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Starting Nine: Searching for a real answer for Braves outfield, inside and outside the organization

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Despite Ronald Acuña Jr.s’ monster year, Atlanta is sitting 13th in combined outfield fWAR and in need of another consistent threat at the plate

Texas Rangers v Colorado Rockies
Joey Gallo figures to be one of the top targets ahead of the trade deadline, and his mix of power and Gold Glove defense could be just what the Braves need.
Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Don’t let scoring six or more runs five times since the calendar flipped to June — including piling up nine in back-to-back days against the Dodgers’ Trevor Bauer and Clayton Kershaw — fool you.

The Braves offense needs a jolt, ranking 17th in average (.238) and 12th in wRC+ (101) since it lost Travis d’Arnaud on May 1 and is 15th in slugging (.407) and 14th in ISO (.164) in 11 games without Marcell Ozuna.

Wile they got back to .500 for the fifth time this season going into Wednesday against the Phillies, Atlanta watched its surging offense get held to one run for the third time this season and the first time since May 17 against the Mets. Sitting 3 1/2 games behind New York in the National League East standings, that’s almost in spite of the speed bumps that have littered the offense this season.

D’Arnaud is still wearing a cast on his left thumb, and while there’s no timetable on his return, the Braves are hopeful he can get back in the first half of August. There’s no telling when Ozuna, out with two fractured fingers before his legal issues unfolded, will be back, if ever.

William Contreras, the catcher of the future/present, has been more than viable at the plate with 118 wRC+ behind six home runs, two doubles and a triple and a .264/.340/.505 line, leaving the clear area of need in the outfield. Even with Ronald Acuña Jr.’s MVP-caliber numbers, the Braves are 15th in outfield fWAR (2.8). That group has combined for 32 home runs, with 18 via Acuña and seven from Ozuna. That’s a combined six from the guys that are currently joining Acuña in the present outfield.

That’s not going to get it done. So where do the Braves turn as they try and piece together the outfield for the rest of 2021 (or maybe even beyond)? There are no shortage of options within the system, on the free-agent market and via trade.

IN-SYSTEM OPTIONS

1. Drew Waters

Grant McAuley and I exhausted plenty of oxygen debating when Drew Waters should make his awaited debut, and that was when it seemed to be in a fill-in opportunity after Ozuna’s injury. That’s out the window now. The 22-year-old switch-hitting Waters sits at .283/.382/.425 with 123 wRC+, three home runs and six doubles in 27 games at Triple-A this season, and if the Braves aren’t going to look outside of the organization, why not bring in the kind of bat that could be lightning in a bottle and provide an opportunity to see what it has in a potential long-term piece in this outfield. The hit tool, graded at 40/60 by FanGraphs, is real and with so much runway before the July 30 trade deadline, Waters makes more sense than any other option on this list.

2. Travis Demeritte

No one in Triple-A East has a higher OPS than Travis Demeritte at 1.091, who is slugging .654 to go with a .438 on-base percentage. Demeritte also has six home runs to go along with nine doubles, and he’s no stranger to playing in the majors, appearing in 25 games with the Tigers last season and 24 in 2019 after the Braves dealt him to Detroit in the Shane Greene deal. That being said, Demeritte was pretty awful, hitting 36 percent below league average in ‘19 and 71 percent below in 2020 and had as high as a 42.4 percent strikeout rate in those two seasons. Go back to 2019 when he was still part of the Braves system, and Demeritte has had 65 extra-base hits with the Stripers in 122 games, while posting 13 in the 66 games he played for the Tigers. The reality is, he may just be a Four-A player, but also might be worth a look.

3. The current 40-man

Ehire Adrianza made the first five starts in left field after Ozuna’s injury, but the last three have belonged to Abraham Almonte, who has gone 4-for-9 with a double, two runs and an RBI. Adrianza was playing above his credentials in the first month with 112 wRC+, two doubles, a triple and a home run in 19 games. Since then, he’s been at 58 wRC+ in May and 69 in June. Meanwhile, Almonte has seven total months hitting at or above league average over seven MLB seasons. Sustainability isn’t part of the resume. Hot hands will come and go but going with the current 40-man options and it all feels extremely vanilla as the patchwork tries to fill the void left behind by a Silver Slugger. One of Ozuna’s biggest contributions came in protecting Freddie Freeman, and while the reigning National League MVP continues to be the martyr of BABIP (.224 to be exact), the reality is he’s hitting .167 since Ozuna was lost.

FREE-AGENT OPTIONS

4. Ryan Braun

Staying in-house with the likes of Waters of the trade route make the most sense given the Braves could need outfield help that stretches past 2021, but if they look to free agents, Braun should top the list. The 37-year-old former NL MVP, Rookie of the Year and six-time All-Star spent his entire career with the Brewers and as he told the Los Angeles Times last month, Braun has been approached by both Team Israel and Team USA about his interest in playing in this summer’s Olympics. Braun said, “With where I’m at right now in my life, it just doesn’t make sense for me.” But as he goes on to say he hasn’t made up his mind yet whether he’s completely done with baseball, which feels like code for saying he’s waiting for the right opportunity to come around. Further backing up that theory, Braun’s wife recently posted footage on Instagram of Braun taking batting practice in California ... so maybe? It’s unlikely that chance is coming via his former club, which has a glutton of talented outfielders in Christian Yelich, Jackie Bradley Jr., Lorenzo Cain, Avisail Garcia and Derek Fisher (who has yet to even make his Brewers debut as he comes back from a calf injury). Last season’s abbreviated schedule marked the first time Braun had ever hit below league average (99 wRC+ to be exact) and while the defense has been below average (minus-2.9 dWAR) since his last All-Star season of 2016, it’s not awful.

5. Yoenis Céspedes

We’re five years removed from the last time Céspedes played more than 81 games in a season, and he’s played in just 127 since 2016. When he’s healthy, Céspedes has hit .272/.325/.494 with an average of 27 home runs and 30 doubles in four seasons with the A’s, Red Sox, Tigers and Mets, but a litany of injuries has made it debatable how much Céspedes even has left. Hosting 11 teams in an open workout in March and remaining on the market may tell us everything we need to know, and at this point he may be a more viable option for an American League team as a designated hitter than the role the Braves would need him for. The 35-year-old would come cheap, though, and it’s worth pointing out that Atlanta was among those teams that got an up-close look at Céspedes in that workout two months ago. Plus, for a team that was willing to take a chance on a well-past-his-prime Jose Bautista in 2018 — and the next name on this list last season — it’s not entirely out of character for Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos.

6. Yasiel Puig

The Braves already went down this road with Puig last season before a positive COVID test brought an end to all that. He never signed with another team and hasn’t played since Sept. 27, 2019. There’s the potentially sticky situation of bringing in a player who faced a 2016 investigation into an alleged domestic violence incident — which he did not face any discipline from — and is part of an ongoing sexual assault case as Ozuna faces his own charges. But Puig knows Anthopoulos well from their Dodgers days and there’s little question the right-hander can still be productive at the plate, posting no lower than 101 wRC+ in any season, and in his last three years has hit no fewer than 23 home runs. The accusations, though, may be too much to overlook, which is likely why Puig remains unsigned two months into the season and is at the bottom of these free agents.

TRADE OPTIONS

7. Joey Gallo, Rangers

Robbie Grossman (Tigers) the Diamondbacks’ Kole Calhoun and David Peralta or the Orioles’ Anthony Santander could be had, but for the Braves’ needs, the trade market candidates starts with Gallo. At 13 games out of first place in the AL West, the Rangers are going be sellers, it’s just a matter of when, and there’s no team with a bigger need in the outfield than the Braves. The left-handed Gallo wouldn’t provide the exact kind of protection as Ozuna, a righty, but the power is certainly there — though you have to live with the highs and lows of a prototypical three true outcome player. Gallo ranks second in walk rate (18.9 percent) this season and fifth in strikeout rate (32.4 percent) to go with 11 home runs, and since 2017, only seven players have gone deep more times than Gallo with 124. He also comes with two years of control, entering his third year of arbitration eligibility this winter. Plus, you’re getting Gold Glove defense from a player who is coming off a 13 defensive runs saved season in 2020. One report has a rival executive saying it would likely take a package that includes a high-ceiling prospect, a mid-level prospect and potential another piece. It’s a hefty asking price, but the Braves are no longer in the position to play it safe. Swing for the fences on a player who does exactly that.

8. Jesse Winker, Reds

Another lefty, Winker comes with an additional year of than Gallo and he’d deliver more than just the long ball, with the 27-year-old slashing .346/.411/.649 this season to go along with 17 home runs and a modest 18.1 percent strikeout rate. Winker trails only his Reds teammate Nick Castellanos (.355) in the NL batting race and his 185 wRC+ is only Vlad Guerrero Jr. (193) overall. It’s worth asking why the fourth-place Reds would even trade away a young, controllable bat who’s putting up monster numbers — especially when they can try and unload Castellanos, who can opt out of his contract after the season — but selling off what figures to be more than a rental in Castellanos would have the biggest return. This team needs pitching, with Cincinnati’s rotation the third worst in MLB (4.92 ERA), and while they have two top-100 pitching prospects, not a one is higher than Double-A. The Braves may be strapped at the big-league level down Mike Soroka and Huascar Ynoa, but there’s still plenty of organizational depth when it comes to arms, with four in the top 10 of MLB Pipeline’s team rankings, including Tucker Davidson (who dazzled yet again Wednesday in Philadelphia) and Kyle Muller and Jasseel De La Cruz at Triple-A.

9. Mitch Haniger, Mariners

It seems inevitable that the Mariners are going to finally unload Haniger as their rebuild stretches into another season and they look to their outfield of the future in Jarred Kelenic, Kyle Lewis and Julio Rodriguez (not to mention Taylor Trammell). Haniger is at 123 wRC+ with 14 home runs this season and a .254/.303/.500 slash line and has hit 29 percent above league average or better in three of the last four seasons. Consider that he’s put up those numbers with the likes of below-average hitters J.P. Crawford and Mallex Smith in front of him since 2019 and it is enticing to think what he could do penciled in behind Freeman. Under club control for two more years, Haniger makes sense for Atlanta, but do the Braves make sense for Seattle? The Mariners have the same issues as the Reds, though the bulk of the key arms in their organization are even further away, with five in the top 10 of Pipeline’s rankings and four are in high-A. The asks could be very similar between Cincinnati and Seattle if the Braves are looking to pry away their outfielders.