Spring Training Preview: Outfield

Spring Training Preview: Outfield

Previous previews: Starting Rotation / Bullpen / Catcher & Infield

The Atlanta Braves have invested at least $48M into the outfield this offseason to go with an additional $46.35M that was already on the books. Regardless, many believe that this might be one of the worst outfields in baseball. Too bad money can’t buy talent. Well, it should, but apparently, it doesn’t.

Welcome to the last pre-spring training preview for the pre-Braves. While there are question marks all over the team, some of the biggest remain in the outfield, which was gutted by trades. With that in mind, let’s say goodbye to… Emilio Bonifacio, Ryan Doumit, Jason Heyward, and Justin Upton. The first two names were crash-and-burn utility types that struggled with the Braves, but the losses of Heyward and Upton in the same offseason will be particularly difficult to replace. While there is a perfectly reasonable argument to be made that Heyward was not the offensive juggernaut that many projected him to be, for a team that didn’t get on base last year, replacing a .351 OBP is no easy task. Nor is replacing Upton’s 29 HR and .270/.342/.491 slash. Again, like Heyward, reasonable people can say Upton was not the player many projected him to be. Even so, that’s a 7 WAR player over the last two years the Braves will not have around in 2015.

Right Field

The simple replacement for Heyward is the $44M man, Nick Markakis. My thoughts on the deal are both on this blog and at my About.com site, but suffice it to say, I get why people argue that Markakis replaces Heyward in many ways with the bat. I also understand if people think Markakis replaces Heyward in the field considering he has two Gold Gloves. I get it, but the Braves did take a step back in right field and the reasons are clear.

  • Age – Markakis is six years older than Heyward. While the latter is entering the prime of his career, the former will likely be heading into the post-prime of his. Heyward can improve while Markakis has a strong chance to get worse.
  • Defense – Gold Gloves are nice and I’m sure the Braves have proprietary defensive metrics that likely state Markakis is better than the widely available defensive metrics argue, but Heyward’s defense was top notch. Even if Markakis outplays his is typically below league average UZR, he will look bad compared to Heyward.
  • Baserunning – Well, duh.

Now, that’s not to say the Braves should have kept Heyward, whose contract extension should be an interesting one considering his collection of all-around talent and potential to get better. No, my point is simply that this isn’t a lateral move. The Braves are worse in right field. It’s worth adding that Markakis’s neck surgery is not expected to keep him from being ready for spring training.

Center Field

Let’s get one thing straight. The Braves do not have a better option than B.J. Upton. I’ll mention a slew of guys who are around in the bench section of this article, but the Braves’ best option is to play Justin’s older brother and hope the work Melvin has put in this offseason with new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer  pays off. We can look at B.J.’s problems all day, but a couple of things stand out to me. His groundball rate is up from the 40% range it was in his final three years with the Rays to about 44% with the Braves. That means less flyballs. Less flyballs means less extra base hits. Less extra base hits means less value. Less value loses games.

Whether it was his vision problem or a swing problem, B.J.’s not getting around on fastballs. He either misses or beats them into the ground. When he does elevate them, he tends to pop them up. Contrary to what you’ve seen with B.J. as a Brave, he was a pretty good fastball hitter with the Rays. The uppercut in his swing has always made him a good breaking ball hitter (and he was last year), but 60% of the time, he’s being thrown fastballs. That’s nothing abnormal, but he used to hit those pretty solidly, especially in his last two seasons with the Rays. This has led to a notable decrease in Zone-Contact% from over 80% with the Rays to about 73% with the Braves. That’s a lot of pitches in the zone that he’s swinging and missing on.

He still remains the best option for the Braves. That’s not to prop up the guy or anything, but it’s an observation based on the alternatives and the fact that B.J., despite his defensive miscues from time-to-time, is still a pretty good defender. His speed and generally smart routes is supported by a decent rate in Inside Edge Fielding on balls that have a remote or unlikely chance of being fielded.

Left Field/Bench

The Braves do not have one player capable of being an everyday guy in left. I have blogged a couple of times that the best option is likely a platoon and I think the two best options for that platoon are Zoilo Almonte and Jonny Gomes. The latter was brought in specifically to be the right-hand hitting portion of a platoon. Oh, and to crack jokes in the clubhouse. Whether he’s funny or not withstanding, he remains a threat against left-hand starters and relievers alike. Even though he has a vesting option for 2016, I imagine he will be trade bait unless the Braves are THE surprise club of 2015. Almonte is a switch-hitter and probably a better fielder, which allows him to caddy Gomes. In addition, he has shown a good ability to hit right-handed pitching in the minors. Together, they could make a solid platoon that – again – could combine for an .800 or so OPS.

But there are certainly other options. Recently signed Eric Young Jr. has received a lot of positive press, though I imagine it’s because people still think he’s the hitter his dad was. Young possesses a career .662 OPS for a reason. The good news is that he’s a fairly skilled defender, especially in left field. With his speed and ability to move to the infield in the pinch along with playing center if needed, that could be enough to secure a spot on the bench. Still, if EY Jr. is starting for you more than a handful of times per month, you should see what you have in Gwinnett.

Which might be Eury Perez, a guy I profiled when the Braves claimed him. Perez has hit pretty solidly at least in terms of batting average in the minors, but shows little plate discipline and appears vulnerable to righties. He’s a better defender than Young and if the Braves absolutely want to play someone over B.J., Perez is likely the only option who can at least match, if not surpass, B.J.’s defensive capabilities in center.

Joey Terdoslavich and Todd Cunningham should have a youtube series about hijinks in Gwinnett. The two have been stuck in AAA for the last few years trying to get an opportunity. Terdo can move to first if you need him to, but is limited to a substandard corner outfielder otherwise. He’s displayed pretty good power in the minors at times and his switch-hit bat could interest the Braves as a bench option, though I doubt he’ll be part of the LF battle royale unless he’s sold his soul for a better hit tool. Cunningham didn’t play in the majors last year, but did post a .754 OPS in the minors, which is good for his second-best OPS. He has the skills and intelligence to play a passable center field and if he sustains pop from last year (28 2B, 8 HR), he could push Perez on the depth chart.

Jose Constanza is still alive.

Another option is Dian Toscano. The 25 year-old who hits from the left side is probably limited to left field, but the Braves liked the Cuban enough to promise him a nice major league contract. Kelly Johnson has played left field, including 50 games with the Rays in 2013, and even picked up a start in right field last year. You might think he would be a reasonable possibility to platoon with the right-hand-hitting Gomes, but KJ oddly has reserve splits, though the discrepancy is not that notable. Oh, Cedric Hunter got an invite to spring training after hitting .295/.386/.495 for Mississippi last year, but don’t get your hopes up. Hunter was last a prospect in 2008.

Did I miss anyone? How the outfield takes shape may ultimately be decided by who is out of options at the end of spring training for another team and is getting squeezed out, such as the case with Juan Francisco in 2012. No matter how you slice it, there will be a lot of players battling for playing time, especially in left field. Whether the outfield is as bad as people thinks may ultimately depend on if B.J. can at least approach a league average production at the plate. With his speed and defense, that would give him, and the team, a good amount of value. Without those fairly low expectations for B.J. being reached, I can see why some have ranked the Braves outfield among the worst in the game. This is where you say, “that’s why they play the game and baseball players aren’t computers.”

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