Braves Free Agent Preview: Outfield/DH
2/3's of the outfield is taken care of. But what will left field and, for that matter, DH look like?
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Early in the 2022 season, Braves outfielders were a daily disappointment. Adam Duvall was stuck in neutral, Eddie Rosario couldn't see, Ronald Acuña Jr. couldn't get healthy, and Marcell Ozuna was an embarrassment.
But then Michael Harris II arrived and the outfield started to find its footing. And while Acuña Jr.'s offense was never on full display and left field was a mix of awfulness, the outfield stopped being a glaring problem the Braves couldn't deal with.
As we turn the page and look at 2023, there are still questions in left field to deal with. Those questions also bleed into DH. We'll see how it all plays out.
2023 Outfielders at a Glance
Ronald Acuña Jr. - $17 million
Marcell Ozuna - $16 million
Eddie Rosario - $9 million
Michael Harris II - $5 million
Guillermo Heredia - $1.1 million (arbitration estimate)
Free Agents - Adam Duvall, Robbie Grossman, Alex Dickerson, Travis Demeritte
Prospects - Justyn-Henry Malloy, Jesse Franklin V
The New Franchise Cornerstone
You won't sound smarter if you tell someone you saw Harris II's 2022 season ending up like it did back in March of 2022 because nobody is going to believe you. A player who hit just seven homers in High-A ball during 2021 smacked 19 dingers in the majors to go with five homers ahead of the callup. He added 20 steals and a .367 wOBA. His Barrel% was 10.1%. Oh, and hey, no big deal or anything, but he added 8 DRS and 7 OAA.
Harris II would be the runaway pick for Rookie of the Year if it wasn't for his teammate, Spencer Strider. But that's just the numbers that he put up. His impact on the team was just as big - if not bigger. On May 27, the day before Harris II joined the team, the Braves were 22-24. They would finish 79-37 and that was not a coincidence. While Adam Duvall did his damndest to play a decent center field, he didn't make those around him so much better like Harris II did. There is a valid argument to be made that Harris II was the team's MVP in 2022.
Now, can he repeat that effort? Or, more importantly, can he continue to develop? Obviously, the Braves believe he will after guaranteeing him $72 million as part of an eight-year contract extension that begins with next season. The Braves are betting that the 21-year-old has a lot more to give in future seasons.
For one, he will need to get better against southpaws. His strikeout rate ballooned against lefties and he hit a measly .238 with just two of his 19 homers. Improving those marks against lefthanders will be a huge step for Harris II. You'd also like to see Harris II improve his walk rate. He walked in just 4.8% of his appearances in 2022 as a major leaguer. Getting more selective could make a world of a difference. As will putting the ball in the air more. Despite his power numbers, Harris II carried a 2-to-1 groundball-to-flyball rate.
But remember - he doesn't turn 22 until March. Most players his age are trying to improve these things in the minors, not on the job in the majors. Especially while putting up a 4.8 fWAR season. The future looks absolutely blinding bright for the young man out of Stockbridge.
Rebound for Acuña Jr.
I don't want to shock you guys, but even in his worst season, Ronald Acuña Jr. still found a way to put up a 2.2 fWAR. Told to be careful with his surgically repaired knee, he still swiped 29 bases and had the extra gear when needed to burn the other team on the bases. And while his walk rate dropped a bit, he still finished with nearly a 10% mark.
But for far too many Braves fans, the only thing they will remember is the injuries and not backing up a play in left-center field. Ignore that he was one of the few hitters to actually do anything in the playoffs. Ignore that he played with pain all season long.
That's okay, though, because those same fans will be screaming for him next season when he can actually have a regular offseason and show the world again what Ronald Acuña Jr. is made of. When we last saw the kid at his best, he was hitting .283/.394/.596 with a .412 wOBA right before his season ended in 2021.
Oh...and did I mention he's still a month away from turning 25?
So, if you see someone saying, "Braves need to consider trading him," remember that these people aren't really worth talking to. Just laugh at them. I know I do.
Left Field, DH, Bench
The Braves have $25 million invested in Marcell Ozuna and Eddie Rosario in 2023. They are going to need a lot more than than the combined -1.7 fWAR from 2022.
Ozuna's fall has been well-documented. After a huge abbreviated performance in 2020, the Braves awarded Ozuna with a $65M contract over four seasons. Since then, he's been worth -0.9 fWAR. The fact that Ozuna hasn't been as good as he was in 2020 wasn't too surprising. He had one season with a wOBA above .340 before 2020's .444 absurdity. He was due to regress. But his worst two seasons of his career? And if that wasn't bad enough, there have been the off-the-field issues.
The Braves have reportedly been interested in a pair of bad contract swaps that have made little sense. Others have suggested pairing Ozuna with a superfluous prospect - someone blocked by others. Perhaps Kyle Muller? My preference is to just release him and move on. After all, I'd rather use Muller to gain an asset or use Muller as a potential high-leverage reliever than give him away just to save some (unlikely to be all) of Ozuna's salary moving forward.
Of course, for some, the best case scenario is that Ozuna stop being horrendously bad. On the other hand, maybe you are just done with him. Whatever the case, he cannot continue to hit like he has the last two years whether he is at DH or in left field.
On the other hand, there are no bad feelings toward Eddie Rosario. He made lifetime fans for his production in the 2021 playoffs especially his unconscious play during the NLCS. That run - plus a .903 OPS down the stretch during the regular season - helped land Rosario an $18 million contract with the Braves for last year and next.
But things never got going for Rosario. He got off to a 3-for-44 start. Thinking he might need contact lenses, he visited an eye doctor. He ended up needing an eye procedure to correct his blurred vision and swelling in his right eye. And while he would hit better after his return in July, the results were still not close to his previous levels, hitting a meek .243/.281/.379 after July 4th. That doesn't include an 0-for-8 NLDS effort despite never losing the love of Braves fans, who chanted "EDDIE" every time he came up to bat at Truist Park during the playoffs.
While Rosario can't be expected to hit as ridiculously well as he hit in the 2021 NLCS, we naturally expect more if his eyes are right. He has three 20-homer seasons to his credit with a career .270 average. That includes a lifetime .794 OPS against right-hand pitching. If the Braves opt for an expensive left-field platoon in 2023 with occasional DH starts, that wouldn't be terrible from the right-hand side especially in this lineup.
But production is ultimately all that matters and two hitters that produced almost nothing in 2022 will have the spotlight on them in 2023.
A Braves Legend
Guillermo Heredia hit an abysmal .158 during the 2022 season and, while he did get demoted briefly, the Braves never really looked at replacing the pink sword wielder. Does that mean the Braves often played with a short roster? Probably. But Heredia obviously means more to this team than his on-the-field contributions.
However, as the offseason looms, keeping a spot open for Heredia might be a bit more difficult. He'll be arbitration-eligible for one more season and will add around an extra million to the tab if brought back. That's not a lot of money by any means, but will the Braves decide to non-tender Heredia and try to bring back on a minor league deal?
The choice the Braves go with will decide how much they really value Heredia's intangibles. Obviously, the team loves him. But taking up a roster spot on a team with questions at shortstop, left field, and, to some degree, DH might seem excessive when the player doesn't necessarily add much that can be plainly seen in the numbers.
Duvy, Robbie, or Neither?
While the Braves have a few other outfield free agents mixed in, the two main targets to consider bringing back are Adam Duvall or Robbie Grossman. It doesn't seem like either are likely, though.
In terms of overall value, Duvall is the superior defender. He's a legitimate Gold Glove option at both left-and-right field who played a shockingly good center field the last two seasons (4 DRS, 5 OOA in nearly 600 innings). Meanwhile, if Ozuna is shed, Grossman does make a bit more sense. He carries a 122 wRC+ against lefties during his career and could combine with Rosario to be a solid pairing - assuming a Rosario rebound.
But then, if the Braves want to upgrade at LF or DH, why not target a better overall talent than either Duvall or Grossman?
The Next Harris II?
Okay, I am being a bit ridiculous here. There's not another Michael Harris II in the system. But there's a possible answer at LF or DH in the form of Justyn-Henry Malloy. A 2021 sixth-rounder, Malloy opened 2022 in Rome, hitting .304/.409/.479 over 71 games with 10 homers. That earned him a promotion to Mississippi and a triple slash of .268/.403/.421 led to yet another promotion. With Gwinnett, Malloy hit .280/.424/.440. Overall, he belted 17 homers, smacked 28 doubles, and even stole five bases.
Malloy converted full-time from third-base to LF last year following his promotion to Double-A. That sets him up nicely to get into the crowded LF picture for 2023. While the Braves have a lot of money invested already in said picture, will anyone out-hit Malloy? That's the question.
An on-base machine, Malloy walks an absolute ton (97 times last season). He makes enough good contact to believe he's more than just a three true outcomes type as well. He probably could benefit from a bit more time in the minors, but could the Braves benefit with having him in the lineup as soon as April of next year? Quite possibly. I just love his mature approach.
Speaking of a three true outcome type, Jesse Franklin V could be that. In his first season, 2021, he had a 8.4% walk-rate, a 28.3% strikeout rate, and a .278 isolated slugging. Last season was wrecked by injuries so his chances of being in the picture for 2023 are probably minimal. But there probably isn't a prospect in the Braves organization right now with better raw power.
What Else Is Out There?
It seems unlikely with the other concerns this team has - plus the money already invested - that the team will make much of a splash in free agency for a left fielder/DH. And certainly, the Braves aren't going to be players for Aaron Judge, Brandon Nimmo, or Andrew Benintendi.
But if the Braves were to dip their toes, it might be for the type of player hungry for a one-year deal with a winner. Might the Braves consider a one-year splash play for Michael Brantley? He's an injury risk and wants to stay in Houston, but is good for a .340ish wOBA or better. Could they give Joey Gallo an entertaining offer to play for a year and re-establish his value in a world where extreme shifts are no more? He'll probably get more in free agency, but what if the market goes bust for Mitch Haniger?
I'm torn between what I think the Braves will do and what I hope they will do.
I want them to go ahead and make sure Ozuna can't tell the next cop he runs into that he plays for the Braves. I want them to consider bringing in a big bat who can potentially be a lineup changer in left field and leave DH to Rosario, William Contreras, and Travis d'Arnaud for 2023 with Malloy working his way into the mix potentially at some point.
But what I think the Braves will do is say, "we have a lot of money invested in Ozuna and Rosario so we're going to give them every chance to produce" and re-evaluate during the season if another move should be needed. The plus side is such an approach will open the door a bit more for Malloy should he get off to a good start. Unfortunately, it also means Ozuna will be on the team.
And that's the end of this 2022-23 Free Agent Preview series. There are a lot of fun questions related to the Braves when the World Series ends. Has Dansby Swanson played his last game with the team? Will they rub shoulders with the big spenders and sign a top shortstop? Might they even go after Jacob deGrom as many have theorized?
Some of this will depend on just what the Braves' budget for 2023 will be. The Braves roughly spent $194.6 million on payroll during the 2022 season. They already have around $190 million invested for next year's roster. That total can be lowered some if Jake Odorizzi takes his buyout (which I think he will) and the Braves deal Manny Pina (which they could consider).
This isn't to say the Braves can't add on. The fact is we don't know just what a spending cap the Braves will have. The move to Cobb County has been financially lucrative for the organization - especially with the excitement this team has generated in recent years.
Fact is we probably won't know what the Braves can or are willing to spend until we see this offseason play out.
So, with all due respect to the Astros and Phillies, finish up already. We're ready to play.
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