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Let’s talk about the Braves’ centerfield situation

The Braves have a number of outfield options but centerfield isn’t without questions.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

At some point, at least theoretically, there will be baseball played in 2022. The labor dispute that brought MLB to a halt on December 2nd will end eventually, and the 2021 World Series Champion Atlanta Braves will start playing baseball again. And whenever that happens, there’s a decent sized problem in centerfield Alex Anthopoulos and company are going to have to figure out.

Even as someone who follows this sport closer than probably 99.999% of the planet, I can confidently say I have no clue who will be manning centerfield for the world champs in 2022. And I don’t think they know either. And the more you try to figure it out, the more complicated it gets.

The best place to start whenever there’s a question like this is the internal candidates. Trades and free agent signings are almost always more unlikely than someone already in the organization filling the role. For 2022, I see four possible internal candidates to start in CF.

The logical name at the top of the list is the guy who started in CF on opening day last year. Cristian Pache is one of, if not the, top prospects in the Braves system, a pure centerfielder, and probably heads the list of guys that have the best chance to be out there whenever baseball resumes. The problem is, well frankly, he stunk last year. In 68 plate appearances in the majors last year, Pache really struggled against the high-level pitching, striking out almost 40% of the time and posting a -8 wRC+. Yes, that’s says negative eight. That’s below pitcher level production from one of your starting eight position players, and he was promptly demoted back to AAA.

Once in Gwinnett, Pache certainly played better than he did in Atlanta, but it still wasn’t overly impressive. In 363 plate appearances, he hit 11 HRs and posted a 100 wRC+, but that was still with almost a 30% strikeout rate and a .350 BABIP. Not numbers that scream promotion. Keith Law of The Athletic has routinely been one Pache’s strongest supporters, pretty much always ranking him higher than all the other public prospects rankings. In his 2022 edition he just released, he wrote Pache probably needs another 300-400 minor league at-bats before he’s ready, and the numbers don’t disagree. And considering he’s probably the number one CF candidate at this point, you can start to see why this is a bit of a problem.

The next option is Ronald Acuña Jr. The best player on the Braves roster, Acuña is more than capable of playing centerfield at a high level. That’s one of the reasons he’s the best player on the roster. The problem is, Acuña is coming off a major knee injury that ended his 2021 season. While everything we’ve seen since has shown Acuña is crushing his rehab, the general belief is the Braves are going to take it slow bringing Ronald back, as they should. Which makes it tough to see them throwing him in the games most physically challenging position immediately after coming back from a torn ACL. It’s also not even a guarantee Acuña will be out there on opening day, assuming opening day is when it’s suppose to be. Fully healthy, Acuña is the no-brainer choice, especially with Pache still trying to find his way. But coming off such a serious injury and rehab, it’s a lot less clear.

Then there’s Guillermo Heredia, who held down center after Acuña got hurt last year, and before Anthopoulos had a chance to bring in reinforcements. Heredia did as good as job as anyone could’ve expected last year given the circumstances and really did help the bridge the gap to their trade deadline acquisitions. It’s important to note, he is absolutely not a starting caliber player and should always be consider a bench piece first, but can fill-in in a pinch. The more he played last year, the more he got exposed, and limiting his at-bats is certainly the preferable route. But if the Braves don’t find a full-time solution for 2022, you can expect Heredia to be part of the group of players they’ll use to try to piece centerfield together until a full-time solution can be found.

The last internal candidate is Adam Duvall. Duvall was who roamed centerfield during most of the Braves historic run through last season’s playoffs. He is, by all accounts, a really good corner outfielder, with a surprising amount of speed and athleticism for a guy his size and someone who won’t kill you in centerfield over short stretches. Short stretches, of course, being the key. It’s hard to see the Braves handing over arguably the most important defensive position, on a full-time basis, to a 33-year-old corner outfielder. Duvall makes way more sense as a guy who spells the full-time centerfielder here and there with spot starts than he does as the full-time centerfielder himself. And that’s the core of this problem for Atlanta. They do have internal guys who can play center. But for all of them, there’s an equal, if not stronger, argument why they shouldn’t be considered the starter in 2022. At least not right away.

So with no clear in-house option, there’s a decent chance the Braves might have to go outside the organization to solve this problem. With Anthopoulos, it’s alway more prudent to start with the free agent market than the trade market, just because he so infrequently make trades. Especially big trades. The problem is, this may be the worst free agent class of centerfielders in the history of the sport. The top two guys, Starling Marte and Chris Taylor, are already off the board and they weren’t exactly an all-world top two to begin with. And the list after them is, well, rough. Left on the open market are names like Brett Gardner and Kevin Pillar. Or Odubel Herrera and Billy Hamilton. And those are the best guys available. Believe it or not, it gets worse after them.

I guess Anthopoulos could sign one of those guys dirt cheap just to have another option available, but there’s not a name on that list that’s substantially better than Heredia or Duvall at this point. So while signing a free agent probably fits what the Braves like to do best, this centerfield class might make that impossible.

Of the three ways to go, internal options, the free agent market, or the trade market, the trade market far away has the most appealing names. A couple of names, Cedric Mullins and Bryan Reynolds, head an interesting group of possibilities the Braves could trade for to fill their current vacancy.

Mullins is 27, coming off a monster 2021 season, and isn’t a free agent until 2026, assuming the new CBA doesn’t change that. In 160 games last year for Baltimore, he put up 30 HRs, 30 steals, and a 136 wRC+ that all added up to almost a 6 Win season. He’s also left-handed, which would help considering how right-handed Atlanta’s offense is right now, especially without Freddie Freeman. The catch of course, is it would be incredibly expensive to trade for him. Baltimore would require multiple top prospects from Atlanta, and rightfully so given the talent and years of control. Braves probably have the players to tempt the Orioles into dealing their star CF, but it’s the type of trade we’ve haven’t seen Anthopoulos pull off in his time with Atlanta. If the Braves are willing to meet the price, Mullins makes all the sense in the world.

Reynolds is basically in the exact same boat as Mullins. A 27-year-old star centerfielder on a terrible team who isn’t a free agent until 2026. Last year for the Pirates, Reynolds posted a 142 wRC+ with a .390 OBP and 24 HRs. Reynolds is switch-hitter, which again, helps balance out Atlanta’s current lineup. He’s also has done a tremendous job over his 3-year career consistently lowering his strikeout rate while at the same time raising his walk rate, showing real plate discipline. Reynolds, like Mullins, would be crazy expensive to acquire. The Braves were reportedly interested back at the trade deadline and made a “big-time” offer. The Pirates obviously said no and maintained they need to be overwhelmed to trade a guy that talented, which again, is fair. And again, like Mullins, if the Braves are willing to pay the price, Reynolds would be a tremendous fit.

There’s other trade possibilities as well. The Rays and A’s are always trading away major league pieces and both have centerfielders that could make sense for Atlanta. The Cubs are clearly rebuilding and may not have use for Ian Happ. Others as well. The question always comes back to, would Anthopoulos finally be willing to part with high-level prospects in a trade? We won’t know until we know.

Braves centerfield situation is probably best summed up with an abundance of possibilities but no clear choice. The Freddie Freeman saga is getting all the headlines, but what Atlanta does in center next year is probably their next biggest question. And it might require the Braves to venture out into the trade market like they haven’t done in a long time. Who do you think should be the starting CF in 2022?

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