Lineup construction intersects with Braves' search for corner outfielder
The Atlanta Braves enjoyed one of their best offensive years in recent memory, but those bats went eerily quiet at the close of 2018. With that in mind, general manager Alex Anthopoulos went out searching for lineup reinforcements this winter.
He turned to a familiar face, signing former American League MVP Josh Donaldson to a lucrative one-year contract. This is a man who gave Mike Trout a run for his money for best hitter in baseball not too long ago. Donaldson is also a man on a mission to prove he is healthy and rebuild his value in hopes of landing a long-term contract this time next winter.
Anthopoulos took a calculated risk on an impact player.
Despite that, some fan reaction wondered why the Braves would sign Donaldson when capable third baseman Johan Camargo was already in place. That misgiving is influenced by a touch of recency bias that sells Donaldson woefully short of his ability when healthy.
Make no mistake, Donaldson is a piece of the puzzle. Camargo is a piece of the puzzle. Other pieces include Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson, Tyler Flowers and the recently signed Brian McCann.
But in what order will they all fit together? And just when will all the pieces be put in place?
All signs point to the cleanup spot as the unanswered question for the Braves as currently comprised. They have plenty of capable hitters to man spots 5-8 in the order but lack a proven threat to follow a top three likely to feature Acuña, Donaldson and Freeman.
Adding a middle of the order bat who allows that top three to remain in place is tantamount to success for this lineup in 2019. It stands to reason that very same player will need to fill Atlanta’s current corner outfield void.
Nick Markakis was Atlanta’s fourth place hitter in 2018. He enjoyed his best year in a Braves uniform, but two home runs and 26 RBI from your cleanup man over the final two months was suboptimal and underscored an unfortunate theme for the offense.
It lost steam after the All-Star break.
Braves runs per game by month in 2018:
March/April: 5.6 RPG
May: 4.5 RPG
June: 5.0 RPG
July: 4.3 RPG
August: 4.3 RPG
September: 4.4 RPG
Just as Acuña and a resurgent Inciarte enjoyed their best run of the season, the All-Star trio of Markakis, Freeman and Albies each battled their way through slumps of varying degrees in the second half. Swanson’s season had peaks and valleys and was ended prematurely by a wrist injury. Newcomer Adam Duvall was a non-factor. While Camargo and utility man Charlie Culberson were big contributors in the second half, neither man was immune from the September struggles.
Those struggles followed the club into the National League Division Series as well.
That second half swoon is the reason adding offense was a priority for Anthopoulos this winter. It began with signing Donaldson and McCann.
His work is not done.
It seems unlikely that the club will simply give Duvall the nod. He put together back-to-back 30-homer campaigns in Cincinnati and certainly profiles as a source of power. Unfortunately, he fell on hard times in 2018 and never got on track, slashing .195/.274/.365 with 15 homers and posting a 0.2 fWAR in 138 games. Though he is a good defender in left, Duvall played poorly in a limited role with Atlanta and was not good off the bench either. It came as a surprise to some that the Braves tendered Duvall a contract, but the fact remains that 30-homer hitters don’t grow on trees. While he should get an opportunity to earn a spot on the roster this spring, Duvall's role remains unclear at this point.
With Markakis currently among the outfielders looking for work on the free-agent market, Atlanta still has a definite need of the corner outfield variety. After veterans Michael Brantley and Andrew McCutchen signed multi-year deals elsewhere, the outfield pickings have become increasingly slim on the open market.
Anthopoulos is also wary of awarding a multi-year contract to a 30-something talent. That means searching for value on a short term deal with any of the remaining free agents, something that may be easier said that done given the available players. Markakis, Adam Jones, Carlos Gonzalez, Avisail Garcia, Marwin Gonzalez and Curtis Granderson seem like the most logical free-agent candidates.
Barring an unexpected push to sign Bryce Harper or, to a lesser extent, A.J. Pollock, it appears Anthopoulos may need to make a trade in order to adequately fill the outfield vacancy.
Here are some outfielders who could fit the mold for Atlanta.
Mariners right fielder Mitch Haniger would be an ideal acquisition. Though the cost could be significant to land a 28-year-old slugger coming off a breakout season, he comes with four years of team control and is entering what should be the prime of his career. That fits what Atlanta is building perfectly. Seattle would be justified to demand one or more of Atlanta’s top prospects in exchange for Haniger. As of this writing, there has been no indication that Mariners are actively shopping Haniger. But they are most definitely listening to offers. Given general manager Jerry DiPoto’s winter thus far and his penchant for pulling off trades by the dozen annually, it is fair to say no one on the Mariners roster is off limits. Any talk to the contrary is simply posturing. Atlanta should monitor this market vigilantly as it could be the ideal trading partner for Seattle.
With Yasiel Puig dealt to Cincinnati, trade speculation could shift to Tigers outfielder Nick Castellanos. Yes, his defensive metrics were poor, but this guy can really rake. Another one-year rental, Castellanos slashed .298/.354/.500 with 74 extra-base hits in 2018. He's averaged 95 RBI the past two seasons and also punishes lefties, which could add a critical dynamic to the middle of the Braves lineup. The Tigers are motivated to deal Castellanos before he hits free agency next winter. He will turn 27 years old in March and is unlikely to fetch the Tigers one of Atlanta’ top minor league talents. A trade with Detroit could cost a couple of mid-range prospects to get a deal done. With the Braves’ commitment to defensive positioning paying off in big ways last season, it stands to reason that could help Castellanos make some modest improvements in that department if nothing else. The Markakis Gold Glove gives one hope.
After Paul Goldschmidt was traded to St. Louis, a teardown in Arizona feels inevitable. David Peralta is a power-hitting outfielder who could help Atlanta address its need. Peralta, 31, slashed .293/.352/.516 with a career-high 30 home runs and won a silver slugger last season. He has spent most of his career in left field but can play either corner spot. Peralta is second year arbitration eligible this winter and has two years of team control remaining. Some have suggested the Diamondbacks could attach Peralta to Zack Greinke’s mega-contract in an attempt to get as much money off the books as possible. Greinke is owed roughly $105 million over the next three seasons. Peralta’s availability is certainly not tied completely to that scenario, but it is one of many avenues Arizona could take if moving money is a priority. The Braves are in the market for a veteran front of the rotation starter in addition to an outfielder, but this particular trade scenario feels more like a pipe dream at the moment.
The Rangers are another club that could be a good trading partner for Atlanta. Young right fielder Nomar Mazara would be an intriguing addition. Just 23 years old, Mazara has already put together three consecutive 20-homer seasons. While he has not fully matured as an all-around hitter, Mazara’s power could help lengthen the Atlanta lineup and he has experience in the cleanup spot. He also has time to grow and is under team control for three more seasons through arbitration. Texas also has high-priced veteran Shin-Soo Choo and slugger Joey Gallo. Both are useful players, though neither seems like an ideal fit at first glance. Choo, 36, still gets on base (.377 OBP to go with 21 homers in 2018) but is owed $21 million each of the next two seasons. Gallo, 25, is the poster child for the “three true outcomes” style of baseball that has become so prevalent in recent years. That said, if any club is looking for power, then Gallo's back-to-back 40 homer seasons most definitely qualify. He is under team control for four more years, but is hard to put a price tag on such a uniquely flawed and yet talented slugger.
Elsewhere, Corey Dickerson of the Pirates could make some sense. His home run total took a dip with Pittsburgh, but he also cut his strikeout rate in half while putting together a productive season in 2018. The 29-year-old is a one-year stop gap who could bring Gold Glove defense to left field with Acuña shifting over to right. That contingency plan on the corners provides some added flexibility and allows Atlanta to widen its net. Dickerson has three 20-homer campaigns and owns a .284/.326/.498 line across six seasons in the majors.
Speaking of the Pirates, Starling Marte is another interesting name. The 30-year-old is coming off a 20/20 season and has a power and speed blend to go along with solid defense. Though he has never been utilized as a middle of the order hitter, Marte was an outstanding hitter with runners in scoring position (.330/.372/.578 in 122 PA) last season and owns good numbers with RISP in his career. A PED suspension in 2017 took some of the shine off Marte, but he is a talented outfielder who would check a lot of boxes for just about any club. Marte is under control for $10.3 million in 2019 and has team options for 2020 ($11.5 million) and 2021 ($12.5 million) that include affordable buyouts. Marte would probably make more sense toward the top of the order, if Atlanta's ideal lineup is open for discussion.
The options for Atlanta are many, but Anthopoulos and company continue to monitor the ever-changing markets. Outfield is not the team's only need, but there is still adequate time to address them all and get deals done in advance of spring training.
The Braves are hoping to find the right ones between now and then.