does, the Braves brass may not be able to evade the fanbase’s angered eye anymore.