2019 Braves Positional Preview: Outfielders
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 most anticipated arrival in franchise history occurred on April 25, 2018. It was on that day that super prospect Ronald Acuña Jr. made his major league debut. That officially signified the dawning of a new era for Atlanta. Emerging from their rebuild to win the National League East, the Braves will bring back the same outfield trio that saw the bulk of the action in 2018. Acuña flashed his significant talent as an impact player in the second half, while Ender Inciarte emerged from a slow start to make steady contributions after the All-Star Break. Speaking of All-Stars, Nick Markakis earned his first trip to the midsummer classic and racked up some hardware following his best season in a Braves uniform. Some questions remain, however. Both Inciarte and Markakis saw some highs and lows at the plate, though one started slowly and the other finished slowly. Acuña will attempt to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump that has befallen many a young player. Despite those concerns, Atlanta has an outfield capable of producing both at the plate and in the field.
Ronald Acuña Jr. | Age: 21 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
Heralded as the top prospect in the game heading into 2018, Ronald Acuña Jr. did not disappoint Braves and baseball fans alike. His sensational rookie season was delayed by a stop in the minors and could have ended in late May with a devastating knee injury. Instead, both of those things were mere blips on the radar. Once Acuña settled in, he began making major league pitchers very uncomfortable by midsummer. A blistering second half propelled Acuña to NL Rookie of the Year honors and helped the Braves reach the postseason for the first time since 2013.
The accolades were many for the young outfielder from Venezuela. He became the eighth Braves player to win the Rookie of the Year Award and sixth Atlanta player to do so. Acuña slashed .293/.366/.552 with 26 homers, 64 RBI, 16 stolen bases and 78 runs scored, posting a 3.7 fWAR (FanGraphs' wins above replacement) in 111 games. Much of that damage occurred after the All-Star break, when Acuña transformed into one of the best players in all of baseball. In the second half, he hit an amazing .322/.403/.625 with 19 home runs, 45 RBI, 14 stolen bases and 54 runs scored in 68 games. The bulk of that was done as Atlanta's leadoff hitter, a spot that was in need of an upgrade midway through the year. Though Alex Anthopoulos mentioned Acuña could continue to hit atop the order, followed by Josh Donaldson and Freddie Freeman, the GM added that those lineup decisions will ultimately be up to manager Brian Snitker. He indicated Acuña could hit in the cleanup spot. The power aspect is tantalizing, but hitting leadoff would allow the Braves to maximize Acuña's plate appearances and provide him with an opportunity to pick up where he left off in 2018. Make no mistake, Acuña has the tools to hit anywhere in the order. If there was anything Acuña could improve on, it would be his marginal defense in left field. A natural center fielder, he never seemed completely comfortable in left. Having some time out there under his belt should lead to improved performance and better metrics.
Acuña rose to the occasion and displayed the five-tool talents that made him one of the game's most dynamic players. Leading off suited the young slugger, who can jump start the lineup with his bat and on the base paths. He definitely loved opening the game in style. Acuña set a Braves record by belting eight leadoff home runs in just 66 starts at the top of the order. He provided an excellent mix of power and speed, joining David Justice (1990) as the only Braves rookies in franchise history to hit 20+ homers and steal 10+ bases in a season. Acuña saved some magic for October as well, becoming the youngest player in postseason history to hit a grand slam. His blast in Game 3 of the NLDS at 20 years, 293 days old surpassed Mickey Mantle (21 years, 350 days), who connected for one in Game 5 of the 1953 World Series. Though I typically discourage comparisons to any legend or current player, that is certainly prestigious company for Atlanta' rising star. Seeing what Acuña has in store for an encore will be one of Atlanta's most intriguing storylines.
Ender Inciarte | Age: 28 | Contract Status: 3-years, $23.1 million (2022 team option)
Since coming over in a December 2015 trade with Arizona, Ender Inciarte has established himself as one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. That fine work was recognized yet again in 2018 as he captured his third consecutive Gold Glove Award. An All-Star in 2017, Inciarte saw some ups and downs at the plate that resulted in shuffling around the batting order last year. A slow start contributed to his .265/.325/.380 seasonal slash line, though he matched his career-high with 27 doubles, hit 10 home runs and stole a career-best 28 bases. There were some positives, particularly in the second half. Inciarte batted .302 with a .794 OPS (on-base plus slugging) after the All-Star break. Whether by pure coincidence or not, that hot streak came on the heels of being pulled from a game for not hustling. With his manager's point made, Inciarte took responsibility for the mistake and things seemed to head in the right direction down the stretch.
Inciarte's time in the leadoff spot was highlighted by a 200-hit campaign in 2017. Though he had started slowly before, those hits were even harder to come by in the first half last season. He batted just .241/.312/.337 in 91 games and Atlanta began experimenting with other hitters at the top of the order. Eventually, Ronald Acuña Jr. took on the mantle of leadoff man and Inciarte found success lower in the lineup. After batting just .223 with a .292 OBP in 54 games at the top, Inciarte was especially effective batting second (.874 OPS in 23 games) and seventh (.830 OPS in 27 games). It seems unlikely that anyone other than Josh Donaldson will hit in the two-spot, but until Atlanta plays some actual baseball games all we can do is speculate.
The encouraging second half numbers could persuade Brian Snitker to give Inciarte another crack at the top, especially if Acuña's power is deemed more valuable in the heart of the order. Those are questions Snitker will have to answer over the course of the season. As the Braves learned in 2018, those lineup changes are made for a variety of reasons. It seems unlikely that Snitker will commit to using Inciarte or any other hitter in the ninth spot and batting the pitcher eighth on a regular basis. He did experiment with it last year and found the results to be less than stellar. The biggest thing that will work in Inciarte's favor would be posting some favorable early results and turning that into a consistent season. If he does that, then Inciarte is likely to find a regular spot in the batting order.
Nick Markakis | Age: 35 | Contract Status: 1-year, $4 million
Atlanta's quest to add a corner outfielder stretched into late January, when the club opted to bring back veteran right fielder Nick Markakis. After finishing a four-year, $44 million contract with an All-Star season, Markakis took a substantial pay cut in order to remain in Atlanta. With the slow-moving free-agent market once again forcing players to wait it out as clubs become much more methodical with their spending, Markakis took that concern off the table and seemed to be perfectly content with his decision. Atlanta knows it has a proven, steady contributor who adds an important dynamic to the clubhouse as well. The $4 million salary for this deal includes a $6 million team option for 2020 with a $2 million buyout. Atlanta got an excellent value in reupping Markakis for 2019 and can divert those savings to other player pursuits.
Markakis slashed .297/.366/.440 with 43 doubles, 14 home runs and 93 RBI, earning a Silver Slugger for his production at the plate and a Gold Glove for his work in the field. All of that helped Markakis produce a 2.6 fWAR, his highest since a career year (6.0) in 2008. Markakis started his season with a walk-off, three-run homer on Opening Day and provided the Braves with steady production throughout the first half of the season. After the All-Star break, he was one of several Braves hitters who found the sledding a little tougher. Markakis went from slashing .323/.389/.488 in 94 games before the break, to .258/.332/.369 in 64 games after. That included a 50-game homerless drought to close the season, not exactly an ideal stat for a cleanup hitter.
With the emergence of Acuña and the addition of Josh Donaldson, the Braves will have some options to decide how they construct the top four spots in the order. Markakis could still factor in, whether it be atop the order as a leadoff option or in the cleanup spot. Markakis would appear best suited for the fifth spot in the order, however. He is a veteran hitter who grinds out professional at-bats on a regular basis. Markakis was 15th in baseball while leading the Braves with 2,798 pitches seen in 2018. He and Freddie Freeman (2,663) both played all 162 games and were the only two Braves hitters to rank in the top 50 in total pitches seen. It may seem like a nuanced and somewhat extraneous statistic, but it points to Markakis' ability to make pitchers work. With teams increasingly reliant on specialized bullpens to cover more and more outs, it helps to have hitters like Markakis who can run up pitch counts and help force a starting pitcher out of a game sooner. Granted, that is a hardly scientific but fairly common sense conclusion.
Adam Duvall | Age: 28 | Contract Status: 1-year, $2.9 million
The Braves did not get the best version of Adam Duvall upon acquiring the slugger from the Reds at the trade deadline. A 30-homer threat who plays a solid left field, Duvall struggled through the worst offensive season of his big league career in 2019. Overall, he slashed .195/.274/.365 with just 15 home runs in 138 games. Atlanta was hoping to add some thump against left-handed pitching, but Duvall batted just .132 with no home runs in limited playing time and was relegated to the bench by September. Those numbers were a far cry from the back-to-back 30 homer season with 70 extra-base hits while driving in 103 and 99 RBI respectively in 2016 and 2017. Again, the Braves did not see Duvall at his best, but he is not far removed from being a useful slugger and run producer.
Duvall simply could not get it going for any length of time in Cincinnati or Atlanta and was viewed as a non-tender candidate this winter. The Braves decided to offer him a contract and avoided arbitration with Duvall in January. Now several months removed from a forgettable season at the plate, Duvall had an offseason to put in some work and get ready for spring training. Providing experience and power at around $3 million, he represents an insurance policy of sorts. Should an injury sideline one of the Braves primary outfielders for any length of time, they could shuffle the defensive alignment and turn to Duvall to fill a spot in the interim. He could also come off the bench or perhaps see sporadic as Atlanta hopes to keep its lineup a little more rested than a season ago, when the team as a whole struggled to score runs through the final month of the season. The one-year contract is non-guaranteed, which means Atlanta could cut ties with Duvall before Opening Day and only owe him a fraction of the money. That means he will need to show enough in Grapefruit League play to warrant a roster spot, especially with Charlie Culberson and even Johan Camargo among the possibilities to see time in the outfield at some point this season.
Down on the farm: Atlanta has a pair of exciting outfield prospects coming to big league camp this spring. We'll start with Cristian Pache, who is receiving universal praise for his glove work. Pache, 20, may be the best defensive outfielder in the minor leagues. So good, in fact, that he is already major league ready in that respect. It was his bat took a big step forward in 2018. He slashed .279/.307/.410 over 495 PA and followed that up with a solid showing in the Arizona Fall League. Homerless through his first 176 professional games, Pache belted nine home runs between High-A Florida and Double-A Mississippi last season. Oddly, his stolen bases dropped from 32 in 2017 to just seven in 2018. That is not a major concern and may have more to do with coaching and team specific needs than anything else. The glove, the arm and the speed are all there, while the hit tool and the power are maturing. If Pache puts it all together in 2019, he could easily become the Braves' top prospect. As it stands, he has more work to do at the plate and probably doesn't project to reach the majors until 2020 at the earliest... Drew Waters was a busy man in his first full season of professional baseball. The local kid from nearby Woodstock, Ga., torched the South Atlantic League with Low-A Rome before being promoted to High-A Florida later in the summer. Waters, 20, finished his season with a .293/.343/.476 line and 57 extra-base hits in 114 games. He stole 23 bases and scored 72 runs as well, with much of his success occurring while with Rome. A switch-hitter who is working to find consistency from both sides of the plate, Waters excelled batting lefty but found the going a little tougher from the right side. A winter spent making adjustments could prime him for a big season and silence any doubts about his ability to remain a switch-hitter. Waters figures to begin the season back in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, where he batted .268/.316/.374 in 30 games. It would not be out of the question to see him make the jump to Mississippi before season's end... The Braves also invited non-roster outfielers Greyson Jenista, Ryan LaMarre and Rafael Ortega to big league camp.