Before the 2016 season began, it was widely accepted that the Braves would once again struggle through a lost season as the team’s rebuild continued. The core of the roster, Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran, remained intact, but the pieces around them were anything but imposing. One position expected to be a weakness, as it has been since the retirement of Chipper Jones, was third base.
The Braves opened the season with Adonis Garcia penciled in as both the team’s third baseman and cleanup hitter, obviously believing there was some legitimacy to the power displayed by the 31-year old in 2015. Garcia was impressive down the stretch last season, finishing with a 112 WRC+ in just under 200 at-bats, and earned the opportunity to begin the season in the Atlanta lineup.
Garcia began the season with inconsistencies on both sides of the ball, finishing the month of April with more errors (7) than extra-base hits (2). This prompted the Braves to demote Garcia to Gwinnett with the intention of making him a left fielder. After spending almost the entire month of May in the minor leagues, Garcia rejoined the big club, returning to third base and displaying more natural fielding ability at the position than he had shown at any point prior. While Garcia’s improvements defensively were certainly encouraging, he continued to struggle with the bat, posting a .228/.253/.391 line in June.
In addition to re-learning a position, Garcia returned to an Atlanta team that was now managed by Brian Snitker, who had been promoted from Gwinnett after the firing of Fredi Gonzalez. Snitker had been Garcia’s manager on multiple occasions, including during his stint in Gwinnett this season. The marked improvements by Garcia defensively may have endeared him to the Braves new manager, and his increased playing time reflected a vote of confidence. After committing seven errors in April alone, Garcia would commit just 11 in the season’s final four months.
After struggling offensively upon his return to Atlanta, the month of July was a turning point for Garcia, who batted .337/.370/.537 and led all Braves regulars with a 146 OPS+. The team would finish the month with a 10-16 record, but the hot hitting of Garcia and first baseman Freddie Freeman set the stage for an impressive two-month offensive surge.
Just before the Trade Deadline, the Braves acquired left fielder Matt Kemp in exchange for failed third baseman Hector Olivera, who was charged with assault and battery following an incident in Washington, DC. This move not only solidified the middle of the Braves order, but allowed Garcia to move into the second spot in the lineup behind Ender Inciarte. His impressive .302/.362/.403 batting line against left-handed pitching made Garcia a logical fit between the Braves’ two best hitters. The team would finish 31-25 from August through season’s end, led by an offense that averaged 5.1 runs per game in that span.
The Braves’ offensive outburst in the season’s final two months can mostly be attributed to an incredible second-half by Freddie Freeman, but the emergence of Adonis Garcia was a large part of why Freeman was able to produce such hefty RBI totals over that span. The improvements both offensively and defensively by Garcia are an encouraging sign moving forward, as the Braves look to solidify a position that has plagued them in recent years.
In addition to Garcia, the Braves debuted another third baseman this season in 22-year old Rio Ruiz, who was called up on September 17. Ruiz played the entirety of the Southern League season with Gwinnett, posting a .271/.355/.400 line despite being one of the league’s youngest players, and joined Atlanta following a Championship Series loss in Triple-A. Ruiz is one the Braves’ most highly-regarded prospects, and should figure heavily into the third base equation moving forward, whether that means a starting job in 2017 or a platoon with Garcia. Ruiz struggled mightily against left-handed pitching this season, so partnering with Garcia in a platoon could make sense for both players, especially considering that Atlanta seems to be content with their internal options as the offseason begins:
#Braves no longer looking for a starting 3B, after Adonis Garcia improvement during season— David O'Brien (@DOBrienAJC) October 3, 2016
Whether or not the Braves acquire a long-term third baseman this offseason, the future of the position will likely be determined by the ascensions of both Austin Riley and Kevin Maitan, but those two players are still years away. The likelihood of the Braves pursuing a mainstay that could potentially block the progressions of any top prospects is not good, so for now it appears that a Garcia-Ruiz tandem will be the team’s plan in the near future.