The Braves made their first big move of the off-season on Saturday, trading Matt Kemp to the Los Angeles Dodgers for 4 players. This trade had very little baseball function, though Brandon McCarthy is interesting, as this was mostly swapping short-term debt for shorter-term debt. In short, Atlanta added money to 2018 to free up money in 2019. If you’re looking for further breakdown of this deal, Tommy already has you covered. That’s not what we’re doing today. We’re looking at the aftermath. The answer to the question “what’s next?”
As soon as the trade went down and everyone had a chance to digest it, you started to see a flood of these tweets:
braves have cleared a spot for the great ronald acuna with this trade. he is the best prospect in baseball.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) December 16, 2017
This seems like #Braves get out of long money on Kemp in exchange for adding payroll for ’18 on expiring deals for Gonzalez, Kazmir, McCarthy. #Dodgers have horizon to win now, spend $ now to win. Atl a year away will have better situation, plus Atl opens OF spot now for Acuna
— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) December 16, 2017
Have been saying that Ronald Acuna can be the Braves’ second most productive MLB outfielder in 2018 (behind only Inciarte). Now he gets the chance.
— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) December 16, 2017
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) December 16, 2017
#Braves trade Kemp, open spot for Acuna’s arrival and add a veteran starter and a bench player from Georgia (UPDATED story to explain how money events out with $4.5M Braves got from L.A.) https://t.co/XlQkExVTd8
— David O’Brien (@DOBrienAJC) December 16, 2017
The overriding consensus after this deal was made was one of the key parts of it was opening up a spot for Ronald Acuna, Atlanta’s top prospect. And why not? Makes perfect sense. Braves had 3 outfielders under contract plus the best outfield prospect in baseball. They traded away one of those outfielders so the logical conclusion is it opens up a spot for said top prospect, and once again, gives Atlanta a full outfield.
But here’s the thing. I’m not sure that’s actually what’s happening. There’s a decent case that Atlanta not only wants to, but needs to acquire another OF. That Kemp’s departure doesn’t make way for Acuna, but for the OF they’ve yet to obtain. And that Acuna’s opening will come at current RF, Nick Markakis‘ expense, not Kemp’s.
Here’s my logic.
The first and easiest point is Acuna literally just turned 20 years old. He’s played all of 54 games in AAA and there’s a very real and possible scenario where he simply isn’t ready for the majors. Planning on a 20-year-old being one of your starting outfielders isn’t much planning, no matter how good he is. Now, he absolutely could be ready for the majors but I think we can all agree the prudent thing to do would be to plan on him not being, and adjust if he is.
The second point is service time. Even if Acuna is ready, the reality is the Braves might not be ready for him. I’m not going to dive into the minutia that is the MLB service time rules, but basically teams have a financial incentive to hold players back 2 weeks or even 2 or 3 months into season. The why is, again, detailed but basically it helps teams control the cost of the player for as long as possible. Given where Atlanta is in the financial pecking order of baseball, I fully expect them to maximize the service time rules in regards to Acuna and hold him back.
So there’s a realistic chance Acuna could be down until June, or honestly, even until September, depending on how the season is going for both he and the team. This means Atlanta could cut or trade Markakis whenever they deem Acuna ready and immediately plug him into that spot. As things stand now, I don’t find it likely that Acuna and Markakis will ever play in the same outfield. I think once the former is ready, his spot will be opened up by moving or cutting the latter.
Which leads to my third point. If the plan was to play an outfield of Acuna, CF Ender Inciarte, and Markakis, you either have to put the younger, superior talent in LF or you have to ask an established veteran to change positions after playing almost every innings of his career in RF. Neither is ideal and both are avoided by simply acquiring a full time LF now, and replacing Markaksis with Acuna when his ready.
My last point is GM Alex Anthopoulos himself. Here’s what he said after the trade regarding Acuna:
We expect Ronald Acuna to factor at some point in 2018 and I’m not prepared to say when. He’s a young player at 19, turning 20 real soon. We expect him to factor in 2018. Whether that’s early, middle, or late I’m not sure.”
It would be weird for plan A to be a 20-year-old and reading this quote from Anthopoulos, it doesn’t sound like it is. Not only that but we know from reports that Atlanta has been asking about left fielders. If the plan was to play Acuna, Inciarte, and Markakis together, then asking about Adam Duvall doesn’t make much sense. Where it does make sense though is if you basically consider Acuna and Markakis as one position. One will play RF until the other is ready. Which leaves Ender in CF and a big ole’ question mark in LF.
And that’s why this isn’t just semantics. It changes what comes next. I think Atlanta is full-fledged shopping for an OF, because well, they need one. They need a LF. And I think they get one before the season starts. Prudent planning would be to have 3 OF ready to go for 2018 outside of Ronald Acuna and then make the necessary move when he’s ready to play and you’re ready for him to play. If they can move Kemp, they can easily find a way to move Markakis when the time comes.
My guess; as soon as Christian Yelich makes it clear to Miami he has zero intentions playing there, Atlanta moves in hard to get him. If they come up short there, then guys like Duvall make some sense. We’ll see. But my prediction as we sit here on December 19th, is that we never see a Markakis-Inciarte-Acuna outfield. Agree? Disagree?