2019 Braves Positional Preview: Infielders
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
Grant McAuley’s 2019 Braves Preview Series will break down a different position group. Pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 15 and their first workout is Feb. 16. Position players report on Feb. 20, with the first full-squad workout taking place on Feb. 21. The Braves begin Grapefruit League Play on Feb. 23 against the New York Mets.
The Atlanta Braves have perhaps their best collection of infielders in nearly two decades as they get set to open this season. They have an MVP candidate at first base in Freddie Freeman and a former MVP at third base in Josh Donaldson. Up the middle, Atlanta has a collection of talented young players that continues to mature. Ozzie Albies rode a tremendous start to an All-Star season while Dansby Swanson’s year saw stellar defense and clutch hits before ending abruptly with a wrist injury. Not to be outdone, Johan Camargo took advantage of his opportunity to become the team’s everyday third baseman. The versatile switch-hitter enjoyed a breakout season and will be counted on as a super utility man who will see regular at-bats regardless of his defensive position on a given day. Throw in the surprising Charlie Culberson and hot shot prospect Austin Riley and there will be plenty of intrigue around the horn this spring.
Freddie Freeman | Age: 29 | Contract Status: 3-years, $66 million
The face of the franchise turned in another strong season in 2018, though even Freddie Freeman was one of many Braves hitters who saw both highs and lows over the course of 162 games. That aside, Freeman was the unquestioned leader in the Atlanta lineup and provided MVP-level production. Never concerned with his own numbers, Freeman got a taste of winning again as the Braves jumped over .500 for the first time since 2013 and won the National League East title. While there was no long stay in October, Freeman is the cornerstone of an infield that should be one of the club’s strengths this season as they look to repeat as division champions.
After a wrist injury hampered him in 2017, Freeman played all 162 games last season. As a result, he was an All-Star for the third time, won his first Gold Glove and finished fourth in the Most Valuable Player voting. Statistically, he turned in a strong campaign at the plate, slashing .309/.388/.505 with 23 home runs and 98 RBI. Additionally, Freeman led all first basemen with a 5.2 fWAR (FanGraphs’ wins above replacement) and was one of just two qualified first basemen in the majors to bat over .300 last season. He led the NL with 191 hits and 44 doubles while pacing the Braves in virtually every offensive category, save Ronald Acuña Jr.’s torrid home run pace. Despite a midseason rough patch that saw the long ball become a little harder to come by, Freeman spent a grand total of seven games with a batting average under .300 last season and was a steady force to be reckoned with on a nightly basis.
Freeman has three seasons remaining on the team-record 8-year, $135 million extension he signed prior to 2014. That deal will take him through his age-31 season and is presently Atlanta’s only sizeable long term contract commitment. Freeman has more than earned his money through individual production over the first five years of the deal. Over the past few years, the question had often been when will Atlanta find a collection of hitters to surround this MVP candidate in the lineup. With Acuña emerging as a potential superstar along with fellow youngster Ozzie Albies, the Braves brought in former American League MVP Josh Donaldson to help lengthen the lineup. Those four men will be the core of the Atlanta offense this year. The Braves showed for much of 2018 that they were more than capable of scoring runs. Consistency throughout the season and down the stretch would go a long way toward strengthening the club’s playoff aspirations in the much-improved NL East.
Ozzie Albies | Age: 22 | Contract Status: Pre-Arbitration
What a year it was for Ozzie Albies, who exploded out of the gates with a power barrage that few could have expected from the small of stature second baseman. Albies piled up the extra-base hits over the first three months of the season and earned himself a spot on the National League All-Star team. Those good times hit a snag in the second half, however, as Albies had to adjust to the league adjusting to him. That did not go according to plan.
It was ultimately a tale of two halves for the youngster. He batted .281/.318/.516 with 29 doubles and 20 home runs in the first half before slumping to .226/.282/.342 with just 11 doubles and four homers after the break. The biggest point of concern was the struggles from the left side of the plate. Albies slashed .263/.309/.494 with 12 HR in 266 PA against right-handers over the first three months, but batted just .192/.250/.315 with four homers in 220 plate appearances against them after July 1. He had no such troubles against lefties last season, lighting them up to the tune of a .335/.357/.548 line with eight homers in 196 PA. Finding a way to improve his work from the left side of the plate will be a critical component in Albies’ success going forward. The switch-hitting speedster has all the tools and even has a minor league batting title in 2016 under his belt. Albies will have to make adjustments to counteract what the league figured out in the second half. That could unlock the consistency he needs in order to put up big numbers across a 162 game season.
In the field, Albies has quickly become one of the better second basemen. The longtime minor league shortstop has both the range and athleticism to be a major asset defensively. One look at the advanced metrics backs that up. His eight DRS (defensive runs saved) were second in the NL while his 6.6 UZR/150 (ultimate zone rate per 150 games) and 9.0 Def (defensive runs above average) were both third best among all qualified second basemen last season according to FanGraphs. That kind of defensive prowess only elevates Albies’ overall value. When he is also rolling at the plate, the Braves are getting a glimpse at a complete player who could very well be the best second baseman in baseball in the not too distant future.
Josh Donaldson | Age: 33 | Contract Status: 1-year, $23 million
The Braves fired the opening salvo of the winter when they signed Josh Donaldson to a lucrative one-year deal in late November. While Atlanta’s offseason has been eerily quiet since, save the signing of Nick Markakis in late January, the addition of Donaldson provided the big bat that Alex Anthopoulos was seeking. Those two have ties to Toronto, where then-GM Anthopoulos traded for Donaldson, who promptly emerged as one of the best hitters in the game from 2015-2017. It is not surprising to see Anthopoulos turn to a player who previously helped transform a team into an annual contender. This acquisition brings an impact bat with a personality that should only enhance a clubhouse already built on high character guys. Donaldson plays the game with a confidence that matches his considerable abilities.
From his MVP season of 2015 through 2017, Donaldson (21.4) trailed only Mike Trout (25.8) in fWAR. The slugging third baseman posted a .946 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) over that three year stretch with average season that included a .285/.387/.559 slash line with 37 home runs, 100 RBI and 103 runs annually. That said, Donaldson has been bitten by the injury bug over the past couple of years. Shoulder and calf ailments kept him off the field for much of 2018, though he was productive when healthy and looked like his old self during his brief stint with Cleveland.
Make no mistake, the Braves took a calculated risk by signing Donaldson. But it is one that could payoff in a major way while simultaneously giving a motivated Donaldson the opportunity to rebuild his value and seek a big payday in free agency next winter. There are a great many things that have to go right between now and then for both the team and the player, but this one-year arrangement could be advantageous for both sides. If it does not work out for whatever reason, then the Braves are not burdened by a multi-year deal and can simply move forward with their plans to address their roster needs in 2020 and beyond.
Dansby Swanson | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-Arbitration
Two full seasons into his big league career, former number one overall pick Dansby Swanson’s career is still more about potential than results. That is certainly not a bad thing for a player who rocketed through the minor leagues, but he has yet to find the consistent success that many predicted when he was selected by the Diamondbacks to open the 2015 amatuer draft. Swanson’s subsequent trade to Atlanta opened up the hometown kid to heightened expectations and scrutiny that come with top prospect status. Despite all of that, he has remained level-headed and hard-working throughout. Swanson has dealt with highs and lows as well as injury in his young career. Beyond the scouting report, he possesses instincts, talent and drive, qualities that could make him an indispensable part of the Braves for years to come.
Swanson saw his 2018 cut short by a wrist injury which hampered him for much of the season. He batted .238/.304/.395 with 14 homers, 51 RBI and 10 steals in 136 games all while giving the Braves above average defense at the shortstop position. Atlanta’s focus on positioning coupled with hard work from Swanson resulted in a standout year with the glove. He was near the top of the leaderboard in several advanced defensive metrics. That helped Swanson put up a 1.9 fWAR, which ranked seventh of the 11 qualified shortstops in the NL. His offense was ultimately on the streaky side, but with more than a few clutch hits and big moments scattered throughout the season. The uptick in power, evidenced by jumping from six home runs in 2017 to 14 last season, is certainly an encouraging sign and an important aspect in his development as an all-around hitter.
Swanson's left wrist, which was initially injured in mid-April and required a stint on the disabled list, was bothersome from that point on and ultimately required surgery to remove some loose bodies. With that out of the way, Swanson will look to replicate the hot start from a year ago and carry it all the way through the season. He has shown flashes in seemingly every facet of his game. Much like Albies, gaining consistency will be the key to a potential breakout season in 2019. While he may get a push from the recently displaced Johan Camargo, it is hard to imagine that Swanson will not be given adequate opportunity to remain the club’s primary shortstop. Using their new found depth to mix and match will only make the Braves a better club than a year ago.
Johan Camargo | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-Arbitration
The Braves could have spent their winter looking for a versatile super utility player to fill out their 25-man roster. Instead, they quickly realized one was already in-house. Johan Camargo served as the team’s starting third baseman last season but will see an expanded role around the diamond with Josh Donaldson taking over at the hot corner. The switch-hitting Camargo has grown by leaps and bounds as a hitter during his short major league career. Now his flexibility should result in playing time at several positions as Atlanta seeks to follow the lead of an increasing number of successful clubs that have seen the value in rotating players based on matchups. The reason this could work is Camargo’s ability to serve as a capable starter around the infield and perhaps even in the outfield on occasion if called upon. His arm is electric, his glove is serviceable and his bat makes him a welcome addition to the lineup regardless of where he sets up shop on a given night.
Offensively, Camargo has blown away even the most ambitious of projections from his minor league days. While some wondered if he would hit enough to stick in the major leagues and even questioned his addition to the 40-man roster in 2016, others thought the big league caliber arm and versatility could help him carve out a niche as a reserve. Fewer still could have seen Camargo become a legitimate power threat as well as a balanced hitter from both sides of the plate. Overall, he posted a 3.3 fWAR and slashed .272/.349/.457 with 19 homers and 76 RBI in 134 games. That playing time was split with 109 games at third base, 18 at shortstop and eight appearances at second base. He provided remarkably similar splits against righties (.272/.357/.446 in 370 PA) and lefties (.270/.331/.482 in 154 PA) as well, lessening the need to consider platooning for that reason. Camargo received the bulk of his at-bats between the fifth and seventh spots in the order, a trend likely to continue in 2019. It was also good to see his walk rate more than double from his rookie season mark of 4.7% in 2017 up to 9.7% last season.
It is fair to expect Camargo's development to continue as he enters his third big league season, but the next stage will take on a different form as he alternates positions in order to garner as much playing time as possible. Just how often Camargo finds his name pencilled into the starting nine is one of the many decisions that manager Brian Snitker will have to make on a nightly basis.
Charlie Culberson | Age: 28 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.395 million
To say that the Braves were pleasantly surprised with the play of Charlie Culberson last season may be the understatement of the year. Though he was the least of the names changing hands in last winter’s trade with the Dodgers, Culberson’s arrival was at the very least fortuitous. He filled in ably all over the field and gave the Braves some much needed production during a breakout season. Just where he fits into the plans with Donaldson onboard and Camargo in place is perhaps a tougher question to answer at this point. But one could rightly say that there is a lot of baseball yet to be played.
Entering 2018 with a career .231 AVG and six home runs in parts of five seasons, Culberson slashed a solid .270/.326/.466 with an even more surprising 12 home runs in a career-high 113 games for Atlanta. He found steady work at shortstop, third base and the outfield while posting a 1.0 fWAR. A sure-handed fielder, Culberson was known more for his glove than his bat coming into last season, but he quickly added more than a few memorable moments to his highlight reel. Culberson clubbed a pair of walk-off home runs in the same week to help the Braves maintain their hot start and generate the feeling that this club had more than a few comebacks up its sleeve. Culberson played every position but center field and catcher last season. That’s right, he even found himself on the mound and was it ever impressive. While position player pitching may have lost some of its intrigue due to the frequency in 2018, Culberson’s inning was highlighted by a 94 mph fastball. That could come in handy if he ever finds himself looking for a second career.
As it stands, the Braves have more quality major league depth heading into 2019 than at any time in recent memory. With plenty of time remaining before opening day, it would not be out of the question to see Anthopoulos continue to monitor the markets for ways to improve his club for the season ahead. With Culberson and Camargo backing the quartet of Freeman, Donaldson, Albies and Swanson heading into spring training, it should give Snitker a multitude of choices to make and plenty of contingency plans should the inevitable injury strike.
Down on the farm: One Braves infield prospect has generated substantial buzz over the year. That man is slugging third baseman Austin Riley. He torched Double-A pitching over the season’s first month and arrived in Triple-A Gwinnett ready to take that next step. A knee injury slowed his momentum and all but ruled out a big league cameo from the Braves’ top hitting prospect in 2018. Fresh off a fine showing the Arizona Fall League to close 2017, Riley slashed .294/.360/.522 with 30 doubles, 19 home runs and 70 RBI in 108 games last season. He has worked diligently to improve his defense at the hot corner and could very well be Atlanta’s long term answer at the position. Riley will turn 22 years old just after opening day and may have to learn his way around the outfield in order to take the most direct path to the majors in 2019. A consensus Top 50 prospect in most circles, Riley’s long term place is most likely third base… The Braves announced six other non-roster invitees who will be in big league camp this spring.C.J. Alexander, Andrés Blanco, Pedro Florimon, Sean Kazmar and Luis Marte.