Braves front office opts for youth over waiver deadline splashes
The Atlanta Braves hold a four-game lead in the National League East as the September schedule begins to unfold. However, no contender faces a more difficult road ahead in terms of future opponent winning percentage and the organization will continue to rely on young pieces to deliver its first playoff berth since 2013, starting with a relatively quiet non-waiver trade deadline. Here are three observations from the week:
1. The Braves front office did not deviate from the plan at the waiver-wire trade deadline
Atlanta did not make the name-brand splash at the non-waiver trade deadline and it did not deviate from the plan as August turned to September, scouring the waiver-wire market for ancillary roster pieces in bench bats Lucas Duda and Preston Tucker and third catcher René Rivera. And while 2018 contenders were unlikely to replicate the Astros’ last-second blockbuster that landed Justin Verlander last season — a move that helped deliver a World Series title and built one of baseball’s best rotations in 2018 — consider the trades that contenders have pulled off since Aug. 1.
The Braves joined the Red Sox, Astros and Diamondbacks on the quieter side of the market. This was largely by design. On Aug. 21, general manager Alex Anthopoulos expressed the team’s interest in adding pieces while ultimately trusting the franchise’s in-house options to complement a division-leading roster, namely by turning to the organization’s stable of young arms.
“I think the one thing we continue to come back with is stuff and just the ability to get guys out. And that’s the equipment and the tools that they have. Guys like Bryse Wilson, guys like obviously (Touki) Toussaint. … From that standpoint, we’re not going to shy away. The trade market, being able to claim guys is not easy to do.
"And we think our internal options right now are significantly stronger than what might be out there in trade.”
This is exactly how the situation played out.
As rosters expanded in September, the Braves promoted Toussaint, Wilson and Kyle Wright along with Rivera, Lane Adams, Michael Reed and Shane Carle. Toussaint and Wilson had already dazzled in their major-league debuts — spot starts that delivered crucial victories for Atlanta — but Wright, the No. 5 overall pick in 2017, is poised to make his first-ever MLB appearance out of the bullpen in a tight playoff race.
Each of the three right-handers flashed enough top-end stuff to warrant bullpen consideration while also giving the team stretched-out options as manager Brian Snitker transitions to a six-man rotation. In fact, Toussaint will make his second career start against Boston's ridiculous lineup on Labor Day.
This is a "Stick With What Got You There" strategy. Atlanta pulled ahead of its National League East competitors with a mixture of veteran players and young standouts, so placing trust in more rookies while adding role players like Duda, Jonny Venters and Brad Brach is par for the course. New starter Kevin Gausman is the potential outlier here, the former top-five draft pick already proving himself to be one of the most important pieces moved at the trade deadline — and even that move did not force the Braves to flip an elite prospect.
Ender Inciarte may not traverse defensive awards season solo this offseason.
Since the winter of 2014, the end of a short-lived era for Atlanta’s standout defensive duo Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward, the Braves have either watched Ender Inciarte take home Gold Gloves or gone home empty-handed.
Inciarte, who won the top defensive award for a National League center fielder each of the past two seasons, used to be the anomaly on a team that ranked in MLB’s lowest percentile for defensive proficiency from 2015 to 2017. And while he’s still one of the game’s top defensive playmakers — no outfielder in baseball has accounted for more outs above average in the Statcast era, racking up 63 and counting since the start of the 2016 campaign — Inciarte should have company this time around, at least among Gold Glove finalists.
The front office’s insistence on fielding improvement has paid off. In one year, the Braves leapfrogged roughly 20 other franchises on defensive leaderboards. Though advanced metrics only account for 25 percent of Gold Glove voting (managers and coaches handle the rest), they point to Atlanta placing multiple Gold Glove finalists — and possibly multiple outright winners. Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of what a metrics-only finalist list of Braves could look like if the season ended today (all stats updated entering Sunday's action):
Catcher: Tyler Flowers remains one of the game’s top framers and his work with this pitch staff should not be overlooked, but he splits time behind the plate and controlling the running game has never been an area of strength. Finalist chances: VERY LOW
First Base: Is this the year Freddie Freeman garners a defensive accolade? Since the start of the 2016 season, Atlanta’s premier superstar ranks fourth in defensive runs saved among first basemen; the problem is that his position’s best defensive options are clustered in the National League. This could be Freeman’s best chance, though: He’s tied with Oakland’s Matt Olsen and San Francisco’s Brandon Belt for the MLB lead in defensive runs saved at his position and he’s playing on a bigger stage this season. Finalist chances: VERY HIGH
Second Base: Brian Snitker recently commented that “if (Ozzie Albies) doesn’t win a Gold Glove award, I don’t know who will.” The numbers disagree. There are plenty of available options. Cardinals middle infielder Kolten Wong leads all second basemen with 18 defensive runs saved while DJ LeMahieu, Ketel Marte and Javy Baez have made pretty strong cases. Baseball Info Solutions has credited Albies with one defensive runs saved for the year, leaving him far behind the pack if opposing managers and coaches do not see eye-to-eye with Snitker. Finalist chances: LOW
Shortstop: Former Braves farmhand Nick Ahmed may be en route to his first Gold Glove in Arizona and Andrelton Simmons remains the defensive benchmark for the position, but Dansby Swanson has cemented himself as one of the National League’s best up-the-middle gloves this season. He’s one of five NL shortstops with a strong finalist case. Finalist chances: POSSIBLE
Third Base: Johan Camargo is tied for second in the National League in defensive runs saved at third base — and the primary reason he’s not leading outright is that he’s spent time playing other positions. With his shortstop background and rocket-launcher arm, Camargo might even finish this month as the metrics’ Gold Glove favorite. Finalist chances: HIGH
Right Field: Markakis received a finalist nod in 2016 — his Statcast (minus-5 outs above average) and Baseball Info Solutions (10 defensive runs saved) numbers varied wildly that year — but, while his defensive numbers have been solid to back up his All-Star campaign at the plate, he doesn’t rank anywhere near top-three lists this season. Finalist chances: VERY LOW
Center Field: As both two-time Gold Glove incumbent and annual defensive metrics darling, Ender Inciarte should be guaranteed a finalist spot. His 18 outs above average trail only St. Louis rookie Harrison Bader on Statcast's outfield leaderboard at the moment and he’s cemented his sterling reputation around the league. This isn’t even a question. Finalist chances: LOCK
Left Field: Over the course of a full season, Ronald Acuña Jr. has the skills to put up Gold Glove productivity — he ranks 24th in outs above average among outfielders with 150 or more opportunities this season — but this probably won’t be the year. (As an interesting aside: His left-field backup, Adam Duvall, still leads all left fielders in defensive runs saved.) Finalist chances: LOW
Pitcher: The Pickoff King of Right-Handers is right in the thick of the Gold Glove race for pitchers. Julio Teheran is tied for the major-league lead with six runs saved among qualified pitchers and he ranks fourth among active pitchers since rookie season. Finalist chances: HIGH
3. Newcomers Lucas Duda and René Rivera fill specific needs, provide bench flexibility
The day before rosters expanded and Brian Snitker received his entire stockpile of September options, the Braves manager was already working through ways to utilize veteran René Rivera as his third catcher.
“Well it allows you — if you don’t use Tyler (Flowers) or Suk (Kurt Suzuki) then you can use them as a pinch-hitter,” Snitker said. “ … It allows you a little more flexibility over the course of the game.”
In the final month of a division race, particularly in the National League, utility comes in various forms. Bench roles often trail into niche territory.
For example: Lucas Duda logged his first hit in an Atlanta Braves uniform against right-hander Keone Kela in the eighth inning on Saturday night and then was immediately pulled for Lane Adams to pinch run in a one-run game. Those situations occasionally arise from April to August. They are commonplace when managers wield deeper benches in September.
The Braves gave up nothing but money to acquire Duda and Rivera and re-acquire Tucker, and each player will likely fit into a highly specialized role down the stretch.
Duda is the left-handed bench bat the Braves desperately needed against opposing right-handers and provides injury insurance at first base. Before his arrival, Atlanta pinch-hitters were hitting 7 percent below league average against righties and their best option on the year (Preston Tucker) was sent to Cincinnati before returning in a surprise move on Sunday.
Enter Duda, whose 132 weighted runs created plus against right-handed pitching since his first full season in the majors ranks directly ahead of Andrew McCutchen, Mookie Betts and Brandon Belt. (He’s not in the same stratosphere as any of those players, but the Braves are not asking him to be.) Even his .268/.333/.478 slash line against righties is a welcome addition. Throw in Tucker and the Braves have significantly upgraded their pinch-hitting options.
Perhaps Rivera’s most significant contribution stems from Snitker’s aforementioned quote: Freeing up the other half of Atlanta’s productive catching platoon for hitting opportunities, which the team shies away when rosters stand at 25 players.
Flowers and Suzuki are right-handed bats who have raked against lefties — Flowers’ ridiculous 1.288 OPS against southpaws leads all MLB players with at least 70 plate appearances — and they could provide a better bench option if current right-handed designated pinch-hitter Adam Duvall’s struggles continue.