Braves impress on West Coast in series split with Dodgers
For the third time in the past four series, the Atlanta Braves held their own against top competition.
The sweep at the hands of the Cubs earlier in the week happened, but by splitting its four-game road series with the Los Angeles Dodgers Brian Snitker's club has now either beaten or kept pace with baseball's best team (Dodgers) and the National League East leaders (Nationals) and swept the NL wildcard favorites (Diamondbacks). Here are three observations from the week, starting with Johan Camargo's run of strong play.
Johan Camargo’s emergence creates an intriguing case study
In this day and age of baseball’s youth explosion — wherein top position prospects often arrive readymade for stardom — watching rookies take the league by storm is almost a mundane affair by now. Aaron Judge is both the American League’s Rookie of the Year (already) and MVP favorite. Judge follows in the footsteps of Corey Seager, Kris Bryant and, of course, Mike Trout — stars who hit the ground running in their first full seasons, besting approximately 99 percent of their peers the moment they put on a big-league uniform.
The trend stretches beyond the insta-stars, too. Since 2000, 152 non-pitchers have arrived on the scene and posted two wins above replacement or better as first-year players. The vast majority of these cases, from Trout in 2012 (10.3 WAR) to Jake Lamb in 2015 (2 WAR), feature players with lofty prospect statuses, high draft slots or expensive international signing bonuses. The writing was on the wall.
Then there are players like Johan Camargo.
The Panamanian product, who signed for $42,000 in 2010 and never garnered serious prospect hype, is on pace to join that 2-WAR list through his first 50 games at the major-league level, providing not only surprise production for Snitker’s crowded infield but also sparking position battle controversy as he outplays former No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson.
Camargo led all qualified rookies in batting average entering Sunday's action. He’s matched that production with three defensive runs saved across three infield positions. The Braves are, in turn, 18-15 when he’s in the starting lineup.
His rise, coupled with Swanson’s obvious struggles at the plate and error-filled season with the glove (NL-worst 14 errors at shortstop), has created an intriguing balancing act for a Braves team sitting outside the playoff picture: Finding everyday playing time for Camargo while deciding between sticking with Swanson or relegating the likes of Brandon Phillips, Matt Adams and/or Sean Rodriguez to the bench.
Projecting Camargo to steal time from a healthy Swanson back in preseason would have meant flirting with absurdity. He arrived at spring training clearly carrying more muscle on his 6-foot frame, but he still had not hit above league average at any minor-league level since 2013 in rookie ball. As he shuttled back and forth between Triple-A Gwinnett and the parent club early on, Camargo failed to make a lasting impression, logging just two singles in 12 plate appearances.
Then he took off.
Since his second game in the month of June, the 23-year-old utility option is hitting .339/.362/.516 with 18 extra-base hits and 14 RBI. In the month of July he’s hitting 47 percent better than league average.
Given his athleticism and aptitude in the field, Atlanta’s insistence on playing Camargo is perfectly reasonable under any circumstances. The dramatic shift in sentiment away from Swanson, however, is not.
Two facts remain undeniable in this situation: Johan Camargo is the franchise’s most pleasant surprise of 2017 and Dansby Swanson, a preseason NL Rookie of the Year favorite, has disappointed. There’s an entire body of evidence, dating back to the latter’s success in the hyper-competitive Southeastern Conference and quick rise through the minors, behind Atlanta’s belief in the former Vanderbilt star’s ability. And there’s another stack of evidence showing that he simply finds himself in need of making adjustments as big-league pitchers pepper him with sliders … whereas the adjustment phase may not have arrived yet for Camargo.
Consider: Swanson reached 145 plate appearances during his 2016 stint with the Braves while Camargo reached the same plateau Sunday against Los Angeles. Here’s how they stack up (per FanGraphs):
2017 Johan Camargo: .319/.340/.478, 109 wRC+, .402 BABIP
The question comes down to how should the Braves — a team now three games below .500 and facing a significant uphill climb in the playoff race — be dividing up starts in their infield. Camargo and Phillips are red-hot and slotting Adams and Freeman in the same lineup is the entire reason one of baseball’s best players embraced a position change. Set aside his ceiling as a franchise cornerstone (and his BABIP misfortunes) and Swanson would appear to be the odd man out, especially against right-handed pitching for Adams’ sake.
But it’s not that simple.
Playing the “results-driven league” card with well-regarded rookies is a dubious business model, regardless of the distance between the wildcard standings and Atlanta’s perception that it is a wildcard contender. Riding the hot hand in a tight race would be more understandable. This is not a tight race. The Braves should not be trying to erase this (sizable) deficit at the expense of Swanson’s playing time.
Now, a trade could clear this situation right up. Phillips has exceeded all expectations in Atlanta at a bargain price, posting a .338 on-base percentage and 1.5 WAR across 353 plate appearances, and he’s only turned up the volume after the All-Star break. He’s going to walk for nothing in his contract year, and given the current logjam the Braves would be best served to find a buyer, particularly considering they are already shopping Jaime Garcia. (If the Braves were truly “going for it,” they’d be holding onto Garcia for the stretch run.)
The Braves should continue to explore what they have in Camargo. He could be their next Martin Prado/Omar Infante-type utility standout, potentially complementing the presumed middle-infield future of Swanson and Ozzie Albies. He’s earned the opportunity. However, that opportunity should come alongside Dansby Swanson.
The Braves are still building for the future, and the everyday lineup should reflect that reality.
Jaime Garcia trade-speculation drama outlines type of return Braves could expect
Never accuse Jaime Garcia for lacking a flare for the dramatic.
A Garcia deal between the Braves and Twins stalled, but the details at least provided insight into what general manager John Coppolella and president of baseball operations John Hart have in mind in terms of a return for Garcia. FOX Sports insider Ken Rosenthal reported that the deal hit a wall over medicals, though not those belonging to Garcia, who claims a lengthy injury history prior to the past two seasons.
Instead, it was Twins prospect Nick Burdi, who is currently recovering from Tommy John surgery, that hung up the deal.
Burdi would have followed a well-known blueprint for Coppolella & Co.
From the beginning of this rebuild, the Braves have sought to buy low on promising assets by accepting the risk of comeback attempts — whether it be trading for Max Fried or drafting A.J. Minter. Burdi, 24, is a former second-round pick with closer potential who boasts excellent numbers throughout the minors. The 6-foot-5 right-hander struck out 142 in 104 career innings before suffering the elbow injury and undergoing surgery in May, even landing on Baseball Prospectus’ top-100 prospects before the 2015 season. It would have been the classic buy-low acquisition. The Braves apparently saw something in Burdi’s report that scared them off.
The stalled deal does provide insight into the Braves’ thought process, though. Here’s a brief list:
1. Atlanta is still scouring opposing farm systems for pitching
2. Atlanta will not shy away from investing time and patience in prospects (i.e. it is not limiting its search to close-to-the-majors options)
3. Atlanta continues to eye high-risk, high-reward assets
Keep these pseudo-lessons in mind as the Braves search for a suitable deal for Garcia, perhaps the best rent-a-starter on the market with a 4.30 ERA and even better peripherals. Do not count out the Twins, but the Brewers are among the list of teams to throw their hat in the Garcia ring. If you’re looking for prospective deals, at least start with a Burdi-esque package.
In fact, as the Braves inch toward the trade deadline on July 31, it seems that they have not altered their operating principles.
Dodgers series offers positives, more missed opportunities
Kenley Jansen entered Sunday as the closest example of ninth-inning perfection baseball has seen in a long time. The Dodgers closer has dominated late-game situations since 2011, but he's reached another level this season, compiling an MLB-best 0.98 FIP over 41 innings before staring down Matt Adams and the Braves in the series finale.
Then the inexplicable happened and the three-run lead was gone and the Dodgers faced the very real possibility of dropping the four-game set to Atlanta.
Chalk this latest series split with the Dodgers as the latest missed opportunity for a Braves team running out of time to make up ground before the trade deadline. Jim Johnson's blown save arrived two weeks after his poor outing (eventually) spoiled Atlanta's shot at taking a four-game set against the Nationals earlier in the month.
That's at least partially why Snitker's club finds itself 8.5 games behind its best playoff shot despite playing objectively good baseball for an extended period of time.
Even the highs (sweeping the Diamondbacks) have been immediately dismantled by the lows (swept by Cubs).
The Braves are also a combined 2-11 against the NL Central franchises sitting directly ahead of them in the wildcard race and they have been unable to capitalize on their struggling NL East rivals, going 12-15 against the Phiilies, Mets and Marlins.