January 2016

Braves 2016 Preview Series: Outfield

The 2016 Braves Positional Preview Series examines who could comprise the 25-man roster on Opening Day as well as players who could make a difference this season and beyond. A new preview will be released each Monday, with accompanying podcasts featuring special guests coming out each week as well.

  • Part 1 – Catchers
  • Part 2 – Infield
  • Part 3 – Outfield
  • Part 4 – Starting Rotation
  • Part 5 – Bullpen
  • Part 6 – Top Prospects

 

The Braves outfield got an injection of talent in a big off-season trade. With new center fielder Ender Inciarte joining veteran right fielder Nick Markakis, Atlanta is hoping infielder Hector Olivera can make a smooth transition to left field. They are three very different players, and each one will be counted on to contribute in 2016. Meanwhile, another pair of veterans – Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher – will try to find their place in this mix.

 

Nick Markakis | RF | Age: 31 | Contract Status: 3-years, $33 million

As the Braves began a rebuilding process last winter, many were left scratching their heads as to why Atlanta would sign a veteran like Nick Markakis to a four-year, $44 million deal. After all, the wholesale trading that took place in the subsequent weeks and months really didn’t jibe with free agent expenditures. The fact that Jason Heyward had been dealt away was one reason to sign him. Lack of viable position player prospects who could step in was another reason. However, the front office has often stated there is a certain intrinsic value to having Markakis on a team in transition. It gives a crop of young talent an exemplary player to learn from throughout the process. I’m of the opinion that last part carries a significant amount of weight, as did finding a right fielder who could step and contribute on a daily basis – a known commodity. For the most part, Markakis delivered.

Let’s take a look back at 2015. His .370 OBP was his highest since 2010 and tied for second best of his 10-year career. Despite December neck surgery, Markakis played 155 or more games for the eighth time in nine seasons. Unfortunately, his power bottomed out with a career low three home runs. While his homers were down, his doubles spiked for the first time in five years. Markakis totaled exactly 42 extra-base hits for Atlanta, the same number he had in 2014 with the Orioles. He seemed to gain strength as the season wore on, collecting 20 doubles in 88 games during the first half, compared to 18 doubles, a triple and all three home runs in his final 68 games. It’s a far cry from the player he was over his first five seasons in the majors, but Markakis should be stronger following a regular off-season work-out regimen.

Defensively speaking, Markakis makes the plays that are hit to him, but his range and his arm both seemed in decline in 2015. Those could be side effects of an off-season spent convalescing from neck surgery, but players generally don’t improve defensively with age. That said, Markakis is a capable veteran outfielder who plays his position well enough not to hurt the team. He’s unlikely to win any more gold glove awards, but Markakis does own a major league record 398 game errorless streak which came to an end last season. He’s committed just 19 errors in 3,090 chances as an outfielder, though his advanced defensive metrics are far from elite level and demonstrate the volatility that has been associated with those stats. If you want further reading, Brian Henry of Statliners put together some very interesting thoughts on getting the masses to “trust” defensive metrics.

Markakis was a road warrior in his first season with the Braves. He batted .315 with a .798 OPS away from Turner Field, compared to .276 with a .692 OPS in his new home park. Markakis also turned in exactly the kind of veteran at-bats that Atlanta was hoping for, hitting .306/.420/.410 in 162 PA with RISP. It’s worth noting that his .338 BABIP is the second highest mark in his career, so there could be some regression there. However, if Markakis’ power returns and he remains durable, there is a decent chance he could turn in a 2.0 WAR season. It’s at this point that I’ll circle back to a fine piece by Dave Cameron of Fangraphs from March of 2014, in which he postulated that a win is worth about $6 million. Thus, if Markakis can be a 2.0+ WAR player, then his $11 million salary is right in line with what the market has commanded recently. At worst, the deal is fair market value for a player who contributes as such, though it does not account for any of the intangible value for which Atlanta is no doubt hoping to benefit from in signing Markakis to begin with. Truth is, that value per win may well have adjusted up given the sizable contracts handed out over the past two winters. That, however, is a conversation for another time.

Ender Inciarte | CF | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

One of the many pieces the Braves received in the Shelby Miller trade, Ender Inciarte is a defensively gifted outfielder who also brings some speed to the table. He fits the Braves’ bill of young and controllable, not to mention talented. Most importantly, he is a building block with a major league track record. You’ve probably heard a lot about Inciarte’s defense, because he rated among the best in baseball in 2015. His 29 defensive runs saved were second only to Tampa Bay’s platinum glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (42) in all of baseball. A true center fielder, Inciarte played all three outfield spots for Arizona and posted a 14.5 UZR/150 which was fifth best in MLB last season (according to FanGraphs). What do those numbers tell us? The same thing you can see with your eyes on a daily basis; Inciarte can go get it with the best of them. When building a club for long term success, it’s always a good rule of thumb to be strong up the middle defensively. Acquiring Inciarte is a major step in the right direction, and we haven’t even talked about his hitting.

“He’s a special player,” Braves President of Baseball Operations John Hart said of Inciarte following the trade. “He hit .300 last year. He’s an energy player who is going to make our club better in 2016. You combine him with [Erick] Aybar at the top of the lineup and we’ve got a little different dynamic [than last year]. We’ve got some speed. This is a guy who we think is going to be a big piece for us.”

As Atlanta has gone through the steps of rebuilding its team from the ground up, adding a talent like Inciarte represents a significant step. He’s not a prospect or a relative unknown who has yet to demonstrate value at the major league level. Though Inciarte may not be a household name, he’s exactly the kind of player that the Braves needed. General manager John Coppolella said that 10 clubs had inquired about Inciarte’s availability within a few hours after the big trade with Arizona. While there’s always the possibility that the Braves could deal him, not to mention quite a few rumors in the past month, there is a compelling case to keep him. And that’s just fine with the Braves front office, which is operating under the auspices of “never say never… unless your name is Freddie Freeman.”

At the plate, Inciarte is a contact hitter who batted .303 in 524 at-bats for Arizona in 2015. He does not walk that often, but his ability to put the ball in play allows him to profile as a top of the order bat for Atlanta. Power is another thing he lacks. However, Inciarte has proven he can hit for a high average at every stop in his career, including a .292/.329/.386 line in his first 1,008 PA in the big leagues. His career .321 BABIP seems easily attainable, and considering Inciarte has just an 11 K%, he seems a lock to continue as a .300 hitter. Pair that with Inciarte’s speed, and there’s reason to look forward to him as a leadoff hitter for Atlanta in 2016. Andrew Simon of MLB.com pointed out a few of the factors that makes Inciarte such an in-demand player. Speed certainly made the list:

“Inciarte may not be Billy Hamilton or Dee Gordon, but he can move. Of players who had at least 200 home-to-first trips measured by Statcast™ this season, Inciarte’s average time ranked as the ninth fastest. At least to some degree, that speed has shone through in Inciarte’s game. For example, over the past two seasons, he is seventh among all players with 16 bunt hits.”

If there’s a weakness in Inciarte’s game, it’s his inability to do much against left-handed pitching. The lefty swinger held his own with a .273/.326/.320 line in 140 PA against LHP in his rookie season, but slumped to .227/.253/.277 in 150 PA last season. Inciarte boasts a career .309/.346/.422 line with all 10 of his career home runs in 718 PA vs RHP. Making strides to at least get back to where he was against lefties in his first season would go a long way toward his development as an everyday big leaguer. If you’d like to read an interesting piece on Inciarte’s platoon splits, Eno Sarris of FanGraphs has you covered.

Hector Olivera | LF | Age: 30 | Contract Status: 5-years, $32.5 million

There are plenty of storylines coming into 2016, but the future of Hector Olivera is definitely toward the top of the list. Acquired from the Dodgers as part of a three-team trade last July, Olivera was a hot commodity last winter on the international market. The Cuban defector eventually chose Los Angeles over Atlanta, in large part because the Dodgers handed him a 6-year, $62.5 million deal with a $28 million signing bonus. As it turns out, Coppolella and company didn’t give up that easily and put together a deal that brought in Olivera at a very team friendly salary for the next five seasons. Now it’s up to Olivera to prove that he can provide consistent production that makes him worth the money and the price tag of Alex Wood and Jose Peraza.

Atlanta hopes the investment will represent a highly affordable source of production in a market that is seldom offering value plays for teams in need of such a thing. Since Los Angeles was nice enough to pay Olivera’s entire signing bonus, that gives the Braves five years at an average annual salary of just over $6 million – escalating from $4 million in 2016 up to $8.5 by 2020. There were some questions about the health of Olivera’s throwing arm, with conflicting reports that he may have UCL damage. If Olivera eventually requires Tommy John surgery to repair his elbow, a $1 million option is added for the 2021 season. John Lackey had a similar clause in his contract that saw him pitch for the Cardinals last year at the bargain price of $500,000 after undergoing Tommy John and missing the 2012 season. To its credit, St. Louis added performances bonuses to Lackey’s salary, but that’s beside the point.

With all of the contractual obligations laid out, let’s take a look at the Olivera the player. Once a second baseman, Atlanta was hoping Olivera would be able to make the transition to third base. Unfortunately, he didn’t take to it quickly, which lead most talent evaluators to believe he would be average at best at the hot corner. Rather than continue solely down that path, the Braves opted to shift Olivera to left field in winter ball, a position that the club had previously discussed as his final destination down the line. With just 24 major league games under his belt, few expected the change to occur so soon. By moving him now, however, it gives Olivera the opportunity to get comfortable with that change and concentrate on his hitting.

After making seven different affiliated stops between Los Angeles and Atlanta in 2015, the Braves are hoping that some continuity will go a long way toward Olivera establishing a comfort level as he adapts to the major league game. A career .323/.407/.505 hitter with 96 homers and 433 RBI in 642 games in Cuba, Olivera is 6’2” and a solid 220 pounds, but does not have the raw power some would expect. Instead, an advanced approach at the plate coupled with excellent bat speed led scouts to believe Olivera has 20 home run potential. The Braves didn’t get to see as much as they would have liked in 2015 from Olivera, but there were flashes of his skills in September. He batted just .253 with a .715 OPS in those 24 games for Atlanta last season, driving in 11 runs. Much like Markakis, though not as extreme, some rest and a regular off-season regimen could and should benefit Olivera in 2016. Both Hart and Coppolella praised Olivera’s transition to the outfield while working with coach Bo Porter during winter league play in Puerto Rico before his strange dismissal from the team. They also mentioned Atlanta has not completely “abandoned” the idea he could play some third base as well. We’ll get a better idea of what they have in store once spring training comes around. The Braves believe they have a hitter who can bat around .280 and hit 20 homers annually. For now, though, Olivera is one big case of “wait and see.”

Michael Bourn | CF | Age: 33 | Contract Status: 1-year, $14 million

Prior to the trade that landed Inciarte, it sure sounded like the Braves were preparing to go into the season with Michael Bourn getting the majority of the playing time in center field. Obviously, that plan changed rather quickly when Atlanta acquired a premiere defender to man the spot on an everyday basis. While Bourn is not he player he was during his previous stint with Atlanta, he still has enough to offer as a fourth outfielder. Bourn was reacquired in a trade with Cleveland that saw the Braves finally divest themselves of third baseman Chris Johnson. The Indians were looking for a way to clear both Bourn and Nick Swisher from their books and kicked in roughly $15 million in addition to taking Johnson on for the remainder of last season. They’ve since released him, and Johnson caught on with the Marlins last week.

Back to Bourn, though. He is not getting any younger, and that is seldom a good sign for a player who made a living with his legs. From 2009-2012, Bourn averaged a solid .280/.348/.378 line with an average of 54 stolen bases in 153 games. He did all of that while providing top shelf defense. Some stolen bases aren’t out of the question, but gone are the days of leading the league in steals and running down hard hit balls on the fly in the gaps. Injuries were not kind to Bourn during his stay in Cleveland either. He batted just .238/.310/.282 in 482 PA with 17 steals in 24 attempts between the Indians and Braves last season. That line included a less than stellar .221/.303/.257 mark in 156 PA with Atlanta. That doesn’t inspire much confidence, but Bourn didn’t have the best luck either, evidenced by his .280 BABIP with the Braves. Another not-so-fun number is Bourn’s GB/FB (Groundball to Flyball Ratio), which has been trending in the wrong direction over the past five seasons – from 2.56 GB/FB in 2010 down to just 1.69 GB/FB in 2015. What does that mean? A speedy player with limited power potential who could benefit from keeping the ball on the ground is not, in fact, keeping the ball on the ground. In short, it means more outs. That has no doubt contributed to a falling batting average for the last four seasons.

None of that generates excitement about Bourn’s chances of contributing on an everyday basis, but he could offer some production in a reserve role while providing a strong veteran presence in a rather young clubhouse. Some scoff at that notion, but the team building aspect. especially with a young roster, calls for well-respected players who can provide some regular leadership. Now, that alone is not enough to warrant keeping a player around who is routinely hurting the team on the field, so some level of production is required to hold a roster spot. Bourn is as well-respected as they come, and has already been mentioned as a mentor for speedy center field prospect Mallex Smith. Hart went as far as to say that they plan on lockering the two men right next to each other in spring training. Provided he remains healthy and Atlanta doesn’t find a taker for Bourn and his salary in the coming weeks, he has a good chance to make the 25-man roster. Bottom line, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Nick Swisher | OF | Age: 35 | Contract Status: 1-year, $15 million

Nick Swisher likely stands on the shakiest ground of any player on the Braves roster. There are a multitude of reasons, beginning with the knee ailments and declining production which have sent his numbers into a sharp decline over the past three seasons. After averaging 26 homers and 83 RBI for an eight-year run from 2005-2012, Swisher hit just 22 homers and knocked in only 63 runs in 2013, his first season in Cleveland. The past two years have seen injuries take their toll, as he’s batted just .204 with 14 HR in 661 PA over 173 games. Even if he were healthy and semi-productive, first base and the corner outfield spots don’t seem to offer much in the way of opportunity for Swisher to find regular at-bats.

It is doubtful that Atlanta will be able to find a team willing to take on any sizable portion of the $15 million that is due Swisher in the coming weeks or months. As I mentioned with Bourn, the Indians did send money to off-set the difference in those two salaries and that of Johnson. That does serve to soften the blow of potentially releasing Swisher at some point this spring. Given the glut of outfielders, Freddie Freeman entrenched at first base and the lack of the designated hitter option in Atlanta, a pinch-hitting role seems to be the most that he could hope for should he stick around. With the likelihood that the Braves will cut ties with the switch-hitting veteran, there’s little reason to expect much of Swisher in 2016.

Non-roster Invitees:

Atlanta is not bringing too many extra men to camp as it puts together the outfield for 2016. Matt Tuiasosopo, 29, is the only veteran with an invite. He has seen time with both the Mariners and Tigers, but batted just .207/.290/.356 in 401 PA. He has just 152 games under his belt in parts of four big league seasons from 2008-2013. Tuiasosopo spent the last couple of seasons in the Blue Jays and White Sox organizations, showing some power – 31 homers in 225 games – but little else. He will likely find himself mixing it up for a fifth straight season in the International League when and if he joins Gwinnett… The Braves also invited 2014 first round pick Braxton Davidson to camp. He will be profiled in the Prospect Preview on Feb. 8th.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. All statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted. Subscribe to his podcast, “Around the Big Leagues” on (iTunes) or (Stitcher).

Braves 2016 Preview Series: Infield

The 2016 Braves Positional Preview Series examines who could comprise the 25-man roster on Opening Day as well as players who could make a difference this season and beyond. A new preview will be released each Monday, with accompanying podcasts featuring special guests coming out each week as well.

  • Part 1 – Catchers
  • Part 2 – Infield
  • Part 3 – Outfield
  • Part 4 – Starting Rotation
  • Part 5 – Bullpen
  • Part 6 – Top Prospects

 

 

Freddie Freeman | 1B | Age: 26 | Contract Status: 6-years, $118.5 million

As the Braves continued the process of rebuilding the club this offseason, it became clear that first baseman Freddie Freeman was the one player who isn’t going to be dealt away. Exactly how clear? General manager John Coppolella made a pretty bold declaration:

“I cannot make it any more clear. We are not trading Freddie Freeman,” he told USA Today in November. “We are not. I’d give my right arm before we trade Freddie Freeman. It is not happening.”

It’s unusual to see any GM put life and limb, or at least limb, on the line to keep a player in his team’s uniform. However, it’s a stance that Coppolella has not backed down from, even if that exact quote may not have been meant for public consumption. Freeman is a cornerstone player for the Atlanta Braves and over the last 18 months, those have been in increasingly short supply. Freeman signed the biggest of the long term extensions handed out by then-GM Frank Wren in early 2014. At eight-years and $135 million, it is the largest contract in franchise history. With the market yielding bigger and bigger free agent deals each winter, it may end up being a bargain when all is said and done. But that, of course, depends on a healthy and productive Freeman to make it happen.

Over his first four full major league seasons, Freeman averaged a .287/.368/.466 line with 21 HR and 89 RBI in 153 games. A mid-season wrist ailment and subsequent oblique injury resulted in two trips to the disabled list last season. Prior to tweaking his wrist, Freeman was batting .299/.367/.520 with 12 homers in 66 games. He then spent five weeks on the shelf, only to return for 10 games before the oblique cost him another 15 days. Freeman batted just .248/.380/.408 with six homers in his final 198 PA and was only available off the bench in the final series of the season as the wrist flared up again. Even though his 2015 was marred by injury, Freeman had proven extremely durable after playing all 162 games and logging a major league-leading 1,449 innings in 2014. A fiery competitor, he prides himself on being on the field from start to finish. Freeman is hoping that foregoing surgery in favor of a winter’s worth of rest will allow the wrist to get back to normal this season.

Injuries cost Freeman 44 games last year as he batted .276, which ranked 22nd among all first basemen. His 18 home runs ranked 18th, but were enough to lead the light-hitting Braves, as were his 66 RBI. With a top of the order that should be improved by the additions of Ender Inciarte and Erick Aybar (more on that later), Freeman could stand to get more chances to be a run producer in 2016. Nick Markakis and Hector Olivera did not provide much in the way of power last season, but both men will be counted on to protect Freeman in the heart of the Atlanta lineup this year.

Jace Peterson | 2B | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

One of the many players obtained in the slew of trades last winter, Jace Peterson had a 2015 season that had some definite peaks and valleys. After a slow start, he heated up and seemed to find himself at the plate in late April. For the next 50 games, Peterson batted .309/.389/.426 with 12 doubles, two homers, 20 RBI and 24 runs scored in 210 PA. That impressive production was driven in part by an unsustainable .357 BABIP, but also included 25 BB against just 31 K during that stretch. However, in his other 102 games, Peterson was a .201/.274/.288 hitter with just 31 walks and 89 K in 379 PA, course corrected by a .258 BABIP.

The numbers aren’t the only consideration when it comes to Peterson. He brings some intangibles to the table that the Braves coaching staff consistently praise. Though he may have been just a league average player with a 0.5 WAR, Peterson was middle of the pack or better among National League second basemen in several categories:

56 BB (1st) | .314 OBP (7th) | .649 OPS (8th) | 52 RBI (9th)

Peterson is an average defender, but an extremely hard worker. When he had early season trouble turning double plays, he was out on the field for early work which helped him correct that issue in short order. Peterson has the ability to grind out at-bats, though it was not on display quite as much over the final three months of the season. He finished third on the team with a 9.4 BB%, which was second best among all major league second basemen last season.

His base running, particularly in the stolen base department, is an area that needs some improvement. Peterson was just 12 for 22 in stolen base attempts last season. Moreover, playing time may not be quite as plentiful in 2016. Peterson batted .190/.234/.276 in 114 PA against left-handers. With the signings of other veteran infielders who can play second base and hit lefties at a higher clip, Peterson will have to show drastic improvement in a few areas in year two with Atlanta if he wants to maintain a chance to be an everyday player.

Erick Aybar | SS | Age: 32 | Contract Status: 1-year, $8.5 million

Shortstop will be a very different story than it has been since late 2012. Andrelton Simmons took defense to an entirely different level in his three and a half seasons in Atlanta. With that said, comparing these two men would be a substantial waste of time. I say that for the sake of clarity and insuring the brevity of this particular portion of the preview. Erick Aybar will likely offer more consistent offense, but replacing the otherworldly defense that Simmons brought to the table will be next to impossible. That said, Aybar is solid, if not spectacular, in his own right and a proven major league shortstop who should make steady contributions in 2016. Coming over from the Angels as part of the return for Simmons in a mid-November trade, $2.5 million of Aybar’s $8.5 million salary will be paid by Los Angeles.

As for what he offers on the field, Aybar was an American League all-star in 2014 and a gold glove winner in 2011. He’s averaged a .278/.318/.383 line with six homers, 51 RBI, 18 stolen bases and 2.7 WAR over the last seven seasons in Anaheim, but is coming off a bit of a down year in 2015. Aybar batted .270/.301/.338 with only three homers, 44 RBI and 15 steals, turning in a meager 81 OPS+ (second lowest of his career). Will he continue to regress slightly in 2016? It’s possible, but he still does enough with the bat and the glove to be a 2.0 WAR player for Atlanta.

With a solid all-around game that includes the ability to hit for contact and run the bases well, GM John Coppolella is excited about having Aybar and Inciarte setting the table for Freeman and others this season.

“Those two guys can hit at the top of the lineup and give us a little bit of a different look that what we’ve had in the past,” Coppelella told me at the Winter Meetings last month. “If you add them to our present lineup, we think we have a chance to be a better team in 2016. Look, I don’t want to cast any expectations on our team saying we’re going to win 100 games or not win 100 games, but I think our fans are going to see a better team. We’re going to see a team that’s going to play the game the right way. It’s going to get on base, run the bases well and do all the little things. It would have been really easy in the trade we made for Shelby Miller or for Andrelton Simmons to just go straight prospects, but in each deal we got back big league value players that play up the middle spots, shortstop and center field, and they’re both guys that we really like a lot.”

Adonis Garcia | 3B | Age: 30 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

In one of the more surprising developments of the winter, Adonis Garcia seems to have the inside track on the starting job at the hot corner. After putting on a power display as a 30-year-old rookie with 10 homers in 191 at-bats in 2015, he may have played his way into a larger role at the very least. A fellow Cuban and Garcia’s longtime friend, Hector Olivera was believed to be Atlanta’s third baseman of the immediate future when he was acquired from the Dodgers last summer. The news of Olivera shifting to the outfield full-time is another of the winter’s more fascinating storylines. He may still factor into the equation, but I’m going to save him for the outfield preview. Given Garcia’s immediate success at the plate and an apparent position change for Olivera, both Coppolella and President of Baseball Operations John Hart suggested that Garcia will get first crack at becoming Atlanta’s regular third baseman. If for no other reason, the Braves want to find out what they have.

The flash of power shown by Garcia in the final two months opened some eyes, but a few red flags come along with that pleasant surprise. There was no indication in his minor league days to expect Garcia to hit home runs in bulk. In fact, he’d hit just 21 homers in 1,195 at-bats since coming stateside as a Yankees farmhand in 2012, where I saw him play for High-A Tampa in his first stop. The fact remains, the power manifested itself at the big league level in a way not seen since his days in Cuba. Whether or not it’s here to stay is another question. Realistically, 10-15 home runs may not be out of the question, but Garcia’s walk rate was very low (just five walks in 198 PA with Atlanta). He’ll have to be able to find his way on base at a high enough clip to warrant every day at-bats, and that is a definite concern following a .293 OBP in 58 games last season. To that point, his work against right-handers may be a deciding factor, with left-hand hitting Kelly Johnson available to spell him. It’s also worth noting that Garcia’s glove work leaves something to be desired, as evidenced by 10 errors in just 96 chances at third base last season.

As of this writing, Garcia had not slowed down whatsoever in winter ball, where he’s batting a robust .370/.430/.519 with 12 XBH, 22 RBI and 21 runs scored in 36 games for Navegantes del Magallanes in Venezuela. The offensive potential from the late-bloomer is intriguing, but Garcia is going to have to produce consistently to make the third base job his own. With veterans like Johnson and Gordon Beckham around, manager Fredi Gonzalez won’t be lacking options.

Gordon Beckham | INF | Age: 29 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.25 million

A product of the University of Georgia who was selected by the White Sox as the eighth overall pick in the first round of the 2008 draft, Gordon Beckham signed as a free agent with Atlanta over the winter. Approaching 30 years old, much of the shine has worn off, but Beckham could serve a valuable role for the Braves in 2016. He’s spent his entire career in the American League, most of it with the White Sox. After finishing fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2009, Beckham struggled to live up to his top prospect billing in the six seasons that followed. His career .242/.304/.372 line in nearly 3,200 plate appearances includes some occasional power (69 homers in 2,874 at-bats) to go along with a solid contribution on defense. At the very least, Beckham serves as an insurance policy at both second and third base, where Atlanta appears to be heading into the season with Peterson and Garcia respectively. With virtually identical numbers against both righties and lefties, Beckham could also allow Gonzalez the flexibility of playing some daily match-ups that may prove advantageous.

Kelly Johnson | INF | Age: 34 | Contract Status: 1-year, $2 million

A versatile platoon player who is in his third stint with the Braves, Kelly Johnson enjoyed a nice bounce-back season in 2015. His odyssey started in Atlanta and wound up in the World Series with the New York Mets. All the while, Johnson proved a valuable and steady performer for both clubs. He batted .265/.314/.435 with 14 homers in 111 games, easily his best overall output since 2010. Johnson hit .279 with nine of those homers in just 182 at-bats with the Braves before being dealt to the Mets in July. Not only was he producing at the plate, but Johnson also played all over the place for Atlanta and New York. He started games at all four infield positions and both corner outfield spots last year. When a team goes looking for versatility, that would certainly qualify. Johnson has played for eight different clubs in a 10-year career and returned to the Braves to continue playing the game he loves while doing so close to home. As Mark Bowman of MLB.com writes, Johnson’s son, Cole, was a catalyst for this latest reunion. It should give his father the opportunity to plug and play and produce yet again.

Emilio Bonifacio | INF | Age: 29 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.25 million

Adding depth to the bench brings Emilio Bonifacio back to Atlanta after an abysmal stop with the White Sox in 2015. He offers speed and versatility, including the ability to play the outfield. Bonifacio, like his old teammate Beckham, received a one-year pact with a low base salary. He batted just .167/.198/.192 in 82 PA over 47 games as a reserve before being designated for assignment by Chicago in August. Bonifacio caught on across town with the Cubs, but never made it back to the majors. At least he finished on a higher note, batting .469/.544/.510 in a brief 13 game stint for Triple-A Iowa to close the season. That proves he didn’t somehow completely forget how to hit, but he enters spring training with much to prove. A switch-hitting veteran of nine seasons with 165 career stolen bases, Bonifacio brings a speed dynamic that no other potential Braves reserve infielder can boast.

Daniel Castro | INF | Age: 23 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Don’t expect Daniel Castro to be completely lost in the shuffle. The young infielder put himself on the radar last spring and earned some time in Atlanta in 2015, even getting semi-regular playing time down the stretch in September. Castro signed with the Braves as a 16-year-old out of Mexico in 2009. He had a slow ascent through the system at first and avoided being plucked away in the Rule 5 draft last winter. A competent hitter with a line drive swing, Castro puts the ball in play at a very high rate. He has struck out just 114 times in 1,292 minor league plate appearances. Castro brings a steady glove to the mix and is comfortable at either shortstop or second base. He will have to fight it out this spring with Bonifacio and Beckham to serve in a utility role, with a return to Triple-A Gwinnett not out of the question.

Non-Roster Invitees

There are a handful of minor league free agent signings in camp fighting for a spot as well. Reid Brignac, 30, probably has the most major league experience of the bunch. A perennial top prospect who flashed some power in the Tampa Bay system after being selected in the second round in 2004, Brignac enjoyed some success in 2010. He batted .256 with eight homers and 45 RBI in 113 games during his first full season. Since then, he has hit just .189  in 208 games for Rays, Rockies, Yankees, Phillies and Marlins. Brignac can play short, second and third, but he’s a long shot to crack the 25-man roster on opening day… Nate Freiman, 29, is a 6-8, 250-pound first baseman who saw some big league time with Oakland in 2013 and 2014. He was a Rule 5 draftee from the Padres to the Astros and then claimed off waivers by the A’s. He’s turned in a .256/.309/.408 line in 301 PA, hitting nine home runs in 116 games. Freiman is coming off a season in which he hit .220 with just four homers in 79 games at Triple-A. The burly, right-handed hitter has slugged 20 or more home runs three times in his seven professional seasons and owns a .285/.356/.469 minor league line. Freiman lacks the versatility to play multiple positions, thus making his quest for a roster spot an up-hill climb with Freddie Freeman manning first base in Atlanta… Chase d’Arnaud, 29, is the older brother of Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud, but has not enjoy the same success at the major league level. The elder d’Arnaud has seen time with the Pirates and Phillies, hitting just .205/.231/.277 in 175 PA over 75 games. A shortstop by trade, he has increased his versatility by morphing into more of a super-utility type in recent years. D’Arnaud has good speed (211 steals in 264 minor league attempts) and a good arm, but lacks any real stand-out tools. Once a Top 10 prospect after being drafted by Pittsburgh in the fourth round of the 2008 draft, he is looking to make an impression this spring or, more likely, with Gwinnett in hopes of getting back to the big leagues in 2016…  A trio of Top Prospects, including SS Dansby Swanson, SS Ozzie Albies and 3B Rio Ruiz all received non-roster invitations. They will each be profiled in my Prospect Preview on February 8th.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. All statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted. Subscribe to his podcast, “Around the Big Leagues” on (iTunes) or (Stitcher).

McAuley | Top 5 MLB Hall of Fame Voting Oddities

As the Hall of Fame announcement looms on Wednesday afternoon, there is every reason to believe that Ken Griffey Jr. has a legitimate shot to earn the highest percentage of the vote in history. There is, however, little to no reason to believe that Junior will be the first unanimous selection. That just never seems to work out. Even Hank Aaron found himself passed over by more than a dozen voters in 1982.

For a multitude of reasons, too many to list here in fact, there has never been a player to receive the full complement of votes. This dates all the way back to the inaugural class of 1936, when Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner became the first five men to receive what has since become baseball’s most prestigious honor from the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Now, this post could literally spawn thousands of words if not a book, but I’m going to attempt to keep it streamlined to simply pointing out just five of the oddities and inconsistencies that have highlighted the BBWAA’s annual hall of fame voting results. This includes the surprisingly low percentages of some household names as well as the number of years it took for other legends to gain entry. In some cases, it’s both. As one might imagine, this is by no means a complete list.

Joe DiMaggio | Class of 1955 (4th Year) | 88.84%

The “Yankee Clipper” leads off this list, and he has a fascinating story to tell. Joe DiMaggio retired following the 1951 season and was voted in as the headliner of a four-man class in 1955. DiMaggio was not subjected to the customary five-year waiting period prior to election, but instead a one-year hold which was put in place in 1946. At that time, a player only needed to be retired for a single season before becoming eligible for Cooperstown. Prior to that, there was no waiting and no standardized ballot for that matter. This resulted in countless active players receiving votes as well as a handful of hall of famers likewise being named on ballots years after their induction.

The now familiar five-year waiting period was instituted in 1954, but DiMaggio and other retired players who’d already been voted upon were grandfathered in, hence he gained election early despite it taking four tries. When you start naming baseball’s icons, DiMaggio’s name routinely makes the first five or 10 brought up, which makes it a bit of a head-scratcher to think he was not a first ballot hall of famer. If you think the process isn’t perfect now, well, it’s come a long way.

One last piece of trivia: Joe DiMaggio was the last active player to garner a hall of fame vote.

The Entire 1950 Ballot | No players inducted

Remember not too long ago when the BBWAA failed to elect anyone? Multiple players from that 2013 ballot should and will make it into the hall eventually, but it will pale in comparison to the failure of 1950. Exactly how insane was it? One hundred men received at least one vote – (see above explanation) and 48 of them were future hall of famers. Some of those eventually came courtesy of the veteran’s committee of course, but it’s still perplexing to see the likes of Mel Ott, Bill Terry, Jimmie Foxx, Paul Waner, Al Simmons and Hank Greenberg (among others) spending years and years on the ballot. Any of those men could headline a class, but instead languished for years while the electorate fumbled about sifting through the glut of players, deserving or otherwise.

Let’s look at two men in particular, both members of the 500 home run club from a time when that was extremely rare. Ott (3rd year) and Foxx (7th year) both gained election in 1951, but how either advanced beyond their first year on the ballot speaks to the backlog of candidates and general disorganization of the voting populous and process at that time. This was a running theme for decades early on.

Foxx was only the second player to hit 500 home runs (the first being Babe Ruth), and was the youngest man to reach that plateau (since surpassed by Alex Rodriguez). He finished his career second on the all-time home run list and first among right-handed hitters. Foxx held that distinction until Willie Mays hit homer No. 535 on August 17, 1966. With a 96.4 WAR compiled over a 20-year career, Foxx is tied with Eddie Mathews for 19th all-time among those enshrined. Making a retroactive case for Foxx is beside the point. He’s in. Hooray. Baseball’s evolution has shone a brighter and brighter light on statistical achievement through the use of advanced metrics and analytics, but even the most rudimentary analysis should have punched the ticket for Foxx in short order.

As for Ott, he holds similar marks to Foxx, if not better in some categories. “Master Melvin,” he of 511 homers (3rd all-time when he retired) and a tidy 107.8 WAR (14th among hall of famers) should have never gone begging for one year, let alone three. Those were the times though, and it speaks even more to the imperfect system in place back in 1950. Still, if you sit back and ask yourself what a sure fire hall of famer looks like statistically, it’s hard to imagine voters looking at Ott’s numbers and saying, “Next.”

Cy Young | Class of 1937 (2nd Year) | 76.12%

Widely regarded as the greatest pitcher of all-time on the strength of his talent, longevity, durability and countless records, this legend squeaked in as part of the hall’s second class. It’s amazing, but not unheard of, that the voting could be so fractured at the very beginning of the process. Cy Young didn’t have to wait long, but the pitcher who boasts the career victories record (among countless others) atop a sterling resume and went on to have an annual award of excellence bearing his name shouldn’t have been waiting around at all. He was listed on just 153 of the 201 ballots collected in 1937, yielding a 76.12% mark that ranks 109th of 114 hall of famers voted in by the BBWAA. Shockingly low.

Lefty Grove | Class of 1947 (4th Year) | 76.40%

Like fellow southpaw Warren Spahn, Robert Moses “Lefty” Grove did not pitch regularly in the majors until his age 25 season. Despite that, Grove went on to win 300 games while establishing himself as perhaps the very best left-hander in the history of the game during a 17-year career. Sure, Spahn and Sandy Koufax came after and well-deserved praise is heaped their way, but Grove set a standard of excellence that was and is a cut above. His rookie year stands as the lone losing campaign of his career, which is highlighted by nine ERA titles, seven strikeout crowns, four seasons leading the AL in victories, five times leading in winning percentage and capturing a MVP award to go with a pair of pitching triple crowns (one of those in 1930 while leading the league in saves).

Grove started 457 games and completed 298 of those (65 percent). Not only did he complete games, but he won them at a historical rate. His .680 winning percentage is 8th all-time, but the highest of any 300 game winner in baseball history. Put all of that together, and you get a member of the All-Century team. Grove was clearly victimized by the general disorganization of the process of that time, but one has to wonder what a hall of fame pitcher looks like if not Lefty. It’s extremely jarring to look at the Cooperstown roster and see both Grove and Cy Young ranked behind both Rollie Fingers (81.16%) and Bruce Sutter (76.92%) in terms of voting percentage. Closers are another debate for another day, however.

Rogers Hornsby | Class of 1942 (5th Year) | 78.11%

Make no mistake, Rogers Hornsby may be the greatest right-handed hitter in baseball history. Retiring in 1937 with a .358 batting average that is still second only to Ty Cobb, Hornsby won two triple crowns and reeled off an amazing run from 1921-1925 in which he batted .402 for a five-year stretch. There’s never been a better slugging second baseman in the history of the game. Of course, that whole bit about possibly being the greatest righty hitter has a lot to do with that. He may not have always been well-liked amongst contemporaries and teammates, but Hornsby has few peers when it comes to his batting exploits. To look at his numbers is to thumb through countless accomplishments that will never be duplicated. Like the other players on this list, it just boggles the mind to see him wait several years for election, only then to squeak by just above the necessary cut-off.

Braves 2016 Preview Series: Catchers

The 2016 Braves Positional Preview Series examines who could comprise the 25-man roster on Opening Day as well as players who could make a difference this season and beyond. A new preview will be released each Monday, with accompanying podcasts featuring special guests coming out each week as well.

  • Part 1 – Catchers
  • Part 2 – Infield
  • Part 3 – Outfield
  • Part 4 – Starting Rotation
  • Part 5 – Bullpen
  • Part 6 – Top Prospects

 

 

The Atlanta Braves embark on the 2016 season with a veteran duo expected to handle the duties behind the plate. Just one year after hoping a highly touted prospect and a veteran back-up could get the job done, the team reassessed its strategy, doubled down on the elder statesman, imported another experienced catcher to share the load and shipped the younger backstop to the San Diego Padres.

Yes, by the time last season came to a close, the Braves had lost faith in Christian Bethancourt, but been rewarded for their one-year deal with A.J. Pierzynski. The reasons for the former were many, underscored by defensive ineptitude and a questionable work ethic. As for the latter, Pierzynski’s surprising season was one of the few highlights in a 67-95 campaign. This was not how Atlanta drew it up, but he turned out to be a more than capable stopgap. With the addition of former farmhand Tyler Flowers through free agency, the Braves believe they have a solid tandem to handle a rather unproven pitching staff in 2016.

A.J. Pierzynski | Age: 39 | Contract Status: 1-year, $3 million

When Pierzynski signed with the Braves last winter, it was expected he’d serve as a mentor for Bethancourt while netting perhaps 50-60 starts behind the plate. He ended up wrenching the starting job away before April was in the books and went on to hit .300/.339/.430 in 113 games. Just how good was last season for Pierzynski? He turned in his first .300 season since 2009, his .339 OBP was his highest since 2003 and his 114 OPS+ was the third highest of his 18-year career.

Pierzynski has proven his durability with 1,872 games caught – 11th on the all-time list. Still, Atlanta made a conscious decision to pair him with a catcher in Flowers who is capable of logging his share of innings behind the plate. Flowers also provides a level of glove work that Pierzynski has never been noted for. Defensively, Pierzynski is not winning games with his pitch framing or his arm. He gunned down just 23 percent (21-of-88) of would-be base stealers in 2015. That said, several of Atlanta’s young pitchers – most notably Shelby Miller – had high praise of Pierzynski’s game planning, execution and considerable knowledge of opposing hitters and situations. That’s not negligible.

While thrilled with the job he did last season, both GM John Coppolella and President of Baseball Operations John Hart have said that having Pierzynski make 105 starts again is not the ideal scenario. Used in tandem with Flowers, the lefty swinger should be able to provide some value both on the field and in the clubhouse, where he was lauded for his work with a young pitching staff last year. While Pierzynski is at the tail end of what could be called a colorful career, the sometimes polarizing catcher has drawn nothing but positive reviews from teammates, coaches and executives during his time in Atlanta.

Tyler Flowers | Age: 29 | Contract Status: 2-years, $5.3 million (3rd year team option)

The Braves brought back one of their own when they signed Flowers in December. Originally drafted by Atlanta out of Chipola Junior College in the 33rd round of the 2005 draft, Flowers is enjoying a homecoming on multiple fronts. He grew in up in nearby Roswell, where he attended Blessed Trinity Catholic High School. The Braves dealt Flowers to the White Sox as part of a 2008 trade that landed Javier Vazquez. There was a time when the emergence of Flowers may well have served as a catalyst for Chicago to cut ties with Pierzynski following the 2012 season. As fate would have it, the two men have been reunited in Atlanta some four years later.

Soon to be 30, Flowers was non-tendered by the White Sox and reached a two-year deal with Atlanta just after the Winter Meetings concluded. The righty hitting Flowers has shown some pop but little else at the plate over the course of his career, slugging 46 homers and putting up a .223/.289/.376 line with 464 strikeouts in 1,395 career plate appearances. He batted just .239/.295/.356 with nine homers and 39 RBI in 112 games in 2015. League average was .238/.302/.376 last season, so Flowers falls somewhere in the middle of pack offensively. He has averaged 11 home runs per season since 2013, but that comes with an average of 119 strikeouts per year. Given his career 33.3 K% and paltry 6.7 BB%, Flowers is very much a feast or famine hitter.

However, the Braves are eager to see what Flowers can do behind the plate, where he demonstrated improved pitch framing and served as Cy Young contender Chris Sale’s personal catcher. While the White Sox made the choice to part ways with Flowers, it doesn’t undermine the quality of the work he provided in several important areas from a defensive perspective.

Shortly after the season, Fangraph’s David Laurila posted some interesting insight on Flowers’ prowess. He noted that Flowers was ranked as the best pitch framer in the American League last season (per StatCorner). In addition to speaking to the catcher directly about his mindset in attacking hitters, Laurila got some background from Chicago GM Rick Hahn, who said Flowers possesses an invaluable skill set:

“I don’t know how many fans are tuned into the types of things he does well,” Hahn told me. “They’re not as easy to put on a scoreboard as batting average or home runs, which are what the eyes are more commonly drawn to. I think people are probably tired of me talking about his framing, and how he calls games, but that doesn’t make them any less important.”

Eno Sarris, also of FanGraphs is among those who believes Flowers adds value defensively, particularly with his pitch framing ability:

“Maybe Tyler Flowers should just go back to gripping it and ripping it. A four-year low in reach rate may have helped him to a career-best strikeout rate, but it also had something to do with a career-worst isolated slugging rate. He’s turning 30 next year, but he was sixth in Baseball Prospectus’ framing runs last year, and there’s still potential for a win in that bat. There’s a decent catcher pickup on the non-tender market about every other year, and Flowers looks the part.”

The Braves believe they’ve found a steady glove in Flowers, and are maintaining the same approach they’ve employed for years when it comes to catchers. That is to concentrate on handling the pitching staff and playing the positon, with any offense coming as an added bonus. By employing Flowers as one half of a platoon with Pierzynski, who does more of his work with the bat, Atlanta has put together a relatively dependable duo to enter the 2016 season.

 

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