Barring setbacks, the trio of Ronald Acuña, Jr., Johan Camargo, and Luiz Gohara should all be playing together in Atlanta by the middle of May. Camargo was activated Wednesday, which means the plan is already in motion.
As it often happens in rebuilds, the spark generated by these types of young, dynamic players is what keeps the games watchable, and also buoys the team, both statistically and mentally. For a team that is already outperforming expectations, adding three exciting players to the roster will send the excitement level through the roof, and the amount of swagger on the 25-man roster will be at its highest level in years. But swagger, like veteran presence and grit, is an intangible - what about the production?
Most of us would have never believed this when Preston Tucker, Ryan Flaherty, and Anibal Sanchez were added to the team, but maintaining the baseline of production they have established is necessary to keep this team’s momentum rolling.
Tucker’s offseason acquisition raised some eyebrows, as his time with the Astros indicated he wouldn’t do much more than hit home runs. Besides, everybody knew he was just keeping Acuña Jr.’s seat warm. Upon Flaherty’s signing at the end of Spring Training, nobody expected a career .215 hitter to do much worthwhile, let alone be fourth on the team in fWAR. He was never supposed to be a threat to Camargo’s job. When Sanchez’s signing was announced, it almost seemed a foregone conclusion he would have minimal impact, if any. His injury throws a wrench into the rotation plans moving forward, but his first several weeks as a Brave were unexpected, to say the least.
Here we are 17 games into 2018, and each has eclipsed their anticipated level of performance. Nobody is insinuating their levels of production would sustain through the end of the season, but each has made a case to stick around in some capacity after their jobs are handed off to the approaching youth.
The respective ceilings of Acuña Jr., Camargo, and Gohara are all appreciably higher than their current placeholders. But will they outpace what their counterparts have done thus far this season?
Tucker / Acuña Jr.
If we’re going by tools alone, Acuña Jr. is obviously the superior player. Not just superior to Tucker, but to nearly everyone. Let’s say Acuña Jr. shows up and hits .120 with no home runs in his first month. With his amount of tools and athletic ability, he can still impact games with his speed, defense, and rocket arm while his power and hit tools acclimate to the big leagues, if such an adjustment period is needed.
Even with his numbers starting to abate, Tucker’s impact on the lineup in the early portion of the season cannot be denied. He leads the team in RBI with 13 (though RBI is a team-oriented stat of convenience, it still matters), and his proclivity for home runs has answered questions about power in the Braves’ lineup. Luckily for Atlanta, Acuña Jr. can supply just as much power as Tucker, if not more.
Prior to the season, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS system projected Acuña Jr. to post a .269/.321/.452 line with 21 HR and 73 RBI, to go along with 24 doubles and six triples. Not bad for someone who can’t legally drink yet.
Acuña Jr.’s arrival will be an immediate upgrade on defense, even though Tucker has thus far avoided any Matt Kemp-esque catastrophes in left. Opposing third base coaches may hesitate to send runners to/from third, knowing Acuña Jr. has a cannon at his disposal. He also offers increased range and speed.
Speaking of his speed, his presence on the basepaths is sure to give pitchers fits. ZiPS projected 33 steals and an unsightly 18 caught stealing for Acuña Jr., and while that success rate is not quite where we might want it, his overall impact offers another unquantifiable intangible - the element of distraction. Pitchers know they’ll have to keep a close eye on him. Fielders know he’ll be running full-sprint to go first to third on singles. Tucker’s been a great story so far, but the opposition can safely assume he’s not a threat to steal. Ever.
Acuña Jr.’s arrival will also lengthen the bench. Tucker will become a much-needed power bat in reserve, and speedy Peter Bourjos can be used as a pinch-runner instead of a mid-game defensive substitution for Tucker. If he learns to slide properly, the possibilities are endless.
Whether Snitker is deft at using these extra bullets remains to be seen, but at least he’ll have better quality ammunition.
Flaherty / Camargo
As noted above, Camargo was activated prior to Wednesday’s game. While it’s possible he was healthy enough to return before then, Flaherty’s been riding the hot hand for three weeks now. This granted the front office time to allow Camargo to fully recover, and not suffer a lack of production in the meantime.
Just when you think Flaherty’s cooling off, he has a game like he did last night - 2 for 4, with four runs driven in, three of which came on his first HR of the season.
One of the biggest reasons for Flaherty’s success has been preposterous luck on balls on play - he is currently sporting a .450 BABIP, good for third in the league. As this number normalizes, so too will his level of production. (For what it’s worth, I generally frown upon the “bound for regression” narrative but a .450 BABIP is nearly impossible to sustain.)
Ironically, one of the biggest stories of Camargo’s success in 2017 was also related to BABIP. While his overall .364 BABIP was not completely outrageous, he posted an eye-popping .481 BABIP against lefties. Much like Flaherty, as this number comes down to Earth, we will see how much of Camargo’s 2017 success was legit, and how much was luck-based.Granted, BABIP in a vacuum doesn’t tell the whole story, as it should be evaluated in tandem with other stats like exit velocity, launch angle and line-drive rates, but it is a worthwhile stat when considering a player’s output.
It will be intriguing to see if any of Camargo’s 2017 was an anomaly, and how he will respond if it was. ZiPS doesn’t paint an optimistic picture of his 2018 (over a full season - .248/.288/.374, 23 doubles, 5 triples, 7 HR, and 70 wRC+), but this particular projection system tends to be conservative. Plus, his emergence as a legitimate player has been completely unexpected all along, so I would buy the over on those numbers.
If he can boost his walk rate (which sat at a paltry 4.7% last year), he will be able to regain some of the on-base percentage points a lower BABIP would cause.
One thing is for sure, Camargo will certainly bring an injection of power to the hot corner, and his cannon arm will be an upgrade over Flaherty’s. Flaherty’s eventual relegation to the bench will also give Snitker an upgrade over Charlie Culberson’s meek hitting.
His return also allows Snitker to toy with a lineup a bit. Camargo’s positional versatility will allow the occasional day off for Flaherty, Dansby Swanson, or Ozzie Albies, without sacrificing any of the associated production.
Sanchez / Gohara
Prior to his hamstring injury Wednesday, Sanchez was one of the most pleasant surprises of the Braves’ season. Through two starts and a long-relief appearance, he had pitched to a 1.29 ERA (3.49 FIP / 3.75 xFIP), averaged a strikeout per inning, and only allowed one HR while keeping potent Nationals, Rockies, and Cubs lineups in check. His incorporation of varying speeds and general pitchability showed flashes of the Sanchez who posted five consecutive 3+ fWAR seasons from 2010-2014, including 6 fWAR in 2013.
He may have been unlikely to sustain that level of success through the end of this season, but in the wake of his freak injury, Gohara cannot get back soon enough.
The Brazilian southpaw with a righteous fastball and swear-worthy slider dominated hitters across multiple levels in 2017, and had his first rehab start this past Tuesday. ZiPS loves Gohara to the tune of a 2.7 zWAR (over a ull season) - the highest on the staff - with a 3.71 ERA and 24% K-rate. If he can pick up where Sanchez left off, the transition could be close to seamless, as a healthy Gohara is a better option than even an overperforming Sanchez. In the meantime, we can just hope whatever placeholder keeps Gohara’s seat warm - Matt Wisler, Lucas Sims, or whomever it might be - doesn’t completely skew the positive numbers from the fifth starter role.
A running theme of this Braves season has been a team that is greater than the sum of its parts, and increasing the quality of these parts should do nothing but yield positive results. Even if the win-loss record stays more or less consistent, an already enjoyable team will be even more satisfying. A .500ish team that adds the triumvirate of Acuña Jr., Camargo, and Gohara has the potential to be a Goliath in the making.