2020 Braves Positional Preview Series: Outfielders
Updated: Mar 19, 2020
Grant McAuley’s 2020 Braves Preview Series breaks down a different position group as the club gets set for the regular season. While MLB continues to monitor the current coronavirus pandemic, this series offers an in-depth look at the men who will make up Atlanta's big league roster as well as candidates to contribute at some point this season.
Ronald Acuña Jr. | Age: 22 | Contract Status: 9-years, $99 million
The Braves have a bona fide superstar on their hands in Ronald Acuña Jr. The sensational young outfielder followed up his Rookie of the Year campaign with an All-Star appearance, a run at the 40-40 club and a fifth place finish in the National League MVP Award. That's the short of it. The long of it may play out over the next decade in Atlanta. Acuña signed a long term extension in April that should keep him in a Braves uniform for years to come. Though his immense talent may well have fetched a larger deal in free agency down the road, Acuña opted for financial security and a chance to build a legacy with the team that signed him at age 16 out of Venezuela for the sum of $100,000 in 2014.
It's safe to say Acuña is easily the club's best investment of any kind this century.
Acuña caught fire again last summer and once again set the tone for the Atlanta lineup upon moving back to the leadoff spot. At this point, Atlanta would be foolish to move him again. Manager Brian Snitker indicated as much at the Winter Meetings. The top spot is the spot for Acuña. Though some of his rate stats were a touch shy of his standout rookie season, Acuña dispelled any notion that a sophomore slump was a realistic possibility. He slashed .280/.365/.518 with 41 homers and 101 RBI while leading the league with 127 runs scored and 37 stolen bases. Strikeouts were perhaps the only problematic area of his offensive game, but even that was in line with both his minor league and rookie year rates. With hitters no longer afraid of swinging and missing, it's unlikely those punchouts will really set off any alarm bells. Not when Acuña is doing everything else better than anyone else on the field any given day.
The Braves signed Marcell Ozuna to fill the void at cleanup and play left field as well. That means Acuña will see the bulk of his playing time in right and center this year. A brief sampling of his work in right field was promising. Acuña seemed extremely comfortable there and even racked up a few outfield assists, reminding everyone of his five-tool talents. His play in center field occasionally left something to be desired, but Acuña has the ability to play the position well. A passionate player who wears his heart on his sleeve, Acuña will only continue to get better. He went home over the winter and worked out harder than ever before in preparation for another big season. What can Acuña possibly do for an encore? Opposing teams may not like the answer.
Marcell Ozuna | Age: 29 | Contract Status: 1-year, $18 million
When the Braves were unable to bring Josh Donaldson back, it left many to wonder how exactly the team would fill the void in the middle of the order. Enter Marcell Ozuna. The former All-Star bolted St. Louis, where he rejected the $17.9 million qualifying offer in order to test out free agency. Ozuna then turned down a multi-year offer from Cincinnati in favor of signing a one-year pact with Atlanta worth $18 million. In a roundabout way, he essentially took a qualifying offer yet changed addresses. Thus, Ozuna is armed with all the motivation he needs to put up big numbers, reestablish his value and venture back into free agency to land the kind of deal he was hoping for this winter.
Atlanta is happy to have him, particularly after losing its cleanup man to Minnesota. Ozuna was hampered by a broken finger which cost him a month last season but still belted 29 homers and drove in 89 runs in 130 games. His .241/.328/.472 line leaves something to be desired, but Ozuna's hard-hit rate and exit velocities were all remarkably similar to Donaldson. Those indicators gave the Braves the belief that Ozuna may just have a season like 2017 up his sleeve. Three years ago, he batted .312/.376/.548 with 37 homers and 124 RBI for Miami. He was promptly shipped to the Cardinals the following winter as the Marlins dismantled their ultra-talented outfield of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Ozuna. The Braves will also be relieved to have Ozuna working for them rather than against them in October. He batted .429 (9-for-21) with two homers and five RBI for the Cardinals in the NLDS victory.
While his defense is unlikely to win any awards, Ozuna is not as bad as a couple of the more whimsical highlight videos floating around would lead one to believe. Ultimately, the number one thing Atlanta needed as spring training approached was to plug the spot in the order behind Freddie Freeman. By signing Ozuna, the Braves got themselves a hitter who can provide many of the same things Donaldson did upon moving to cleanup. Not only that, but they got a hitter who is five years younger and on a shorter term arrangement. This helps the 2020 club contend while leaving the door open for top prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters to more easily find a spot in the not-too-distant future. There could be a lot of moving parts over the coming months and years, but the Braves definitely didn't want the cleanup spot to be one of them.
Ender Inciarte | Age: 29 | Contract Status: 2-years, $16.5 million
The 2019 season was without question the most challenging in the career of Ender Inciarte. The three-time Gold Glover got off to another slow start at the plate, battled injuries and saw his season end prematurely just when he was quite literally hitting his stride. Sure, his .246/.343/.397 slash line does not stand out in Atlanta's powerful lineup, but it was trending up when a hamstring injury cost Inciarte the remainder of the season. After a two-month IL stint due to a strained back, Inciarte caught fire upon returning in late July. He slashed .293/.411/.520 over his final 25 games, racking up 10 extra-base hits, 17 RBI and 15 runs scored despite making just 22 starts. Inciarte suffered a right hamstring strain on August 16 and was never able to get back on the field.
Following an All-Star campaign in which he collected 201 hits in 2017, Inciarte started slowly each of the past two seasons. When Ronald Acuña Jr. burst onto the scene, Inciarte was bumped from the leadoff spot and has bounced around the order since. His strong second half in 2018 led the Braves to give him another shot at the top while Acuña batted cleanup. After Inciarte scuffled and the offense sputtered, that experiment was abandoned. Inciarte found himself batting eighth until he landed on the shelf for 55 games due to a lumbar strain on May 14. Though he is unlikely to hit near the top of the order again, Inciarte has shown surprising power at times and has flourished in the seventh spot, where he's a .339 hitter in 184 career plate appearances.
The Atlanta outfield is suddenly more crowded than it's been in years, so Inciarte will have to produce in order to garner the regular at-bats he's become accustomed to over the past four seasons. Considering his reputation with the glove, all Inciarte needs to do is provide enough value at the plate to keep himself in the lineup. He spent this winter retooling his swing in hopes of replicating last season's hot streak. Ideally, Inciarte's defense would allow the Braves to put Acuña in right field more often while newcomer Marcell Ozuna serves as the club's everyday left fielder. With Adam Duvall available as a late inning replacement, Atlanta could turn its outfield defense into a serious asset in 2020.
Nick Markakis | Age: 36 | Contract Status: 1-year, $4 million
For the past five seasons, Nick Markakis has been a fixture in the Atlanta outfield. It took a fractured wrist in 2019 to finally force him to miss significant time. Even that only kept Markakis out for roughly a month. He finished with a .285/.356/.420 line in 116 games, adding 25 doubles, nine homers, 62 RBI and 61 runs scored while batting fifth for most of the season. The numbers were right in line with what Markakis has brought during his run with the Braves.
Markakis may not have turned into the star-level player he was during his early days in Baltimore, but he's been a reliable contributor across 14 big league seasons. That steady play and his professional demeanor combined to earn Markakis a reputation as great teammate and a leader. All of that has been invaluable to a Braves team that has come a long way since Markakis signed prior the 2015 season. His next double will be the 500th of his career. That's a plateau reached by only 63 players in baseball history. Markakis has 2,355 career hits, fourth most among active players. If he finds his way to 2,500 hits before he hangs up his spikes, then Markakis would pass 14 Hall of Famers and could crack the Top 100 on the all-time list.
It was unclear how Atlanta would address its outfield needs this winter, but it did not take long to get some clarity on where Markakis might fit going forward. After declining his $6 million team option for 2020, Atlanta paid the $2 million buyout and then signed Markakis to a one-year, $4 million deal on November 4. It was some creative accounting for all intents and purposes. At the time of the signing, general manager Alex Anthopoulos said the plan is for Markakis to transition into a lesser role this season. Given the crowded outfield that already has Ronald Acuña Jr. and Marcell Ozuna set for everyday work, it's difficult to see Markakis taking significant at-bats away from both Ender Inciarte and Adam Duvall. If anything, Markakis could find himself in the role Matt Joyce filled for Atlanta in 2019.
Adam Duvall | Age: 31 | Contract Status: 1-year, $3.25 million
There is no doubt the 2019 season was like any other in the career of Adam Duvall. Some called for his release in the winter of 2018. He was coming off a disastrous season and seemed a far cry from the man who'd been an All-Star slugger in Cincinnati. Instead, the Braves tendered Duvall a contract and eventually optioned him to Triple-A Gwinnett when the club broke camp last spring. Duvall, to his credit, went to work rebuilding his swing and swatting home runs again. While he waited for a chance to get back to the majors, Duvall cracked 29 home runs in 94 games for the Stripers. The call eventually came in late July and Duvall celebrated by belted five homers in his first six games back the Braves.
He saved his biggest blast of all for Game 2 of the NLDS against St. Louis. With the Braves leading 1-0 in the seventh inning and Mike Foltynewicz tossing a gem, Duvall was called upon to pinch-hit for the pitcher. That decision was met with a chorus of boos that quickly turned into a loud ovation when Duvall belted a pinch-hit, two-run homer to help Atlanta claim a 3-0 victory. Duvall was a key contributor in that series, though the Game 5 debacle won't be forgotten anytime soon. That aside, Duvall finished 2019 with a .267/.315/.567 slash line and 10 home runs in just 120 at-bats for Atlanta. He returns with a modest salary in his final year of arbitration. In addition to his power, Duvall is a solid defender in the outfield. He also hit well against left-handers in 2019, making him the ideal platoon partner for some of Atlanta's lefty outfield options. The Braves will give him a chance to earn a spot on the big league roster again this spring. This time, Duvall comes to camp with momentum. He put up strong numbers in his Grapefruit League play, batting .310 (9-for-29) with three doubles, three RBI, a pair of walks and just three strikeouts.
Also in camp:
The Braves brought back Rafael Ortega, 28, the left-hand hitting outfielder who had a spot on the bench throughout the second half of last season. His 2019 minor league numbers were sparkling, but Ortega hit just .205 with a .578 OPS in 88 at-bats for Atlanta. He’s ticketed for a return to Gwinnett. Veteran Shane Robinson will also be in camp for Atlanta. Now 35, he’s spent the last decade bouncing around and earning big league time with the Cardinals, Twins, Angels and Yankees. Robinson is a .221 hitter in 461 career games. Power-hitting Peter O’Brien signed a minor league deal with Atlanta this winter as well. The 29-year-old spent the last two years in the Miami system and appeared in 14 games for the Marlins in 2019, batting .167 with one homer. O’Brien has crushed 178 home runs in 792 games during his eight-year minor league career but has yet to enjoy the same success at the big league level. The converted catcher can play first base as well as the corners in the outfield. O'Brien will likely begin the season with Gwinnett if he sticks around through camp. He led the Grapefruit League with four home runs this spring, enough to put himself on the radar for Atlanta.
The Braves have two premier outfield prospects in Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, both of whom reached Triple-A Gwinnett last season. What that means for the future of the outfield has been the question on everyone's mind. Do you plan to build around both of those men, or do you trade one in order to fill a more pressing need at the big league level right now? That will be answered in time, but both of these men have established themselves as a legitimate Top 100 prospects in the game. Pache, 21, is a defensive standout already drawing rave reviews from scouts. Waters, also 21, is a switch-hitter hoping to follow in the footsteps of Chipper Jones. The duo will get a taste of big league camp before resuming their stay with the Stripers. Pache overcame a slow start to bat .274 in Triple-A but hit just one home run. Waters hit .271 with Gwinnett but struck out 43 times in just 107 at-bats. It's clear that both players have all the tools. It's just a matter of refining them.
Meanwhile, local boy Trey Harris, 24, will be taking part in his first big league camp. A 32nd round pick out of Missouri in 2018, Harris batted .323 with an .887 OPS in 131 games across three levels last season. The Power Springs, Ga., product seems likely to return to Double-A Mississippi but could earn a quick promotion if he gets off to a hot start. Greyson Jenista was a 2nd round pick (49th overall) in that same draft with Harris but has struggled to begin his professional career. The 23-year-old batted .233 and struck out 145 times in 130 games between High-A Florida and Double-A Mississippi. He also produced just 29 extra-base hits. The Braves still believe in Jenista's potential, but the former Wichita State standout will need to turn those talents into results to avoid stalling out in the pipeline.