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Evaluating the Braves’ options at shortstop

Should the Atlanta Braves go with internal options to replace Dansby Swanson?

Atlanta Braves v Seattle Mariners Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

As the calendar has flipped to a new year, it appears that the Atlanta Braves are planning to go with internal options to replace Dansby Swanson next season. Obviously, you can’t write this article without the disclaimer that things could still change, as we have seen throughout the offseason. A trade is always possible, but we are going to explore a couple of veteran free agent options that are still available.

First, let’s take a closer look at what is shaping up to be a spring competition between Vaughn Grissom and Orlando Arcia.

Vaughn Grissom (2022: 156 PA, .291/.353/.440, 121 wRC+, 0.7 fWAR)

Let’s get this out of the way quickly. If the Braves do go with a competition during the spring, the best outcome would be Vaughn Grissom winning the job.

Grissom made the leap from Double-A on August 10 to play second base after Orlando Arcia suffered a hamstring injury. Arcia was filling in for Ozzie Albies, who was out with a broken foot. Grissom hit the ground running, hitting .347/.398/.558 with a 165 wRC+ in his first 26 games.

Grissom carried a .378 BABIP over that stretch so it wasn’t surprising that regression came as opposing pitchers adjusted. Over his final 14 games, Grissom hit .190/.286/.214 with a 47 wRC+, albeit with a .276 BABIP. Grissom’s wOBA of .345 also outpaced his .326 xwOBA which further suggested that regression was coming.

Grissom lost playing time to Arcia over the final week, but that was more due to his defense at second base where he was -4 in Outs Above Average in 347 innings.

With all of that as prologue, Grissom winning the job may still be the preferable outcome. As much as his bat cooled off over the final month of the season, he has enough of a track record as a hitter to suggest that he can provide offensive value — especially if he does anything akin to adjusting towards hitting the ball harder rather than trading contact quality for contact quantity.

A bigger question could be whether he can make sufficient progress defensively at a more difficult defensive position. Grissom has spent part of the offseason working with Ron Washington and we will find out in the spring if that work has paid off. With the restrictions on defensive shifting coming next season, it isn’t going to be an easy task.

Orlando Arcia (2022: 234 PA, .244/.316/.416, 104 wRC+, 0.7 fWAR)

You almost have to wonder if it was foreshadowing on the Braves’ part when they signed Arcia to a two-year deal, that includes a club option for a third season, in November of 2021. Arcia came up as a shortstop with Milwaukee, where he was adequate defensively. Due to Swanson’s presence, Arcia hasn’t seen much time at shortstop since coming to Atlanta. The bulk of his time has been spent as a utility option and as an injury replacement at second for Albies.

One thing was different for Arcia in 2022: he had above-average offensive outputs for the first time in his career, posting a 104 wRC+. Per Statcast, Arcia posted the best average exit velocity of his career at 90.7 mph and raised his launch angle significantly. His 7.5 percent barrel rate was also the best of his career.

Those numbers look appealing, but there is more to the story. Arcia feasted on the Washington Nationals, hitting .400/.468/.775. Five of his nine home runs for the season came in 14 games against the Nationals. Prior to the 2022 season, Arcia hit .242/.293/.363 with a 70 wRC+ in 1,954 plate appearances. It is clear that he has made adjustments at the plate, but there is a long track record to overcome, and his .329 xwOBA from 2022 isn’t glimmering with massive upside, either (though you’d never turn that down from a shortstop).

At this stage, Arcia is better equipped as a utility player. It wouldn’t be terribly surprising if he was the shortstop on Opening Day if the Braves think that Grissom needs some time at Gwinnett, but he is not much of a long-term solution.

Free Agent Possibilities

If the Braves do elect to seek outside options, there are few options left on the free agent market. However, a couple of veterans could be intriguing.

Elvis Andrus (2022: 577 PA, .249/.303/.404, 105 wRC+, 3.5 fWAR)

Elvis Andrus split the 2022 season between Oakland and Chicago and saw an offensive resurgence. It was the first time since 2017 that he posted a wRC+ above league average and just the third time in his 14-year career. Unsurprisingly, his 105 wRC+ came from outhitting his xwOBA a bunch, and he hasn’t had an xwOBA above .311 since 2016. In short, there’s little reason to expect Andrus to hit, though he probably wouldn’t kill you with a 90ish wRC+, either.

While it is doubtful that he can reproduce those offensive numbers, Andrus can still handle the shortstop position defensively, which is likely to be the biggest concern for the Braves in replacing Swanson. He’s posted a negative OAA just twice in the past seven years, and one of those years was the tiny-sample 2020 season.

Jose Iglesias (2022: 467 PA, .292/.328/.380, 85 wRC+, 1.0 fWAR)

Another defensive option still available is veteran José Iglesias, who spent the 2022 season with the Rockies. He was a below average hitter again in 2022 and has a 87 wRC+ for his career, but is a fine defender and can handle the position in the short term. He is a year younger than Andrus which probably doesn’t matter that much since neither would expect to receive more than a one-year deal.

Iglesias is basically just a strictly-worse Andrus at this point, as he doesn’t really project to hit any better and has only played average-y shortstop defense in each of the last two years (+0 OAA in both 2021 and 2022).

Other Options

We won’t speculate about trades here, because those tend to come out of nowhere. It is worth mentioning that the Braves signed veteran Ehire Adrianza to a minor league deal this offseason. He could play short in a pinch, but isn’t an every day option. Adrianza could, however, pencil into the utility role if Arcia becomes the everyday shortstop.

Other free agents include Alcides Escobar, who was not good in limited duty with the Nationals in 2022, and Andrelton Simmons, who was limited to just 35 games in 2022.

Given the available options, Atlanta might be best suited to try and figure out what they have in Grissom and Arcia. If it doesn’t work out, then they could try to find an upgrade via trade during the season.

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