Short Hops: Braves center field review/preview
FOXSportsSouth.com’s team of Braves writers are taking a look back at 2015, position by position, and breaking down what we know heading into what figures to be another busy offseason. Next up, center field
10 — Number of home runs Cameron Maybin hit in ’15, which equaled the number he had in ’14 (one), ’13 (one) and ’12 (eight), combined.
1.7 WAR by Braves center fielders since 2013, which is the lowest in the majors.
.325 — Mallex Smith’s batting average over the last 32 games of ’15 for Triple-A Gwinnett.
Last season, Maybin largely shed the label of a highly touted draft pick that never met the expectations and emerged as the Braves everyday center fielder, making 134 starts.
He hit .267/.327/.370 for the Braves, with those first two figures ranking as career highs in any of his full major league seasons, and he also had highs in home runs (10), RBI (59) and walks (45).
Simply put, working with Kevin Seitzer was exactly what the No. 10 overall pick in the 2005 needed.
But all that being said, his spot in center is no where near secure as Maybin had a minus-5.3 defensive WAR, was 19th at the position, and while he did make progress at the plate, Maybin’s second half was a major drop (.249/.295/.351 after a .288/.361/.392 first half).
His final 17 games included a .246 average, Maybin’s worst since April and he struck out 20 times in 69 at-bats, a 28.9 K-rate.
Part of the deal that sent Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton to San Diego (and which also landed the Braves what looks to be a longterm piece of the rotation in Matt Wilser), Maybin did represent an upgrade at the position, with Upton posting a minus-14.1 offensive WAR in ’14, which was worst among CFs.
But the question going forward is how long Maybin can hold onto the job…
The Braves minor leaguer Player of the Year is coming, and there’s a very real possibility he could supplant Maybin for the job as early as Opening Day. Especially if Fredi Gonzalez and Co. see the ascension of Smith as an opportunity to shore up the left field mess by moving Maybin.
Since the end of Michael Bourn’s first tenure with the Braves after the 2012 season, they have a combined minus-58.9 oWAR, which is the worst in the majors by minus-28.7 points.
Smith may not change all that as a rookie, but he’s an immense talent, ranking 13th on the organization’s prospect list per MLB.com and brings and element that they’ve been sorely lacking.
Smith stole a combined 57 bases last season in 126 games across Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett — a figure that was the fifth-highest in the minors — and has 226 across his four professional seasons. By comparison, the 14 players to man center for the Braves the past three seasons have combined for 74 steals.
There will surely be a learning curve, though the thought here is that Smith will get every opportunity this spring to claim the job.
Maybin may leave Orlando with the job, but Smith will be a factor and has all the tools to completely take over if he continues to hit like he did in ’15, wit a .306./.373/.386 slash line.
After being honored for his POY award, Smith let slip that in high school he was a big fan of Bourn, an All-Star with the Braves in ’12.
Ideally, having Bourn back in Atlanta could go a long way to aiding in Smith’s development as Bourn is the only player on the roster with the same skill set that the young center fielder possesses.
Bourn, though, may be more than a mentor. He did see 10 games in center after being dealt from the Indians along with Nick Swisher for Chris Johnson, and proved a steady asset by hitting .286/.358/.329 over the final month.
He still has value, but there’s a key stat to keep in mind when discussing Bourn: 550. If he (or Swisher) hit that number of plate appearances in ’16, he has a vesting option of $12 million.
That isn’t likely to happen, especially if he’s a fourth outfielder and with Maybin, and expectedly Smith, ahead of him in the center field pecking order. But it will be worth monitoring if the 32-year-old builds off the possibility of a resurgence that his end of ’15 suggests.
Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney