Where Do We Go From Here? — Outfield (by Rusty S.)

Ed. note: Every year we publish a series of articles entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” in which we analyze what the Braves need to do in order to get better the following year. Here’s the intro to the series.

The Incumbents

The outfield seems like a strong spot for the Braves. It is not. One memory that the past couple of seasons have drudged up from the late ‘80’s Braves teams is – one forgets what a good ballplayer looks like.

Nick Markakis, who just turned 33, is coming off of a 1.7 WAR in 2016, and has not had a WAR above 2.0 since the 2011 season. Markakis had a .269/.346/.397 slash line in 2016, and was able to increase his home run total from 3 to 13 as he continued to recover from neck surgery performed prior to the 2015 season. The low double digit home run total is typical of his recent seasons.

Since the 2012 season, Markakis has been consistently in the 1.7 to 2.0 WAR range, and it’s not a bad gamble to hope he can squeeze out another such season in 2017. That would make him good enough for the kind of team the Braves appear to be assembling for this season, but, realistically, his age and his borderline performance level make him a bad gamble for seasons going forward. Mark right field down as another position that will need to be addressed before there is a next great Braves team.

Matt Kemp just turned 32 and is coming off of a Blutarsky-esque 0.0 WAR in 2016 (0.0 in San Diego, and comically, -0.0 in Atlanta.) Despite contributing 35 home runs and a .268 BA, his value was affected by his .304 OBP and negative dWAR. It was supposedly once said after a Willie Mays triple that the only man who could have caught the ball, hit it. The next time Kemp flies out to left, we might say that the only person who couldn’t have caught it, hit it.

However, to be fair to Kemp, the idea that he is only a replacement level ballplayer doesn’t totally pass the smell test. His power is a scarce and valuable skill, and there is reason to be optimistic that his offensive output will continue to be aided by his departure from San Diego’s Petco Park. In 241 plate appearances with Atlanta, Kemp posted a toothsome .280/.336/.519 line. A final grasp at optimism is the note that after moving from right field in San Diego to left field in Atlanta, Kemp posted a range factor per 9 innings of 2.15 in 54 games in left, compared to a league average of 1.80.

Still, there remains the -0.0 WAR to temper the shiny objects and the small sample sizes. At age 32 the clock is ticking, and numerous injuries and arthritis have ground his wheels nearly to a halt, as he’s declined from 40 stolen bases in 2011 to just one swipe last year. It’s hard to be optimistic about what role Matt Kemp might play on the next great Braves team.

Ender Inciarte is the bright spot of the outfield, and is everything that one wants in building a team. Inciarte turned 26 in October, and is entering his prime. He is coming off of a 3.8 WAR season in 2016, and a 5.3(!) 2015, after which Arizona found him to be expendable. He provides value both offensively and defensively, and in 2017 he will be looking to build on a career .292/.337/.381 line in 1586 plate appearances, and to defend his first Gold Glove award. Inciarte got off to a slow start in 2016, reminding us not to get too excited over small sample sizes, and watching his defensive smarts and hustle softened the blow of losing that same type of entertainment that Andrelton Simmons had provided.

Others

Mallex Smith had a breakout season in 2015 with a .303/.371/.378, 56 stolen base season, splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A.  He followed up with an injury shortened MLB rookie season in 2016, where he posted a .238/.316/.365 in 215 PA’s. He stole 16 bases, but was caught 8 times. To my eye, it looks like there is room for improvement in his technique, which should result in an acceptable caught stealing percentage going forward if he can refine it.

Smith, who will be 24 in May, has the physical tools to be an excellent center fielder, and in limited time there he had a range factor / 9 innings of 3.15 compared to a league average of 2.39. Smith is not quite as polished as Inciarte is defensively, but they are similar enough defenders for me to say that for Mallex, glove is a mini-Ender’d thing.

Smith does not have enough power to play the corner outfield traditionally, but he could be a shutdown corner outfield defender, and that’s good, so who knows? Still, it’s unlikely that the Braves would settle on an Inciarte / Smith combo in their regular outfield. Smith, who is only 2 years younger than Inciarte, will need to demonstrate soon that he can be the offensive equivalent of Inciarte. He has not yet.

Recently-acquired Sean Rodriguez played 7 different positions for Pittsburgh in 2016, none of them remarkably well. Rodriguez, who will be 32 in April, is coming off a career year offensively, with 18 home runs part of a .270/.349/.510 line. When projecting his 2017, it’s important not to lose sight of his career 2435 PA’s and career line of .234/.303/.390. In his career, he’s played the infield more than the outfield, but he’s played everywhere but pitcher and catcher, so his versatility makes him a useful bench player.

Prospects

Dustin Peterson is the Braves’ 18th-ranked prospect according to mlb.com, and the outfielder closest to the Majors. As a 21-year-old in Double-A, Peterson hit .282/.343/.431 with 12 home runs in 524 at bats. My understanding is that Mississippi is a poor park for home runs, and it will be interesting to see how Peterson’s power develops in 2017. He was quite young for his league, and there is reason to be optimistic that he will keep his OBP up as he matures into the next levels. Peterson was originally a 3rd baseman, but has been moved to left field.

Ronald Acuna is the Braves’ 17th-ranked prospect. The 18 year old spent most of 2016 at Rome, where he put up solid numbers in 171 PA’s, while a thumb injury limited his action. It’s premature to make projections on low-A stats and small sample sizes, but the scouting reports are exciting.

Braxton Davidson is the Braves’ 24th-ranked prospect. The 32nd pick in the 2014 draft, the 20-year-old already has 1196 career PA’s mostly in A and High A, and apart from a good OBP, the early numbers are not encouraging (.224/.344/.360.) Davidson has been young for his leagues, though, so there’s still reason to keep an eye on him. He’s a corner outfielder, so it’s extremely important that Braxton ups his offensive output as he matures.

Alex Jackson has just been acquired from Seattle, and there is no report yet where Jackson stands on the list of Braves prospects, but Jackson was the number 6 prospect in the Mariners system, after having been taken with the 6th overall pick in the 2014 draft. He seems, at first glance, to be similar to Braxton Davidson; a high draft pick who, while young, has not produced much offensively to date even in the low minors. Interestingly, mlb.com notes that Jackson was a catcher when drafted, but moved to the outfield after signing.

Free Agents

There are a number of interesting free agent outfielders remaining, but the Braves don’t appear to be in on any of them. High profile names include: Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Bautista, Dexter Fowler, Mark Trumbo, Ian Desmond, and Carlos Gomez, plus familiar names such as Gregor Blanco and Jeff Francouer. http://www.spotrac.com/mlb/free-agents/outfield/

Trades

There was some talk of trading an outfielder, but it seems to have dissipated, perhaps not coincidentally around the time of Mallex Smith’s injury and struggles in winter ball. That is sensible enough for 2017, but the interesting question is: what do the Braves want their outfield to look like in 2018 and beyond? Markakis and Kemp are getting older and seem to be expendable. But what kind of return could you get, and should it even be a replacement outfielder? Inciarte would likely bring the best return, but Inciarte is the kind of player the Braves should be trying to acquire, and it is far from guaranteed that Smith will be a full replacement.

It looks to me as if the Braves are going to take another year to see what they have with Smith, and that they expect Dustin Peterson to take an outfield spot in 2018.

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92 thoughts on “Where Do We Go From Here? — Outfield (by Rusty S.)”

  1. I agree Kemp’s WAR doesn’t pass the smell test. He provides a ton of protection for Freeman in the lineup. That doesn’t show up in his WAR.

    So far Kemp has been a great addition to this team. We should get him a treadmill for Christmas.

  2. I’m under the impression that defense in left is probably the least significant on the field. That being said, Kemp went from a .285 Obp and .774 ops with SD to a .336 Obp and an .855 ops with Atlanta. His fielding percent was between. 989 and .991 for both teams. I don’t understand how his Atl stint could result in slightly lower WAR. Can anyone enlighten me? Is it all range in left compared to right?

  3. I would assume the difference is down to 1) more chances in LF than RF, and thus more chances to lose dWAR points, and 2) better competition from other defensive LF than defensive RF.

  4. Would be really surprised if we couldn’t flip Kemp to an AL team. I believe the Braves really don’t want Mallex and Inciarte’s bat in the lineup at the same time.

  5. The Braves also seem to think that WAR overvalues defense (Heyward and Simmons being traded comes to mind)

    The Braves were a far better offense when Matt Kemp joined the team. (Hell, a far better team period.)

  6. @7 Good because it does. Would you rather have Kevin Kiermayer or Nolan Arenado? Because looking at WAR it would lead you to believe Arenado was only worth one more win to his team than Kiermayer. NO FREAKING WAY.

  7. Agree that this is a great write-up. Thanks, Rusty. My one issue is your overall evaluation at the beginning: last year’s outfield didn’t just seem good, it was pretty good. Pulling down 6.0 WAR, it was the 6th best in the league, just 0.1 behind the Mets and Cards who were tied for 4th and ahead of the NLCS-bound Dodgers. And that was with Frenchy getting a goodly amount of time. Now 6th in the league ain’t great, but it doesn’t have to keep you from the playoffs. You just have to do much better at so many other positions.

  8. @9, per Fangraphs, it was the 11th-best OF in the league in 2016, with 5.2 WAR.

    http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=of&stats=bat&lg=nl&qual=0&type=8&season=2016&month=0&season1=2016&ind=0&team=0,ts&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0

    That was an improvement over 2015, when we were 14th in the league with 1.5 WAR, but still. It was pretty much all Inciarte, who produced 3.6 WAR despite only playing 131 games. Everybody else added up to less than two WAR.

  9. I think WAR overvalues defense. Or maybe I should say that it overvalues corner outfield defense. Great analysis, if a little pessimistic. If Markakis and Kemp can hit like they did last year and we don’t have to play guys like Frenchy we will be better.

    Its likely that Inciarte can’t replicate a .400+ BABIP like he did last August so I don’t think he is as good as he was last year offensively but he should be plenty good enough.

  10. When I’m writing these retrospectives, I don’t want to come off as overly optimistic. Most people, including myself, expected the 2016 season to go much better, and there was plenty of information to believe they would have been. I’m much more even keel about the rebuild and where things are headed than I was previously. I don’t like reading Talking Chop where the best spin on anything Braves-related is put on. I think Rusty is right to say that while the 2016 OF was much better than the dumpster fire OF of 2015, it’s still a ways from being a true strength of the team.

    With that said, we may not know where Sean Rodriguez will play, and while he won’t produce the OPS that he produced last year, he did make swing adjustments, and he’ll probably be pretty good wherever he plays. Right now, he would be a WAR upgrade over 2B, 3B, and LF. Obviously he won’t play LF full-time, but if he logs a lot of time there, you’d have to assume outfield play will be much better, or he’ll be a marked improvement at 2B or 3B. Who knows where, but he’ll be a productive every day player somewhere.

  11. Thanks guys, and thank my editor.

    @9 – That’s a fair point, and also points out that I glossed over Mallex’s 1.0 WAR contribution. My larger point is that going forward, we have 2 borderline (by WAR) starters in the Outfield, both in their early 30’s. I think one or both are going to have to be replaced by the time the rebuild is over (looks to be 2018 at best, from here.)

  12. I was using bref WAR http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/team_compare.cgi?year=2016&lg=NL&stat=WAR

    Don’t know enough to favor one over the other, really, but the difference between them is pretty interesting. My main point is that it wasn’t the OF that killed us last year, and I still think that’s true. A great OF still wouldn’t have covered the massive issues we had at SP, SS, C, 3B, etc.

    By bref’s measure, Braves had only two positions that were first-division-worthy last year, 1B and CF.

  13. I think SRod will be spending a lot of time in the infield. 3b and 2b spelling Adonis and Jace. That he CAN play the OF is a bonus obviating the need for a 5th OF’r. Mallex can learn the trade of 4th OF’r as Kemp’s defensive replacement. Blutarsky-esque will now be a part of my everyday vernacular.

  14. Heyman (via Tommy Stokke) reports that the Braves have traded left-handed relief pitcher Brady Feigl to the Rangers. No mention on whom the Braves received in return.

  15. Whatever. I liked Jenkins. He probably sucks. Jackson probably sucks too. Jackson has higher upside, it seems. Change of scenery trade.

  16. @16 – The only way Animal House could have been funnier would have been if Blutarsky’s GPA had been -0.0.

  17. @15 I am apparently blocked from your twitter account – which is strange, since I wasn’t aware of your account until today. probably ok, though, since who wants to see all those racist tweets anyway :)

  18. I’d expect the Bills to get signed to a minor league deal. He could sign a minor league deal elsewhere, of course, but I doubt someone puts him on their 40-man, right?

  19. Stockpiling prospects was a thing, no matter the prospect. Stockpiling prospects is still a thing, but more focused on high upside, no matter the risk.

  20. I had no issues with Jeff Francoeur last year. He isn’t great, but as long as we don’t count on him in an everyday role, I’m fine with it. If you want to talk about the inadequacy of WAR as a measure of value, Frenchy had a .7 WAR compared to Kemp’s -0.0 last year.

  21. If half of the pitchers that have plus K/9 rates, plus H/9 rates, and are in the upper minors correct their glaring control issues, we’ll have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. Akeel Morris, Sean Newcomb, Lucas Sims, Luke Jackson, and Michael Mader are all struggling to find the strike zone, and they seem to be okay with that. We did trade Ellis, who was struggling with control, but Whalen, Povse, and Gant didn’t, and we preferred to receive more risky pitchers. We also are holding onto guys in the low minors with control issues (Sanchez, Touki, Fried) because of their upside, so we’re getting a pretty good understanding of who they like and who they don’t. They’re “ace” prospects, and for better or for worse, we’re doubling down on them.

  22. I would’ve loved Jenkins for Jackson straight up, but I had a little bit of a crush on Brady Feigl. I think he is the most likely of the three to find bullpen success in the bigs. His K/BB was certifiable. He’s old for his level, though, and post-TJ, but we’re the team that’s supposed to be exploiting that market inefficiency.

  23. I have to admit that I’ve been skeptical about someone having incriminating pictures. However, us signing Bonifacio to a minor league deal again leaves little doubt that Emililo has pictures of someone in the Braves’ organization doing something really bad. I thought his OPS with Atlanta of .553 in 2014 and .479 in 2016 was bad enough, but he had a .390 OPS with the White Sox in 2015. I know he hasn’t batted much over those 3 years, but a 10 year career of .258 /.315/ .335 /.650 over 2850 PAs at his age 32 season, doesn’t scream give this guy another chance to me – especially given his steady downward trend since 2012.

  24. @45 – Understood, but why does he keep getting chances? He signed for 1.25 million at the beginning of last year. He wasn’t signed as AAA filler at that time. I just think there are several players that could do better than him for no more money.

  25. At this point, one must assume that there are intangibles that come with both O’Flaherty and Bonifacio that aren’t discussed. Both seem like good dudes and having good dudes fill a few spots on the AAA roster to mentor the youngsters is smart.

  26. Are we done taking on payroll? According to Stu (in whom I trust and appreciate a great deal), we’re at $127M committed for 2017. We still need another catcher (though we could just go with Recker), a backup OF, and a M-INF who can play SS. D’Arnaud is still on the 40-man, so he could backup SS, and we could keep Mallex as 4th OF with Sean Rodriguez as the 5th OF.

    We definitely seem done on the pitching front. 15 legitimate, healthy options for the pen, two of which are Rule-5’s that have to be on the 25-man, and 8 SPs who made starts in 2016 and survived The Purge.

    Stu’s doc still has Jenkins and the Bills on the payroll. Really disappointed there. I’ve come to expect nothing less than perfection from him. Just kidding!

  27. @50
    Pull those 2, insert 2 other pre-arb guys and it makes no difference.

    And I don’t think Braves are done. Bowman’s dropping news that it’s likely going to be an 8-man bullpen, which to me means they better have 3 guys on the bench that’s versatile and can frickin’ hit.

  28. 50—We’re not quite at $127MM committed, for what it’s worth. I currently have everyone on the 40-man making the ML minimum, which isn’t accurate, and that bottom number also includes the maximum possible payout on the various incentives in players’ contracts. Not sure how the Braves forecast those, but they won’t all be hit. Probably less than 25% of those incentive dollars will be earned.

  29. This has us at 111. http://www.rosterresource.com/mlb-atlanta-braves/

    Also, if you scroll down to the pitchers section of “minor leaguers you should know,” the minor league rotations next year are still pretty stacked even with The Purge. I’m really hoping one of the Wisler, Newcomb, Blair, Sims quartet forces the issue next season. It’d be nice to trade Colon and Garcia because Blair and Newcomb are demanding a promotion vs. the big league club floundering.

  30. @54

    At some point, someone will warrant a major league callup. Wisler and Blair would be obvious choices since they’ve already had success at AAA. How early will the Braves trade one of these guys that they just signed or traded for? If it’s early June, and someone in AAA has been throwing darts for 12+ starts, do they force a spot by trading somebody?

  31. I can’t see much before July unless (as you state) one of the younger guys is dealing and/or the big league record is awful. The problem will be if it’s the former, odds are, the worst of the Garcia/Colon//Dickey triumvirate won’t have much value on the trade market, and if the big league club is hanging around, do you intentionally make it worse by cashing in the value of the best of that bunch?

    Honestly though, I’ve been running through scenarios in my head the past few minutes, and the permutations are endless. It’ll be a fascinating dynamic to watch throughout the season.

  32. @56 It seems like the ideal scenario is one in which 1) Garcia is pitching really well; 2) as is at least one of Wisler/Blair/Newk/Sims in AAA and the Braves sell high on Garcia to make room for THE FUTURE.

    I say that because Garcia has the highest ceiling of any of the pitchers we acquired and thus could theoretically command a good return for some other team’s stretch run.

    @57 Thanks for sharing that article. It was nice to hear that Bill Ballew had good things to say about Dustin Peterson and Touki. I didn’t realize that Acuna was such a legit OF prospect (albeit a ways off, he just turned 19) – he’s already shown the ability to hit for high AVG and maintain a good K/BB rate at a young age – if his power develops as Ballew projects (15-20 HRs/yr) he could be a fantastic asset. I see Acuna is playing in the Australian Baseball League this winter and was slashing .356/.400/.542 at last check.

  33. Re: @57, Acuna vs. Andruw: “Acuna could wind up having a better career at the big league level if he is able to build a solid foundation with the fundamentals.”

    That seems like overstatement to me.

  34. I guess he was putting that into the context of a long major league career that doesn’t fall off a cliff because Acuna’s fundamentals are sound enough that he can adapt to things like sliders low and away. Perhaps he meant a “longer, if more pedestrian” tenure is a “better career”?

    I don’t expect Acuna to display Andruw’s celling abilities, which despite that falling off a cliff has put Andruw on the cusp of serious HOF consideration. Though it sure would be nice if he would!

  35. @63

    3 4th OF ceilings on there. I suppose Lipka was more highly regarded 5 years ago. Sims too. Two soft-tossing college lefties. Edwin Salcedo was a “can’t miss”, right?

  36. Salcedo was never can’t-miss. Highly regarded, yes, but not on the level of guys like Miguel Cabrera, Miguel Sano, Kevin Maitan, etc.

  37. I know this will anger some here because it brings painful memories, but if Danks ever pitches in Atlanta his nickname is a no brainer. Danks Lob anyone?

  38. Some may lobby for the nickname Dank Slob, but I don’t know him that well, and his recent fastball speed is much closer to a lob.

  39. WAR Question.

    John Danks

    2014 11-11 Record 32GS 193.2IP 4.74ERA 4.76FIP 4.62xFIP 0.5WAR

    2015 7-15 Record 30GS 177.2IP 4.71ERA 4.49FIP 4.65xFIP 1.7WAR

    WHIP and K’s were roughly the same for those 2 years. Can one explain how 2015 is a better overall season than 2014?

  40. @76 Huh… I figured I could answer your WAR question but it turns out I cannot. Looks like you’re using the Fangraphs (fWAR) measure for Danks, and Fangraphs says it calculates fWAR as follows: “pitching WAR uses FIP (with infield fly balls), adjusted for park, and scaled to how many innings the pitcher threw. FIP is translated into runs, converted to represent value above replacement level, and is then converted from runs to wins.”

    Considering that Danks threw more IP at a lower FIP in 2014 than in 2015, it doesn’t make sense that his fWAR would be far higher in 2015. Danks did induce more popups in 2015, but certainly not enough to explain the huge 2014-15 fWAR variation. Just for giggles, I checked Sale and Quintana and neither have weird fWAR blips between 2014-15 like Danks does.

  41. Damon Berryhill has been hired as Gwinnett manager. Cool to have him back in the fold, especially since we’re trying to develop catchers.

  42. cs at 81,

    WAR for an average player should be 2.0. 0 (zero) means that you theoretically should find many such players on AAA rosters. That is they are “replacement level players.”

    But, yes it is adjusted to league average and park adjusted based on that years park factors. I do not see how it was off that far in the two years, but I don’t calculate all of that.

  43. @76, I’m guessing that the biggest reason for the disparity is this: in 2014, league average FIP was 3.81. In 2015, it was 4.03. So in 2014, Danks’s 4.76 FIP was almost a full run higher than league average; in 2015, his 4.49 FIP was less than half a run higher than league average.

  44. From Lee Trocinzki @76

    .3 R/9 FIP diff is 6 runs in 180 IP. Add in another .25 R/9 increase in scoring and you have 12 total runs.

  45. @86 That sounds right.

    Also, Fangraphs has their 2017 Braves ZiPS Projections out. Of note:
    – the Kemp batting projection seems quite low (.263/.309/.450)
    – ZiPS sees the Braves’ lineup having a real OBP problem
    – ZiPS really doesn’t believe in the Braves’ pen
    – jokey name displays: A.A. Ron Blair, Rob W00t3n

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