Atlanta’s Corner Outfield Conundrum
The 2017 season has been rough at the MLB level for the Atlanta Braves. Despite climbing all the way to .500 in mid-July, the Braves had a disastrous late summer that killed off all hope of a surprise playoff berth. As disappointing as this was to fans, the reality is that the 2017 Braves were not built to compete in the first place (though the front office would never admit this). The roster was full of veterans on short term deals (R.A. Dickey, Jaime Garcia, Brandon Phillips) and young players the team hopes to build around for the future (Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte, etc). While the results in the W/L column have not been ideal, there is reason for hope. Looking ahead to the potential everyday lineup next season, Inciarte, Swanson, Ozzie Albies, and Freddie Freeman form a core of players all 28 years old and younger who are cheap (yes, Freeman is very cheap relative to his MVP-level production) and will be with the Braves for years to come. Tyler Flowers, despite originally being signed as a veteran to bridge the gap to younger players, has emerged as a catching star in his own right and will be with the team again in 2018. Third base is still a bit of a question mark, but the Braves have the option of going with a potentially strong platoon of Johan Camargo and Rio Ruiz. Finally, the Braves also have the Minor League Player of the Year and top three prospect Ronald Acuna ready to provide an upgrade to the outfield.
There’s only one problem: Acuna is currently being blocked by Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis. I will preface what I’m about to say by stating that Markakis is, by all accounts, beloved by teammates and coaches and that Kemp is a likeable player whose career was unfortunately derailed by injuries. I have nothing against these two players, personally. I root for them every game. However, when it comes to on-field production, they represent two glaring (and expensive) weak spots in the lineup heading into 2018. Markakis simply does not hit for enough average to justify the lack of power and defense from a right fielder. He never was a big power hitter, but since having neck surgery just before signing a four year deal with the Braves ahead of 2015, he has become arguably the lightest-hitting right fielder in the game. Right field is full of mashers like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Bryce Harper. While Markakis has an ok wRC+ of 99 (wRC+ is adjusted so that 100 represents an average MLB hitter), he only ranks 19th out of 24 qualifying right fielders. It looks even worse if we only look at his isolated power numbers, where he is second to last. These mediocre to sub-par offensive numbers would be acceptable if he played spectacular defense. Unfortunately, he also ranks in the bottom five among right fielders on the defensive side, too. Markakis still manages to post a strong OBP, but while that has some real value, it is mitigated by the fact that manager Brian Snitker insists on hitting Markakis fifth (or even cleanup) instead of in front of Freeman and Kemp. The Braves rank 23rd in slugging percentage among all MLB teams. Markakis is a part of that problem. By replacing Markakis with Acuna, the Braves are likely to get better production on offense and defense from right field.
Matt Kemp is the polar opposite of Markakis in terms of his hitting profile. Kemp struggles to get on base consistently but can make up for that with his power, at least in theory. Unfortunately, Kemp has been unable to to hit for enough power to be a particularly impressive offensive player. His 2017 wRC+ of 102 is very similar to Markakis except that Kemp plays even worse defense. Kemp’s defense is so bad that it completely negates his decent offensive production, making him the worst starting left fielder in baseball, per FanGraphs WAR. If Markakis and Kemp were young players with upside, this wouldn’t be so bad. Unfortunately, they are the two most expensive players on the Braves roster not named Freeman and they will both be another year past 30 next season. Spending so much money on two unproductive players with no upside is a major handicap for a team with the payroll restrictions of the Braves. It prevents the Braves from easily improving their outfield with a cheap and talented rookie like Acuna so that the team can spend money elsewhere. It makes it harder for the Braves to take on salary in the event of a blockbuster trade that sends out some of Atlanta’s bevy of prospects for a front line starter.
So what are the Braves to do? Here are the three most likely paths I see the Braves taking.
Option 1: Give Acuna another half-year to year of seasoning and roll with Markakis and Kemp to start 2018. Acuna has only played just over one and a half seasons as a full professional (his 2016 season was interrupted by a thumb injury). The Braves could decide he could use a little more time to develop. This would be the easiest solution, but it does absolutely nothing to improve the MLB roster. I just don’t see how the front office can claim that the MLB club is somehow better off without Acuna in right field. The Braves have been aggressive with promoting their top prospects (see: Swanson, Albies, Newcomb, Minter, Gohara). Acuna has outperformed all of them (which is saying something). It would be odd for the front office to suddenly slam on the breaks and hold him in AAA after he obliterated minor league competition all year long. However, if the Braves don’t make any big offseason moves that would make 2018 an obvious year to do everything possible to win a playoff spot, I might be able to squint hard enough to see how this makes sense (nope, never mind, I would hate this).
Option 2: Keep Markakis and Kemp as a platoon in left field and play Acuna in right. This option is, for my money, the best way for the Braves to get the most production out of the outfield next season if they are unable to trade one or both of Markakis and Kemp. While Kemp has had reverse platoon splits so far in limited at bats in 2017 (injuries have limited him to only 94 plate appearances against lefties), he has a very good career wRC+ of 146 against lefties and, as recently as 2016, posted a wRC+ of 144. Markakis does not have pronounced lefty/righty splits, although he has been slightly better against righties throughout his career. This arrangement would have the added advantage of giving the oft-injured Kemp lots of rest (most opposing pitchers will be righties) and would also strengthen the bench, as either Markakis or Kemp would be available to pinch hit on the days they aren’t starting. Practically, however, I don’t see this as a strong possibility. It is unlikely that Markakis and Kemp would be interested in accepting a part-time role, especially as they near the end of their current contracts and want to showcase themselves as everyday players to secure another contract in free agency. It would also be an incredibly expensive platoon. Finally, assuming Brian Snitker returns to manage the Braves, there is no way that he takes Markakis out of the everyday lineup, as he has consistently penciled a healthy Markakis into the 4th or 5th spot of the lineup despite his lack of power. Which leaves us with . . .
Option 3: Trade either Markakis or Kemp and play Acuna in right. I’m going to go ahead and assume that the Braves ownership has no interested in eating a large portion of both Markakis and Kemp’s salary. Neither of the two veterans have much trade value. Kemp is owed a ton of money (although about a third of it is being paid by the Dodgers) for the next two years. Markakis is owed a more reasonable $11 Million for next season, but that is still substantially more than his play is worth. If the Braves do find a taker for either player, they will likely have to eat a lot of money to make a trade happen. Throughout this season, the Braves have made a few minor trades which have looked like little more than salary dumps. Garcia was traded away for a low minors lottery-ticket. The Braves also saved a little by shedding what was left of Phillips’ contract. Hopefully, these moves will put the Braves into a better financial so they can move on from Kemp or Markakis. If I had to choose between the two, I would probably prefer to trade Kemp. Kemp’s injury history makes it likely he will miss substantial time in 2018. In addition, his defense is truly atrocious, which is bad news for a team that has made pitching the foundation of its rebuild. Perhaps an American League team will believe that they can keep Kemp healthy as a designated hitter. Markakis won’t be good, but he will be consistent and post a wRC+ somewhere between 95 and 100 with below average but not quite terrible defense, especially if he is moved to left field. Markakis also seems to score high in the hard-to-evaluate “intangibles” category, as he is revered in the clubhouse. Also, 2018 will be the last year of Markakis’ contract so the Braves will be able to make an upgrade in the outfield for 2019. Unfortunately, the size of Kemp’s contract combined with the extra year probably makes it harder to move him than Markakis.
Which option would I choose? To be honest, none of these options are great. But if forced to choose, I would pick option 3 and find some way to trade Kemp. I like Kemp’s power potential in the lineup, but there is no way he stays healthy for all of next season, and his defense seems to be getting worse as the year progresses. Meanwhile, Markakis has shown consistent ability to post good OBP numbers. I still don’t like the idea of seeing Markakis and his single-digit home run total penciled into the fourth and fifth spot of Snitker’s lineup for another season, but hopefully the addition of Acuna, a full season of Albies, improvement from Swanson, and a potentially productive 3B platoon of Ruiz and Camargo will make up for it.
Ideally, the team would find a way to move on from both veterans without having to eat the entirety of their contracts. Even a little bit of salary relief would be welcome, as it would allow the Braves to upgrade other parts of the roster. While the Braves farm system doesn’t have anyone other than Acuna who looks ready to step into an everyday outfield role, the Braves do have some options that I wouldn’t mind seeing, including bringing back the late-blooming Lane Adams, who has put up very solid minor league numbers over the past few seasons and has looked very good in limited opportunities with Atlanta. I would not be surprised if his combination of speed, defense, and improved hitting make him more valuable than either Kemp or Markakis. However, realistically, the Braves are probably stuck with another year of expensive, sub-par production from at least one of their current corner outfielders.