Top Braves prospects Mallex Smith and Dansby Swanson are getting seasoning in the minor leagues. The club hopes that eventually Smith’s superlative speed and Swanson’s prototypical No. 2 hitting profile (and plus speed) will be a formidable one-two punch at the top of the lineup.
Until those two are ready for the big leagues, the Braves could have a good combination at the top of the order in outfielder Ender Inciarte and shortstop Erick Aybar. At the very least their history suggests they’ll provide better production than the Braves have gotten from those slots in recent seasons.
“We want to bring energy and get on base and score some runs,” Inciarte said before the season opener Monday. “We’ve got guys who can drive in runs. We’ve got to do our best to get on base for those guys.”
The Braves haven’t had that element in their lineup lately, leaving the hitters in the middle of the lineup with fewer opportunities to drive in runs.
In 2015, their No. 1 batters hit .245 with a .314 on-base percentage compared with the National League average of .271 batting average and .330 OBP. Jace Peterson (296 plate appearances) and Nick Markakis (285) were the regular No. 1 hitters.
In 2014 the Braves’ leadoff men hit .252 with a .327 OBP while the NL average was .269 batting average and .326 OBP. That season Jason Heyward (428 plate appearances) and Melvin Upton (165) hit in that slot the bulk of the time.
When the Braves acquired Inciarte in a trade with the Diamondbacks in December, they got a good defensive outfielder who showed promise as a leadoff hitter in two full seasons in the majors. He’s hit in the No. 1 hole for 820 of his 1,013 plate appearances, including five against the Nationals on Monday, and has hit .300 with a .338 OBP in that slot.
Inciarte also has recorded 40 stolen bases in 53 attempts, adding speed to the Braves after they traded their most accomplished runner, Cameron Maybin, to the Tigers in November. Inciarte should help with Gonzalez’s plan to be more aggressive on the base paths.
“Your pure base ‘stealers’ are the guys the entire ballpark is going to know when they steal,” Braves manger Fredi Gonzalez said. “Inciarte is that guy. The rest of the group that we have are going to be able to take the extra bases on outfielders or going first to third on a hit to the gap, I think we will see more of that.”
Aybar has recorded 141 stolen bases on 194 tries for his career for a good success rate of 79 percent. Gonzalez said he doesn’t expect that Aybar will run as often now that he’s 32 years old and in his 11th big-league season.
Still, Aybar had 15 stolen bases (21 attempts) for the Angels last season, which was more than any Braves player except for Maybin (23 steals on 29 tries). If Aybar produces like he has for most of his career, he should provide value as the No. 2 hitter even if he doesn’t run much.
For his career Aybar has hit .276 with a .315 OBP and a 11.4 percent strikeout rate, including .276 with a .316 OBP in 770 plate appearances as the No. 2 batter. Braves No. 2 hitters batted .245 with a .300 OBP in 2015 and .231 with a .296 OBP in 2014.
“Aybar, you believe the back of the baseball card,” Gonzalez said. “Now (after) watching him in spring training, he’s a professional hitter. He knows what he has to do.”
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