The Braves had a plan when acquiring Eli White. They even got a chance to see what he could do when injury struck Michael Harris II early in the season. But, he never got a huge shot to make an impact, and injuries cut his minor league season way short.
Shortly before the calendar flipped to 2023, the Braves acquired White from the Rangers in exchange for cash considerations. An 11th-round draft pick by the Athletics in 2016, White was traded to Texas in the Jurickson Profar/Emilio Pagan swap after the 2018 season.
White was a 40-man roster casualty in Texas, as he spent the latter part of the 2022 season on the 60-day Injured List, which expires when the offseason begins. The Braves, though, saw something they wanted to spend a 40-man spot on... at least at the time.
What were the expectations?
Through his first 389 major league PAs, spanning parts of three seasons, White presented a rare profile for a major league non-catcher position player: he couldn’t hit, but racked up value anyway. To wit: he had a 54 wRC+ in those 389 PAs, but somehow, positive fWAR totaling 0.6. In this case, the somehow was amazing defense and baserunning: over a third of a win in baserunning value, and over a full win in defensive value. We’re talking nine runs above average in the outfield while spending a chunk of that time in center field, in less than a full season.
As for the fact that White couldn’t hit, well, it’s not clear whether there was any hope that the Braves could work their magic with him, because pretty much everything offensively looked horrible. But you can do far worse than a bench guy who might be best-in-class at everything but hitting, even if that guy only looks like an 0-0.5 WAR option because of how infrequently you need a speed-and-defense-only guy in today’s game.
So the expectations were probably that White would provide outfield depth, with potential for sneaky value should his services be needed more frequently.
White had a nice showing in Spring Training, but was the victim of his own minor league options, as he was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett well before the Grapefruit League slate concluded. He didn’t actually stay in Gwinnett long, though, as the Braves recalled him on April 7, after Harris went down with a back strain.
White actually stuck around for three weeks, but only got into six games, as Sam Hilliard took over center field duties. All but one of those games were started by an opposing lefty, that is, White and Hilliard essentially platooned in Harris’ absence.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, White didn’t even meet his own low standards for offense in his 17 PAs — instead, he managed a wRC+ of 2. When Harris was ready to return, White returned to Gwinnett, where he got regular playing time until suffering some injuries in the summer. At the same time, the Braves continually found themselves needing extra 40-man spots to churn through starting pitchers, and White was released while on the minor league shelf with a shoulder injury. He was re-signed to a minor league deal three days later, but didn’t return to action for the rest of the year.
What went right?
Not too much. The only real positives that stick out are:
- White’s .299 xwOBA was still paltry, but way better than anything he’d ever posted before, which is pretty sad in and of itself. It also came in just 17 PAs, so there’s not much to be said here.
- White hit reasonably well at Gwinnett (105 wRC+), which is probably why the Braves re-signed him and kept him in the organization despite his injured status.
His highest WPA play of the year was actually this walk (and not his lone hit of the year) off Blake Snell, with the Braves already up 2-0. They didn’t end up scoring after the walk, thanks to a double play ball.
(Why yes, that was a four-pitch walk to Eli White, of all people.)
What went wrong?
White didn’t get much of an opportunity to provide value, even when Harris went down, and then missed much of the second half of the year. He could’ve had another opportunity to make an impact at the big league level had he not gotten injured when Sam Hilliard went down, but it was not in the cards. In the end, Forrest Wall took over running-and-fielding duties in his and Hilliard’s stead.
Also, here’s him flying out in a key situation against Snell in the plate appearance before he drew that walk — not that it mattered since the Braves went on to win the game, 8-1.
By re-signing him after his release, the Braves managed to retain White ahead of the 2024 campaign. He still seems about as interesting as a speed-and-defense-only guy as he was when they first acquired him, though the lengthy shoulder injury is somewhat worrisome. With Sam Hilliard now gone, it remains to be seen whether the Braves will find some other option to vie for the backup center fielder job with White. If they don’t, White definitely exists, but it seems unlikely that the Braves won’t head to North Port with a few low-cost scenarios on hand, so White will have his work cut out for him to make the roster. He still has one option year left, it appears, so him making the roster out of Spring Training this year isn’t a given, either.