In theory, baseball is back! In terms of what can be controlled, the players and owners have reached the necessary agreements to proceed after many months of harmonious and joyful negotiations (sarcasm drum bangs, LOUDLY!!!). However, in terms of what cannot be controlled, the consistent threat of COVID-19 will be a relevant reality, and one that can change in the blink of an eye.
Though the path to this point has been treacherous and the season could be derailed at any time, there are a few potential positives that have emerged, for both now and the future. One of these positives is the inclusion of a subject that has been debated for years, but now finally is part of the game: the Universal DH. Whether or not you feel this new wrinkle in strategy and lineup construction is good or not, it’s hard to deny that its addition certainly solves many roster conundrums across the league. Furthermore, for teams such as the the Braves that have considerable depth, it could be a difference making advantage as the 2020 season progresses.
Obviously, there are plenty of directions the Braves can go with the DH, as they have many talents to feature. One logical avenue they could take that could boost them both offensively and defensively is prioritizing platoons, specifically in the outfield. It seems both Ronald Acuna Jr. and Marcell Ozuna will be everyday cogs in the lineup. However, the Braves can utilize different duos to fill the other outfield spot and the DH position.
One option could be playing to the offensive platoon strengths of several of their players. For instance, against righties, the Braves could start Ender Inciarte in center and Nick Makakis at DH. Against lefties, Atlanta could feature Austin Riley and Adam Duvall. In both scenarios, regardless of the arm of the opposing pitcher, Atlanta can add an above average to elite defender to its outfield to boost its defense, and add another obvious offensive threat via the DH to its offense.
In the case of all four of the aforementioned players, they have a bit more in common besides being potential chess pieces for Atlanta. Over the past year or two, Inciarte, Duvall, Riley, and Markakis have arguably had more questions than answers arise regarding their futures. As a result, the arrival of the Universal DH could be the needed opportunity for each of these players to add value to their careers by creating a brighter outlook for their futures.
Here is how each player can accomplish that goal:
Injuries and ineffectiveness have prevented Inciarte from taking the next step in his career after an All-Star campaign in 2017. Though he has still provided positive value, his role with the Braves has certainly become more uncertain as time has gone on. Of any Braves regular with 500 at-bats since the start of 2018, Inciarte is last in OPS, and second to last in wOBA and wRC+. Though Dansby Swanson may have lower overall production numbers, he actually has taken a step forward offensively, while Inciarte has basically stalled.
As a result, it may seem odd that the introduction of the Universal DH would benefit Inciarte. Yet, due to being able to feature other options with higher offensive ceilings, the Braves can play Inciarte and take advantage of the one aspect of his game that arguably remains elite: his defense. Against right-handers, the Braves can start Inciarte and bat him ninth. This allows for Atlanta to have a second experienced lead-off hitter get his at-bats right before their best hitters step to the plate, further enhancing the production of the most dangerous part of the Braves’ lineup.
Featuring Inciarte against right-handers at this point in his career also allows for all of his offensive strengths to be fully featured. He has a .751 career OPS against right handers. Inciarte also has been a far better second half hitter (.801 OPS) than first half hitter over his career, and has produced a career .837 OPS in the month of August. It seems this season is setting up quite well as an opportunity for him to benefit both his career and the Braves. If he can take advantage of it, he can certainly emerge as a valuable starter for the foreseeable future in center field.
When the Braves acquired Adam Duvall at the 2018 trade deadline, many felt that it was done in order to form a creative platoon with Inciarte. Unfortunately, that plan was put on hold, as Duvall (.344 OPS, .163 wOBA, and -6 wRC+) was simply dreadful the rest of the season. Though Atlanta still had control over Duvall for three more seasons, many speculated whether or not he would be non-tendered. Eventually, the Braves decided to tender him a contract.
On the surface, the fact that Duvall did not make his season debut in the majors until July 27th of last year may seem less than inspiring. However, that was due more to the Braves roster needs than a lack of production from Duvall. He was one of the more productive Triple-A hitters during the 2019 season, and that offensive assault continued once he arrived in Atlanta. In 130 plate appearances, Duvall displayed his improvements at the plate (.882 OPS, .360 wOBA, 121 wRC+). Furthermore, he punished southpaws and continued to show above-average ability on defense.
As a result, Duvall enters 2020 as one of the more versatile position options on the Braves roster. He likely will start in the outfield against left-handers, and can DH or enter the game as an offensive or defensive replacement when he is not starting. If Duvall can once again have a good offensive year, especially against left-handers, his career will get a needed boost after a less than ideal start to his Braves career.
If the National League permanently adopts the DH, Duvall could become a valuable commodity. He can be a useful offensive piece, either off the bench or in a platoon, and also can offer any roster versatility as he actually adds value in the field as well. Though Duvall’s future may not be as bright as many once considered it to be, he has a great opportunity to benefit his present and future with a productive campaign in Atlanta.
While the other DH options mentioned here for the Braves likely have several years left in their baseball careers beyond 2020, the same may not be the case for Nick Markakis. Though he remains productive at the age of 36, Markakis naturally has seen some decline in his overall production.
Though Markakis maintained a pretty consistent offensive profile overall in 2019, his declining defensive results and significant drop-off in production against southpaws (.765 OPS in 2018, .653 OPS in 2019) indicates that his ideal role in 2020 would be as platoon option against right-handed pitching. He has continued to show above average production against right-handers over the past two years (.828 OPS in 398 PA in 2018, .816 OPS in 316 PA in 2019), and remains among the league’s best at making contact and plate discipline.
As a result, Markakis has a good chance of adding value against right-handers in the DH role. He remains one of the Braves best options against right-handers, and can focus solely on hitting with Inciarte playing the outfield with Acuna Jr. and Ozuna. A successful campaign from Markakis certainly could help extend his career as a potential platoon option and role player. Though ideally Markakis’s days as a full-time starter are behind him, he can still be a positive source of value for the Braves if utilized correctly.
As anyone should reasonably expect, Austin Riley experienced ups and downs during his rookie season in the majors. However, the extremes at which his ups and downs occurred (First Half .873 OPS, Second Half .486 OPS), and the order in which they happened, created a bit of uncertainty as to what role Riley has in Atlanta in the present and near future. Without a doubt, Riley remains a highly regarded talent with premium potential; however, there are clear and significant adjustments that must be made for him to become a trusted starter.
Fortunately, another benefit of the Universal DH is that it allows the Braves to have more control on finding the right situations to feature Riley’s strengths. Mainly, with a .984 OPS against left-handers and combined with Adam Duvall, Riley could be a significant reason for the Braves becoming one of the most productive offenses against southpaws in 2020. Furthermore, Riley also has shown good potential to add value defensively at third base, which allows the Braves to have more versatility with him and Johan Camargo.
Ideally, over any aforementioned scenario, whether at third or at DH, the Braves would love for Riley to seize the opportunity and become a reliable everyday option. However, they now have the ability to comfortably utilize him at the major league level, and put him in positions to succeed. Though his performance in 2020 should not result in a major change in the overall opinion of his future as a Brave, a noticeable improvement in his offensive approach, especially against right-handers when he has opportunities, could be a significant upgrade to the Braves offense both in the present and future.
As can be seen, the Braves have several different ways they can effectively utilize the DH position to their advantage in 2020. Furthermore, plenty of their options have individual motivation to be productive and successful as the season progresses. Though Atlanta will likely feature many different lineups and defensive alignments, their depth can become a clear asset to help get them to the playoffs for a third straight season. Along the way, they hopefully will see several players they need for the future return to form as reliable options to feature.