The Braves will enter the 2016-17 offseason with a pair of veteran outfielders — Nick Markakis and Matt Kemp — under contract through 2018 and 2019, respectively, as well as a pair of fleet-footed defensive stars — Ender Inciarte and Mallex Smith — that the team has hoped can become long-term pieces. And, in looking at the potential logjam, David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes that it’s “likely” that veteran Jeff Francoeur will be back in the fold with the Braves to once again fill a bench role.
With a quartet of outfielders that could factor into the starting mix, there figures to be plenty of chatter about the Braves trading an outfielder this offseason, so let’s take a look at the possibility of each…
Nick Markakis: Owed $10.5MM in each of the next two seasons, Markakis looked to be a potentially regrettable investment for the Braves earlier this season. The veteran right fielder hit just three homers in his first season with Atlanta and had managed just one long ball in the first two and a half months of the current season. His bat exploded in mid-June, though, and suddenly the 32-year-old (33 this winter) is in vintage form. In his past 337 plate appearances, Markakis is batting an exceptional .297/.359/.473 with 11 homers and 20 doubles. Defensive metrics are once again casting a favorable light on his glove work as well (+10 DRS, +1.6 UZR), making the remaining $22MM on his contract look perfectly reasonable. If the Braves are going to move an outfielder this winter, I agree with O’Brien’s assessment in the previously linked column that Markakis is the likeliest of the bunch. He’s a shorter-term investment than Kemp with superior defense.
Matt Kemp: Kemp is technically owed $21.5MM in each of the next three seasons, but the Dodgers are picking up the tab on $3.5MM of that sum each season, so he could be had for $18MM annually from 2017-19. That’s still a huge price to pay for a player who grades out as one of baseball’s worst defensive players. Defensive Runs saved pegs Kemp at -18 this season, and Ultimate Zone Rating’s -11.4 isn’t much more favorable. With 31 homers on the season, Kemp has demonstrated that he still has plenty of power in his bat, and it’s worth noting that he’s restored his previously pitiful walk rate in recent months. Kemp has walked at an 8.2 percent clip with Atlanta and 7.8 percent clip dating back to June 14 — a vast improvement for a player that incredibly drew just two unintentional walks through his first 270 plate appearances this season. Some have suggested that Kemp’s presence has bolstered the production of Markakis and Freddie Freeman. However, as noted above, Markakis’ production is more a continuation of his June/July surge than something that could be directly attributable to Kemp’s presence in the lineup. Freeman, meanwhile, was already having a strong season and was entering a hot streak in the days leading up to Kemp’s acquisition. Kemp turns 32 next week, so he’s a year younger than Markakis with a superior bat. But, he’s considerably more expensive and comes with drastically inferior defense and on-base skills.
Ender Inciarte: Trading Inciarte seems decidedly unlikely, but if we’re exploring all options, the possibility may as well be raised. The Braves have shown a willingness to trade virtually anyone other than Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran, though Inciarte’s incredible play since returning from the disabled list could conceivably have pushed him into that echelon. The 25-year-old is hitting .288/.346/.381 with three homers and 15 steals through 512 plate appearances, and those numbers jump to .316/.368/.425 since June 5 (as O’Brien points out). Paired with his elite defense in the outfield (+13 DRS, +15.9 UZR) and remaining four seasons of control, that offensive production makes Inciarte one of the most quietly valuable commodities in Major League Baseball. He’s a four to five win player over the course of a full season, so four years of his services would need to come with an enormous return. He’s slated to hit arbitration as a Super Two player this winter, but that doesn’t detract from his value. Indeed, O’Brien notes that Atlanta would need to be “bowled over” by a huge offer to part with Inciarte.
Mallex Smith: It’s doubtful that the Braves are itching to part with the 23-year-old Smith, either, but as I noted with regards to Inciarte, if the point of this write-up is to explore every option, dealing Smith as part of a package for some pitching help — GM John Coppolella has stated that he hopes to add two starters this winter — should be mentioned. Smith had a great minor league season in 2015 when he slashed .303/.371/.378 with 56 steals in 542 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A as a 22-year-old. He made his big league debut early this season when the Braves needed a replacement for the aforementioned Inciarte injury, and his electric speed and defensive contributions secured his roster spot even after Inciarte’s return. Smith didn’t look overly comfortable against MLB pitching, hitting just .237/.312/.379 before a fractured thumb cost him several months. He did slash .256/.350/.422 in his final 104 plate appearances, but that’s a fairly small sample from which to glean an accurate representation of his skills. There’s not a lot to go on at the MLB level just yet, but Smith possesses 80-grade speed in the eyes of some scouts and draws strong reviews for his defense in center and for his plate discipline. The Braves viewed him as a long-term option in center before acquiring Inciarte, and another club could feel similarly and consider him an appealing piece of a package to net the Braves some much-needed pitching.
The alternative scenario, of course, is that the Braves simply hold onto all four outfielders. After all, Smith has scarcely been tested in the Majors, and the presence of all four would create a good deal of depth in the event of injuries. Even if Smith is kept around as a fourth outfielder, he could see routine time as a late-game defensive replacement for Kemp and/or a pinch-running option when he isn’t in the starting lineup. (Though, certainly, there’s an argument to be made for him to play every day in Triple-A if he doesn’t crack next year’s starting outfield mix.)
With any number of avenues for the Braves to pursue this winter, let’s see what MLBTR readers find to be the best course of action (link to poll for MLBTR app users)…