Ender Inciarte provides luxury as Braves seek to fill need in outfield

No outfielder made more Out Of Zone plays last year than the 112 by three-time Gold Glove winner Ender Inciarte.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS — Before Alex Anthopoulos’ first season as Braves general manager, he preached a need for the team to improve defensively, a charge that helped propel the team to a National League East title.

Now, as the focus turns toward fixing a lineup that faded down the stretch, it’s the linchpin of that defense that presents Atlanta with a luxury in its pursuit of a corner outfielder.

“Knowing we have (Ender Inciarte) in center field, it does allow us to at least discuss taking on a defender that’s maybe not as strong because the bat is that much better,” Anthopoulos said in his media availability Tuesday at the second day of MLB Winter Meetings. “It’s not our first choice, but Ender does allow us to broaden our scope of player we might go after.”

No outfielder made more Out Of Zone plays than Inciarte’s 112 as he won his third straight Gold Glove, an ability to cover ground that Anthopoulos says has at least one front-office member likening him to the Braves having “a center fielder and a half.”

As the Braves “broaden their scope,” at least one player that appeared to be a strong fit is close to coming off the board. The rival Phillies have reportedly agreed to a three-year, $50 million deal for Andrew McCutchen, who hit 33 percent above league average in the second half.

That deal for the 32-year-old is the only one including a free-agent outfielder that has been for more than one year and could set the tone as the Braves seek a replacement for Nick Markakis.

“I think anytime somebody goes off the board, it can move things one of two ways,” Anthopoulos said. “It can spark interest in others, it can move things up, it can take away a suitor, a landing spot for someone else or conversely move it the other way. I do think there’s a domino effect any time someone comes off the board, whether its in trade or free agency.”

Among the key free agent outfielders the Braves would be giving up something defensively with nearly all of them. Michael Brantley (124 wRC+ in ’18) had a minus-0.7 defensive WAR, Carlos Gonzalez (96 wRC+) has been in the negatives in each of the past five seasons and Marwin Gonzalez (104 wRC+), despite his versatility, was just a 0.5 dWAR player in 2018.

The outliers are A.J. Pollock — who had a a 0.8 dWAR season in 2018, and in his last fully healthy season of 2015 was a 1.9 dWAR player — and Markakis, who won his third Gold Glove despite a minus-0.7 dWAR. But durability remains a question mark for Pollock, as he played 113 games last season, 112 in ’17 and 12 in ’16, and Markakis, despite his highest wRC+ (114) in six years, hit 12 percent below league average in the second half.

The openness to giving up something defensively becomes all the more intriguing in the trade market, with FOX and MLB Insider Jon Morosi reporting the Braves have checked in on the Tigers’ Nick Castellanos.

The 26-year-old right fielder, who is a converted third baseman, was a minus-2.4 dWAR player last season, and had the second-worst dWAR of any player who saw more than 100 innings in right last season. He’s also coming of the best offensive season of his career, slashing .298/.354/.500 with 23 home runs.

The only right fielders with a higher wRC+ than Castellanos’ 130 were the MVPs, the Red Sox‘s Mookie Betts (185) and BrewersChristian Yelich (166), the MetsBrandon Nimmo (149) and the MarinersMitch Haniger (138).

While Anthopoulos didn’t specifically mention Castellanos or any other players on the free agent or trade markets, that trade off would go a long way to boosting an offense that was 14th in WAR (3.1) over the last month of the season.

“Of course we want better defenders, but our offense, it’s something we talked about it after we signed (Josh) Donaldson, is something we continue to prioritize,” the GM said.

The Braves aren’t closer to any moves getting done in Vegas, and there remains the possibility the search for an outfielder, starting pitcher and bullpen help stretches into the new year. But, with signs like the McCutcheon deal moving toward the finish line, the Atlanta GM is seeing progress.

“Just seems like the market is starting to move move,” Anthopoulos said. “That’s expected in the second day of Winter Meetings, whether it be free agents or trades. Dialog seems to be moving a little bit more than in Day 1.”

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His books, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ and ‘The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.’ are now available.