Far and away the biggest question for the Braves this off-season is Freddie Freeman. Getting the first-base situation solved is priority one for Alex Anthopolous. But after that, you could argue the second biggest question for the Braves this off-season is the outfield. With Ronald Acuna Jr coming off a serious knee injury, Marcell Ozone coming off a lost season with a domestic violence charge, the trio of Jorge Soler, Eddie Rosario, and Joc Pederson all being free agents, and Cristian Pache and Drew Waters both coming off disappointing seasons, the outfield currently has more questions than answers. With that, it’s natural to wonder if Atlanta should consider adding a guy like Michael Conforto this winter.
Conforto’s talent has never been a question. After being a star player at Oregon St. for 3 years and finishing his college career with an OPS over 1.000, Conforto was considered one of the very best college bats in his draft class. Unsurprisingly, the Mets made him a top 10 pick when they selected him 10th overall in the 2014 MLB Draft. He would spend the rest of 2014 destroying low-A ball with a 153 wRC+ in 142 plate appearances and to start the 2015 season, the Mets bumped him up to high-A. Again, Conforto showed his talent posting a 141 wRC+ in 206 plate appearances and was clearly on the fast track to the majors. Just a couple months into the season, he was again promoted, this time to AA, and in 45 games, Conforto posted a 160 wRC+. It was obvious at this point the Mets had one of the very best prospects in all of baseball.
On July 24th of 2015, just over a year after being drafted, the Mets called Conforto up to the majors, ironically, the same day they made a trade with the Braves for Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe. He instantly became one of their best hitters and finished the 2015 season with a 133 wRC+ in 56 games, while also helping the Mets make it to the World Series.
Since then, I think it’s fair to describe Conforto’s career as up and down. Injuries have been the main culprit, as Conforto has only reached 130 games played twice in his career, which is obviously a red flag. But when he’s been healthy, he’s produced for the most part. In 5 of his 7 seasons in the majors, Conforto has posted a wRC+ over 119. His career mark of 124 means, even in a corner outfield spot, you’re getting plenty of offensive production to justify his starts. Conforto also gets on-base. With all the new advanced metrics we have, sometimes good old-fashioned OBP is as important as anything. For his career, Conforto has a .356 OBP, almost 40 points above league average. Even in a down year last year, he still posted a .344 OBP with a 12% walk rate. This is the part where Brad Pitt throws a magnetic name tag with “Conforto” written on it onto a white board, points to Jonah Hill and says “What does he do?” He gets on base.
Conforto’s defense is where things get a little less clear. If you believe Outs Above Average, which is the Baseball Savant/Statcast defensive metric, Conforto has spent the majority of his career being an above average defensive outfielder with a +12 in his career. Last year, he was in the 63rd percentile in OAA among right fielders, while ranking in the 89th and 88th percentile in the two full seasons before that. So, at the very least solid, if not just outright good. If you judge by Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) or Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) however, both of those say he’s spent most of career being a slightly below average defensive outfielder. Defensive metrics still require a grain of salt and when the three main metrics tell us conflicting stories, it’s usually best to stay somewhere in between as that’s normally where the truth is going to be. We’re probably safest calling Conforto an average defensive outfielder and leaving it a that.
There is some concern with Conforto’s mediocre 2021 and whether it was just a blip on the radar, or cause for some real concern. A deeper look into the numbers show it’s almost certainly closer to the former than the latter. Conforto did post the second lowest wOBA of his career last year at .322 but it’s important to note that came with the second lowest BABIP of his career at .274 and much more respectable .350 xwOBA. His .232 batting average and .384 slugging percentage both look rather weak by themselves but his .253 xBA and his .435 xSLG show fortune was not on his side last year. His batted ball profile should've gotten him more production than it did in 2021, and with no substantial changes in the profile itself, I would expect his results to mirror that in 2022 and beyond. The Steamer projection system also agrees with that assessment, as it sees Confront returning to a 121 wRC+ and .350 wOBA next year. If I’m a team signing him, as long as he’s healthy, I’m not that concerned with the last season’s average offensive showing. The numbers behind the numbers still look good, and those are more closely correlated with what’s actually happening.
As for where he would fit with the Braves, it’s a little bit of a tough question to answer. The uncertainty around Marcell Ozuna’s future in Atlanta, along with the serious knee injury to Ronald Acuna Jr and the strong likelihood of the DH coming to the NL all factor into the equation of where Conforto could potentially fit. Just one iteration could be Ozuna at DH with Confront, Acuna and Duvall making up the outfield. Who plays centerfield in that alignment is an obvious question but all three of those guys have done it before and Duvall and Acuna have done it quite well. It’s probably not an ideal defensive setup but the offensive upside probably outweighs the liability. And that’s just one possibility. There are others. The point is just keep adding good players and figure out the rest later.
The Freddie Freeman situation also plays a roll in this, as it does everything else this off-season. With Freeman currently a free agent, here's the full list a left-handed hitting position players on the Braves 40-man roster:
Yeah, there's none. Albies is obviously a switch hitter but even he is substantially better as a right-handed hitter. If the Braves lose Freeman, they will have almost an entire right-hand hitting lineup while playing in a ball park that gives left-handers much more of an advantage with the RF short porch. Even with Freeman, the Braves could use more LH thump in their lineup and without Freeman, it becomes an outright necessity. On top of Michael Conforto being a good fit for Truist Park, he could be a great fit for a Braves lineup so loaded with RH hitters.
As for what it will cost, there are plenty who believe Conforto may be willing to take a one year show-me deal after his disappointing 2021 season. He could rebound his numbers, completely shed the qualifying offer and re-enter the free agent market after the 2022 season with a much better chance of getting the long-term contract all players hope to get. If that’s the case, Braves fans know Alex Anthopolous will be all over it. Alex lays in bed at night dreaming of these one year deals, and for a guy as talented as Conforto, this time would be no different. If that did happen, it would almost certainly be in the range of a 1-year/$20M deal, as have so many of Anthopolous’ one year deals. There is of course a chance teams will offer a multi-year deal now. And if that does happen, it decreases the chances the Braves end up signing him, though it doesn’t completely remove them from contention. Especially if the average annual value isn’t what he’s looking for. When Tim Dierkes, owner of MLBTradeRumors, wrote is annual Top 50 free agent article, he predicted Conforto would go to the Braves on a 1-year/$20M deal, for whatever it’s worth.
I’ve always like Conforto, as much as you can like someone who plays for the Mets. The Braves need more LH power in their lineup, they probably need another outfielder, there’s a chance he takes a one year deal, and the guy is extremely talented. I’d be perfectly fine if he was wearing a Braves uniform next year. But what do you think?