For a guy, well-beloved by the Braves faithful, there sure have been a lot of articles about trading Ender Inciarte. Tomahawk Take’s Tyler Wilson recently ran one, asking if trading Inciarte for Ian Happ was a good idea. Talking Chop’s Kris Willis asked a similar question back in November. In full disclosure, our Stephen Tolbert did the same back in September.
Many fans have been appalled by this idea and you can’t really blame them. For a team that has traded so many of its “cornerstones” over the last few years, moving Inciarte so soon after he signed a long-term extension seems bonkers. It seems even more bonkers to trade a young controllable asset when you are trying to convince everyone that you are moving away from a rebuild and toward a more competitive direction. Inciarte has 6.6 fWAR over the last two seasons, tied for tenth among center fielders over the last two years. He’s a defensive marvel, an improving hitter, and fairly cheap. What gives with all the trade talk?
For what it’s worth, none of the trade talk seems to come from “sources.” Rather, it’s always theoretical. For instance, the Cubs have liked Inciarte and could use a center fielder. It would appear like a perfect match, bloggers and other writers theorize. They’re not wrong. Inciarte would be a good fit for a number of teams. Most good players are.
But what about the Braves? Why should they entertain the idea of trading who they would owe a maximum of $33 million over the next five years to? Let’s look at the reasoning the Braves may consider a trade and whether it truly makes much sense.
1) Opens a Spot for Ronald Acuna
This is the most cited reason and it is unlikely to go away even after Matt Kemp‘s trade on Sunday. Moving Inciarte opens center field, a position Acuna has played often in his short career. There are some whispers that Acuna may grow out of center field as matures, but the expectation is that the now 20-year-old can handle center field for the foreseeable future.
By the way, just want to wish Acuna a happy birthday!
Of course, just because Acuna can play center field doesn’t mean he can play it better than Inciarte. While there is some stiff competition for the best defensive center fielder title (Byron Buxton, Kevin Pillar, and others), Inciarte has earned his place among the elite to man the position right now. Moving Acuna to center field would ask the young man to fill some pretty big shoes. Furthermore, considering Alex Anthopoulos’s desire to improve the team’s defense, having both Acuna and Inciarte in the outfield would appear the easier fit than opening up center field for the kid.
2) Trading Inciarte and using Acuna in center maximizes both’s value
This is an abbreviated form of the argument made by ESPN’s Keith Law a few months back that Stephen covered. Acuna’s greatest value would come in center field where he can put up elite offensive numbers to match, what we expect to be, plus defense. Inciarte’s offense wouldn’t play in the corner outfield slots quite as well so trading him would potentially maximize the “problem” of having two center fielders, but only being able to use one of them in center field.
Theoretically, Law’s right, by the way. Regardless of the corner outfield position Acuna plays, he would have a tick less value than he would if he was playing center field and doing it well. With some competitive teams in need of a plus center fielder (Cubs, Giants, Rangers), putting Inciarte on the market could be an effective way to trade from a strength.
The problem here is similar to the idea of how much WAR costs in dollars. We have a basic idea of what 1 WAR costs and if a player reaches 1 WAR, but is paid under that benchmark, he’s not really being overpaid. Or at least, that’s the theory. The practical application of that kind of thinking is a bit iffy. For instance, $8 million – roughly Fangraphs’ benchmark for 1 WAR – means less to the Dodgers than it does to the Rays. The Dodgers can spend that $8M for 1 WAR and feel like they are still doing okay. The Rays will see $8M spent on a player providing 1 WAR and not feel they are getting enough bang for their buck.
These baseball decisions don’t live in a vacuum. Certainly, ignoring everything, it makes more sense on paper to trade Inciarte because of his specific value as an elite-level center fielder rather than sacrifice some of Acuna’s value by playing him at a less important position. For the Braves, however, that’s not a decision they will worry themselves with. The Braves would rather find value wherever they can get it. For them, yeah, you may not be maximizing Acuna’s value at a corner. At the same time, they aren’t likely going to replace Inciarte’s three wins very easily.
3) But Inciate could bring back a big hitter
As Tyler Wilson and others have written, an Ian Happ/Ender Inciate swap makes theoretical sense for both clubs. Happ could definitely come in and replace Inciate as far as value goes. And though I risk the wrath of Josh Brown and others, Inciate is not a plus-plus hitter. Yes, he had 200 hits and that does matter, but it still only meant that Inciarte was a league-average hitter with a .328 wOBA and 100 wRC+. That’s not to bag on him because he’s still a three-win player, but strip away the defense and he’s Ben Gamel. Gamel was a 1.6 fWAR player.
So, at least on paper, trading Inciarte could help the Braves have a better offense depending on the return. Atlanta finished 21st in the league in wOBA last season and adding more dynamic offensive players could push them closer to the Top 10.
I’ll be honest – there’s no more compelling argument for trading Inciarte than the offensive side of things. The only argument that makes logical sense is that teams don’t tend to give up the kind of dynamic offensive threats that are both better than Inciarte and have established themselves in the majors. Chances are, you’d have to take a bit of a gamble. Even Happ, who I do like a lot, has his questions (namely, questionable plate discipline) and that’s likely the best type of hitter Atlanta could target in a trade involving Inciarte.
Here’s The Thing, Though
Does it make sense right now to trade Ender Inciarte? I get the idea that trading Inciarte could bring back a dynamic offensive talent, though I have my doubts Inciarte alone can bring back the kind of talent others are talking up. I don’t buy the idea that for the Braves, it makes better sense to play Acuna in center field even if that’s the logical approach to maximize value. More – I’m just not sure it makes sense to trade Inciarte right now for Atlanta.
Let’s look at this from both a practical sense and a future value sense.
The practical is simple – Inciarte fits the vision that Alex Anthopoulos has discussed. The Braves new General Manager wants to improve the team defense. Trading their best defender is a hell of a way to try to do that. Anthopoulos’ idea is not that dissimilar to the one John Schuerholz had when he took over. Bring in players who can catch the ball and make plays in the field to help your young pitching staff.
The Braves finished last season 24th in ERA, but six spots better in FIP. Could a better defense have led to more plays made and fewer runs allowed? Absolutely. Despite having Inciarte, the Braves finished with fewer Defensive Runs Saved than 26 other clubs. Matt Kemp and the second base version of Brandon Phillips accounted for -22 DRS alone (mostly Kemp, of course). Atlanta has already improved second base with Ozzie Albies – though he might end up at shortstop. Playing an outfield with both Inciarte and Acuna could go a long way toward improving the outfield defense as well.
Simply put, if improving the defense is a goal for Anthopoulos, having Inciarte is a great step toward achieving that.
There’s also future value. Inciarte improved his offensive numbers from a .319 wOBA his first year in Atlanta to a .328 mark his second season. It’s not a significant gain, but it did represent a new personal high. He also showed over the last two seasons that he can get hit left-hand pitching. That was a genuine concern when he was acquired. At 27, there is a good chance that he improves his game a bit more, which will also improve his value.
Let’s also think of Inciarte’s value next winter versus right now. I can see maybe three true matches for Inciarte right now – the Cubs, Rangers, and Giants. However, next winter, center fielders like Charlie Blackmon, Adam Jones, A.J. Pollock, and potentially Brett Gardner hit the open market. If San Francisco doesn’t add a CF now, they could also be in the hunt with Denard Span off their ledger. More teams looking to address center field could mean a better market to trade Inciarte in.
You might argue that those potential free agents won’t cost the team players like a trade would. That alone makes them more preferable. You’re not wrong, but consider the math of the situation. Inciarte, a three-win player, will cost his team $5M in 2019 and, at most, $24M the following three years. If you are a team who can’t compete on the open market, you could be inclined to make a run at a cheaper Inciarte. Even if you are a team that can go toe-to-toe with the other big spenders, staying under the luxury tax could be a big incentive to trade for a cheap, productive player like Inciarte.
The idea of trading Inciarte is both confusing for many Braves fans and exciting for those that love themselves some rosterbation. However, I would caution that trading Inciarte now isn’t the right idea. If anything, it’s shortsighted and is contrary to everything the Braves have said over the last month that they value. It’s the kind of move that makes sense on paper, but not for practical purposes.
To sum up, it’s an attempt to solve one problem while making a new one. Atlanta has enough problems that need solutions first.