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Starting Nine: DH? No DH? How Braves can fill spot in lineup as uncertainty continues

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Teams were told to operate as if pitchers will hit in 2021, but what if it does come back? Breaking down free-agent options for how Atlanta can meet its lineup need, based on risk level

American League Wild Card Game 1: Houston Astros v. Minnesota Twins
Michael Brantley’s two seasons in Houston saw wRC+s of 133 and 134 and he was a 4.2 fWAR player in 2019, when he hit 22 home runs. 
Photo by Jordan Johnson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

When it comes to the designated hitter in the National League in 2021, being a general manager prepping for the season has to feel a lot like being a contestant on Discovery Channel’s ‘Naked and Afraid.’ Apologies — or maybe not — for the mental pictures this conjures, but like those on the show, these GMs have little to no idea what environment they’re going into and have to hope the item they bring with them (i.e., the guy who was their DH in 2020) can help them survive.

That’s the climate these NL clubs are operating in, as – has been reported – they’ve been told to proceed this season as if there will be no DH, but – as ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted – to further complicate matters, everyone involved thinks it will happen and the uncertainty surrounding it all has had an impact on the slow going in the free-agent movement for bats.

The Braves are certainly in the center of all this. They need to address the void left by Marcell Ozuna, who filled that DH role quite nicely in its NL debut, and have an opening for a corner outfielder. Sure, Ozuna could come back and be both of those things. He’s been more than an adequate defensive player in the past, winning a Gold Glove in 2017, but is coming off the worst Defensive Runs Above Average (minus-7.8) of his career. Ozuna, who saw all of 162 innings (19 games) in the outfield last season, simply appears better suited as a DH.

How should GM Alex Anthopoulos operate with the DH an unknown, but the collective thinking (or, more appropriately the collective finger crossing) that it is in the NL in in ’21? Let’s run through some free-agent options under three scenarios: Playing It Safe (no DH), The Defense Is Adequate Enough (maybe it’s back, maybe it’s not) and Sign & Pray (i.e. the guy can hit, and let’s get him hoping there’s a DH, but like with Evan Gattis manning left field back in 2013, you need the bat).

Playing It Safe

1. Michael Brantley

Barring an unexpected run for three-time All-Star and World Series MVP George Springer – who is likely to fetch north of $100 million for five years – Brantley may be the top choice when it comes to playing it safe. A 1.3 fWAR player in 2020, he was no lower than 133 wRC+ in his two seasons in Houston and when healthy hasn’t hit worse than 24 percent above league average since 2013. The Braves would be giving up some power — which may be counter intuitive if they’re losing Ozuna’s NL-leading homer runs and are also having to take a further hit to the offense with a pitcher in the ninth spot — with just one 20-plus home run season since ’14, but they’d be picking up a defender with a combined 15 defensive runs saved the past two seasons, 12th among all outfielders in that span. The 33-year-old is projected at $45 million over three years.

2. Jackie Bradley Jr.

Add Bradley into the mix and the Braves could have an elite defensive outfield with Gold Glove finalist, a player that looks like Andruw Jones 2.0 in Cristian Pache and Bradley, a Gold Glove winner himself in 2018. Bradley has primarily played in center, Pache’s position, but he’s spent 64 games in a corner outfield spot and has the seventh best dWAR (5.3) of any outfielder since his first full season of 2016. He’s also hit at least 20 home runs twice, including 26 in 2016 when he was an All-Star. It would likely take less to sign the 30-year-old Bradley, who is forecasted $10 million per year than Brantley, with a similar offensive profile and superior defense.

3. Jurickson Profar

He’s no outfielder by trade, but Profar proved his worth there in a career-high 304 innings for the Padres last season. His four defensive runs saved were tied for fifth at the position and he was eighth in UZR/150 (12.2) and he comes with two 20-HR seasons under his belt. Once one of baseball’s top prospects, the Braves were interested in landing Profar via trade from the Rangers in 2017, and they could get the switch-hitting, 27-year-old this time for an expected $15 million on a two-year deal. Should another consistent option develop (ahem, Austin Riley), Profar could also add depth and further defensive versatility when Drew Waters arrives.

The Defense Is Adequate Enough

4. Marcell Ozuna

Amid the uncertainty of how 2021 will be played, the Braves know what they’re getting from Ozuna and its MVP-level production at the plate. The NL leader with 18 home runs and 56 RBI, the right-hander is the perfect complement to Freddie Freeman – tics, mannerisms and production all part of the equation – and if Atlanta has to go into 2021 with the reality of no DH and that belief that the 2021 collective bargaining agreement brings it back, then best to live with the concerns you know instead of the ones you don’t. Ozuna’s defense isn’t elite, but it isn’t horrendous either, with minus-2 DRS in ’20, and having Pache roam center could help to take pressure off him in left field. It really just comes down to whether the Braves can outbid the competition, and there is no shortage of suitors.

5. Joc Pederson

Who is Joc Pederson? That’s not a philosophical question. We really don’t know. Springer and Ozuna are the only free-agent outfielders with higher projected fWARs for 2020 (4.0 and 2.9, respectively) than Pederson’s 2.9, which is more than appealing. He bashes homers (a combined 61 in the last two full seasons) and right-handed pitching (128 wRC+ in his career), but because of the platoon system the Dodgers have so often used, he’s earned enough at-bats to register as a qualified hitter once since 2015. He’s also produced a negative Def each of the past four seasons and a positive DRS once since 2016, but is one year removed from 12 DRS. It’s a bit of a gamble, but at a forecasted rate of $10 million per season, and with that power profile, this you can live with the questions with this left-handed bat.

6. Eddie Rosario

One of the biggest surprises ahead of the non-tender deadline, the Twins balked at giving their everyday left fielder for the last six years the $10 million-plus he was likely due in his final year of arbitration. He doesn’t get on base at a high clip (.310 career on-base percentage) but fits the profile at the plate with 32 home runs in ’19 and 13 in ’20 and has been better than 103 WRC+ in each of the past four years, including 110 last year. Like the others in this category, he’s not exactly a standard-setter on defense, with minus-11.7 Def in ’19 and minus-1.5 this past season and has exactly zero DRS since taking over a full-time role in the Twins outfield in 2017.

7. Hunter Renfroe

The Braves wouldn’t be giving up anything in the power department with Renfroe, who hit 85 home runs from 2017-19, and he could be had on the cheap after the Rays designated him for assignment instead of dealing with a projected salary of more than $3.5 million in arbitration. He’s going to strike out. A lot. But he also lives in that three true outcome world with walk rates that have increased each of the past three years and sat at 10.1 percent in 2020. Take that, and any other figure form the abbreviated season for what it’s worth, which we’ll do in terms of Renfroe’s defense, which plummeted to minus-3.2 Def after 5.1 in ’19 when he was with the Padres. You could make the argument that the right-hander is basically Adam Duvall, who the Braves passed on and was due a similar salary in projections ($4 million), and maybe that go that route and return a player they know at a most cost-effective rate. Renfroe, though, may be worth a look.

8.David Dahl

He’s risky given the injury history, but after a step-back season in 2020, this could be a micro version of Ozuna and Josh Donaldson if Dahl wants to reclaim his value in a short-term deal. Projected to net between $2.5 to $2.6 million in the arbitration process, the Rockies cut Dahl loose after a season in which he struggled (.183/.222/.247 with 10 wRC+), but also played through a right shoulder injury that eventually needed surgery and limited him to just 24 games. The former All-Star hit a combined 31 home runs in 2018 and ’19 and hit no worse than 10 percent above league average in his first three seasons. The Coors Field factor is a concern as he had a career 87 wRC+ on the road compared to 111 in Denver and along with the shoulder issue last season, he’s also dealt with a stress reaction in his rib cage (costing him 2017) and his ’19 was shortened due to a right ankle sprain. The defense isn’t spectacular with a career minus-17 DRS and minus-3.9 UZR, but his routine play (100 percent) and likely play (73.7 percent) rates are strong enough to consider Dahl in left.

Sign & Pray

9. Kyle Schwarber

A victim of the non-tender deadline, Schwarber is a year removed from hitting 38 home runs with 120 wRC+. Granted, the righty hit just .188/.308/.393 with 11 homers last season and strikes out at a NSFW rate (29.5 percent in ’20 and 28 percent in his career), but the guy absolutely pummels right-handed pitching at a career clip of 23 percent above league average. While Ozuna’s defense is debatable, it’s clear Schwarber is a liability with minus-10 career DRS and the worst dWAR (minus-3.0) of any left fielder since his first full season of 2017. But at the plate he figures to do more damage than almost anyone in this free-agent class and could be considerably cheaper than Ozuna. The Cubs balked at giving him approximately $8 million in arbitration, giving the potential of Ozuna-lite numbers at a more palatable rate.