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Evaluating the Braves’ options for left field

The Braves may elect to go with what they have in left to start the season, but there are still some free agents available that could help.

Division Series - Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves - Game Two Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

With just over 1.5 months left before the start of Spring Training, the Atlanta Braves still have some uncertainty regarding how they’ll handle left field for the upcoming season. Continuing a series that we began Tuesday when we looked at the shortstop position, today we are going to look at some of the available free agent outfielders.

Before we get into this, it is important to point out that the Braves currently have seven outfielders on their 40-man roster, if you choose to include Marcell Ozuna in that count. We know Ronald Acuña Jr. and Michael Harris II will be slotted into right and center, respectively, leaving five other options to cover left. While I don’t consider Ozuna as a workable option in the outfield, he did appear there in 52 games last season, so the point remains.

The Braves acquired Sam Hilliard from the Rockies in early November. They signed Jordan Luplow to a one-year, $1.4 million deal just before Christmas, and then added Eli White from the Rangers for cash considerations right before the New Year. Of this group, Luplow is the most likely to stick, but like the shortstop position, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Alex Anthopoulos go with what they have now and sort it out later if needed. Each of these guys brings their own skills to the roster, but none are anything above role player quality.

The best scenario for Atlanta would be getting some quality production from Eddie Rosario, who parlayed a historic postseason performance in 2021 into a two-year, $18 million deal that also includes a $9 million club option for a third season. Rosario started the season by going 3-for-44 at the plate over his first 15 games and had as many errors in the outfield (three) as he had hits. He underwent the eye surgery to correct blurred vision and returned to the lineup on July 4. Things didn’t get much better from there, as he hit .243/.281/.379 with five home runs and an 81 wRC+ over 221 plate appearances after returning. Rosario’s -1.1 fWAR for the season was about as nightmarish as possible, and his 62 wRC+ for the season was by far the worst mark of his career. This wasn’t a case of bad luck after he returned, either, as his offensive inputs were dreadful for basically the whole season.

Atlanta appears to be betting that a normal offseason will help Rosario recapture some of his form. He has a 102 wRC+ for his career, so maybe it is possible. Steamer projects him to bounce back from his 2022 performance, but to still be a below average hitter, which basically means a below-replacement player when you factor in the fact that he’s not anything special in the corner outfield. Rosario was never really a “Braves-type” hitter in the first place, and while he did make some nice changes at the tail end of 2021, he and the Braves clearly have bigger issues to deal with than altering his approach to generate more power.

Perhaps one way to offset some of Rosario’s shortcomings would be to utilize a platoon in left. Rosario has an 85 wRC+ for his career against left-handed pitchers and hit just .143/.273/.214 in limited opportunities against them last season. This could be where Luplow comes in, though the current version of Luplow makes this a bit more complicated. Luplow has a 125 wRC+ against lefty pitchers for his career, but that number deserves some scrutiny as he handled lefties well in 2019 and 2020, but hasn’t had as much success against them over the last couple of seasons. Over the past two seasons, including a 2021 where he figured out righties, Luplow hasn’t been much of a lefty-masher at all: .298 wOBA, .278 xwOBA, compared to a just-fine .317 wOBA and .326 xwOBA against righties.

Still, the plan for left, at least for now, appears to be a platoon with Rosario and Luplow in left with some combination of Marcell Ozuna, Travis d’Arnaud and Sean Murphy at DH.

With that as the backdrop, let’s look at a few players that are still available on the free agent market. You will notice that the three listed below can all bat right-handed, as I’m operating under the assumption that they’d be entering some sort of time share with Rosario in left.

Adam Duvall (2022: 315 PA, .213/.276/.295, 87 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR)

We will start with the most familiar name. Like Rosario, Duvall got off to a terrible start with the Braves in 2022, posting a 48 wRC+ over the first two months of the season. Duvall played center field every day for pretty much the first time in his career during that span and perhaps that had something to do with his struggles. Once the Braves promoted Harris to take over center at the end of May, Duvall began to find his footing at the plate. From June 1 through July 23 when he suffered a season-ending wrist injury, Duvall hit .244/.302/.588 with 10 home runs and a 143 wRC+ in 129 plate appearances. Again, this was not really a case of small-sample inputs and outputs diverging:

That said, Duvall is a notoriously streaky player, and it’s possible that his flip from a bad two months to a good two months was not directly related to having to play center field.

While Duvall seems like he’d mash lefties, he only has a 101 wRC+ against left-handers for his career. His ability to play all three outfield spots with reasonable success would be an added bonus, but he is 34, and while he was amazing in center last year, the clock is ticking.

There hasn’t really been any reported interest in Duvall by any team to date. It’s not clear why, but perhaps his wrist injury has scared off suitors. If so, that may drop Duvall’s price and increase the Braves’ interest, though if his wrist is actually a problem going forward, that doesn’t do anything to help them solve their left field issues.

Andrew McCutchen (2022: 580 PA, .237/.316/.384, 98 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR)

McCutchen saw most of his action as the DH for the Brewers in 2022. He just turned 36, so the question is there as to how much he could be counted on to play left. He had a 106 wRC+ against left-handed pitching in 2022 and has raked against them in the past, with a 154 wRC+ for his career.

You’d probably feel better about signing McCutchen if Ozuna was not still on the roster, as he could soak up some DH at-bats. (You’d probably feel better about most things if Ozuna was not still on the roster.) Still, he is another veteran option with a proven track record, although he wouldn’t bring much defensively. It’s worth noting that McCutchen did underhit his xwOBA by a bit last year, so he’s not an obviously below-average bat at this point, but a 1-win guy doesn’t really solve any problems for the Braves, either.

Jurickson Profar (2022: 658 PA, .243/.331/.391, 110 wRC+, 2.5 fWAR)

After being more of a utility player for most of his career, Profar was the everyday left fielder for the Padres in 2022. He will turn 30 in February and may be looking to find an regular role, but would be an intriguing option nonetheless for the Braves and could provide some cover if Rosario’s struggles continue. He has the best on-base skills of anyone on this list and while not a great defender in left, he would be an improvement over Rosario.

Unlike the other options listed here, Profar switch-hits, so he has more of a shot of sticking as a regular. That makes him more attractive, but also more costly, and as mentioned, probably less likely to want to sign with a team that already has a ton of below-average players jockeying for a job in left field. Still, he has the best projections of the three candidates here, and is the youngest.

Profar is not a typical lefty-mashing switch-hitter; he has struggled a fair bit against them and has done better work in most seasons against righties. That, again, makes him more of a fit as a starter rather than a partner for Rosario, but since he projects to be a sizable upgrade over Rosario, he’s still worth a thought.

Other Possibilities

Unlike the shortstop position, there are more possibilities available. AJ. Pollock had a 161 wRC+ against left-handed pitching in 2022 for the White Sox. He is 35 with some durability questions but appeared in 138 games last season which was the second most of his career. Robbie Grossman finished the season with Atlanta in 2022 and would seem to be another option. Brian Anderson has injury and recent performance issues but is also hanging out there and provides some defensive versatility. Tommy Pham and Cesar Hernandez are also available but don’t seem to offer much. There are a ton of free agent outfielders in the 0.5ish WAR range, too, but a lot of them hit left-handed, which makes them even more awkward fits beyond their limited production forecasts.

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