Three Cuts: Was Ender Inciarte's second-half surge sign of things to come for Braves?
To be fair, the Braves did take some of the fun out of dissecting their outfield last month when they dealt Mallex Smith to the Mariners --he was subsequently flipped to the Rays -- and broke up the potential logjam.
That move, along with the five-year, $30.25 million extension doled out to Gold Glove center fielder Ender Inciarte just before Christmas has Atlanta boasting an outfield that could stay intact through the end of the 2018 season as Matt Kemp is under contract through 2019 and right fielder Nick Markakis has two more years of club control.
So, barring another deal, who will make up the Braves outfield seems to be set for the time being. It's a group that, behind Inciarte's 15 defensive runs saved ranked eighth in the majors in that department, and brings plenty of intrigue with that center fielder's offensive production, Markakis coming off a Gold Glove finalist season and Kemp seemingly rejuvenated.
Noah K. MurrayNoah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
1. Did Inciarte's surge set a new standard for him offensively?
The defense, in his winning that aforementioned Gold Glove, was spectacular, and Inciarte's Yoenis Cespedes home run-robbing grab vs. the Mets was the highlight of his season.
He piled up 114 Out of Zone plays, third-most among all outfielders behind only the White Sox's Adam Eaton (142) and the Red Sox's Mookie Betts (129), and had a 14.8 defensive WAR.
Baseball, though, was already hip to the Venezuelan's glove work before his arrival in Atlanta. It was what he did at the plate that has the potential to turn Inciarte into an All-Star.
That is, if it's sustainable.
Out for 27 games from April 9-May 6 with a hamstring injury and hitting .202 on June 5, Inciarte turned it on in the second half. He slashed .341/.396/.440 after the break, a burst that, for a player who spent his first two seasons with the Diamondbacks, was truly sparked by a return to familiar territory and against familiar opponents.
During a 10-game stretch at the end of August, which included three games in Arizona, three in San Francisco and three in Atlanta vs. the Padres, Inciarte went 18 for 42 (.429). From that point on, he hit .340/.401/.442 and had 104 wRC+ over the final month.
Was it surprising? Yes, but Inciarte's BABIP of .329 was identical to what he did in his first full season with the Diamondbacks (.329), and his line drive (.49.4 percent) and foul ball rate (49.4) didn't include major jumps. Plus, the second half of 2015 he had 115 wRC+, not a gigantic drop from '16's 125 post-break.
It may just be that Inciarte heats up with the weather, as in all three of his previous seasons he's performed better in the second half than in the first.
So from the end we've seen similar surges out of Inciarte before -- just that the highs hadn't been quite so high -- meaning another second half when he's north of 110 wRC+ shouldn't be a stunner.
It's just a matter of whether he can put it all together before mid-July this time.
Jason GetzJason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
2. What does a full season of Matt Kemp look like?
As much as Freddie Freeman benefitted from the July 30 trade with the Padres for Matt Kemp, the two-time All-Star outfielder certainly received a boost as well.
That came in the form of The Players' Tribune essay in which he admitted he'd "let a big contract, the Hollywood lifestyle, injuries and bad relationships tarnish the reputation I had worked so hard to establish" and closed by telling Braves fans "those days are over."
It also came in his production as Kemp had a .336 on-base percentage in 56 games, a 51-point leap from his 100 games in San Diego, and he produced 156 wRC+ in Sept./Oct. That represented his single biggest month since posting a 193 in Sept./Oct. of 2014, his final season with the Dodgers.
A truly rejuvenated Kemp -- who has averaged a .286/.340/.490 slash line over his 11 years --would be a boon for the Braves, and may be asking too much considering he's had a WAR over 0.4 just once in the past four years. But the Steamer projections of .268/.320/.460 with a 2.6 offensive WAR seem obtainable, and as long as he continues to provide lineup protection for Freeman, there in lies Kemp's biggest worth.
Wendell CruzWendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports
3. How much, if at all, will anyone else play in this outfield?
Part of the debate with Smith before his trade, was whether it even made sense to have him in Atlanta given the durability of the every day outfielders. Kemp has played in new fewer than 150 games the past three seasons, Markakis has suited up 156 and 158 times in his first two years as a Braves and after he returned from his hamstring injury on May 7, Inciarte missed just five games the rest of the season.
Barring an injury or another trade, it doesn't create much opportunity for the likes of Dustin Peterson, the team's reigning Minor League Player of the Year, nor does it seem to necessitate adding another dedicated outfielder as a bench piece.
That would seem to tie into the makeup of the Braves versatile reserves. New addition Sean Rodriguez played all three outfield positions last season for the Pirates, Jace Peterson played 16 games (15 in left) in Atlanta's outfield in '16 and Chase d'Arnaud saw action in the grass 13 times last year.
While Dustin Peterson could get called up at some point, the odds would be on one of those veterans gaining the most innings outside of the starters, and if Rodriguez happens to supplant Jace Peterson as the primary second baseman, it may be a toss up between d'Arnaud and Peterson. D'Arnaud had 10 OOZ plays in 88 innings and zero DRS, while Peterson had six OOZ plays and minus-2 DRS in 106 innings.