Well, you see the question in the headline. Should they? In brief, in my opinion: no.
This is the sort of query we get a lot from readers. When there’s depth at a position, it’s natural to wonder whether some of it could be used in a swap. We’ve been asked quite a bit about Braves outfielder Ender Inciarte, who struggled before hitting the injured list and has now perhaps been indirectly Wally Pipp’ed by exciting young slugger Austin Riley.
Thing is, Inciarte is no Pipp. When Pipp was eclipsed by Lou Gehrig, he was a 32-year-old first baseman mired in a slump after years of inconsistent offensive production. Inciarte? Ironically, his 63 OPS+ is a near-match to Pipp’s 62 OPS+ from that fateful 1925 season. Otherwise, they are nothing alike. Inciarte is a high-grade defensive outfielder and baserunner. Even if he’s a slightly below-average true-talent hitter, which seems like a fair characterization, he’s a valuable roster piece.
I admit it, the Pipp thing isn’t really even an apt analogy in the first place. But that only goes to prove the point on Inciarte.
Take a look at this Braves roster. Ronald Acuna is capable of playing center field and probably doing whatever else he happens to feel like on a baseball field. Nick Markakis is entrenched in right for the rest of the season and Riley’s bat isn’t coming out of the lineup unless and until MLB pitchers figure him out. On the reserve side, Matt Joyce has been a useful lefty bench bat; Charlie Culberson and Johan Camargo are infielders by trade.
Inciarte still fits just fine — quite nicely, in fact, especially given that Riley is still learning the outfield on the fly. Inciarte could enter late in games as a pinch-runner and/or defensive replacement for Riley, leaving the Braves with an excellent defensive alignment. And let’s not forget that Inciarte has a history of solid output as an everyday player. If there’s an injury or a sudden downturn, it’d be awfully nice to have him around.
Making a roster adjustment to accommodate him shouldn’t be too hard. Joyce is a bit of a luxury for a team that has so many firm regulars. He has been tasked with a limited role, serving mostly as a pinch-hitter and logging only 35 1/3 innings in the field. It’s not as if Inciarte isn’t capable enough against right-handed pitching himself; for his career, he’s a .289/.339/.404 hitter with the platoon advantage.
If the Braves prefer to hang onto Joyce, and maintain their overall slate of players, they can option down Camargo. Heck, Culberson is hitting like he’d belong on one of Gehrig’s old teams, so expanding his role would make sense regardless. With Riley on the roster, there’s a ready-made third-base fill-in to spell Josh Donaldson. And Camargo is really struggling at the plate. He has seen an erosion in plate discipline. He’s putting the ball in the air more but not doing so with authority, leaving him with a meager power output (.111 ISO) and low BABIP (.244) that’s not entirely undeserved. There’s good reason to think he’ll ultimately improve upon his ugly .213/.261/.324 slash, but some time working out the kinks at Triple-A wouldn’t be the worst idea.
The future considerations also weigh in favor of keeping Inciarte around. If you’ll indulge my strained comparison yet further … well, Riley isn’t the Iron Horse. No, I’m not talking about the attributes of the players here. It’s about the nature of the roster situation. Riley wasn’t called up to replace Donaldson, who unlike Pipp has been both effective and healthy this year. But third base is Riley’s natural position. And Donaldson will be a free agent at season’s end. Markakis is also a free agent. Really, when you look ahead to the Braves’ 2020 roster, there’s just one sure thing in the outfield: Acuna.
Given that situation, keeping the respected and familiar Inciarte on hand would make a ton of sense. He could re-take his semi-regular role in center or platoon with a right-handed-hitting player (perhaps even Adam Duvall, who is still stuck at Triple-A). That’d help the Braves bridge the gap to Cristian Pache and other young talents.
Inciarte’s extension calls for a reasonable $7MM salary in 2020, with $8MM for the following year and a $9MM club option thereafter. That’s still a nice price tag for a thrifty Atlanta organization. If they swing some big trades, signings, and/or promotions and no longer wish to keep Inciarte, the contract ought still to be movable.
To be sure, moving Inciarte should (and no doubt would) be considered if there’s an appealing-enough offer. But making a trade now would likely mean selling low. It’d cut into the team’s depth and flexibility, this season and in the near future. And it probably isn’t necessary — or shouldn’t be, anyway. The club is still loaded with young talent, not all of which can be maintained easily within the constraints of MLB’s roster rules. And it shouldn’t need to shed salary (or avoid taking it on) to acquire any desired mid-season upgrades, since the team expressly reserved payroll capacity for the middle of the season.