|Jeff Morris – Follow on Twitter|
I am on the record with this. I love Ronald Acuna. He makes my heart flutter. When he hits a home run, to quote Bowling for Soup, “all the wind blows and the angels sing.” He’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. In fact, he’s like pretzel bread, which as we all know, improves bread to another level. Ronald Acuna is hope and hope is good.
But the Braves have, as our own Stephen Tolbert said a few weeks back, a corner outfield problem. Worse, it is a problem that could – I repeat, could – continue into 2018. Where would Acuna fit in if the Braves are incapable of finding a trading partner willing to take on Matt Kemp‘s salary and/or Nick Markakis‘s…Markaisian averageness? Should the Braves simply take their losses and release Kemp or Markakis (likely the latter) just to open up a spot for Acuna? Should he stay in the minors until the Braves find a taker for one of their older corner outfielders – despite unreal numbers this season?
Here’s the thing, Braves fans. The Braves don’t have to have an either/or. They can have a team next year that includes Kemp, Markakis, and Acuna. Just so you don’t freak out, Ender Inciarte also fits into this arrangement. And what’s even better is that the Braves have done it before
You’ve probably seen a lot – and I mean A LOT – of comparisons between Andruw Jones and Acuna. Both climbed from A-ball to Triple-A in their Age-19 seasons. Both were dynamic outfielders and elite prospects in baseball. Whether these comparisons are fair or not, they are inevitable. There are just too many similar factors here. And why stop now? Why not follow what the Braves did in 1997 with the then 20-year-old Andruw Jones? Why not use Acuna as the fourth outfielder for a year?
I know what you’re thinking – the Braves won’t do that because Acuna is too valuable to be wasted in a fourth outfielder role. It’s also difficult to see a possibility where Acuna isn’t better than either Kemp nor Markakis in 2018. And for the record, I don’t mean Acuna should be the fourth outfielder in a way Lane Adams is a fourth outfielder. I mean only to use Acuna like Andruw Jones was used in 1997.
Let’s flashback to that year for a second. While every Braves fan remembers 1996 and Andruw homering twice in the Bronx during the World Series, the Braves didn’t hand the young man a spot in the starting lineup to begin 1997. It’s why Michael Tucker had an opportunity to hit the first home run in Turner Field history. The Braves opened the season with a platoon between Tucker and Andruw. When he wasn’t in the starting lineup, Andruw would play often in a pinch-hitting/defensive replacement role. Of the first 25 games, he played in 24. He remained in that timeshare until mid-June, when Kenny Lofton went down with an injury. It allowed Andruw the shot to play nightly. When Lofton returned, Andruw was relegated back into his backup role, filling in against left-hand pitching, playing defense in right and left, and occasionally spelling Lofton in center field. He started 96 games – fewer than Tucker, Lofton, and Ryan Klesko – but more than one might expect for a fourth outfielder. He also played an additional 51 games in the field for a total of 147 games of experience in the outfield. Add that with six more games in a pinch-hitting capacity and Andruw Jones actually finished second on the 1997 Braves in games played.
Now, does this situation compare to a potential 2018 Braves’ squad? You better believe it. Consider these two scenarios.
Scenario #1 – The Braves Can’t Find a Taker for Kemp
This possibility is a likelihood at this point. Many who questioned the Hector Olivera trade last summer pointed out that Kemp’s value was only going down. This season, he has been a replacement level player due to atrocious defense and bad baserunning metrics. His offense isn’t bad (though a rising groundball rate is troubling), but the belief that he was a changed man after coming over from the Padres is a bit overblown. He’s essentially the same player as he was in 2015, his first season in San Diego.
Kemp has been durable to an extent, but many would argue that has been to the club’s detriment. Kemp plays hurt – largely because his knees are shot and though he’s still just 32, it seems like he’s much older. Still, he averaged 153 games in the three years before this so he knows how to stay in the lineup. Two trips to the DL this season, though, and nagging injuries throughout the season point to the possibility that his 150-game seasons might be a thing of the past. That’s actually not the worst thing, by the way. Players with Kemp’s issues need regular rest to make them better able to deal with a long season.
Since the Braves are unlikely to find a team with much interest in sharing the burden of the nearly $40 million the Braves are on the hook for over the next two seasons, Kemp seems likely to return in 2018. Wouldn’t it be nice to have both a capable defender able to hide Kemp in late games and a capable hitter able to contribute offensively? Do you really feel it’s out of the realm of possibility that Atlanta will need a contingency plan should Kemp miss a month or more of the 2018 season? Acuna provides a ready replacement.
There’s also the possibility of keeping Matt Adams and giving him at-bats to keep Kemp fresh. I’m not sure that it makes a lot of sense to keep two guys who still couldn’t cover left field even if MLB allowed the Braves to play both at the same time, but I understand the whole “if Kemp is bad at defense, does it matter that Adams also is?” Nevertheless, the team could still use a defensive replacement for either.
Scenario #2 – Markakis Attracts a Lukewarm Market
|Nick Markakis (2015-Present)|
Since coming to Atlanta, Nick Markakis has wRC+ of 71 and a .280 wOBA against left-hand pitching. That’s abysmal. Hiding that with Acuna would definitely be useful in a world where Markakis might not attract a lot of attention on the open market should the Braves attempt to deal him. Further, Markakis’s defense, while not as severely detrimental to the team as Kemp’s, remains an issue for Atlanta.
The Braves could – and probably would – be open to paying down some of Markakis’s $10.5M remaining salary, but for what? A no-name prospect? Say what you will about Markakis and I have, but the guy is consistent, durable, and consistent. Yes, I know I said that twice, but compliments work best in threes and I couldn’t think of another one. With the very real possibility of Kemp going down for significant time in 2018, do the Braves really want to lose Markakis, who again is durable (and consistent)?
Now, you might say that these two scenarios don’t exist in a vacuum and you would be right. The Braves could trade Markakis, for example, and sign a good enough outfielder or platoon Dustin Peterson and Lane Adams to deal with any possible injury to Kemp. For that matter, Kemp could stay relatively healthy. Furthermore, Matt Adams is the mix as well (though his numbers have fallen considerably since his big start with the Braves). You might even say, “why put off the inevitable? Ronald Acuna is the future and the future is ready to begin.”
It’s a tough argument to counter. Playing Ronald Acuna every day is certainly more exciting than watching either the consistently durable Markakis or the kneeless Kemp meander around the outfield. But is it best for the player? I’ll use two examples here. First, let’s look back at Andruw Jones. He spent a year playing nearly every game, but only starting slightly more than half. Did it stunt his growth? Not even a little. He improved across the board the following season and was an All-Star three years later. While many would argue that Andruw never reached the potential we set out for him, it didn’t change the fact that he had a very productive – and possibly Hall of Fame worthy – career.
The other example is Dansby Swanson. Like Acuna, Swanson was an exciting player who rushed through the minors. He was hyped up as the future Derek Jeter and a frontrunner for the 2017 Rookie of the Year. But baseball happened. Now, the Braves are simply trying to jump-start Swanson so he can pivot into 2018 on a high note. If such a thing happened to Acuna, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to have Markakis and Kemp in-house? Sure, neither are world beaters, but what are the chances that another Johan Camargo bails out the Braves here?
In the end, I would simply say this – I love Acuna as a player. I want only success for the young man. I believe in him. I also think that maybe the best way of bringing him to the big time is in a smaller role. Again, I’m not saying give him 200 plate appearances like you might a typical fourth outfielder. He’d play often as a platoon bat in right field, keeping Kemp fresh in left field, and giving Inciarte breathers in center field. He’d be part of the mix, not a traditional backup. And either through a midseason trade of Kemp or Markakis or the latter leaving after 2018, Acuna would simply slide into a starting spot.
It worked for Andruw. More than 20 years later, it’s time to try it again with Acuna.