When the 2016 season concluded, the Braves were at a crossroads in regards to second base. They had two really good prospects developing in the minors with Ozzie Albies and Travis Demeritte, but neither were ready for prime time. They also had an incumbent, Jace Peterson, who had started 214 games at second base the previous two years. Peterson had struggled, though, to hit well enough to stay in the lineup and looked more like a platoon option at best. Former General Manager John Coppolella wanted to improve the position.
He thought he had accomplished that when he signed Sean Rodriguez to a two-year pact. Rodriguez had broken out as a 31-year-old super utility player the previous year, slashing .270/.349/.510 over 342 plate appearances. He could also do something Peterson was not able to do – hit lefthanders. In fact, for Rodriguez, a lot of his value was tied into the damage he could inflict when he had the platoon advantage. However, a drunk driver stole a police car just a couple of weeks before spring training opened and plowed into Rodriguez’s car, hurting not only him but also his wife and two kids. They would all survive the wreck, but Rodriguez would require shoulder surgery and the fear was that his first season in Atlanta was over before it started.
Coppolella then re-approached the Reds about a previous target, Brandon Phillips. A deal was crafted in which Atlanta sent the Reds a couple of minor league arms for Phillips, who waived his no-trade clause. Phillips had already invoked that clause to stop a trade to the Braves just a few months before but had a change of heart after the Reds made it clear that they were moving on and Atlanta provided a better opportunity to be a regular player in the final year of his contract.
For the first four months of the season, Phillips was the regular second baseman, slashing .291/.329/.423 during his time as a Brave. Those numbers include a month-long move to third base in August to allow for Albies to take over at second base. Albies would outproduce Phillips over a 57-game run despite being just 20 years-old. The switch-hitter hit .286/.354/.456 with nine doubles, five triples, six homers, and eight steals. He would finish the year as the regular #2 hitter and even hit leadoff when Ender Inciarte needed a break.
Let’s take a look at where second base sits and the future of the position. Spoiler alert: Albies will be mentioned.
Don’t be discouraged by the idea the Braves don’t have anyone signed to play second base. They still have team control over Albies and Peterson, but neither have a major league contract for 2018 just yet. That comes later.
Peterson’s arbitration case is interesting because the Braves could easily pass on bringing back the utility player. I didn’t mention them here, but the Braves also have control over Johan Camargo and Danny Santana. While the latter is a non-tender candidate, Camargo’s not going anywhere and would seem like the natural fill-in option should Albies miss time. They also have Micah Johnson, who was a regular at second base in 2016 for Oklahoma City in the Dodgers’ organization.
Further complicating Peterson’s place on the roster is that he used his final option this season. Should the Braves bring him back next season, they won’t be able to easily send him to the minors should the desire or need arise. Peterson did his best to leave a good last impression in the Braves’ mind by slashing .325/.460/.475 over his final 50 PA and started games at six different positions this year (seven if you include his time in Gwinnett when he played some CF).
Comparison – 2018
It may be difficult to really project where Albies might rank next season in comparison to the rest of the league. Clearly, he did extremely well during his two months in the majors. So well that he finished 21st in fWAR (1.9) among 2B that received at least 200 PA. Better than Starlin Castro, Ian Happ, and even Brandon Phillips. His .347 wOBA ranked 10th among players at his position. Did I mention this was his Age-20 season?
Are there any potential red flags (i.e. buzzkills)? Not really. You might worry the power is a bit unsustainable as it was higher than any previous minor league stop, but his raw power production was not much higher than it was with Gwinnett earlier in 2017 (.156 ISO vs. .171). Further, it would make sense that his power was on the rise due not only to maturing physically but the adjustments he made at the plate. Albies worked with the Braves, most notably Chipper Jones, to unlock some power, especially in his left-handed stroke. The result was a decline in groundball percentage from 50%-and-higher to 41%-42% this year. Basically, he elevated more balls, leading to more extra-base hits. People look at Albies’ size and they think he’s just going to slap the ball around, but he had a great Soft%/Medium%/Hard% batted ball slash of 15%/52%/33%. Further, you could say that we saw an Albies who was unlucky offensively. The .316 BABIP he put up was roughly 26 points less than his Gwinnett numbers in 2017 and a far cry from his career rate.
If you are worried about a Dansby Swanson-like sophomore slump, you could easily see where Swanson might struggle in his follow-up campaign (high BABIP, too many grounders, weaker contact). Those issues didn’t live in the background for Albies. Where will he – and ultimately the Braves – rank as far as second base production goes in 2018? The elite options of Jose Altuve, Jose Ramirez, Brian Dozier, and Daniel Murphy (i.e. the 4 fWAR+ club) is a little too much to hope for next season, but it’s possible. More likely, he’ll be in a tier a step below in his first full season in the majors and that’s perfectly fine.
Camargo can provide an option should Albies need a day off. In fact, I’d rather see Albies play shortstop and Camargo at second if Swanson gets a breather. Also, I imagine the Braves do bring back Peterson and non-tender Santana, which should provide good backup depth behind Albies. This position is definitely a strength in compared to the rest of the league.
Comparison – The Near-Future/”Oh, (Expletive)!” Plan
If the Braves have any hope of surprising some people in 2018, it might be dashed if Albies doesn’t produce either because of a sophomore slump (again, not likely) or injury (knock on every piece of wood in the universe). The plan behind him is not pretty.
I mentioned Camargo and Peterson and they would seem like the most likely options to take over should the Braves need to fill in. The Braves had hoped Travis Demeritte would be ready to contribute in 2018 and he still might, but he’s going to have to bounce back after a terrible year in Mississippi first. With Santana and likely Micah Johnson on the way out, the Braves are fairly limited options-wise to go to a stopgap option beyond Camargo and Peterson, which could cause another issue if Camargo is being counted on to play a significant role in solving the third base picture in 2018.
One other option could be Luis Valenzuela. An aggressive line-drive hitter with a good hit tool, Valenzuela can fill in around the infield and can find the gap from time-to-time. Still, the left-handed option has been hurt as often as he has been healthy during his career and maxes out as a possible bench option. The Braves could also look to try the Sean Rodriguez route again and bring in a veteran bench guy who can play all over to provide depth and another part of the 3B mix. That might help, but for now, as far as a contingency plan goes, I wouldn’t call this a weakness or a strength because (1) Camargo is a good option and (2) very few teams have a second good option to go to should their elite-grade 2B go down.
Comparison – The Future
Frankly, the future is already here. His name is Ozzie Albies. Perhaps I mentioned him.
But if you want to take a look at the other options in the system, here are some of the choices with their estimated level and placement in Thursday’s Top 5 2B Prospects rundown if applicable.
Gwinnett: Luis Valenzuela (#5)
Mississippi: Travis Demeritte (#1), Omar Obregon (#5)
Florida: Kevin Josephina, Alay Lago
Rome: Derian Cruz (#3), Jeremy Fernandez, Nicholas Shumpert
Danville: Yunior Severino (#2), Eric Jimenez
I left Lago in Florida, but you could easily shift Obregon to Gwinnett and Lago in Mississippi – neither are really that important for this exercise. If Demeritte comes out of camp hot and puts together an April/May like we expected, he’ll likely be in Gwinnett before the temperatures get really hot. Of the list, Severino has the highest potential. He has impressive power and if he learns the strike zone better, he could be a Top 100 prospect in baseball by the time this decade ends.
Again, the future arrived in the bigs last season and still won’t be able to drink legally in this country until January 7. People have already compared Albies to Altuve and that might be unfair as it attaches some pretty hefty expectations to a guy who was born in the same year that Andruw Jones played his first full season in the majors. Andruw, by the way, was another player who suffered from undue expectations based on hype and early returns.
That said, it’s impossible to not get hyped when it comes to Albies. He’s several years away from even reaching his prime and already looking like he belongs. That makes this position such a strength moving forward. Look for Albies to continue to improve and with Severino in the fold, the Braves already have a possible replacement well down the line should the Braves ever need to make a move. It’s a great situation to be in.
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