By this time in the offseason, Braves fans have spent an unhealthy amount of time fantasizing about Bryce Harper’s luscious locks flowing out from underneath an Atlanta Braves hat or overanalyzing some grainy picture of Craig Kimbrel standing pigeon-toed in the Orlando Airport. Although some of the top free agents are still available, Spring Training (actual baseball games!) is only a few days away. So maybe rather than Googling how far each Spring Training facility is from the Orlando Airport, it’s time to start focusing on what the Braves actually do have instead of what they don’t.
What the Braves do have is a roster beaming with young talent and only 25 spots on the active roster. In fact, the Braves have so much talent that Brian Snitker’s hands will be full trying to get playing time for everyone that is deserving. So I’ve decided to take it upon myself to help Mr. Snitker – free of charge – with some suggestions. What would he do without me?
Expand positional flexibility of bench players – and use them.
“Positional flexibility” is not to be confused with Braves’ fans favorite term of the offseason “financial flexibility.” It merely means that a player can adequately field many different positions on the diamond.
The superutility player is on the rise in MLB for several reasons. As explained by The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh, more pitchers are throwing in each game, which leads to a desire for more roster spots for pitchers, which requires bench players to be able to play more positions. (As I explain below, the Braves certainly understand this desire with their depth of young majors-ready pitchers.) Additionally, Lindbergh points out that flyouts and strikeouts are up, while groundouts are down. This reduces the defensive liability that superutility players might be at positions they’re not as comfortable playing.
Charlie Culberson provided the exact kind of positional flexibility that I’m talking about in 2018. Culberson played every position except catcher and centerfield last year. That’s right – he even pitched an inning. And who can forget his contributions to the team, which included two dramatic pinch-hit walk-off homeruns? Culberson was so legendary in 2018 that it garnered him a nickname – “Charlie Clutch.”
Insert Johan Camargo. With the Braves’ acquisition of Josh Donaldson, they made clear that Camargo will also fill the superutility role in 2019. And why not? He’s an exceptional athlete that has met every challenge that has been thrown at him. He has already played second base, shortstop, and third base in the majors. What is yet to be seen is how he can play corner outfield, so keep a close eye out during Spring Training to see how Camargo fares there.
I see no reason why Camargo can’t have a season like Houston’s Marwin Gonzalez’s in 2017. That year, Gonzalez started 120 games at six different positions, accumulating 4.3 WAR over 515 PA. Interestingly, the Braves’ new Special Assistant to the GM and analytical guru, Mike Fast, was working in Houston in 2017. I would be willing to bet that Fast had a hand in how Gonzalez’s use was optimized that year and thus could benefit Camargo similarly in 2019.
The Braves should target 400-500 plate appearances for Camargo in 2019. (For reference, he had 488 in 2018 and produced 3.7 WAR.) So how can the Braves get Camargo 400+ PAs? For starters, start him every game against lefty starters. Consider this stat:
Career vs. LHP
Johan Camargo: .315/.365/.554
Other RH hitter: .313/.385/.551
Any guesses as to whom the other right-handed hitter is with a nearly identical slashline against left-handed pitching? Last year’s AL MVP, Mookie Betts.
If Camargo can adequately play leftfield, I would start him there every time against a lefty and move Acuña over to rightfield, as Markakis has a career slugging percentage of just .388 against left-handed pitching. With Camargo’s success against lefties, he would slot in nicely at cleanup.
Additionally, Josh Donaldson is 33 years old and has battled injury the past two seasons, so it would be wise to get him regular rest. Ozzie Albies admitted to Anthopoulos that fatigue contributed to his struggles at the end of 2018, so he could also use some days off. It will also be interesting to see how Dansby Swanson fares in 2019 and whether Camargo will end up stepping in for him if he struggles. Throw in an inevitable (hopefully minor) injury at some point to a position player, and you can see how Camargo can get his time in this season.
Something else to keep your eye on in Spring Training is how Austin Riley is used. He will reportedly test his skills in leftfield during Spring Training, which is a wise move. If Riley stays healthy and continues on the path he’s been on, he could provide a valuable power bat off the bench towards the end of the season. And the more positions he can play, the more opportunities he will get.
With the positional flexibility that they provide, Camargo, Culberson, and perhaps Riley stand to have a tremendous impact on the Braves’ 2019 season. As painful as the 2018 NLDS was against the Dodgers, it undoubtedly taught the Braves a valuable lesson – to go deep in the playoffs nowadays, you must have depth of talent and positional flexibility. Say what you will about the Braves’ offseason, but this seems to be a lesson that the Braves have taken seriously in preparing for 2019.
Use young pitchers in creative, expanded roles out of the bullpen.
Given the depth of young pitching talent that the Braves possess, one of the biggest surprises of the offseason is that the Braves have made zero trades to date. This leaves them with an abundance of young pitchers who are ready or nearly ready to contribute to the major league club. While some might see juggling so many prospects without hindering their growth as a problem, I see it as a tremendous opportunity.
Let’s first examine what roles are likely set, barring moves between now and Opening Day. Foltynewicz, Newcomb, Gausman, and Teheran seem to be locks for the rotation, in my opinion. And you can rest assured that, if healthy, Vizcaino, Minter, O’Day, Venters, and Sobotka will be in the bullpen. Assuming the Braves keep a 4-man bench (which is probably a safe assumption, though I’m open to three), this leaves four spots on the 25-man roster for pitchers to duel over.
Traditionally, one would think this means one more starter and three more relievers. Given the Braves depth of starting pitching prospects, one might even suggest a 6-man rotation. However, I’m going the other way.
What I propose is a 4-man rotation with a bullpen of at least three pitchers that are capable of long relief and spot-starts. Hear me out.
Teams are increasingly moving towards undefined bullpen roles. Everyone wants the next Josh Hader that can provide multiple innings of high-quality relief. Teams are moving away from the traditional setup of having a 7th-inning setup man, 8th-inning setup man, and a closer. Check out Peter Gammons’ recent piece at The Athletic for some insight on this. While I think the closer role will still hang around for some time, especially for those who have excelled in that role, the rest of the roles will be murkier going forward.
The Braves (currently!) do not have a top-tier closer on their roster. Vizcaino and Minter can handle the closer role admirably, but both battled injuries at the end of 2018 that bring into question their durability over the course of a full season. Given the abundance of pitching talent at the Braves’ disposal, it would be wise to limit Vizcaino’s and Minter’s innings to have them better prepared to pitch into October.
If the pitchers listed above all make the roster, that leaves bullpen options like Biddle, Winkler, Carle, and Sam Freeman, and young pitchers like Toussaint, Soroka, Fried, Gohara, Wright, and Wilson to battle it out for the final four roster spots. It’s an enviable position to be in, but it makes for some difficult decisions. I would love to see Soroka, Toussaint, Fried, and then a Biddle or Winkler fill those final four slots.
Granted, an acquisition of, I don’t know, Craig Kimbrel might throw this plan into disarray. However, I would explore using a 3-man bench or keeping a Biddle/Winkler off the roster before abandoning this plan if another reliever is added before Opening Day.
By keeping three young pitchers in this long relief/spot-starter role, the Braves could utilize a series of long relievers to fill in for the fifth spot in the rotation. Imagine Soroka, Toussaint, and Fried each pitching 2-3 innings on that fifth day. It would mean the opposing team only sees them once through the order and would keep teams honest in their lineup construction, much like the “opener” does. If a team stacks its lineup with lefties when Toussaint gets the “start,” then insert Fried after Toussaint makes it once through the lineup.
It would also limit their innings over the course of the season, which must be a priority for the Braves in 2019. Toussaint proved durable in 2018 by topping 165 IP between the minors and majors. However, the Braves will rightly be cautious after Soroka missed the remainder of 2018 with shoulder soreness. Likewise, Fried has already had one Tommy John surgery and has never pitched more than 120 innings in a professional season.
Additionally, using these young pitchers in situations that are more advantageous than working their way through a lineup three times as a starter could keep both their confidence and value high.
Soroka, Toussaint, and Fried proved last year that they are prepared to take the next step in their development and can help the big-league club. Unless they struggle in the majors this year or Soroka has a setback with his shoulder, it would be a disservice to those young pitchers to stash them in AAA for a significant period. Keep in mind that you will also likely have Wright, Gohara, or Wilson knocking on the door to the majors at some point this year. And if they are truly ready to contribute, why not turn a “logjam” into a strength?
I must admit that the ideas that I’ve written about here aren’t entirely novel. As mentioned, the Astros’ use of Marwin Gonzalez in 2017 should serve as an example of how to best utilize Camargo’s talent. And the 2018 Red Sox successfully employed a bullpen with three multi-inning relievers in Steven Wright, Brian Johnson, and Hector Velazquez. The Braves’ 2019 roster is perfectly set up to capitalize on these concepts.
And by the way, what do the 2017 Astros and 2018 Red Sox have in common? That’s right, Mr. Snitker, do as I say, and the Braves will be World Series Champs in 2019. It’s that easy!