Grant McAuley’s 2018 Braves Preview Series will take a look at each position group in advance of Spring Training. Pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 13 and their first workout is Feb. 14. Position players report on Feb. 18, with the first full-squad workout taking place on Feb. 19.
The Braves open Grapefruit League play on Feb. 23 against the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie.
The Atlanta outfield has been a work in progress over the past three years. Many names have been penciled in that grouping, particularly in left field. With Matt Kemp shipped back to Los Angeles, there figures to be a new name patrolling the green spaces at SunTrust Park this season. At some point this season, Ronald Acuña, the club’s top prospect will be making his highly anticipated major league debut. Until that time arrives, the Braves will be counting on a defensive wizard, a veteran stalwart and some role players to round out the outfield trifecta on a daily basis.
Ender Inciarte | CF | Age: 27 | Contract Status: 4-years, $26.8 million
The Braves’ defense has been anchored by Ender Inciarte for the past two seasons. Acquired in the same trade that landed Dansby Swanson, the early results favor Inciarte as the big return. Two gold gloves and an All-Star appearance later, Inciarte has made the most of an opportunity to play every day. Providing above average defense while serving as a table-setter atop the Atlanta lineup, Inciarte has been everything the Braves could have hoped when they brought him over from Arizona.
Let’s start with the defense, because that has become his calling card. Inciarte makes the easy plays. He makes the hard plays. He makes the hard plays look easy. In short, Inciarte covers some serious ground in center field. His 410 put-outs were the most by any outfielder in the National League in 2017 by a considerable margin. Over the past two seasons, Inciarte’s 761 PO in 2,487 innings are the most in the major leagues. That’s 49 PO more than the next closest outfielder, Mookie Betts of the Red Sox, despite the fact that Inciarte has played 24 fewer games than Betts in that two year span. Inciarte’s seven outfield assists in 2017 tied for 10th in the NL and 21st the majors. While that total is down from his 14 assists in 2016, that’s due at least in part to runners respecting the arm of Inciarte.
Inciarte has also been doing work at the top of the order for Atlanta. Dating back to the second half of 2016, Inciarte has racked up 301 hits over 229 games while posting a .315 batting average. He set or matched career-highs in virtually every offensive category last season, including a .304 average, 201 hits, 93 runs, 27 doubles, 11 home runs, 57 RBI and 22 stolen bases. Those 201 hits were second only to the Rockies Charlie Blackmon (213) in all of baseball in 2017. Atlanta enters the upcoming season with options at the lead-off spot. Inciarte could return there or slide down and allow second baseman Ozzie Albies to take a turn at the top. The impending arrival of a certain star prospect will also lead to some interesting lineup decisions down the line.
Nick Markakis | RF | Age: 34 | Contract Status: 1-year, $11 million
Nick Markakis heads into the final season of his four-year deal with the Braves. After spending nine seasons in Baltimore to begin his career, the veteran outfielder has more or less provided what the team expected in his three-year stint with the Braves. His style is certainly not flashy, but Markakis handles his job in a workmanlike manner. He could easily be described as a good soldier. He has done everything asked of him. Despite having neck surgery just after signing with Atlanta, Markakis has proven to be a durable staple in the lineup, averaging 158 games per season. Barring any last-minute transactions, Markakis will once again be counted on to provide stability in the Atlanta lineup in 2018.
At the plate, Markakis hit .275/.354/.384 in 160 games last season. That slash-line is right in line with Markakis’ normal output over the last five seasons, but his production is not what it once was at the outset of his career with Baltimore. He averaged a .295/.365/.455 line with 41 doubles, 19 homers and 85 RBI per 162 games played from 2006-2012. That has fallen to .277/.348/.380 with 35 doubles, 10 homers and 68 RBI per 162 games over the past five seasons. Bottom line, Markakis is a solid contact hitter who has spent time in virtually every spot in the batting order over the past three years. That kind of bat comes in handy. Additionally, he was at his best with men in scoring position in 2017, driving in 67 runs in those 147 at-bats, both team-highs.
The Braves know what they have in Markakis, who is a quiet leader in the clubhouse and is well-respected by his teammates. After posting a 2.5 WAR in 2014 for the Orioles according to FanGraphs, he’s seen that value decrease in each of his three seasons with Atlanta – from 1.5 in 2015 to 1.1 in 2016 to 0.7 last season. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate has steadily risen in each of the last seven seasons – from 10.5% in 2011 up to 16.4% in 2017. Markakis still finds his way on base enough to maintain his status as a useful everyday player. He surpass 2,000 career hits last season and is just the 10th active player to reach that plateau. That’s a tribute to his steady production over the course of his career.
Defensively, he makes the routine plays, but Markakis’ days as an above-average outfielder are behind him. He has two gold glove awards, but his range and arm strength have both diminished in recent years. Depending on what the club decides to do with Ronald Acuña this season, Markakis might benefit from a move to left field. The Braves can cross that bridge at the appropriate time.
Lane Adams | OF | Age: 28 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
Lane Adams finally got a chance for an extended stay in the major leagues in 2017. He certainly made the most of that chance to show off his considerable athleticism when called upon. Adams was originally a 13th round draft pick by the Royals in 2009 and earned a brief call-up in 2014. After bouncing from Kansas City to the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs systems, Adams briefly pondered retirement before eventually signing a minor league deal with Atlanta in December of 2016. Blessed with great speed and some pop at the plate, Adams proved he was a capable reserve and fill-in option for the Braves in the second half.
Adams batted .275/.339/.468 with five home runs among his 10 extra-base hits in 109 at-bats. Having already racked up 223 stolen bases in the minors, he swiped 10 bases in as many big league attempts in 2017. Adams became Atlanta’s primary pinch-hitter down the stretch, batting .267 with a pair of home runs and 12 RBI in 45 at-bats in that role. That contribution was a large part of a much-improved bench as the season wore on. In fact, Atlanta pinch-hitters combined to lead the majors with 10 home runs and 54 RBI in 242 at-bats last season. Depending on what the club decides to do with top prospect Ronald Acuña, some regular playing time could come Adams’ way to begin the 2018 season. Regardless, Adams will be counted on as a key contributor in a reserve capacity
Preston Tucker | INF | Age: 27 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
The Braves acquired Preston Tucker from Houston in an off-season trade, hoping his lefty bat could provide some of the power he showed in his 2015 rookie season. Tucker, whose younger brother Kyle also plays in the Astros system, did not appear in the big leagues in 2017. The Tampa native spent the season at Triple-A Fresno, where he batted .250 with 24 home runs and 96 RBI in 128 games. Tucker owns a lifetime .282/.353/.491 line in the minors with three 20-homer campaigns, so the power is definitely there. He hit .243/.297/.437 with 13 homers among his 32 extra-base hits in 300 at-bats for Houston in 2015, but managed just .164 AVG with four home runs in 48 games in his sophomore season.
Atlanta added Tucker in a late-December trade for a player to be named later or cash considerations after he’d been designated for assignment by the Astros. He is expected to compete for at-bats in left field and off the bench as a lefty-hitting option. There’s a chance he may be asked to play some first base in order to provide a back-up option for Freddie Freeman, a role left vacant with the departure of Matt Adams. Tucker has one option remaining and could be stashed at Triple-A Gwinnett should the Braves decide to make any further roster moves over the weeks leading up to opening day.
Ronald Acuna | OF | Age: 20 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
Yes, I saved the proverbial best for last. Ronald Acuña is not only the Braves’ top prospect, but he’s arguably the top prospect in all of baseball. Baseball America has already recognized him as a such with the release of their Top 100 prospects list in mid-January. Acuña had an incredible season in 2017, making three stops up the minor league ladder and getting better at each level. Altogether, he batted .325 with 21 homers, 82 RBI, 88 runs scored and 44 stolen bases. And he did all of that at the age of 19.
Acuña’s journey started with the High-A Florida Fire Frogs in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. All he did there was bat .287 with 11 extra-base hits and 14 stolen bases in 28 games. He followed that up with a torrid stretch in Double-A Mississippi, slashing .326/.374/.520 with nine home runs among 25 XBH to go along with 30 RBI, 29 runs scored and 19 steals in 57 games. Triple-A was next on Acuña’s hit list. He exploded onto the scene as the youngest player in the International League and hit .344/.393/.548 with 9 homers, 33 RBI, 38 runs scored and 11 steals in 54 games.
Need an encore? No problem. Acuña terrorized the Arizona Fall League as well. He batted .325 and led the league with seven home runs on his way to earning MVP honors. It was truly a meteoric rise for a prospect who was well-regarded before the season started and well-renown by the time it ended. Acuña is a five-tool player and those are hard to come by. Though he was prone to the strikeout – with 144 of those in 557 at-bats – there was never a period of time in any league in which Acuña seemed completely over-matched. His ability to make timely adjustments is an attribute that will serve Acuña well as he looks to get accustomed to the big leagues.
The Braves will give Acuña plenty of playing time this spring as he prepares to make that jump at some point in 2018. Manager Brian Snitker has said on multiple occasions that he was so impressed with Acuña last spring that he very well could have made the big league club on pure talent alone. This was a kid who had just 148 at-bats above the rookie-ball level. Most agree that Acuña has the chance to be an above average center fielder, but that decision will be a difficult one with a premium defender like Inciarte already entrenched at the big league level. Atlanta will likely have Acuña start the season in the minors in order to insure another year of team control, but a mid-April call-up seems like a distinct possibility. If 2017 is any indication, then Acuña’s big league debut will be must-see television.
The Braves have a handful of outfielders in camp vying for playing time in some cases, and simply looking to make a first impression in others. Obviously Acuña is the biggest name on this list and has been covered extensively. Another highly-touted prospect heading into his first big league camp is Cristian Pache, the 19-year-old from the Dominican Republic. Talent evaluators have deemed Pache’s defense in center field to be both major league ready and gold glove caliber. He batted .281 with 32 stolen bases, but is still looking for his first professional home run. Despite that, many believe there’s untapped power in Pache’s bat. Perhaps he’ll begin to unlock it at High-A Florida this season… Dustin Peterson, 23, enters what feels like a make-or-break year in many respects. He had a chance to compete in big league camp last year, but a fractured hamate in his left hand derailed those hopes. That injury sidelined Peterson for a couple of months at the start of the season and probably sapped his strength once he did return. Peterson batted .248 with one home run and 30 RBI in 87 games for Triple-A Gwinnett. That setback came after being named the Braves minor league hitter of the year in 2016, when he batted .288 with 38 doubles, 12 homers and 88 RBI in Double-A Mississippi. Peterson was left exposed in the Rule 5 draft over the winter, but was not selected and thus has a chance to redeem himself and get back on track in the Braves organization. A second tour of duty in Gwinnett seems likely… Jaff Decker, soon-to-be 28 years old, was a minor league signing who brings some big league experience with him to camp. Dacker was originally a first round supplemental pick by San Diego in 2008 and has played 77 big league games with four different clubs. He’s batted .174 in just 161 at-bats between the Padres, Pirates, Rays and Athletics. Decker is well-rounded player who can work a count, run the bases well and hit the occasional home run. He’ll probably serve as organizational depth on stand-by at Gwinnett this season… Atlanta brought back the versatile Danny Santana, 27, who was acquired from the Twins last season and spent most of 2017 with the Braves. He signed a minor league deal to return after being non-tendered in December. A switch-hitter who can play all over the diamond, Santana has struggled to recreate the success of his rookie season. He batted .319 with 41 extra-base hits and 20 stolen bases over 101 games for Minnesota in 2014. Since then, he’s slashed just .221/.255/.320 in 703 plate appearances over 248 games. Santana plays three infield positions and all three spots in the outfield and will compete for a spot on the bench this spring. At worst, the Braves have an insurance policy with some major league experience at they ready should injury inevitably crop up this season.