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The outfield for the Atlanta Braves could provide the most intrigue going forward of any area of the team.
Within one position group, you have the future – and perhaps present – face of the franchise. For the 2021 season, at least one of the Braves’ most heralded prospects will also be manning the outfield grass. And a couple of recent franchise fixtures could be on their way out the door.
Add in one of the team’s two 2020 MVP candidates splitting time between the outfield and DH, and there’s plenty to talk about.
The 2020 season and the Braves’ third-straight NL East title was, at various times, driven by members of the team’s outfield.
To start at the top, despite battling injuries, leadoff hitter and center/right fielder Ronald Acuña Jr. was key to the team’s success this year. Acuña hit just .257 but still managed 14 home runs, eight stolen bases and a .987 OPS over the 60-game season.
September was a memorable one for corner outfielder Adam Duvall, who launched 11 of his 16 home runs during that month. That included a pair of three-homer games on Sept. 2 and Sept. 9. Unfortunately, Duvall skidded into the finish line from there, hitting just .169 with three home runs and 16 strikeouts in his final 74 plate appearances of the season.
Marcell Ozuna became more of a full-time designated hitter for the Braves, but he began the season in the outfield. In most years, Ozuna’s offensive performance would be enough to launch him to the top of the MVP race, as he notched a team-high 18 home runs and 56 RBIs to go with a .338 batting average and 1.067 OPS.
Markakis came on late after initially opting out of the season and looked like a younger version of himself. He hit .368 with a 1.025 OPS for the month of August, striking out just eight times to go with 21 hits in 18 games. The veteran cooled from there, though, hitting just .164 with a .451 OPS in September.
Inciarte also struggled at the plate, hitting .190 with a .512 OPS in 131 plate appearances.
Who’s Coming Back?
From that group, the only player seemingly guaranteed to be back in Atlanta in 2021 is Acuña. Heading into his age-23 season, the Venezuelan phenom is signed through at least 2026 and is slated to make $5 million next year.
Probably also a lock for the 2021 starting outfield is Cristian Pache. Inexplicably left at the alternate site for most of the 2020 season despite the aforementioned struggles of Inciarte, Pache got his chance to start when Duvall went down with an oblique injury in the NLCS. The 21-year-old made his second career start in Game 2 of the NLCS and went 4-for-22 in the series with three walks, a double and a home run. With some good at-bats under his belt and an established reputation as an incredible defender, I would be shocked if Pache is not the Opening Day center fielder.
Duvall would also seem to be set to make a return in a starting role, despite cooling off in September and only hitting .100 with 11 strikeouts in 21 postseason at-bats. According to MLB Trade Rumors, the 32-year-old could be expected to make about $5 million in arbitration. That’s a good deal and would allow the Braves the flexibility to platoon him with a left-handed hitting corner outfield, a concept we’ll visit a little later.
Ozuna is a player that the Braves would certainly like to bring back, but it won’t be cheap. He went to Atlanta on a one-year, $18 million deal and could not have displayed his offensive prowess any better. The future of the designated hitter rule will play a role in how much money he could bring in, but he’ll still be a big target for American League teams regardless.
One would assume that the era of Markakis and Inciarte has passed in Atlanta, though. Markakis isn’t under contract, so it’s likely the soon-to-be 37-year-old will either retire or have to find somewhere else to play in 2021. Inciarte has a guaranteed year and $9.7 million left on his contract, but it’s probably time for the Braves to cut ties with him somehow.
Who’s Coming In?
One name that will get mentioned a lot in the next few months is Drew Waters. During the 2019 season, Waters hit .309 with seven homers, nine triples and 40 doubles in 573 plate appearances in Double-A and Triple-A ball. He will hopefully be a legitimate bat in the big-league lineup one day, but it’s not expected that will come to start the 2021 season.
There are several notable names that could come out of the free agent market, but those really depend on what happens with the DH rule. If Ozuna is in the fold, the Braves might turn to someone like Josh Reddick – a career .270 hitter with solid power against right-handed pitching – to platoon with Duvall in presumably left field. The Braves could also re-visit Yasiel Puig, who bats right-handed but has a career .285 batting average and .845 OPS against righties.
Joc Pederson will perhaps be the most popular platoon option, and for good reason. Currently playing in the World Series with the Dodgers, Pederson is a year removed from a season in which he carried a .920 OPS and 36 homers in 464 plate appearances against right-handed pitching. If he can rekindle that kind of success, a Duvall-Pederson platoon might even work to boost the lineup without a DH.
George Springer – a three-time All-Star and capable defender – would be the best option if the Braves wanted a full upgrade in left field. He carried an .899 OPS with 14 homers in 2020 after a huge 2019 season that saw him hit .292 with a .974 OPS and 39 home runs. At 31 years old, Springer will be looking to land one last big contract and will have plenty of suitors based on his ability to hit for both power and contact while also holding his own in the field.
There are other options, such as Springer and Reddick’s 2020 teammate, Michael Brantley, who would likely only come into play if Ozuna is re-signed as a DH. Brantley lacks the power to provide what the Braves need behind Freddie Freeman, but he’s a consistent .300-level hitter with enough power to be a threat deeper in the lineup. There’s also always the chance that the Marlins don’t pick up Starling Marte‘s option, but that seems extremely unlikely, as does Nick Castellanos opting out of the three years and $48 million remaining on his contract.
In the end, most of the 2021 Braves outfield hinges on the status of the DH, whether the team can bring back Ozuna and how much money is available. The good news is that a core of Acuña, Pache and Duvall is likely in place to create options no matter what happens.