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Atlanta Braves Spring Training Preview: Outfielders

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The Braves have a lot of options but is their outfield really crowded?

MLB: NLDS-St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

One of the bigger wrinkles of the Atlanta Braves’ offseason occurred when the team pivoted to a one-year deal with Marcell Ozuna following the departure of Josh Donaldson. While Ozuna’s bat will slide in perfectly behind Freddie Freeman in Atlanta’s lineup, his addition created a somewhat crowded outfield situation. As things currently stand, the Braves are likely to carry five outfielders on their 26-man roster, but how playing time gets divided up within the group remains to be seen. Ozuna and Ronald Acuña Jr. are locks to be in the lineup if healthy; the rest of the outfield will be the result of an open competition that will begin at Spring Training and will likely continue into the regular season. Here is a closer look at the team’s outfield situation as they head south to Florida.

Clear Cut Starters

Divisional Series - St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves - Game Two Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Ronald Acuña Jr. (2019: 156 G, 715 PA, 41 HR, 10.6 BB%, 26.3 K%, .280/.365/.518, 126 wRC+, 5.6 fWAR)

Acuña’s first full season in the majors resulted in the Braves’ first 30-30 season since Ron Gant in 1991. If not for a groin injury that sidelined him over the final series of the regular season, Acuña might have delivered the first 40-40 season in team history. In one season, Acuña went from Rookie of the Year to a genuine MVP candidate, a true five-tool player that appears capable of leading the Braves for years to come. His superlative performance is even more pleasing when you consider that he is signed to a team-friendly contract that will keep him in an Atlanta uniform for most of the decade.

You have to squint hard to find fault with any of Acuña’s numbers. He piled up 188 strikeouts and a 26.3 K% but had over 700 plate appearances. That is something that we will potentially see improve as he garners more experience.

The plan for Acuña coming into the offseason was to make the switch right field on a semi-permanent basis. He appeared in 35 games in right field in 2019 and earned five defensive runs saved in just 199 innings. Acuña will likely see his fair share of time in center as well, particularly when the Braves face a tough left-handed matchup.

Improvement defensively is an area where Acuña could realize more value that takes him from a 4-6 WAR player to being among the league leaders. That will require some improved focus but there has been nothing yet in Acuña’s game that suggests we should doubt his ability.

Marcell Ozuna (2019: 130 G, 549 PA, 29 HR, 11.3 BB%, 20.8 K%, .243/.330/.474, 110 wRC+, 2.6 fWAR)

Replacing Donaldson in Atlanta’s lineup was never going to be an easy task, but the Braves did about as well as could be expected without making a notable financial commitment or trading away some of their prospect capital. Ozuna can hit and hits it as hard as anyone in the league. He may never come close to replicating his 37 homer, 5.0 fWAR season in 2017 again, but Atlanta is betting that there is more in his game that can be unlocked.

Ozuna slugged 29 home runs last season and has hit at least 23 in each of the past four. He put up solid numbers in 2019 despite a career low .259 BABIP. Ozuna really shines in his Statcast data and it is easy to see why the Braves were drawn to him. Ozuna’s average exit velocity of 91.8 mph placed him in the top seven percent of the league. His 49.2 percent hard-hit rate was in the top four percent.

His Statcast profile also suggests that there could be more to unlock. Ozuna recorded a .336 wOBA in 2019 but had an expected wOBA, which takes into account the quality of contact, of .382. That is a difference of -.046, which was the ninth biggest discrepancy in the league, per Baseball Savant. Ozuna saw a similar difference in 2018 as well. The only season where his wOBA eclipsed his xwOBA? You guessed it, his 5.0 fWAR season in 2017.

Your feelings on Ozuna defensively probably hinge on which defensive metric you choose to rely on. Per FanGraphs, Ozuna was worth 2 Defensive Runs Saved in 2019 and had a UZR of 5.7 and a UZR/150 of 8.6. However, Statcast had him at -8 Outs Above Average (i.e., 8 Outs Below Average) last season. My feeling is that Ozuna is an average to slightly below average fielder that does not possess a strong throwing arm. However, I think Atlanta could shield some of his deficiencies by having him play as part of an outfield that also features Acuña and Ender Inciarte.

Competition

Ender Inciarte (2019: 65 G, 230 PA, 5 HR, 11.3 BB%, 17.8 K%, .246/.343/.397, 93 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR)

Back and hamstring injuries limited Ender Inciarte to just 65 games and a career-worst 0.9 fWAR. Inciarte got off to a really slow start, hitting just .218/.300/.323 through 40 games in April and May before hitting the injured list for a back issue. At the time of the injury, it was unclear as to just how long Inciarte had been dealing with back pain but the results suggest that it could have been a while, and his performance may have suffered as a result.

Inciarte didn’t return to Atlanta’s lineup until July 18 but rediscovered his stroke hitting .293/.411/.520 with a 143 wRC+ over 24 games before a hamstring injury would put him back on the injured list for the remainder of the season.

The Braves probably shouldn’t expect the offensive results that Inciarte put up in a small sample during the second half of 2019. However, his track record suggests that he is capable of a league average offensive performance. While Statcast shows that his defensive prowess took a step back last season, we can potentially recognize that the back injury was a factor in that as well.

If healthy, Inciarte looks like the best option for semi-regular playing time in 2020 given the importance Atlanta places on defense. He probably shouldn’t ever face left-handed pitchers and he shouldn’t hit anywhere near the top half of the lineup, but he still has something to offer that this Braves team will need.

Miami Marlins v. Atlanta Braves Photo by Logan Riely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Nick Markakis (2019: 116 G, 469 PA, 9 HR, 10.0 BB%, 12.6 K%, .285/.356/.420, 102 wRC+, 0.4 fWAR)

The Braves elected to bring Nick Markakis back for the 2020 season on a one-year, $4 million deal. In his first four seasons in Atlanta, Markakis played in at least 156 games but a fractured right wrist limited him to just 116 in 2019. While he was unable to sustain his late-career-year effort from 2018, Markakis was essentially a slightly above league average bat over 91 games before the injury. He went 14-for-53 in 12 games after his return but six of those hits came in his first two games back. He subsequently started all five games of Atlanta’s Division Series loss to the Cardinals but went 3-for-21 at the plate.

While commenting on the Markakis signing, Alex Anthopoulos seemed to indicate that the veteran outfielder’s role would likely change in 2020. First, the plan was for him to shift to left field with Acuña moving to right. Next, Markakis could see more action in a platoon situation with right-handed complement Adam Duvall. The late addition of Ozuna changed that, as now Markakis is not only competing with Duvall but also Inciarte for playing time.

If we have learned anything over Markakis’ time in Atlanta it is to not count him out. He is a clubhouse favorite and clearly a favorite of manager Brian Snitker as well. Still, he would be best served at this juncture to occupy the role that was filled last season by Matt Joyce. If Inciarte’s injury woes return then we could see a platoon situation in left. It feels like the days of Markakis being an everyday player should probably be over, but we will have to wait and see whether that is actually the reality.

Adam Duvall (2019: 41 G, 130 PA, 10 HR, 5.4 BB%, 30.0 K%, .267/.315/.567, 121 wRC+, 0.7 fWAR)

When the Braves acquired Adam Duvall at the trade deadline in 2018, the hope was that he would be able to provide some much-needed right-handed power and good defense in the corners. However, he struggled following the trade to the degree that he was a legitimate non-tender candidate last offseason. Atlanta did elect to tender him a deal but his struggles carried over into Spring Training and he ended up at Gwinnett for most of the 2019 regular season.

He deserves credit for going back to the minors where he put up big numbers with the new Triple-A baseball, launching 32 homers in 101 games while hitting .266/.364/.602. Despite those big numbers, Duvall was still an afterthought for the big league club: when Inciarte went down with a back injury, it was Austin Riley that got the call and not Duvall. Finally, an injury to Riley opened the door for Duvall who returned to the majors on July 27 where he hit .267/.315/.567 with 10 home runs over the final 41 games. He was one of only a few Braves to not struggle in the postseason, saving some of his heroics and his biggest hits of the year for the NLDS.

Duvall entered the offseason looking like the right-handed portion of a platoon situation with Markakis in left field, but the addition of Ozuna changed that. He is now out of options but is under contract for a more than reasonable $3.25 million and has two more years of arbitration remaining. As things stand currently, it appears that the Braves would have room to carry Duvall as a bench player and fifth outfielder on the new expanded 26-man roster. He could also be an appealing name on the trade market should a team find themselves in need of an experienced outfielder at the end of Spring Training.

The Future

MLB: MAR 05 Spring Training - Braves at Yankees Photo by /Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Cristian Pache (2019 Triple-A: 26 G, 105 PA, 1 HR, 8.6 BB%, 17.1 K%, .274/.337/.411, 92 wRC+)

Cristian Pache continued his rise up Top 100 lists this offseason and we finally could see him in Atlanta at some point in 2020. Pache has already cleared one hurdle this offseason when he was placed on the 40-man roster in order to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft.

Pache took a significant step forward offensively in 2019, hitting .278/.340/.474 with 28 doubles, eight triples and 11 home runs and a 134 wRC+ in 104 games at Double-A Mississippi. He was promoted to Gwinnett for the final month of the season, where he put together a .274/.337/.411 line in just 26 games. Prospect analysts agree that there is no questioning Pache’s glove and he could likely step in and play center field with the Major League club right now. Some questions at the plate remain, but he has shown steady progression throughout the minors and there is no reason to doubt his continued progress.

He will be in big league camp for the second straight season and should get a heavy look early. He still is a virtual lock to begin the season at Gwinnett, but if he continues to improve he could force the Braves’ hand and make someone like Inciarte expendable.

Drew Waters (2019 Triple-A: 26 G, 119 PA, 2 HR, 9.2 BB%, 36.1 K%, .271/.336/.374, 84 wRC+)

Like Pache, Drew Waters is another Braves outfield prospect that has seen his stock rising up Top 100 lists this offseason. Atlanta was aggressive with Waters in 2019, assigning him to Mississippi alongside Pache. Waters’ Double-A numbers were impressive as he totaled 35 doubles, nine triples and five homers while hitting .319/.366/.481 in 108 games, albeit with a .436 BABIP.

He struggled a bit after a promotion to Gwinnett over the final month. He still put together a .271/.336/.374 line with a .429 BABIP but saw his K% rise to 36.1 percent in 26 games at Triple-A. Waters isn’t on the 40-man roster yet but will come to big league camp as a non-roster invitee. Like Pache, he should get a heavy look early but is destined to begin the season back at Gwinnett.

Depending on how his season goes, we could see him in Atlanta at some point in 2020. But, given their current outfield situation, the Braves don’t have any reason to rush Waters or Pache. Still, barring a trade, a dream outfield featuring Pache, Waters and Acuña is still in play.

Non Roster invitees

Rafael Ortega (2019: 34 G, 96 PA, 2 HR, 8.3 BB%, 22.9 K%, .205/.271/.307, 51 wRC+ -0.1 fWAR)

I won’t be spending as much time on the rest of the outfield non-roster invitees but you need look no further than Rafael Ortega who was seen as nothing more than organizational depth but wound up in the majors down the stretch and part of the Braves’ Division Series roster.

Ortega hit .285/.373/.524 with 21 home runs in 111 games at Gwinnett. He was largely unimpressive in 34 games at the Major League level save for a timely grand slam home run against the Dodgers in early August.

Atlanta outrighted Ortega off of the 40-man roster this offseason, and given the large number of outfield options, there isn’t a clear path for Ortega to return to the big leagues in 2020. Of course that was also the case at this point last year as well.

Trey Harris (2019 Double-A: 41 G, 156 PA, 2 HR, 2.6 BB%, 21.2 K%, .281/.318/.411, 111 wRC+)

One of the guys that I am most interested in seeing in camp is Trey Harris, who put together a banner 2019 season. Harris began the season at Rome and tore up the South Atlantic League hitting .366/.437/.594. He continued to hit after a promotion to High-A Florida and didn’t stop there, hitting .281 with nine home runs at Double-A Mississippi. He finished the year in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .218 and posted an .810 OPS. Not bad for a 32nd-round pick. He will likely begin the 2020 season at Gwinnett.

Greyson Jenista (2019 Double-A: 74 G, 256 PA, 5 HR, 10.5 BB%, 29.3 K%, .243/.324/.338, 95 wRC+)

2018 second-round pick Greyson Jenista will be looking to put a tough 2019 season behind him. Jenista began 2019 at High-A Florida but largely disappointed with a .223/.312/.361 line in 56 games. He was later promoted to Double-A where he saw similar results. Jenista is carrying a 29.4 K% over his two seasons in the minors with a high ground-ball rate. There have been reports that he was working a swing change so this could be an important season for Jenista’s overall development.

Peter O’Brien (2019 MIA: 14 G, 47 PA, 1 HR, 8.5 BB%, 40.4 K%, .167/.255/.262, 43 wRC+ -0.4 fWAR)

Braves fans may remember O’Brien as a member of the Marlins in 2018 and 2019. He hasn’t had a lot of luck at the major league level hitting .209/.275/.434 in 72 games across parts of four seasons. He has put together a solid offseason, leading the Dominican Winter League nine home runs and 35 RBIs.

Shane Robinson (2019 Triple-A: 89 G, 356 PA, 7 HR, 11.0 BB%, 9.6 K%, .288/.367/.389, 98 wRC+)

Shane Robinson spent the 2019 season in Triple-A at Lehigh Valley where he hit .288/.367/.389 with seven home runs in 89 games. He has appeared in 461 games over nine seasons at the Major League level where he has posted a .221/.288/.292 line in 849 career plate appearances. His last appearance in the Majors was in 2018 when he appeared in 25 games for the Yankees. Robinson has historically been a glove-first fifth outfielder with great defensive metrics but not enough bat to justify playing time; now 35 years old, it’s fair to question whether he no longer offers defensive value.