2015 Braves Positional Preview: The Outfield

It wasn’t too long ago when the Atlanta Braves believed they’d assembled perhaps the best outfield in baseball. Jason Heyward was the home grown superstar in the making, then the Upton brothers were acquired prior to 2013. Those moves were supposed to give the team three men capable of providing power, speed and defense. There was even talk of 30-30 seasons for all involved. Those projections never materialized.

While Heyward and Justin Upton both had their moments during the last two seasons, the signing of B.J. Upton has been nothing short of a complete disappointment. And that might be putting it lightly.

Regardless, that trio was disbanded over the winter. Heyward was shipped to the St. Louis Cardinals for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins in November, while Justin Upton was dealt to the San Diego Padres for a package of prospects roughly one month later. That leaves Atlanta with only the weak link of its once heavily hyped outfield.

The elder Upton will be flanked by a host of new faces on either side. One thing is for certain for the Atlanta outfield in 2015, they all have something to prove.

Right field:

After the Orioles declined his $17.5 million option, Nick Markakis signed a four-year, $44 million free agent contract with Atlanta in early December. It’s a move that has piqued the curiosity of some and drawn criticism from others. The consensus of the detractors seems to be less about the $11 million annual salary and more about the length of the contract. Markakis, 31, who just finished a six-year, $66.1 million contract with Baltimore, has been a solid hitter with a solid glove for most of his career. The fact remains, his offense over the last two seasons was well short of the levels he reached through the first seven.

He sported a strong .295/.365/.455 triple slash line in 4,556 PA from 2006-2012, but his production has fallen off to .274/.335/.371 over his last 1,410 PA. This is occurring as Markakis enters his 30s, which makes one wonder if he’ll be able to return to prior form. Advanced metrics don’t paint the brightest picture when it comes to his value over the life of the contract, projecting Markakis to be a 1-2 WAR player each season. Dave Cameron over at FanGraphs wrote a tremendous piece detailing the cost of a win about a year ago. By extrapolating data from 83 free agents last winter, he postulated that a win is worth between $5 and $7 million. The goal of that research exercise was to set some kind of market value for what a team pays as relates to that WAR number that is now commonly cited as a top indicator of player performance.

The fact that Markakis underwent surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck also tempers expectations. However, it’s something that Braves President of Baseball Operations John Hart said they factored into their decision to sign Markakis. Hart told me at the Winter Meetings that getting the fusion surgery to repair a herniated disk was something both sides believed was the right route to take:

“When we brought Nick in, we knew that he had a neck issue. There’s no secrets in there. We had all the MRI’s, we got all the scans and we took a great look at it. We’ve had multiple doctors that have taken a look at it and he was cleared to play. He played 150-some games last year… Nick brought up that he was considering having the surgery done because he felt that it would make him stronger and better. We then went back to that same group of doctors and had them analyze it. To a man, they all felt that this [procedure] would be a good thing to have.”

Markakis underwent the surgery in mid-December and figures to be ready for spring training, which is now just around the corner.

It’s obvious that Atlanta is going to have a very different kind of player in right field than they’d grown accustomed to since 2010, but comparing Markakis to Heyward is a fool’s errand at this point. The differences far outweigh a handful of similarities, especially given the age discrepancy. Markakis has been a fairly durable player, playing 155 or more games in seven of the last eight seasons. That is something that no doubt appealed to Atlanta. The price tag was obviously another consideration. Heyward could very well land a nine figure contract when and if he hits free agency after this season. Extension talks never seemed to get off the ground for whatever reason, and allowing him to walk with only a compensatory draft pick to show for it was a less than ideal scenario.

As far as 2015 is concerned, Heyward is gone and Markakis is here. So, let’s look at the things the new right fielder does well. The Braves believe they have a player who is a good fit both on the field and in the clubhouse. While that second dynamic will never have a proven statistical value, it was clear to see Atlanta lacked a strong leadership dynamic on the team in 2014. In fact, it was painfully obvious in the second half, especially during a dismal September. Markakis has built a good reputation as a teammate and possesses the kind of intangibles that a manager likes to see from his players. That has to be worth something.

He won his second gold glove in 2014, despite just 1 defensive run saved. Markakis has committed just two errors (both in 2012) over the past four seasons. That spans 1,142 total chances. He still has a decent arm, but Markakis is not going to freeze a runner in his tracks these days. Yes, there are many other ways and many other metrics that help to determine the finest fielders in the game, but Markakis certainly holds his own in right.

At the plate, he offers a high contact rate, something Atlanta is trying to infuse into a lineup that was built around too many players with too many swings and misses. Markakis was a doubles machine early in his career, but some of those have turned to singles over the past two seasons. That’s taken a toll on his SLG and associated numbers. Without the speed to steal bases which would compensate for fewer extra-base hits, his value could diminish unless Atlanta proves capable of executing the station-to-station ball they have not been so keen on in recent memory. He can work counts and take his walks, but his OBP isn’t out of this world in recent years. Again, solid but not spectacular.

While there’s been enough numbers and analysis thrown around to paint the next four years a foregone conclusion, Markakis will still get the opportunity to actually go out and play. If healthy, his all-around game should be a credit to the team.

Center field:

B.J. Upton will be the highest paid player on the team this season, and the Braves can only hope that he finally breaks out of the mega-slump that has simultaneously sandbagged both lineup and payroll flexibility. The troubling statistics have been front and center for so long, that it’s hard to boil them down to any one factor that is predominantly to blame for his poor play. There can’t be just one.

Well, strikeouts. Those aren’t good, and there have been far too many of those, even from a hitter who had demonstrated a propensity for striking out prior to signing with Atlanta. I’ve given up the ghost on the statistical analysis of Upton and switched over to the visual and scouting report side. He does not look comfortable at the plate, with a swing that has too many moving parts and a faulty trigger mechanism. He has already been working with new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer over the winter in hopes of turning a corner in 2015.

Of course, putting in the work has not been a problem for Upton. His athleticism is still intact, the occasional play in center field that makes you wonder aside, but that alone is not going to carry him any longer. There could be a number of things that contributed to his sordid situation in Atlanta: a flawed swing, a new city in a new league, the pressure of trying to live up to the biggest free agent contract the Braves have ever handed out, maybe even the pressure of trying to keep up with or outperform little brother. Perhaps it was all of the above or something else entirely.

Spilling Upton’s numbers across the page here is best kept at the bare minimum. His .198/.279/.314 slash line in 1,028 PA with the Braves has helped produce a woeful -0.6 WAR in 2013 and just a 0.4 WAR last season. That leads to a modest 0.6 WAR in 2015 according to FanGraph’s Steamer projections. Upton’s defense has also been suspect at times, and that only compounds the situation. Though Hart may have done his due diligence trying to unload Upton on another club willing to take a shot on a reclamation project, the $46.4 million Upton is owed over the next three years made him simply untradable. The Braves were not willing to throw in the kind of cash it would have taken to get another team to bite. Even a bad contract for bad contract swap could not be found. To be honest, I’m not sure that would really benefit Atlanta unless they somehow won significantly on the money side.

The Braves cut bait with Dan Uggla in his fourth season, absorbing a nearly $19 million payroll hit for the final year and a half of his deal. However, Hart made it clear at the Winter Meetings that productivity was going to be Upton’s key to staying in the lineup. No longer was the financial component going to heavily dictate playing time. We could find out how long the proverbial leash is over the course of the first few weeks of the season. Manager Fredi Gonzalez may not have the same amount of talent in the lineup, but he certainly has the pieces the to get creative if he wants to.

Left field:

After trading Evan Gattis last month, Atlanta will be employing a platoon to fill the void at the other corner outfield spot. The well-traveled Jonny Gomes figures to split time with the switch-hitting Zoilo Almonte. It won’t provide the kind of power that Gattis or Justin Upton bring to a lineup, but with no worthwhile full-time players on the free-agent market and no top prospect knocking on the door, the Braves believe they will be able to find a combination that can produce on a given day.

Gomes, 34, signed a one-year, $4 million deal that includes a vesting option after hitting .234/.327/.330 with six home runs and 37 RBI in 321 PA for Boston and Oakland last season. Those numbers were well below his career norm in the power department. This was due in large part to turning in just a .165/.248/.262 line against righties. Per the usual, Gomes handled lefties much better — at .276/.373/.371. His platoon splits match-up nicely with Almonte, who we’ll get to in a moment. An uptick in power from Gomes would definitely be appreciated in an Atlanta lineup that will need all it can get.

After breaking in with the Rays in 2003, Gomes has made stops with the Reds, Nationals, Red Sox and two with the Athletics over his 12 seasons. He’s a career. 244/.335/.442 hitter with 155 homers and 500 RBI. Just like Markakis, the Braves believe they have added a valuable member of the clubhouse in Gomes. He’s a hard worker who is known for his hustle on the field and a positive vibe amongst his teammates. He’s also no stranger to winning teams.

Almonte, 25, is a former Yankee farmhand who signed a one-year major league deal with Atlanta in November. He saw some time in the Bronx over the past two seasons, though not enough to know what to expect this season. Almonte can play all three outfield spots and could provide a little pop in that aforementioned platoon. Though he is a switch-hitter, Almonte is notably better against RHP. He batted .286 with 17 HR and 58 RBI in 315 AB against them for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2014. Almonte is largely unproven at the big league level, turning in just a .211/242/.282 line over 149 PA the past two years. He’s poised to get a shot for some real playing time with Atlanta.

Other notables:

Dian Toscano, 25, is a Cuban defector who signed a four-year, $6 million contract with an option for 2019 in late January. Atlanta had been linked to him since early December, though the deal was not finalized until nearly six weeks later. Unlike many of his fellow countrymen who’ve made a splash in the states, Toscano is not projected to hit for a ton of power. Playing with Villa Clara in Serie Nacional for five seasons from 2008-2012, he batted .300/.403/.427 in 736 PA with 45 XBH (13 HR), 101 RBI and 92 runs scored. A lefty hitter who is likely to begin his career in Triple-A Gwinnett, Toscano is yet another contact bat the Braves acquired over the winter. That trend is no mistake.

Among the other outfielders who will be in camp, the speedy Eury Perez was recently claimed off waivers from the Yankees and could get an extended look. He’s seen 26 big league games with Washington and New York, but hit just .174 in 23 AB with 5 steals. Perez, 24, is a .302 career hitter in the minors and owns 310 steals in 396 attempts over 819 games. At the very least, he is a younger, better version of Jose Constanza. Should Upton fall into a prolonged slump, Perez offers a center field option that could be at the ready.

Holdovers Todd Cunningham, 25, and Joey Terdoslavich, 26, will vie for bench spots. Both are switch-hitters who have seen limited big league time with Atlanta over the past two seasons. It would take a pretty strong showing amongst plenty of competition for either to crack the 25-man roster.

On the non-roster side, speedy Mallex Smith is a 21-year-old who was part of the Justin Upton trade. Smith batted .310/.403/.432 and stole 88 bases in two Single-A stops for San Diego last season. He’ll be heading to Double-A Mississippi to begin 2015, but should be fun to watch on the base paths this spring. Cedric Hunter, 26, formerly a highly thought of prospect in the Padres organization, has bounced around a bit and spent last season in Double-A for Atlanta. Entering his 10th professional season, he’s a long shot to head north.

Next Up: The Starting Rotation

Atlanta boasted one of the best pitching staffs in baseball last season, but an under-performing offense could not support all the fine work by the men on the mound. Julio Teheran and Alex Wood were both strong, while Mike Minor dealt with a nagging shoulder problem all year. This season will bring a new set of challenges, with veterans Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang gone, the Braves are counting on Shelby Miller to have a strong campaign. They’re also hoping to catch lightning in a bottle in the fifth spot, just like they did with Harang last season. One thing is for sure, it will take strong pitching if Atlanta wants to contend in 2015.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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