Three Cuts: Braves enter SunTrust Park with more options at third base
Since Chipper Jones retired in the aftermath of the 2012 Wild Card loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Braves have found occasional answers, but far more questions, at third base.
A presumed 2013 position battle between Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco precluded Johnson’s push for the National League batting title and an ill-conceived $24.5 million contract extension, tethering the organization to a sub-replacement level player before trading him in August 2015. The resulting void provided opportunities for a variety of options — Juan Uribe, Alberto Callaspo, Hector Olivera — but little-known Adonis Garcia ultimately emerged from the pile. A career Cuban League and minor-league contributor in the Yankees system, Garcia has since rattled off two serviceable seasons and enters the 2017 campaign at the front of the third-base pack.
His margin for error, though, might be slimmer than ever before.
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Will the Adonis Garcia Experiment make it through Year 3?
In nearly every way, Adonis Garcia has outperformed expectations.
As a 30-year-old MLB rookie, he slugged 10 home runs in 198 plate appearances – outpacing his minor-league home run numbers by miles. In Year 2 with Atlanta, his slow start earned him a demotion, potentially spelling the end of his time as the Braves starting third baseman, only to see him torch Triple-A pitching and turn multiple corners with his glove. He finished the 2016 season hitting .273/.311/.406 with 14 home runs, his second straight campaign posting nearly one win above replacement.
Garcia, entering his age-32 season, offers limited upside.
At this point, he can be expected to provide occasional power, reach base around 30 percent of the time and struggle at times against right-handed pitching. His glove proved playable in the second half, but he’s a below-average fielder that has cost Atlanta 10 runs in 1,430 career innings. He’s a major-league player, but the Braves — a team that ranks 25th in WAR and 21st in weighted runs created plus at the position since Chipper’s retirement — are still searching for their long-term answer.
If he’s providing power, he’s a decent fit near the back end of the lineup, especially against southpaws. If not, Brian Snitker might be best served playing matchups or eventually treating Garcia as a bench bat. And as the Braves’ brass proved with Garcia’s demotion, it will not hesitate to find alternatives should he fall into an extended lapse.
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How will Ozzie Albies’ anticipated promotion create a domino effect?
Entering the 2017 season, barring a surprising inclusion of top prospect Ozzie Albies on the Opening Day roster, second base appears to be the position battle to watch. The Braves feature three prominent options outside their soon-to-be middle-infield future alongside Dansby Swanson — Sean Rodriguez, Jace Peterson and Chase d’Arnaud — and each played well at times last season. However, as documented in our second-base preview, Albies is on the way. And when he arrives, the second-base job will, by and large, be his and his alone. (At least it should be.)
The Rodriguez-Peterson-D’Arnaud trio offers intrigue in this regard … and potential threats to Garcia’s playing time. The three utility options, led by Rodriguez, the newest addition to the group, can each played third if needed.
Rodriguez is the obvious choice to steal starts. The 31-year-old was roughly twice as productive as Garcia last season, hitting 18 home runs with a .349 on-base percentage. He’s logged more time at first, second, shortstop and in the outfield over his career, but with those positions presumably being preoccupied (barring injury), there’s little reason Rodriguez should sit as Garcia plays if their respective production levels are similar to last year’s.
Peterson has rarely played third at the major-league level, but d’Arnaud logged 145 innings there for Snitker and Fredi Gonzalez. The general assumption is that both players will get their spring work in at the hot corner in preparation for utility roles off the bench as the season progresses.
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How will the prospect timeline pan out?
There’s another name to consider: Rio Ruiz.
The 22-year-old hit .271/.355/.400 with 10 home runs for Triple-A Gwinnett as one of the youngest players in the International League and made his MLB debut last fall. With an overload of aforementioned options, Ruiz could return to the minors to further hone his craft, but timing is important for the California product acquired in the Evan Gattis trade.
Two names behind Ruiz in the farm system accelerate Ruiz's timeline. Powerful bats Travis Demerrite and Austin Riley (pictured) are considered higher-ceiling prospects — the former will likely open the 2017 season in Double-A while the latter enters his second full pro season after a year in Single-A Rome. In this way, Ruiz is sandwiched between established veterans and rising future challengers.
If Ruiz does not hit his way into the Braves' plans in SunTrust Park's inaugural season, he could get squeezed.
As an rudimentary timeline the franchise could follow, Ruiz's chance will be in 2017, followed by Demeritte in 2018 and Riley in 2019. Plans change, of course. Injuries and trades happen. Ruiz could hit his way into a 25-man roster spot, at least as a bench bat, but he finds himself in a precarious situation.