It took nearly the entire offseason, but the outfield picture for the Atlanta Braves has largely taken shape. Ronald Acuña Jr. was the only certainty when the offseason began. Atlanta locked up Marcell Ozuna on a long-term deal and he will be returning to left field, provided there isn’t a last minute decision to return the universal designated hitter to the National League. The only real question mark remaining is who will be in center field, as a competition between Ender Inciarte and Cristian Pache is set for Spring Training.
Anytime you are discussing an outfield situation, having Ronald Acuña Jr. is a great place to start. Acuña took another large step forward at the plate despite missing a chunk of time while dealing with a sore wrist. The biggest development for Acuña at the plate was his improved patience. His walk rate climbed to 18.8 percent in 2020 and his OBP jumped to .406, both of which were both career highs. He also set career marks in ISO (.331), SLG (.581), wOBA (.413) and wRC+ (158) despite a career low BABIP of .302. Acuña made contact less frequently than in his prior two seasons, but when he did, it went a long way, as he posted elite rates of basically every batted ball metric. If he can carry those on-base and thump trends over to a full season then another 30-30 homer season seems likely, with 40-40 a real possibility. The sky’s the limit for the kid.
As of this writing, we are assuming that Acuña will be in right field, but he could still see some time in center. Brian Snitker said Wednesday that Acuña would get some time there this spring and he gives the Braves some flexibility in how they might align their outfield should an injury occur.
Atlanta plugged what would have been a huge hole in the lineup with the return of Ozuna, who parlayed a one-year deal last season into a multi-year pact this offseason. Ozuna turned in one of the best offensive seasons of his career with the Braves, posting a .444 wOBA and a 179 wRC+. He led the NL in homers with 18 and if not for Freddie Freeman, would have likely seen more MVP support.
Defensively, Ozuna has a number of question marks, most notably with his arm. Reports early in the offseason suggested that the Braves were lukewarm to the idea of bringing Ozuna back without the DH, but in the end, they will live with his defense for 2021 with the designated hitter likely to return as part of the next collective bargaining agreement.
The final spot in the Braves’ outfield looks like a competition, but it may turn out to not be one at all. Ender Inciarte struggled mightily in 2020 and was left off the postseason roster completely. Atlanta reportedly had interest in moving him this offseason but his $8.7 million price tag, along with a $1 million buyout for next season wasn’t very enticing to potential takers.
Cristian Pache saw just four plate appearances during the regular season in 2020 and was only called up due to a lack of outfield depth on the 40-man roster while the team was dealing with some injuries. Pache turned heads at the alternate site enough that he was included on the team’s postseason roster. He was pressed into service in the NLCS after Adam Duvall suffered an oblique injury and started the final six games of the series in center while going 4-for-22 at the plate with a double and his first homer at the big league level.
Given the raves across the board from scouts and evaluators, Pache’s defensive aptitude seems as likely as anyone’s. The only question is whether Atlanta is ready to give him the job on Opening Day without giving him the opportunity to log some more at-bats at Triple-A. His performance during Spring Training could go a long way in helping the Braves make that decision.
If Pache does win the job outright, Inciarte would become an expensive fourth outfielder whose role would likely be that of a late-inning defensive replacement for Ozuna. He needs to show that he is healthy again and that there is something left offensively, or his spot on the roster might be tenuous at best.
The Braves have spent the first week of camp trying to fill out their bench and add some depth. They made a couple of roster moves this week, claiming outfielders Phillip Ervin and Guillermo Heredia off of waivers from the Cubs and Mets, respectively. Those two, along with Abraham Almonte, are the remaining outfielders on the 40-man roster, although Almonte is operating under a non-guaranteed contract. Heredia has seen time at all three outfield positions and has a minor league option remaining, which could give Atlanta some flexibility. Ervin struggled in limited action in 2020 but has hit left-handed pitchers well to the tune of a .277/.352/.459 line with a 113 wRC+ in his career. However, his xwOBA against southpaws isn’t particularly impressive, so he may look the part of a platoon bat moreso than his inputs suggest. None of Almonte, Ervin, or Heredia necessarily project to do much, and it’s not clear whether the Braves saw something of interest in any of them or whether they’re just giving themselves as many chances to catch some kind of lightning in a bottle as possible.
Drew Waters is the highest-profile non-roster invitee at camp. He will begin the season at Gwinnett but could potentially force his way into the picture with a good season. 2019 third round pick Michael Harris is also in camp and is beginning to get some prospect buzz after turning heads while working at the alternate site in 2020.