It’s not even mid-January, and many Braves faithful feel tested by the team’s lack of activity.
Yes, the Braves made a splash by signing former MVP Josh Donaldson for over $20 million. Yes, they received applause for bringing native son Brian McCann home. But they haven’t registered on the radar since. That matters in spectator perception, right or wrong.
They’re trying; they just don’t want to succumb to what’s proved to be a rich market. We saw Andrew McCutchen go well over his projected earnings (the Braves say they weren’t surprised at the numbers, however) and several relievers have been handsomely compensated. We saw salary-motivated deals between the Mariners and Mets, Dodgers and Reds. We saw the Cardinals and Yankees cash in prospects to keep pace. We await Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, both of whom could end up in the NL East.
Meanwhile, the Braves scour for value after improving their lineup and addressing a glaring catching need. We can (and most will) debate the amount of money the Braves have available. We can debate which prospects to trade and for whom. We can debate what qualifies as great value.
What we can’t debate is this team needs another outfielder. Desperately.
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Ronald Acuna and Ender Inciarte are a strong pairing. Acuna will enter the season an MVP candidate, while Inciarte’s defense is annually rewarded in Gold Glove voting. The third spot – filled by first-time All-Star Nick Markakis a year ago – is worthy of concern. Even if the Braves fail to substantially upgrade their rotation or bullpen, they must alter the outfield status quo.
The incumbent is Adam Duvall, who hit .132 with a .344 OPS - supplemented with 17 strikeouts and no RBIs - in 53 at-bats following a deadline trade to the Braves. Duvall is an acclaimed defender with a track record of power, so it’s not as though he’s an unknown commodity despite his late struggles. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic recently suggested the Braves could in fact bank on Duvall if the market doesn’t turn their way, or if their resources are invested elsewhere.
That would be a failure. This isn’t to criticize Duvall, who was put in a difficult situation with inconsistent playing time yet remained a consummate professional. But the Braves have constantly declared outfield a priority. General manager Alex Anthopoulos said he expected to have another option in the fold entering spring. Duvall’s past is nice, but what he showed in Atlanta doesn’t give anyone confidence he can handle a regular starting job.
I don’t have the easy answer. Several players they sought have signed elsewhere, or the price tag remains exorbitant. Take Detroit’s Nick Castellanos as a speculative example. The Los Angeles Times reported the Tigers requested top outfield prospect Alex Verdugo or top catching prospect Keibert Ruiz from the Dodgers. You can hypothesize what would be an equal request of the Braves.
When the dust settles, a reunion with Markakis would be acceptable. Some may moan, but Markakis is reliable and beloved in the clubhouse (and by pretty much everyone in the organization). His depreciating numbers were discouraging, and he’s obviously not the team’s first choice, but it’s a safer call.
Anthopoulos has pulled almost all the right strings thus far. His franchise is set up for contention today, tomorrow and for the next five to seven years. It’s commendable how he’s avoided win-now temptations. Now he might need a shrewd move in the outfield that isn’t as simple as throwing money or prospects at the issue.
On that note, I leave you with a quote from Anthopoulos during the GM meetings in California. He isn’t being negligent. He knows the organization has to establish success before continuing it.
“The reason we have all these prospects is to win,” he said. “And sometimes when winning is right in front of you, it’s easy to lose sight of that. We talk about sustained winning, sustained success. Sometimes you need to have success first. We focus so much on the sustainable side that we never get to the success. I do think, my opinion, you have to get to the success part first.”