Braves are good again, but their hole at shortstop is worrisome

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

The Braves will make the playoffs with Vaughn Grissom or Orlando Arcia at shortstop and Eddie Rosario in left field. They are so good in so many other areas that below-average production at those positions won’t prevent them from at least securing one of three National League wild cards. Then anything can happen in the postseason.

However, the Braves need to fortify those spots to separate themselves from the Mets in the NL East. Winning the division almost certainly will mean avoiding the wild-card round. That doesn’t guarantee anything — the Braves won the East in 2022 before losing to the Phillies. But the bye decreases the odds of getting sunk by bad luck because the division series is best-of-five vs. best-of-three in the wild-card round.

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That’s why the Braves will go all-out to win a sixth consecutive East title. I think that means general manager Alex Anthopoulos will have to cover the Braves at shortstop, especially, and left field. Two holes in the lineup is one too many to win the division, with the Mets finally gaining ground.

If Anthopoulos decides to get some insurance before opening day, then Elvis Andrus and Jurickson Profar were on the free-agent market as of Friday afternoon. Andrus, 34, seemed to be on his way out before providing above-average hitting and competent defense at shortstop over the past two seasons. Profar was San Diego’s everyday left fielder in 2022 and produced a .723 on-base plus slugging percentage.

Andrus and Profar probably can demand more on the market than the Braves will pay. If so, then expect Anthopoulos to look on the trade market for a shortstop. The Braves say they are confident that Grissom can replace Dansby Swanson at shortstop, and maybe they are right to be optimistic. But I just don’t see Grissom as a viable starter at such an important position for a team that’s trying to get back to the World Series.

FanGraphs expects Grissom to be good at the plate this year. Its main statistical forecast has Grissom producing offense at a rate that’s 10% over average over 110 games. That would be fantastic if Grissom also is competent at shortstop. The problem is Grissom was shaky at second base last season and shortstop is a much harder position to play.

The Braves can get by with suspect defense in left field. Doing that at shortstop comes with bad implications for the team’s pitchers. Few things are more deflating than bad defense from the shortstop.

The Braves are touting infield coach Ron Washington’s work with Grissom. Washington is good at his job, but Grissom has a long way to go. The Braves should give Grissom a try in left field, where Rosario is just OK and Marcell Ozuna is bad.

The Braves will miss Swanson’s fine glovework at shortstop. He also had a career-best season at the plate in 2022. Even the most optimistic statistic projections don’t have Grissom or Arcia producing close to Swanson’s 5.7 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball Reference). The worst-case scenario for the Braves: Grissom is bad at the plate and at shortstop while Michael Harris also slips at the plate after his production was 36% above average as a rookie, per FanGraphs.

Should that happen, Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna will make up the slack, if he’s healthy. Austin Riley and Matt Olson will do what they do. The Braves should get at least average offense from second baseman Ozzie Albies and the catcher duo of Sean Murphy and Travis d’Arnaud. Designated hitter shouldn’t be an issue so long as Ozuna doesn’t have to do it too often.

If all that goes as planned and the young hitters regress, it still would leave the Braves with less offensive production than last season. They ranked third in the majors with 4.9 runs scored per game. Just a bit of offensive slippage increases the chances that the Mets overtake them in the East.

Some bookmakers are giving slightly lower odds for the Mets to win the East after New York spent big this offseason. I know what you’re thinking. The Mets were favored to win the East before last season because they spent big that offseason. They ran out to a 10½-game lead through May, but were reeled in by the Braves in the final week.

Another Mets collapse makes it easy to dismiss them even after they committed to nearly $500 million in salaries since the end of last season. But the gap between the Mets and Braves wasn’t large. The Mets matched the Braves’ 101 victories in 2022, and they are better on paper now. That might mean less for the star-crossed Mets than any other franchise, but it’s silly to believe they aren’t a serious threat to the Braves.

Two Mets starters, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, would be at the top of the Braves’ staff. The Braves’ rotation and bullpen are deeper than New York’s. The teams are roughly even at the plate if Rosario returns to form, Grissom bounces back after fading late last season, Harris keeps raking and Ozuna isn’t terrible. The Braves will be fine in the field if the shortstop isn’t a sieve.

There’s a lot of “ifs” for Anthopoulos to consider. He could reduce the uncertainty by adding a bona fide shortstop and an outfielder to the roster. There’s a chance Anthopoulos never makes a move because Rosario returns to form and Grissom proves he can play shortstop.

The Braves can’t wait too long for that to happen, though. Two lineup holes is one too many, especially when one of them is at shortstop.