New general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, has some serious questions to deal with. The Atlanta Braves are expected to be hit and hit hard by sanctions from Major League Baseball for former GM John Coppolella’s unethical actions. Even if we ignore that, the Braves have question marks all over the team right now. Are the young guns good enough to perform in the starting rotation right now? Can the bullpen finally turn the corner? Will the Tyler Flowers/Kurt Suzuki combo produce again? What will Ozzie Albies‘s encore look like? Is Dansby Swanson a bust? Who gets pushed out of the way for Ronald Acuna? And just who in the hell is playing third base?
That last question just so happens to come at the exact time that a few legit major league third basemen are hitting the market. We’ve covered this question a few times and the biggest reason, I feel, we continue to come back to this question is recent history. Since Chipper Jones‘s last year, 2012, Atlanta ranks 27th of 30 clubs in 3B fWAR. Five times over the last five years, a third baseman eclipsed 7.1 fWAR in a single season. It took the Braves five years to get to that total as a team.
Trading for a third baseman makes a lot of sense. Some have suggested Anthropoulos’s connection to Josh Donaldson. That prompted Stephen to post some concerns the Braves would have for completing such a deal. The free agent market is also a possibility. Some have suggested Eduardo Nunez and Todd Frazier – free agents that would cost only cash money to acquire. The name, however, that continues to show up is Mike Moustakas. Some believe, with Anthopoulos’s penchant for big-time deals, that Moustakas makes for an easy target. MLB Trade Rumors predicted, before Anthopoulos was hired, that Moustakas would land in Atlanta for $85M over 5 years.
I don’t believe past circumstances are always a predictor of future moves, but even if I did, Mike Moustakas is absolutely the wrong choice for the Atlanta Braves.
“Moose” is coming off a year in which he bashed 38 home runs with a .249 ISO and a .272 batting average. By those simple metrics, he looks like a potential force in the lineup. At 29, he’s a few years younger than Nunez and Frazier and certainly has always looked the part of a difference maker in the Royals’ lineup. The problem comes down to value, though. More specifically, a lack of.
Only Joey Gallo hit more homers as a third baseman than Moustakas last year and only four third basemen bested the ex-Royal in ISO. However, 21 third basemen finished ahead of him in fWAR as Moustakas finished with a 2.2 fWAR. That’s nothing new. In 2015, a career-season for Moustakas in fWAR, he finished 13th. In fact, in six years, he’s finished in the top 10 in fWAR just once. To be fair, one of those years was lost to injury, but the fact is that Moustakas doesn’t stand out as a premier player for his position.
That’s concerning because he’s still the premier option at third base this winter. What happens when the best option available is also not a premier player? He gets overpaid. Usually, by a lot.
Moustakas will be 29 for most of the 2018 season and should continue to bash homers by the bushel for a number of years to follow, but the weaknesses in his game will take away much of that value. Moustakas has a career walk rate of 6.4%. Last year, it was 5.7%. When you compare that with a mediocre hit tool (career .251 AVG, .265 BABIP), that naturally means he’s going to have a poor OBP. That’s exactly what has happened throughout his career as he’s sitting on a .305 OBP. It spiked over .315 just once – in 2015 with a .348 OBP. It took a career-best .284 AVG, .295 BABIP, and 13 HBP to boost it that far.
That puts a strain on the rest of his game to supplement his power numbers. Those that have posted a 10 fWAR or better over the last five years despite an OBP under .310 have all been aided by defensive value and/or baserunning. Well, we know Moose isn’t much of a runner so let’s focus on defense.
When Moustakas arrived in the majors, he was a plus-defender, but those skills quickly eroded. His UZR/150 dropped from double digits in 2012-13 to 2.9 in 2014. He followed that up with a 1.4 and, skipping his injury-filled 2016, he fell under zero last year with a -3.6. That’s a stark difference from average-to-slightly above average to a definitely below average. It could also be a trend that was exacerbated by an injury. In late May of 2016, Moustakas blew out his knee, tearing his ACL and missing the rest of the season. His range at third had already taken a hit and it only worsened this season.
We can also look at his sprint speed and see a bit of a decline. In 2015, Moustakas’s sprint speed was 26.7 ft/sec. In 2017, it was 25.5 – good for seventh-worst among 3B. To put some perspective on it for Braves fans, Rio Ruiz‘s sprint speed last year was 26.6. Speed isn’t everything at third base, but when we look at how his range metrics fell and his DRS slipped from 4 in 2015 to -8, it’s a potential sign of a declining set of skills.
To be fair, one can argue that he’ll be better in 2018 because he’ll be two years post-injury and any lingering effects of the injury and the surgery that followed should be in the past. There could be some truth in that, though I’m in the camp of “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
So, we have a player whose entire value is wrapped in hitting homers. There’s no reason to think his power numbers will suffer significant decline during his next deal provided the contract he signs is capped at about four-to-five years. We’ll certainly see some decline to his overall game because that’s how the aging curve works, but it shouldn’t be too much. Typically, players decline at a slow rate from Age-29 until about Age-36, which shouldn’t affect his numbers in the next contract much. And let me be clear – I’m not sure Moustakas will be overpaid at any point of his next potential deal. This is more theoretical, but if one fWAR is worth about $8M and Moustakas signs a deal worth $16M AAV, it’s a reasonable use of funds.
But that idea isn’t put into team context. For the Braves, $16M represents 13% of a projected 2018 payroll of $125M. Even if you get creative and try to save money now to backload a deal – which would be a terrible idea – Moustakas is going to take up a significant chunk of salary. A team with a limited payroll cannot miss on free agents.
Here’s a prime example of not hitting on a free agent.
#Braves signing Moustakas to that kind of contract would be willingly disregarding the cautionary tale of the B.J. Upton deal. Good, but not great player with limited on-base skills.
— Grant McAuley (@grantmcauley) November 2, 2017
The Braves paid handsomely for the now-Melvin Upton and got burned. That’s not to say the same would happen with Moustakas, but the Braves would be banking on the same kind of thing. Simply put, Atlanta would hope that a flawed player would be able to remain valuable as he ages and that a large contract wouldn’t become an albatross to deal with. Upton was actually a better choice at the time due to being younger and playing center field. Former GM Frank Wren bet the house on Upton’s skill set of defense, athletism, speed, and power to make up for flaws in his game moving forward. It didn’t. Moustakas has even less to bank on.
There’s also the fact that Moustakas just declined a qualifying offer. That means the Braves would have to surrender either its third-highest or second-highest pick. Considering the boom that is coming after the MLB announces its punishments, this could be pivotal to the goal of adding talent to this system. If the Braves are banned from the international market for a year or two, they’ll have to hit on their draft picks to avoid lulls in development. Losing valuable draft choices will only make Anthropoulos’s job more difficult in that regard.
By now, I hope you agree with me that Moustakas just doesn’t make sense for the Atlanta Braves. His contract is too expensive, his value to the Braves is too small, and the effects of signing him could also hurt the Braves. Atlanta has to hit on their free agents. They have to really nail them. Moustakas is not that surefire free agent, though. The Braves should pass.