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Starting Nine: Who’s under the most pressure at Braves camp?

In battling it out for the starting job in center, Cristian Pache and Ender Inciarte headline the Braves feeling the heat in spring training

MLB: Atlanta Braves-Workouts
Ender Inciarte (right) has been a mentor to Cristian Pache, who is in position to take over the three-time Gold Glove winner’s job in center field.
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

In camp for the fourth straight year, Cristian Pache says he isn’t treating this spring training any differently than the last three.

“I think for me I look at every spring training an an opportunity to come in and grow and develop and I think that’s how I’m approaching this spring training as well,” Pache said Wednesday. “I think that’s kind of every opportunity you have to work with a team. You have to come in every day with a willingness to learn and grow. That’s how I’m primarily looking at this spring training, just like I have all the other ones.”

It’s a nice mindset to have, but in reality, it couldn’t be more different. The organization’s top-ranked prospect and the 12th overall per MLB Pipeline, the 22-year-old Pache is fighting with three-time Gold Glove winner Ender Inciarte for the starting center field job.

It makes for a touchy subject, as Inciarte has served as a mentor to Pache since his first trip to spring training 2018. “He’s always been offering advice, willing to help me, willing to answer questions. It’s been kind of a great relationship in the sense where he’s an awesome human being, he’s a terrific athlete. ... To me I take price and I truly enjoy being able to take the field and train together.” But Inciarte’s declining play, both at the plate and in the field, and the promise Pache brings with his glove and developing offense have opened the door, with manager Brian Snitker lauding Pache’s development over the last year the plate in the growth he’s seen out of him.

“Just how his setup and his swing are more consistent and working better than where they were a year ago is probably the biggest thing, Snitker said. “He’s cleaned things up offensively.”

The duo of Inciarte and Pache are arguably under more pressure than any players in camp, but thy aren’t alone in feeling the heat in North Port. This week’s Starting Nine runs through those Braves, ranking them based on the pressure they’re facing this spring.

1. Ender Inciarte

Here’s the reality for Inciarte: last season was bad — as the slash line (.190/.262/.250), wOBA (.233), wRC+ (40) and fWAR (minus-0.6) attest — and his heir apparent is breathing down his neck to take the starting job. We are now two seasons removed from Inciarte being a 2.9 fWAR player, and whether or not the Braves tried to move him this winter, he’s still here. That that leaves this spring with a simple question as to whether can he still be an everyday player on this roster? He’s due $8 million this season, and losing the spot to Pache — and remaining a part of the Braves roster — would make him an extremely expensive backup as Inciarte is the eighth highest paid player at the position in 2021. In his defense, Inciarte was limited to 65 games in 2019 after an injury to the lumbar region in his torso and missed that postseason with a hamstring injury and couldn’t get things going in the oddity that was the 2020 season. After a reset, and seeing what Pache did in the postseason, does it light a fire for a player with a 200-hit season on his resume or are we to the point where he’s resigned to being a late-game defensive replacement? This spring will be telling.

2. Cristian Pache

As Snitker said, despite Pache’s workload in the postseason after Adam Duvall’s exit in the NL Championship Series “I love what Pache did. But it’s like you tell all those young guys, ‘You don’t have a baseball card yet.’ So you’ve got to come in and earn your way.” Despite his defensive skillset and going 4-for-22 in the playoffs with a home run and a double, we’ve yet to see Pache do it over the long haul as he has all of 29 plate appearances under his belt at the big league level. There’s an argument to be made that he start the season off at Triple-A to show further progress with the bat, making what we see out of him this spring crucial in that regard. He’s unquestionably the Braves’ future at the position, and unlike Inciarte his time has yet to really even get started. Pache could certainly leave camp with the starting job at hand, it’s an inevitability but the pressure isn’t on him quite so much as it is with Inciarte, whose time appears to be dwindling.

3. Alex Jackson

This scribe was firmly in the Team Contreras camp when it came to whether William Contreras or Alex Jackson should serve as Travis d’Arnaud’s backup at catcher ... then Snitker spoke Tuesday and, while it was always assumed that d’Arnaud would get more than the bulk of the workload, it figures to be extreme. “It’s hard to set him down when he’s hitting cleanup, and it’s hard to give him a day off,” Snitker said of his catcher and his 144 wRC+ from 2020. “That’s a big hole to fill when he doesn’t catch .. We’ll have to pick and chose and do what we can do keep him fresh, because that bat is so valuable to our team.” Since 2015, no Atlanta catcher has appeared in more than 105 games, and d’Arnaud is a given to surpass that. From that end, it may make less sense for Contreras to back up d’Arnaud and allow him to get more consistent at-bats in Gwinnett, which could make this Jackson’s job. But at this point he’s failed to deliver at the plate (going 2-for-20 over nine MLB games and hasn’t hit higher than .229 since 2017) and with Contreras and Shea Langeliers coming, this feels like a make-or-break spring and season for Jackson.

4. Kyle Wright

At this point, we don’t know for sure that Mike Soroka will be held out of the Opening Day rotation in his return form a torn Achilles tendon. If he misses any time, the Braves will be looking for a replacement in the five-man rotation, but technically the need could be deeper than that. Snitker said that, without calling it a six-man staff, that the lack of innings for starters in 2020 will mean they’ll be looking to provide their pitchers with more rest days. That means there’s one guaranteed spot or potentially two. Wright, the fifth overall pick in the 2017 draft, will be vying for starts and trying to show a level of consistency that’s been what’s most lacking from the right-hander so far. After a 5.28 ERA in eight regular-season starts he appeared to have a dose of whatever Ian Anderson was drinking with a six-inning gem against the Marlins in Game 3 of the NL Division Series, he didn’t make it out of the first inning vs. the Dodgers in the NLCS, allowing seven runs on five hits. Wright was fantastic last spring (2.65 ERA in five games), so we may not want to get too high or low with his Grapefruit League starts, but the competition for this spot figures to be fierce.

5. Bryse Wilson

Take everything from above about Wright and sub in Wilson’s name. Overall he’s had his own regular-season issues with a 5.91 ERA over 15 games with seven starts, but consider the last three times we’ve seen Wilson pitch. Between two regular-season starts against the Marlins (Sept. 22) and Red Sox (Sept. 27) and Game 4 vs. the Dodgers in the NLCS, he’s posted a 1.24 ERA over 14 innings with 14 strikeouts and yielded one home run in that span. The opportunities as a starter have been few and far between, but the last time Wilson yielded more than two runs in a start was July 16, 2019 vs. the Brewers. Wright is making his charge, Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint and Huascar Ynoa are still factors, as is new 40-man arrival Kyle Muller, but the makeup of 2021, with Soroka’s potential absence to start and needing more arms, could give Wilson an opening if he can set the stage with a strong spring.

6. Luke Jackson

The Braves have yet to muscle up the bullpen, with Mark Melancon leaving for the Padres, and while Shane Greene could still return and there are both 40-man and non-roster options, Will Smith presumably sliding into the closer role puts a further spotlight on Luke Jackson. He took a step back in 2020 — as further illustrated by the above 2019/2020 breakdowns via Statcast — with a 6.84 ERA and 4.70 xFIP after those numbers stood at 3.84 and 2.52, respectively, in ‘19 and the K/9 plummeted to 6.84 after a 13.13 in ‘19 and 10.18 in ‘18. Nonetheless, the Braves brought the right-hander back on a non-guaranteed $1.9 million deal. With the givens in this bullpen (Smith, Chris Martin, A.J. Minter, Tyler Matzek and Josh Tomlin), Jackson is competing with the likes of newly-acquired Victor Arano, Grant Dayton, Carl Edwards Jr., Newcomb, Ynoa in what could be a seven-man bullpen if the Braves figure to use six starters. Can he get the fastball — which was at a career-low 94.7 mph last season — and a trademark slider — that pitch had a minus-4.6 wSL in ‘20 following ‘19’s 12.0 — back on track? The leash may be short.

7. Carl Edwards Jr.

Among the non-roster players in camp, Edwards may be the most intriguing when it comes to the bullpen. The strikeouts have come in bunches, with no worse than a 10.06 K/9 in each of the last five seasons, including 11.57 in a mere five games for he Mariners last season and 13.0 in 2016 when he was part of the Cubs’ championship run. Walks, unfortunately have also come in bunches as he sat at a career-worse 6.88 BB/9 in 22 games in ‘19. With Smith, Minter and Matzek, the bullpen is heavy with lefties and has more vying for spots with Dayton, Newcomb, Thomas Burrows and Tucker Davidson and Snitker is high on Edwards, saying “The guys’ had success. He’s been a solid reliever over his career. ... I told (bench coach Walt Weiss) ‘That’s an interesting guy there, because he’s done it before.’”

8. The bench options

If we assume the Braves break camp with a five-man bench, four of those spots could already be claimed with the backup catcher, Pache/Inciarte — if they carry both center fielders — versatile Johan Camargo and newly-added corner infielder Jake Lamb. That leaves potentially one opening for the likes of Ehire Adrianza, Abraham Almonte, Guillermo Heredia, Philip Ervin, Jason Kipnis and Pablo Sandoval. Kipnis brings the most intrigue given his All-Star pedigree, as well as a 2020 with the Cubs in which he had 103 wRC+ (his best since 2016) with a career-high 13.3 percent walk rate in 135 plate appearances and hit 14 percent above league average against righties. As Snitker said of the 33-year-old lefty-hander: “He’a pro.”

9. Drew Waters

With Pache’s arrival, Marcell Ozuna’s return and Ronald Acuña Jr., there doesn’t appear to be a place on the big-league roster for the 22-year-old Waters out of camp (unless in a last-minute change the designated hitter returns to the NL this year). Next season that’s likely a different story with the DH expected to return and a corner outfield spot opening up, but there’s still the likelihood that Waters makes his MLB debut in 2021 and he can go a long way toward solidifying it in the spring. He had problems in Triple-A, with a 36.1 percent strikeout rate and 84 wRC+ in 119 trips to the plate in ‘19, and was among those robbed of competitive games in 2020 with the minor leagues shut down. He’s well dow on the pressure list, but knowing Waters is trending in the right direction could make Inciarte that much more expendable if he can’t win the CF job, and set the stage for Waters to vie for a starting role of his own in 2021.

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