The Braves have already signed their first free agent, which means it’s a good time to unveil this year’s minor league free agent portal. As I did last year, I will try to track down all offseason minor league free agent signings and, in many cases, provide some analysis. Last year’s crop of players included Jhoulys Chacin, Chase d’Arnaud, and even Blake Lalli – who rejoined the Braves yesterday after briefly becoming a free agent. One new thing for this year’s list is that I will try to add in those players that have left the system.
*Ages reflect the player’s age on opening day, 2017
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(Crop) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Jim Johnson, RHP, 33 years-old
2016 Review: For all the criticisms that rightly and unjustly have been attributed to Roger McDowell, one thing that cannot be ignored is the magic he could do with veterans like Johnson. After returning to the Braves, where he looked effective in 2015 before a midseason move to the Dodgers, Johnson arguably had his best season. Granted, 20 saves doesn’t look as fancy as back-to-back 50-save years, but he set new career-best totals for strikeout percentage (26%) and FIP (2.71). He also lowered his HR/FB rate under 10% for the first time in four years. He continued to practically scrap his changeup in favor of a four-seamer to keep batters off-balance from keying in on his sinker. One big change in pitch-selection this year was that he began to use his curveball nearly 25% of the time, an increase of about 10% over his career. None of his pitches generate more whiffs per swing, which is a big reason for such an increase in strikeouts.
2017 Projection: Can he repeat his success without McDowell? The Braves put a $10 million bet on that happening when they extended his contract through 2018 and why not? He has been given a base from which to excel regardless of the pitching coach. 2017 and 2018 will be his Age-34 and Age-35 years so regression is certainly possible – though Johnson has been remarkably durable with 60 or more games in five-of-the-last-six seasons with only one trip to the DL since 2011 (non-arm related). The Braves have done well to keep Johnson in the fold and Johnson surely has enjoyed his career resurgence in Atlanta.
Casey Kelly, RHP, 27 years-old
2016 Review: Acquired last December for Christian Bethancourt, Kelly was part of a trio of pitchers – along with Ryan Weber and John Gant – who seemed to handle the role of long-man out of the pen. Once they threw a few innings in a game, they’d cycle back to Gwinnett in exchange for a fresher arm and rinse-and-repeat. Kelly was optioned to the minors four different times during the season While in the minors, he received the first extended look at Triple-A during his eight-year career. It was fairly meh (stats term) as far as results go. His 3.53 ERA was helped by a .266 BABIP. His major league results over 21.2 innings were pretty ugly as his inability to get many swings-and-misses becomes a real problem against major league batters.
2017 Projection: It’s been three years since Kelly last showed up on Top 100 prospect lists and at his age, he won’t again be in contention for a spot. Kelly’s problem is that after a 2013 Tommy John surgery, his strikeout numbers have never rebounded and his control has gone from merely good rather than impeccable as it was when he climbed the minor league ladder. That’s not to say all hope is lost, but Kelly is a guy who throws 90 mph, gets a decent amount of groundballs, and doesn’t have the stuff to bear down and get strikeouts when needed. Those type of pitchers are a dime a dozen. While Kelly still has an option left and provides depth, he needs to develop an out-pitch and quickly to start ascending the depth chart rather than get passed by higher-ceiling prospects as they mature.
Matt Kemp, LF, 32 years-old
2016 Review: While the trade of Hector Olivera to the Padres in exchange for Kemp was all about saving face, it turned into a game-changer for an offense without much power. Despite playing for the Braves for just two months, Kemp finished fourth on the team in homeruns with a dozen dingers. The big finish gave him 35 homeruns overall – his best single-season total since 39 to lead the NL in 2011. All in all, he hit .280/.336/.519 as a Brave. Included in this offensive improvement was a 5% increase in walk rate from his time with the Padres. While it’s a far cry from the Dodger All-Star years, a 120 wRC+ and .354 wOBA as a Brave is nothing to scoff at.
2017 Projection: At just 32, Kemp likely has some more productive years left in him. We’ll get to his issues in a second, but dive into his ratios at the plate and you see one positive common theme – nothing he did during two months with the Braves was out-of-character for him compared to other times in his career. That’s not to say he can sustain that production over a full season, but he was essentially playing to his career averages in wRC+ and wOBA. That’s promising and if he’s able to get in better shape, as both the team and Kemp have indicated he needs to do, there is a pretty good chance that Kemp can be an asset at the plate. In the field, that’s another question. The Padres moved him away from center field – which badly needed to happen – and now the Braves are counting on him in left. Despite a less physically taxing position, the results were miserable and you would be hard pressed to find an outfielder with worse defensive metrics than Kemp since 2014. In fact, it’s not even close. Kemp owns a -20.5 UZR/150 over the last three years. Dayan Viciedo (who hasn’t played in the majors for two years) and Shin-Soo Choo are the only outfielders with more than -9 UZR/150 and neither come close to Kemp. This a real problem and not just a stat nerd one. If Kemp cannot improve his defense from epically bad to fairly bad (yes, that’s the scale I’m using here), his value is considerably muted. You can’t hide a player like Kemp in the NL and that’s why the Braves traded Evan Gattis. For the time being, they are saddled with Kemp moving forward. Here’s hoping his defense improves just a bit more because the bat has a chance to be a big asset for a Braves team that could make some noise for a playoff spot in 2017.