Power hasn’t exactly been part of the Braves’ outfield makeup of late.
It’s been seven years since an Atlanta outfielder hit at least 30 home runs, dating back to Andruw Jones’ 41-blast year of 2006, and just as long since the franchise had two with at least 29, when Jeff Francoeur hit that number that same season.
Atlanta now has a chance to change all of that with two players with 30-home run/30-steal potential in right fielder Jason Heyward and his new running mate, center fielder B.J. Upton, who was signed to a five-year, $75.25 million deal in November.
But while the Braves now have two cornerstone outfielders, there are still questions facing the last line of defense heading into the 2013 season.
1. Can Upton meet the expectations of the highest free-agent contract in Braves history?
The Braves passed on last year’s centerfielder Michael Bourn and made this deal believing Upton, who hit 28 home runs with the Rays last season — his third with at least 23 home runs and the second in a row – and posted an OPS of .752, has yet to peak.
For the uptick in offense he provides (Bourn’s nine HRs in ’12 were a career-best), Upton is also coming off a year in which he posted a minus-3.2 ultimate zone rating in the field, 14th among all center fielders, while Bourn was first (22.4). Bourn also had a 6.4 WAR, the 13th-highest in baseball last season, compared to Upton’s 3.3, which was 11th at the position.
So are the Braves giving up something defensively for the power and balance that Upton’s right-handed bat brings to the lineup? General manager Frank Wren doesn’t believe so.
“We don’t believe in the metrics … we don’t think they’re infallible, let’s put it that way,” he said on an MLB Network Radio appearance. “We think they have some value, but also, there’s some problems when you have metrics that give guys additional value depending on who is playing beside them in the outfield.”
Upton did spend five years with left fielder Carl Crawford, a 2012 Gold Glove winner, but Heyward will without question be the best right fielder Upton has been paired with.
But even if Upton doesn’t boast the defensive resume of Bourn, a two-time Gold Glove winner, what he brings on the base paths – Upton has averaged 40 steals the last three years compared to Bourn’s 34.3 – and the plate should make him worth the record investment.
2. Will Heyward’s numbers improve against lefties?
It’s hard to find much fault in a 23-year-old Gold Glove-winning right fielder, but if there’s one glaring weakness in Heyward’s game at this point, it’s hitting lefties.
Last season he hit .300 against right-handed pitchers with 20 home runs and 54 RBI, compared to a .224 average, seven HRs and 28 RBI against left-handers. It’s a problem that has dogged Heyward in all three of his seasons, hitting a career .279 vs. righties and .226 against left-handers.
Fixing that deficiency is going to take better plate discipline – and some luck.
Heyward had an alarming 27.6 strikeout rate against lefties, something that can and should only improve with time. But even when he did put the ball in play, things didn’t break his way much with a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .288 compared to .339 vs. righties.
But when you consider his line drive percentage of 21.6 against lefties (Heyward’s rate vs. righties was 17.8), he may not be that far off from making serious improvement when it comes to facing left-handers.
3. So … who is going to play left field?
This is the million-dollar, or if they end up signing or trading for someone to fill this spot, multi-million dollar, question facing the Braves as spring training draws closer.
While there has been growing talk that the Braves could get Bourn back at a discounted rate – a rumor that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s David O’Brienastutely points out as nothing more than a comment by Wren getting taken out of context — that appears to be nothing more than a pipedream. So, too, does teaming Upton with his brother Justin.
The other Upton nixed a deal to the Mariners, one of four teams on his no-trade clause, and the package Seattle was offering was steep. The Braves may not be willing to match what the M’s were – the haul included three of Seattle’s top six prospects – but with a package that would surely include pitchers Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado, Atlanta could make an intriguing offer.
For now, we have to entertain the notion that the Braves won’t make any more moves before the season, leaving the likelihood of Martin Prado splitting time in left and at third base, with Jose Constanza, Reed Johnson, Jordan Schafer and Evan Gattis, who has hit 16 home runs in the Venezuelan Winter League, in the mix.
That’s a scenario that is playing out on the Braves’ depth chart. It’s certainly not indicative of what we may see in the April 1 opener against the Phillies, but it shows Prado as the starter in left field and Juan Francisco at third.