On Saturday evening, a storm rolled into the western and southern portions of Virginia. By the time the snow had stopped, there was half-a-foot of the white stuff on the ground outside my front door. Now, I know for you northern know-it-alls, that’s barely a dusting, but it can paralyze things in this area of the country. Case in point: by 9 AM, the power was out. It remained out for about nine hours. In that time, the Braves did some stuff. I wish it was exciting.
Atlanta agreed to one-year contracts with depth players Peter Bourjos and Ryan Flaherty. The former will receive an even million with Flaherty earning $750,000. The signings end months of speculation involving what kind of major deals Alex Anthopoulos would sign to shake things up in Atlanta.
Well, let’s look at what the Braves did, what it means for the roster, and why you can size these two guys up for a ring.
I kid. Again.
Peter Bourjos originally made it to the majors back in 2010. The next year, he shockingly put up a 4-win season according to Fangraphs. This is “shocking” because he has just 10.7 fWAR throughout his 813-game career. Most of the value in those nearly 11-wins is his defense because his bat is what people in the industry call “not good.” Once the Angels moved on, he landed the role as “Gritty Cardinals Player” for two years before spending the last couple of seasons as a defensive replacement for the Phillies and Rays. Most recently, he failed to secure a spot on the Chicago Cubs bench.
Again, with Bourjos, it’s all about defense. He turns 31 next week and while he’s no longer the potential Gold Glover he was during his best years in Anaheim, he’s still capable of playing center field with 5 DRS over his last 1200 or so innings covering four years. In that time, he has a 7.9 UZR. While he has a reputation as a fourth outfielder, Bourjos didn’t log any time in the majors at the corners until the last two years, looking league-average in right field in 2016 with the Phils and slightly-below-league-average last season in left field. Just spitballing, but I think he’s probably slightly-above-league-average at the corners. Also, aren’t hyphens fun?
The problem – and we’ll circle back to this in more detail later – is that Bourjos has very little offensive value. Over the last four seasons, 289 players have at least 1,000 plate appearances. Only 16 have a worse wOBA than Bourjos and his .284 mark. He’s averaged about four homers and six steals a season as a backup as well. The latter number may surprise you because Bourjos has such a good reputation for being a center fielder and that implies speed for days. And, according to Sprint Speed, he is fast. In fact, he tied Lane Adams as far as the Sprint Speed leaderboards go with 29.0 ft/sec, good for 19th last season. That’s slightly faster than Ozzie Albies and just a tick slower than Mallex Smith.
But whereas Adams, Albies, and Smith can use their speed as a weapon, Bourjos has never had that skill set outside of some big minor league seasons during the early days of the Obama administration. If the BsR metric is to be believed, Bourjos is a good baserunner. He’s just not a base stealer.
Moving on to Ryan Flaherty, the infielder has spent his entire major league career in Baltimore. That means, the Orioles thought a triple slash of .215/.284/.355 was worth bringing back each year. To be fair, they only gave him 1270 PA over parts of six seasons. Whereas the flyball revolution is taking hold throughout baseball, Flaherty continues to pound the ball into the ground roughly half of the time. Suffice it to say, that’s not the best plan.
But he can play defense! Flaherty has played at least one major league inning at every position over the last two years except for catcher and center field. His natural position is second base and unsurprisingly, he’s best suited to patrol the position with a career 8 DRS in a shade over 1400 innings, including a career 7.9 UZR/150. He’s also capable at third base, though is probably stretched a bit too much at shortstop. His cameos in the outfield have been short, but he’s shown some ability out there to not be a complete embarrassment.
We can’t say the same about his offense. Remember when I said Bourjos’s .284 wOBA over the last four seasons was amongst the worst in baseball? I used his last four years to try to shave off his better days as an Angel, which don’t seem likely to happen again. To compare with Bourjos, Flaherty’s career wOBA is .282. Bourjos’s bat is bad. Flaherty’s bat is criminal. And it’s something that Flaherty seems unlikely to change. His best single-season wRC+ is 84 in 2013. To put that more bluntly, at his best, Flaherty’s offensive production is 16% below league-average.
The Braves now have both Bourjos and Flaherty. They seem likely to join half of the Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki platoon, Charlie Culberson, and possibly – until a fifth starter is needed – Lane Adams, Danny Santana, or Chris Stewart. The Braves appear to be going with the idea that the bench is there to use their gloves and not a whole lot else.
To be fair, Alex Anthopoulos has said on more than a few occasions that improving the team defense is important. And let’s be honest – the idea of having an outfield of Ronald Acuna Jr., Ender Inciarte, and Bourjos late in games while trying to protect a lead isn’t the worst thing in the world. Of course, that assumes that outfield would be called upon in those situations. Manager Brian Snitker could opt to stick with Nick Markakis. He won a Gold Glove when “Happy” by Pharrell Williams was somehow popular. I guess that’s important.
But in the National League, the bench has to be able to provide some element of offense. Flash-forward to mid-April when Acuna Jr. and Johan Camargo are expected to both be in the starting lineups, demoting Preston Tucker and Rio Ruiz either to the bench or the minors. Let’s assume Tucker heads to the bench and Ruiz to the minors. Let’s also assume that the Braves make good on their desire to utilize an eight-man bullpen. That leaves half of Flowzuki, Culberson, Flaherty, and Bourjos. And…no room for Tucker? Wait, the math isn’t adding up here.
Some have suggested Culberson is on the move and he almost has to be with this bench, right? Culberson actually has a worse wOBA than Flaherty during his – to be honest – shorter career. Culberson is probably a better shortstop than Flaherty, though with Albies and Camargo around, the need for a capable backup shortstop is not pressing. The bigger problem is that between Bourjos, Culberson, and Flaherty – Atlanta has no offense. Even if you take one of them out, because of the Cox Rule 23, you cannot utilize your backup catcher as a pinch hitter. That leaves Tucker, provided the Braves keep him on the bench and either use a five-man bench or trade/designate Culberson or Flaherty. There is a lot to like about Tucker, including his solid spring. He’s also unproven.
I can’t say I understand these moves. Is Bourjos a better bench option than Adams? Defensively, sure. That would matter more if you had serious defensive concerns about an outfield of Acuna Jr., Inciarte, Markakis. While I bag on Markakis – partly for funsies – he’s not a defensive black hole you need to protect. Adams hasn’t had a great spring and many fans hate his outspoken nature on Twitter. But Adams did have a .344 wOBA over 122 PA last season. While you would be right to argue that his .368 BABIP was destined to regress, he also was a stolen base threat with 10 successful steals in as many attempts. He’s a more dynamic bench option than Bourjos.
Even if you don’t like Adams, if the presence of Bourjos limits the playing time of Tucker, that is also a concern because Tucker could be the one player who holds the baseball bat properly by what the numbers say. That isn’t ideal at all.
Again, having both Culberson and Flaherty is overkill. Even trying to decide between the two is kind of like trying to decide whether you’d want to get punched in the left eye or the right eye. I mean, why would you even find a way to get to the point where you address that question?
I like Alex Anthopoulos. A number of the moves he made with the Blue Jays were quite creative and I appreciate that. I like his aggressiveness. I also believe he’s more capable of building a major league roster than the man he replaced. But these moves seem like the height of “well, we did something!” Without more moves – which are possible – to put these additions into context, these moves do nothing to make the Braves better. In fact, it’s easy to argue that Atlanta will be worse because of these moves than had they simply not made them.
I give Anthopoulos a bit of a pass. There are rumblings that while it would appear, based on recent spending in 2016 and 2017, that Atlanta should have more money to spend, that might not be the case even with you consider that they opened a new park. That is because Atlanta is paying down debt. That helps reign in spending for a better product on the field. And let’s not forget that Anthopoulos smartly found a new home for Matt Kemp and opened up salary space in 2019.
But outside of that, Atlanta has bargain shopped for potentially the least interesting bargains. Atlanta is making the choice that Anibal Sanchez is a better option than Max Fried. They are making the choice that this bench is better than keeping a bright spot on last year’s bench, Lane Adams. They let a winter and spring full of bargains pass them by, opting instead for Chris Stewart and Peter Moylan. The Nationals will be the class of the NL East, but there’s more. The Phillies will be better. The Mets will be better.
Atlanta should be better, too. Having a full season of Albies, nearly a full season of Acuna Jr., and the cancelation of “Matt Kemp: The Leftfielder” will do that for ya. But they could have been better – even a bit better. At most, their latest moves are lateral. At worst, they make the team a bit worse. And that, for fans and for the hard-working members of this team, sucks. Was signing Bourjos and Flaherty a mistake? Hard to really say that. They are bench players who will likely receive less than 400 PA between the two of them. But it didn’t make the team better and that’s why it felt so unnecessary.
Hopefully – with any luck – I’m wrong. Fortunately for you, the reader, I often am.
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