I’ve given the Atlanta Braves plenty of time to make a few more moves – even suggested a couple here and here – but here is the final Spring Roster Battles Preview. Much like the last preview on the bullpen spots, this article will focus on players vying for at least two spots rather than one particular spot up for grabs. Remember that the Braves could go with a four-man bench if the bullpen is eight-large when the season opens. If they go with a more modern seven-guy setup in the pen, the bench will have five spots available. To be clear, I highly doubt that the Braves don’t sign or trade for at least one other player to take up one of the open spots, however there may be. Nevertheless, here is where we are right now.
There are two guys we can pretty much write in with pen for 2017 – catcher Kurt Suzuki and utility do-everything-guy Jace Peterson. I’ll point out a possible contender for Suzuki, but short of an epic collapse this spring, I am willing to bet the former Twin will break camp with the team. As for Peterson, he has done enough over the last two seasons to stick around. He’s better suited for this utility role than the one he tried to fill since coming over from the Padres.
Who will fill the other two – possibly three – spots? Let’s meet the contenders.
|d’Arnaud by Editosaurus (own work) via Wikipedia Commons|
I am rocking my Lynchburg Hillcats hat at the moment and before the team was an Indians/Braves/Reds affiliate, they developed many of the Pirates prospects – including former fourth round pick Chase d’Arnaud. The shortstop was part of the Mills Cup-winning Hillcats of 2009, a team that featured former Braves farmhands Jamie Romak and Jeff Locke. I loved watching that team and d’Arnaud looked like a good prospect. Unfortunately, he never repeated his success of ’09 (.838 OPS) and despite four callups to the majors before 2016, d’Arnaud never impressed. But an arrival with the Braves last spring appeared to unlock some of the potential the Pirates once saw in him. In his first 35 games, including 27 starts, d’Arnaud hit .299/.364/.393. With the failures of Erick Aybar, d’Arnaud became a much preferred option. His early success is why it’s a little easy to forget that he slashed .190/.271/.276 over his final 49 games. In the larger scheme of things, it was a successful year for a person void of any success in the majors. In the even larger scheme of things, it was still an underwhelming season.
That said, d’Arnaud has an excellent chance of making this team. The Braves are comfortable with him and he played six positions last year. Historically, his best position is third base, where his limitations in range play up the least, but he can slide over to short and not looked lost there. With no natural backup to Dansby Swanson on the team, d’Arnaud could be a good fit. Also, considering the Braves may decline to carry a fourth outfielder and go with more flexible utility options like Peterson, d’Arnaud could help provide depth there.
A little over a month ago, the Braves acquired Micah Johnson for either cash considerations or a player to be named later. Like d’Arnaud, Johnson was an interesting prospect at once who flamed out in the majors. Unlike d’Arnaud, Johnson has some pretty good minor league stats. I mentioned this when he was picked up, but Johnson has two distinct swings – one that has more torque and power and another that is contact-orientated. I prefer the first as it gives him more value.
Despite a potentially intriguing bat, Johnson’s chances to make this club might be completely dependent on his ability to play center field – a position that isn’t natural to him. If he fails to impress, he will head to Gwinnett and play more outfield and other infield positions as a way to up his value. That said, the Braves, especially if they go with a five-man bench, might opt for Johnson’s speed as a late-inning weapon.
It was the kind of season that Peterson needed. A player heavy on projection, but short on results, Peterson had not impressed much over his first three years and then 2016 happened. In his defense, he was extraordinarily young at each level, including last year in Double-A. Nevertheless, his ISO jumped from the low 100’s to .149 while his walk rate, a saving grace from an ugly first season in the Braves system, held steady. The biggest difference came in a better display with his hit tool with the aid of a higher, but likely sustainable .327 BABIP. Adjustments in his swing also lead me to believe he’s due for similar, if not better results as he moves up to Triple-A. Short of an injury, Peterson is not a serious candidate to make the 2017 roster, which is okay. He needs more at-bats and experience.
|Ruiz by Tate Nations (CC by 4.0) via Wikipedia Commons|
Like Peterson, Ruiz had a nice bounce-back campaign. However, whereas Peterson is a super longshot to make this roster, Ruiz has a chance if he’s able to turn in a solid spring. Part of the trouble with Ruiz in 2015 came down to a lack of commitment to improve his body and bust his butt. He changed that in 2016 and according to a Q&A with Braves GM John Coppolella last Friday, he looks even better. It’s difficult to project stardom, but there’s enough here to believe Ruiz can carve out a nice career as the left-hand portion of a platoon. His defense, while not eye-opening, is good enough and he has a great arm. His hit tool is strong and he has good pop in his bat that he is still working to develop into game power.
With Adonis Garcia in the mix and seemingly well-loved by Braves management, Ruiz will not be given a spot – he’ll have to show he has earned it. Even if he does, the Braves might not opt for a strict platoon and give Garcia his fair share of time against righties. What could really hurt Ruiz is the Braves willingness to go with an eight-man bullpen. There doesn’t exist a lot of room for platoon players who are limited defensively in terms of flexibility. That said, his left-hand bat could come in handy late in games when he’s not in the lineup.
I actually worry that Bonifacio is less of a longshot. Bonifacio was last relevant as a major league player in 2014, when he posted a career-best 2.2 fWAR. He’s only received 125 PA since, but has a -1.3 fWAR for his troubles. At nearly 32, his speed is not nearly the weapon it once was though it does remain a weapon. His other skill is his defensive flexibility, which might make him preferable for the Braves to other players who are a bit more limited. He’s solid enough at second base, average at third base, and a train-wreck at shortstop. He’s decent enough in the outfield corners and historically, average to slightly below-average in center field. If your bench is full of guys you believe can give you a pinch-hit option, finishing the bench off with a super-utility player like Bonifacio doesn’t seem so bad. However, it’s difficult to say that about this bench, when includes offensively-limited players like Suzuki and Jace Peterson.
Mustelier and Rojas Jr. return after decent years in the Braves’ system last year. Mustelier slashed .291/.353/.394 in Gwinnett and has recent experience at third base. That said, ignoring the Mexican League, he hasn’t played center since a cameo there in 2012. Rojas Jr. was picked up for depth from the Pirates’ system and hit well in Triple-A, hammering ten homers there between Indianapolis and Gwinnett (along with two more in Double-A). Down the stretch, he was one of Gwinnett’s best options. He’s much more comfortable in center field than Mustelier. However, neither outfielder received an invite to spring training. That’s not enough to completely rule them out, but doesn’t bode well for their chances.
Adam Walker. Adam Brett Walker. Walk-Off Walker. However you know him, there are two certainties with Walker. He’s going to hit the ball a long way and he’s often not going to hit the ball at all. 30% of his plate appearances since being drafted 97th in 2012 have ended in a strikeout. Meanwhile, 124 – or one every 18 AB – have turned into homeruns. ZiPS even projects 29 homeruns for Walker in 2017 if he received 531 PA in the majors. Unfortunately, it also projects a 44.6% strikeout percentage. To put into that perspective…Chris Carter set the record for strikeout percentage in a season where a batter reached 500 PA. In 2013, Carter K’d 36.2% of the time – a good 8% fewer than the ZiPS projection for Walker. As a project, he’s a fun one because if the Braves can get him to make more contact without sacrificing power, he becomes a viable major league option. I doubt that will happen in 2017, but he’s worth a look.
Christian Walker (no relation) was just picked up by the Braves off waivers form the Orioles. He has his own contact issues, though not nearly as severe as Adam. His power isn’t an 80-grade skill, either. I’m honestly not sure why the Braves were enamored with Walker outside of depth. He was a decent enough prospect in the O’s system and he does have an option remaining should the Braves not be inclined to try to sneak him through waivers. Or Christian could impress this spring and land a spot as a right-handed bat off the bench who spells Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis against a tough lefty. Certainly, it’s possible, but I’m not very confident.
Colin Walsh gets lost in the when we talk about a bench bat, but least we forget his ridiculous 2015 season when he slashed .302/.447/.470 in the Texas League (Double-A). Now, the Texas League isn’t known for depressing offense by any means, but those numbers are eye-popping. So much so that the Brewers took him in the Rule 5 after the season. He struggled tremendously in 63 PA (four hits), though he did walk enough to post a .317 OBP. He was returned to the A’s where he held his own in Triple-A. Walsh can play second, third, and the corner outfield positions and oh, he’s a switch-hitter. In fact, it’s hard not to think of another A’s middle infielder with a switch-hit bat who the Braves once picked up – Brooks Conrad. Defensive liabilities aside, Conrad was an excellent bench bat for the Braves in 2010. Could Walsh be one for the Braves in 2017? For what it’s worth, he did not receive an invite to spring training.
Freitas is a catcher/first baseman with a decent hit tool and already has experience in four different organizations since the Nats drafted him in 2010. He’s never rated highly as a prospect and has often served as the backup catcher despite a career .273/.361/.421 slash. Freitas will turn 28 before the season and doesn’t have much of a shot to make this team. Neither does Fuenmayor, though a strong spring could make things a little interesting. Fuenmayor had a mega 2015 after spending the previous year in independent ball. Playing mostly in Double-A, Fuenmayor hit .358/.384/.589 with 17 homeruns in less than 400 PA. While certainly not a prospect, it was the kind of year that will attract more attention the following year…which did not go so hot. Last season, while at Triple-A, Fuenmayor hit .291, but with him being allergic to walks and not being able to flash his good power from the Texas League, his numbers soured into a line resembling a middle infielder without any speed (.291/.325/.405). He’s pretty limited to first base, though he did play 59 games at third in 2014 with Quebec. While his name deserves consideration, his bat probably doesn’t.
Blake Lalli made it back to the majors last year for the first time since 2013. The 33 year-old went 2-for-13. Small sample size, but he set a new personal best with batting average (.154) and slugging (.231). That might tell you something about his first two gigs in the majors, which also were small cups of coffee (16 PA in 2012, 24 PA the following year). Lalli’s bat has been substandard the last three years and he’s battling to stick on the Gwinnett roster, which could be tough to do. That is especially true with Anthony Recker likely to be in Gwinnett. With the backup catching situation a problem in Atlanta last year, Recker got an opportunity and ran with it. Over 33 games, he hit .278/.394/.433. A .343 BABIP helped compared to his career .268. The Braves were not convinced that Recker was a good bet in 2017 and signed Kurt Suzuki to replace him. While Recker will be given an opportunity to unseat Suzuki, his best chance to be on a major league roster come opening day will be from injury or being traded to a team in need of catching depth.
To Sum Up…
There are a lot of options, but a few stand out: Chase d’Arnaud, Micah Johnson, and Emilio Bonifacio. Rio Ruiz might force his way in and if Atlanta goes with a more typical seven-man bullpen, that could help his chances, but regardless, Atlanta is seeking a versatile mix of players. Judging by early usage of Johnson in center field, Atlanta seems interested in using him as the primary backup to Ender Inciarte. Such a move would help Johnson’s chances of making this roster. With shortstop needing depth, d’Arnaud is a good bet as well.
The biggest problem with this bench is related to what they can bring you in pinch-hitting situations. A National League bench will be counted on in late innings for high-leverage opportunities against good relievers. Peterson, d’Arnaud, and Johnson aren’t prove offensive contributors at the major league level. Such a realization is likely weighing on John Coppolella as he fine-tunes the team heading into 2017. Because of this, I imagine the Braves will bring in a veteran bat like Kelly Johnson even if they do go with a four-man bench. Someone has to step in and give the Braves some kind of offense after all.
What does your bench look like? Is a four-man bench a potential problem should Atlanta go with it? Should the Braves go outside the organization for help and who should they pick up? Let me know in the comments.