The Atlanta Braves entered the offseason with a clear need for a corner outfielder thanks to the impending free agency of incumbent Nick Markakis. They have already made a splash this offseason with the free agent additions of Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann but still have yet to address the outfield problem.
One intriguing name came off the board on Monday, when former Indians outfielder Michael Brantley agreed to a two-year deal with the Houston Astros worth a reported $32 million. Brantley carries some injury risk but was healthy in 2018 and put up big numbers. His signing appears to be the type of bargain that the Braves are said to be pursuing.
We probably won’t know how interested Atlanta actually was in Brantley. It is possible that he favored the Astros, who are a World Series contender, all along and thus took a more team-friendly deal in order to play for a potentially better team.
Still, with Brantley no longer an option, you have to wonder where the Braves will turn. There are still a few intriguing options on the free agent market, or Atlanta could opt to pursue an upgrade via trade. Before we dive into some of those options it is important to note that the team doesn’t have many internal candidates. A quick look at Atlanta’s 40-man roster shows three true outfielders in Adam Duvall, Ronald Acuña, Jr. and Ender Inciarte.
The Braves elected to tender a contract to Duvall at the non-tender deadline and he is arbitration eligible. It made sense not to cut bait on Duvall given he is a right-handed power option and a good defensive left fielder, but it may be a bit extreme to pencil him in as an everyday option given his struggles after he was acquired from the Reds. At this point, he’s more of a platoon/defensive replacement option and doesn’t profile as a solution if he’s facing right-handed pitching daily.
Some have also suggested that Charlie Culberson or Johan Camargo could get a look in the outfield. Culberson saw some time in left last season and was adequate, but doesn’t seem like something the Braves would do on a regular basis. Camargo has played exactly one inning in left field in his career and his lack of footspeed could be problematic if he were to see more time there. We may in fact end up seeing both in the outfield at some point this season but for now I am going to file these under “unappealing options.”
Atlanta’s top two outfield prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters are still a year away at best which leaves the team looking outside the organization.
Bryce Harper - I debated putting him on this list. It has been pretty clear for sometime that he isn’t an option but we will leave him here until he is signed just in case.
A.J. Pollock - It remains to be seen what Brantley’s signing means for Pollock, who was reportedly seeking something in the neighborhood of the five-year, $80 million deal that the Brewers gave Lorenzo Cain last season. Pollock’s injury history alone will probably keep him from that kind of deal, but he will likely be closer to the 3-year, $50 million deal that Andrew McCutchen got from the Phillies.
Signing Pollock would be a clear upgrade for the Braves and give them one of the best defensive outfields in baseball. MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand mentions the Braves as one of three favorites to sign Pollock, but if Atlanta was unwilling to meet the asking price on Brantley, would they really be in the running for Pollock? It seems unlikely, and Pollock also has his own injury questions to answer.
Marwin Gonzalez - We still haven’t seen anything linking the Braves to Gonzalez but that doesn’t really mean a lot. Alex Anthopoulos values versatile players and Gonzalez is perhaps the most versatile player available. He was good defensively in left field for the Astros, but offensively, he really isn’t an upgrade over a guy like Camargo. Additional versatility is definitely nice, but in the end, someone is going to need to play an outfield spot.
Nick Markakis - The longer things go the more a reunion with Markakis seems possible. I should make it clear that re-signing Markakis on a short deal wouldn’t be the worst thing given that he is coming off one of the best seasons of his career and fits nicely into Atlanta’s clubhouse. However, he wore down during the second half of the season and given his age it is worth questioning how much he has left in the tank. Still, Atlanta entered the offseason with an opportunity to upgrade themselves in the outfield. Running it back to Markakis at this point would be somewhat disappointing.
Adam Jones - Jones is another veteran that will presumably be available on a short deal. He is 33 years old and has regressed to about a league average offensive player. His days of playing a quality center field are over but could slot into left with Acuna shifting to right.
Carlos Gonzalez - Gonzalez is another veteran option that would likely be available on a short deal. His best days are now behind him but he still hit .276/.329/.467 with 16 home runs last season and was worth 1.7 fWAR. However, the Coors Field factor is in play with Gonzalez who hit .315/.360/.581 with a 118 wRC+ at home in 2018. On the road his batting line plummeted to .241/.302/.361 and an wRC+ of 79. While the transition to and from Coors Field wreaks havoc on Rockies’ home/road splits, the reality is that CarGo hasn’t been a quality contributor since 2016 and was awful in 2017.
Others in no particular order - Avisail Garcia, Jon Jay, Curtis Granderson, Carlos Gomez
David Peralta - slugged a career-high 30 home runs and was worth 3.8 fWAR for the Diamondbacks in 2018. Reports suggested that the Braves checked on Peralta’s availability and were rebuffed but that was before Arizona traded Paul Goldschmidt and began retooling its roster. Peralta is 31 but is still under team control through 2020.
Nick Castellanos - The Braves have also been rumored to have been in contact with the Tigers in regards to Castellanos who played right field full time in 2018. He would add some punch to Atlanta’s lineup having hit .298/.354/.500 with 23 home runs for Detroit last season. However, continuing to put him in the outfield would be a challenge defensively. Per FanGraphs, Castellanos put up minus-19 Defensive Runs Saved in 2018. That is Matt Kemp-level defense and Atlanta would have to be confident that improved positioning and his offensive potential would adequately offset his defensive deficiency. Castellanos is also arbitration eligible for the last time and will be a free agent at the end of the season so the price tag might not be quite so high.
Other options: The Padres and Brewers seem to have excess pieces in the outfield as do both the Yankees and the Dodgers. Perhaps there is a path to a deal with one of those teams or another one that I didn’t mention.