ATLANTA - Braves pitchers and catchers report to spring training Friday, with their first workout scheduled for Saturday. The rest of team has until Feb. 20 to report, with the first full-squad workout scheduled for the next day. This is the of a five-part series this week from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previewing the 2019 season.
Ronald Acuna might be the Braves’ best player. By season’s end, he might be the National League’s best player. A year after a business decision prevented him from making the opening-day roster, he’s garnered the “franchise” label.
Acuna’s outfield mates will look the same as 2018. Ender Inciarte will continue hunting gold gloves in center field. Nick Markakis is back to handle right field after a long winter in which the Braves explored no shortage of alternatives.
Ultimately, the team kept its outfield together. That decision has been met with mixed reviews, but as general manager Alex Anthopoulos often says, no one will argue if presented the desired results. Even if the group seems easy to predict, there are some discrepancies with each individual.
In 2018, Markakis stacked the cupboard with accolades. His bat dropped off as the season went on, including a .323 first-half average that dipped to .258 after the break, which created concerns. But Markakis at $4 million (along with an option that guarantees him $6 million total) was a bargain. His clubhouse presence and daily reliability ensures they’ll get their money’s worth.
Anthopoulos acknowledged Markakis was still hitting the ball hard at the end of the year. The Braves believe with more days off, Markakis can extend his peak performance. They preferred Markakis over a flier on another veteran free-agent outfielder.
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A truth that’s hard for some to accept: The Braves weren’t bidding for Bryce Harper. The team wasn’t comfortable issuing an eight-to-10-year deal or the enormous total, expected to exceed $300 million. They didn’t view it as palatable for a mid-market.
Obviously that’s a common view among baseball’s meal-cookers, and it’s helped freeze free agency, but the Braves simply opted for long-term flexibility over possible unprecedented commitment. It’s a logical stance, as are the more critical perceptions of that decision.
Fans’ angst is eased by Acuna, who might soon cement himself as the sport’s No. 1 young talent. Embodying the five-tool talent, Acuna is already the face of the next generation Braves. Expect to see him plenty on the national and local promo pieces.
Acuna hit .293 with 26 homers with 64 RBIs, while swiping 16 bases, in his rookie season. He led the Braves’ second-half surge from the leadoff spot. He was the spark plug the franchise needed, and much of their success will depend on his next step. If he’s helping the Braves start off strong, it’s already easy to envision some MVP buzz.
Inciarte’s best asset is his defensive reliability. The Braves can trust he’ll be among the best defenders patrolling center. He made up for a slow first half at the plate to once again have applaudable results after the break.
He hit .241 with a .312 on-base percentage in the first half, eventually being replaced at leadoff. Inciarte responded by hitting .302 with a .345 on-base percentage in the second half. He had 22 extra-base hits in 65 games after the break opposed to 21 in the 91 games before it.
Charlie Culberson will spell the trio in the outfield, as might Johan Camargo, who will play some outfield this spring and received hefty praise from Inciarte. Adam Duvall is the team’s current fourth outfielder, but he’ll need a solid spring to make the roster.
Duvall is an excellent defender with a power profile, but his poor play with the Braves following last year’s trade deadline didn’t earn him a spot on this season’s unit. Still, the Braves understood he was put in a tough spot with occasional playing time, and they want to see him this spring. He’s a better player than he showed during that stretch.
In all, the Braves’ starting outfield is a good group. They have depth to fill in when necessary, even if they lack a clear-cut answer for fourth outfielder. Perhaps Duvall fills that role – which would give them pop off the bench and keep another plus defender on the team – or they add another name to the mix by March’s end.
This article was written by Gabriel Burns, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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