The Atlanta Braves have been one of baseball’s pleasant surprises in 2018. The club seems to have emerged from a rebuild and climbed back to the top of the National League East after a four-year absence.
Despite a roster infused with young talent that is making an impact, Atlanta is still searching for an answer at one critical position.
Third base remains an ever-present question mark.
The Braves have employed 28 different third basemen since Chipper Jones retired in 2012. That revolving door continued in 2018 as four men have received at least half a dozen starts there over the first two months of the season.
Atlanta released veteran slugger Jose Bautista over the weekend. That move ended a two-week trial that was never destined to be a long term solution. Bautista, who had not played third base regularly in a decade, was shoehorned into that role in order to get his bat in the lineup. When Bautista’s bat failed to provide the desired results, Atlanta opted to go with another in-house solution.
While Johan Camargo has seen time at the hot corner before, and will see more over the coming weeks, his opportunity may prove fleeting.
Bautista’s stay in Atlanta was relatively short, but the club’s quest to find an answer at third base is still ongoing. Not only do the Braves have a hot-shot prospect climbing the ranks, but they may be active in trade discussions this summer and could explore the free-agent market for a long-term solution this winter. There are several ways the club could seek to fill its need:
Johan Camargo, everyday third baseman…
With Bautista out of the picture, Camargo is the immediate beneficiary of regular playing time. The switch-hitting infielder is a natural shortstop whose versatility has come in handy over the past two seasons. Many, if not most in the organization view Camargo as a super utility player who can play multiple positions and provide value at each. Third base is just one of those spots.
Camargo, 24, pushed his way onto the 40-man roster following the 2016 season despite being a somewhat unheralded prospect. He displayed improved offensive upside in addition to an 80-grade infield arm during his time in Atlanta. Despite his improvement, the Braves should seek all the power they can get out of the corner infield spots. That’s the reason Bautista got a look to begin with.
Austin Riley, third baseman of the future…
One answer could be just a phone call and short drive away in Gwinnett. That’s where slugging third base prospect Austin Riley is currently continuing his reign of terror on opposing minor league pitchers. Riley’s stock has skyrocketed over the past two seasons and he has given every indication that he may be the long term solution.
Riley, 21, is everything the club could ask for in the power department. He posted consecutive 20-homer campaigns and is well on his way to a third this season. Riley has become more selective at the plate and has evolved into a better all-around hitter through the minors. He has also worked tirelessly to improve his defense and become a complete player with staying power at the hot corner.
Atlanta could choose to hand Riley the keys in a couple of weeks, once the Super Two deadline has passed and clubs can promote players without having to face an early arbitration date. It’s yet another service time consideration of which general manager Alex Anthopoulos will have to decide the best course for the club. Four months of Riley could be a major boost for the Braves. It would also press yet another young player into a potentially prominent role on a hopeful contender.
To trade or not to trade?
Atlanta could explore the trade market over the coming weeks and months. There will be plenty of targets out there. Mike Moustakas of the Royals and Josh Donaldson of the Blue Jays seem like obvious candidates, though both are pending free agents. The same can be said for Manny Machado, who moved back to shortstop this season after nearly six years at third base. The Orioles have been abysmal, and it may be in their best interest to drum up interest in Machado before the trade deadline in order to maximize the return. He’s a franchise player and will be paid as such when he hits the open market this winter. Machado figures to be worth even more, if that’s possible, as a shortstop.
Rangers veteran Adrian Beltre may be another trade target for any number of clubs if Texas entertains offers for his services. The Rangers are currently buried in last place in the AL West, however, Beltre could veto any deal as a 10-5 player (10 or more years of Major League service, the last five of which with one club cannot be traded without the player’s consent). He may prefer to stay put if the right deal doesn’t pique his interest. Like the other men in this listing, Beltre is also a free agent at the end of the season, his 21st in the majors. Unlike the others, Beltre has missed significant time thanks to recurring hamstring problems over the past two seasons. He’s on the disabled list now and is still weeks away from returning but would be an interesting name to consider around the trade deadline if healthy. Beltre has spent eight seasons in Arlington and has not indicated if he plans to continue playing in 2019.
Atlanta will have to determine if any of those players is worth the trade price with the likelihood of not retaining their services beyond 2018. In the case of Machado, Donaldson and even Moustakas, they will all seek their pay day in free agency. While the first two seem likely to land a lucrative multi-year deal, Moustakas will be hoping to cash in after a cold and bitter winter on the job market forced him back to Kansas City this season. It’s worth noting that Moustakas has a $15 million mutual option with a $1 million buy-out. He followed up an All-Star campaign last year with a strong start this season and does not turn 30 years old until September. There will be teams seeking the lefty slugger.
Winter is coming…
The Braves don’t have to go outside the organization in order to address their third base needs. They have the opportunity to give Camargo some time to show what he can do with regular at-bats. If that doesn’t get the job done, Atlanta could promote Riley and find out what kind of power he may provide. Then again, Anthopoulos could explore the trade market and go all-in on the chance to make the playoffs this season. There’s really no wrong answer.
As discussed in the trade scenarios for the big name players available, there will be a myriad of names to be had in free agency. The Braves will have a large amount of payroll flexibility this winter, giving them reason to wait and see which players they’d like to target without having to potentially give up pieces of their young core in a trade for what boils down to a rental player.
Make no mistake, that’s what Machado, Donaldson and even Moustakas would be.
The Braves would no doubt like to make the most of their chance this season, whether some view them as ahead of schedule or not. They also have to keep an eye on the future. If Atlanta can fortify the pitching staff while also adding a third baseman, the club could be in prime position to make some noise in October. Though he will try, Anthopoulos may not be able to cross all of those items off his list this summer.
Finding a permanent solutition to their third base quandry would move the Braves one step closer to reestablishing themselves as a perennial powerhouse.