When you start with the reigning MVP and the best player in baseball, admittedly it is easier to fill out the rest of your outfield. Such is the advantage the Braves have with Ronald Acuńa Jr ready to defend his MVP award in right-field next season.
It's even easier when next to the MVP, is your 22-year-old budding superstar centerfielder, who won the NL Rookie of the Year award two years ago and followed that up with another 4 WAR season last year. Such is the advantage the Braves have with Michael Harris II roaming centerfield for the next decade.
The only major question the Braves had about their outfield coming into the offseason was who was going to play left-field. Was it going to be one guy or another platoon? For the last couple of seasons, Atlanta has deployed a 2-man rotation for left-field, a RH option paired with a LH option. Last season it was Eddie Rosario and Kevin Pillar running the platoon, the year before it was Rosario and Adam Duvall. But coming into 2024, none of those players are still with the team.
Duvall left last winter to sign a 1-year deal with the Red Sox. Rosario had a club option this winter the team declined, making him a free agent, and Pillar’s contract was up, making him a free agent. All three guys are currently still out on the open market waiting to find jobs. So the obvious question this winter became, who’s playing LF?
That question was answered pretty resoundingly back in December when the Braves took on a bunch of dead money the Mariners didn't want on their books anymore, and in exchange, Seattle sent over Jarred Kelenic, a 24-year-old left-handed outfielder, who just a couple of years ago was one of the top prospects in all of baseball. Kelenic came over with 5 years of team control remaining.
The Atlanta #Braves today acquired LHP Marco Gonzales, OF Jarred Kelenic, INF Evan White and cash considerations from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for RHP Jackson Kowar and minor-league RHP Cole Phillips: pic.twitter.com/1s5CPtFySV— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) December 4, 2023
Kelenic being left-handed of course immediately had people wondering if this would be another platoon situation, with Kelenic facing all the RH pitchers and a RH option facing all the LH pitchers. After the trade, Alex Anthopoulos made a statement to the media that they were moving forward with Kelenic and Vaughn Grissom as the their left field options. There were several reasons that smelled like fishy GM-speak, platitudes to maintain leverage in later negotiations, and soon enough, our suspicions were confirmed. The Braves traded Grissom to the Red Sox in the Chris Sale deal, which, among other things, renewed questions about how set left-field really was.
Usually when you have a young left-handed hitter, you want someone on the roster who can protect him from extremely tough left-handed pitchers. But not always. Ever since acquiring Kelenic the Braves have seemed relatively confident in his ability to play every day, facing both RH and LH pitchers. Last season with Seattle, Kelenic posted a more-than respectable 115 wRC+ in 92 plate appearances vs LHP, a key data point in the Braves feeling comfortable with Kelenic as an everyday player I’m sure. Of course, 92 plate appearances is an extremely small sample to be taking anything meaningful from, and over his full career in the majors, Kelenis has posted just a 61 wRC+ vs lefties.
Which is why it always felt inevitable that Atlanta would add a RH-hitting outfielder of some regard before Spring Training. Some level of protection for a young left-handed hitter, And they did exactly that, recently signing Jordan Luplow to a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training. A minor league deal might not seem like much, but remember, Pillar was also signed on a minor league deal for the 2023 season, and not only did he make the team out of Spring Training, he spent the entire season on the Braves roster and became an invaluable member of the bench unit. Luplow makes a perfect platoon partner if the Braves ever wanted/needed to go that way, because for his career, he’s posted a 124 wRC+ vs LH pitching. And like Pillar and Duvall before him, Luplow is a veteran player who can stay ready without regular playing time, a characteristic uniquely important to Atlanta, given their insistence on playing their starters 160+ games a season.
The only other outfielder on Atlanta’s 40-man roster is Forrest Wall, a young left-hander who can play all three outfield positions. That means, along with Harris and Kelenic, three out of the four outfielders on the 40-man are left handed, with Acuńa being right-handed option. This was another reason bringing someone like Luplow into the fold was necessary. And Wall’s ability to play center if something were to happen to Harris, means the Braves didn't necessarily have to go get a centerfielder for Luplow’s role. They could focus more on platoon splits than defensive versatility.
And of course, Atlanta could still add to the group. Luplow is on a minor league deal, which means he’s not yet on the 40-man and the Braves have no financial obligations to him. They could bring in another guy just like him, same profile and same type of contract, to compete with Luplow in Spring Training. Or if they found someone they really liked, they could sign a guy to a major league deal with guaranteed money and an immediate 40-man spot. An Adam-Duvall type maybe. But you get the sense the Braves want to see what Kelenic can do, and the presence of another well-regarded outfielder could discourage manger Brian Snitker from giving Kelenic all the at-bats the front office clearly wants him to get.
My guess is Atlanta runs out either this exact outfield setup, Acuńa-Harris-Kelenic-Luplow, or something very similar to it, with only that last spot changing. The production they should get from right-field and center-field means the Braves should have one of the best groups in baseball regardless of what they get from left. If Kelenic breaks out like they think he can, the Braves will have the best outfield in baseball for many, many years to come.
Of course, having a guy in right who can put up 8 WAR by himself goes along away.