Braves teammates confident Johan Camargo will excel in super-utility role

ATLANTA — Last year in spring training, Johan Camargo ventured into Ender Inciarte’s domain and started making outlandish claims.

The two teammates were fielding fly balls in Champion Stadium’s center field when Camargo began pestering his Gold Glove-winning friend, proclaiming himself to be the better outfielder despite logging just one official major-league inning behind his usual infield home. Eventually, Inciarte wore down. He told the 24-year-old he was correct: He was the better outfielder.

“I don’t know if I was lying,” Inciarte said with a smile, “or if I was trying to encourage him.”

Camargo’s teasing will soon be put to the test. The immediate domino to fall after the Atlanta Braves signed former MVP Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million contract, Camargo, now 25, is projected to step into a super-utility role for the franchise in 2019, likely seeing spring training time at every infield position outside of catcher and corner outfield.

There’s a possibility the club’s current outfield vacancy — though general manager Alex Anthopoulos is focusing on adding another outfielder with three viable trade or free-agent candidates at the moment — leads to Camargo, coming off a breakout season at third base, sees a significant percentage of his playing time next to Inciarte this season.

“I’ll play wherever they put me,” said Camargo, who hit 19 home runs with a .349 on-base percentage last season. “It’s obviously important to be able help a team in whatever way that I can, but it’s also important to me as a baseball player to be able to play multiple positions and be a little more flexible as far as where I can play on the field and the lineup. If it was up to me I always want to be in the lineup, helping our team, doing whatever I can, but I’m happy to be able to contribute any way that I can.”

Martin Prado, who posted 13.4 wins above replacement while playing six different positions from 2008 to 2012, is the go-to blueprint for Braves utility options, which suits Camargo just fine. The Panamanian product grew up idolizing Prado, and with the game’s increased valuation on positionally versatile players like Javy Baez, Marwin Gonzalez, Ben Zobrist, Whit Merrifield, Chris Taylor and Kike Hernandez, among many others, the “utility” label is no longer synonymous with position-less bench bat.

Versatility equates to value in the modern game, particularly in the National League. It guarantees playing time — assuming the bat continues to produce well above league average — in a business where overall team upgrades can arrive at your expense.

“It was a moment where I realized I didn’t need to think about myself, I need to think about the team and have that kind of mentality,” Camargo said of the Donaldson signing. “With that being said, his arrival I think is a great learning opportunity for me. He brings a ton of experience. He’s a former American League MVP, All-Star. It will be honor to play alongside of him.”

As the organization eyes consecutive division titles and an even deeper playoff run, All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies says Camargo’s perspective is indicative of the collective clubhouse mentality.

“That’s the kind of guys we like to have on the team,” Albies said. “ … Even if they come to me, I’ll do it. I’m pretty sure Dansby (Swanson) will. Ender will. (Ronald) Acuña will. We all are like that. You guys see Freddie (Freeman) at third base. He balled out.”

The outfield component is the one unknown for Camargo, at least from a quantitative perspective.

The switch-hitter blessed with a top-shelf arm put up Gold Glove-caliber numbers last season, tying Giants veteran Evan Longoria for second in defensive runs saved among qualified third basemen. Freeman has said the only other teammate he’s played with in Camargo’s league in terms of arm strength is perennial Gold Glove favorite Andrelton Simmons. In more than 400 career innings at shortstop and second base Camargo claims serviceable numbers, though Swanson and Albies own plus fielding grades in their own right.

The presence of Camargo, along with 2018 utility star Charlie Culberson, all but guarantees more rest for infield starters next season — a strategy Anthopoulos & Co. believe will lead to better results over the course of a grueling 162-game schedule plus possible playoff games.

“He’ll be fine,” Culberson said of Camargo sliding into a utility role. “I think Johan is young enough to just go with the flow and blow his bubbles during swings and all that. You can tell he’s pretty relaxed out there.”

Atlanta’s outfield situation offers less clarity — and perhaps more opportunity.

The Braves have two plus outfielders with Inciarte and National League Rookie of the Year and dark horse 2019 MVP candidate Ronald Acuña Jr. along with power-hitting left fielder Adam Duvall, a trade-deadline acquisition and Gold Glove finalist with two 30-homer seasons under his belt since 2016 who struggled in a reserve role for the Braves. Though the front office tendered Duvall a contract, Camargo could emerge as the preferred in-house option with an impressive spring showing. Atlanta still plans to add another piece, but even in that scenario Camargo could become the de facto fourth outfielder among other duties.

Back to Inciarte, who became the first National League center fielder to capture three consecutive Gold Glove awards since Carlos Beltran (2006-2008) and, just before that, Braves legend and 10-time winner Andruw Jones.

The reigning defensive king of NL outfield production — Inciarte leads all MLB outfielders with 63 outs above average since Statcast started tracking the metric in 2016 and only Diamondbacks pitcher Zack Greinke and Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado claim longer active Gold Glove streaks — sees the makings of a productive outfielder.

“Wherever you put a guy like he’s gonna be able to respond,” Inciarte said. “ … He was really impressive in the outfield and I know he’s going to be able to adjust to whatever the role they want him to play. And with the type of arm that he has — he has the best arm on the team. Wherever you put him he’s going to be able to do great things.

“If you put him in the outfield and he has one of those opportunities to make a play with his arm or range, he’s going to surprise a lot of people.”