The Atlanta Braves kicked off the off-season with a bang on Monday by signing fan-favorite catcher, Brian McCann, and superstar third baseman, Josh Donaldson. In these two players the Braves are receiving a veteran presence behind the dish and an impact bat to man the hot corner. However, there is still a big hole on this team in the outfield. Nearly the entire off-season is still in front of them so the front office still has plenty of time and many options to choose from. There are several free agents still available and even some intriguing players who could be available via trade.
Let’s start by taking a look at what kind of players Alex Anthopoulos and his staff might be looking to acquire. The Braves had a below average offense in 2018 posting a 97 wRC+. So we would have to imagine that a good bat will be the primary requirement. However, the acquisition of Donaldson makes the need to bring in another impact bat less important. While the Braves ranked 11th in the game in on base percentage, the team was in the bottom third in walk rate, so we can assume they will also be looking for a player that walks at least an average amount. The team should also be looking for a player that can help them improve against right-handed pitching. Braves hitters ranked in the bottom third in all of baseball with just a 93 wRC+ against righties last season. The Braves also ranked very poorly in team home runs. We would have to imagine that the team will look to add more power especially in the corner outfield spot.
Looking at 2018 Braves outfielders specifically paints a similar picture. The team was in the top half of the league with a 107 wRC+ among outfielders, they did not strikeout much but they also didn’t walk a whole lot either. The outfield was also fairly good in the field and the front office will likely prefer to keep that trend going in a positive direction. So what exactly are we looking for? A left-handed corner outfielder or one that can handle right-handed pitching who knows how to take a walk, makes solid contact with some pop in his bat and can play good defense. So let’s find him!
Today, lets look to the free agent market where all the team would have to give up is money. Whenever available we are going to be looking at 2019 projections for players, because we care much more about what the player is going to do moving forward than what he did in the past. If we first look for free agents that are projected to hit for at least a .350 OBP and .450 SLG in 2019 it reveals three potential targets: Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, and Michael Brantley. None of these players are excellent in the field, but they are the closest to what the Braves should be looking for on the free agent market.
Bryce Harper would clearly be the biggest upgrade the team could make to the offense at this point. He projects to produce a 147 wRC+ which would be better than any other hitter in the Braves lineup. He easily matches up for what the team needs as he projects to get on base roughly 40% of the time and slug well over .500. Harper also destroys right-handed pitching which would make him the perfect fit for the Braves lineup. His biggest downfall on the field is his defense. In 2018 Harper posted -26 Defensive Runs Saved, -14.4 UZR, and -12 Outs Above Average, which were all good for some of the worst numbers in the league. Harper had never been this bad defensively before 2018 so it stands to reason that this could have just been a down year, but the numbers are still troubling.
The other major pitfall to acquiring Harper is the massive contract that the Braves would have to shell out to sign him. MLB Trade Rumors predicts that Bryce will sign for a whopping $420 million over 14 years. This is clearly not a realistic figure for the Braves to even consider, but if the years and dollars somehow come down into the 8 years and $250 million range then a discussion can be had. Fangraphs predicts Harper to fetch something more like $330 million over 10 years which is closer to a number the Braves may be able to stomach. Regardless, Harper would cost a ton but he would improve the team tremendously.
Andrew McCutchen also fits what the Braves are looking for very well. First of all, he is an on-base machine, walking at least 10% of the time every year of his career as well as never getting on base lower than 33% of the time. McCutchen is also a consistent source of power as he has hit at least 20 home runs in every season since 2011 and has never slugged less than .424. Durability is another McCutchen calling card as he has made at least 600 plate appearances every year since 2010. While McCutchen is right-handed himself, he still handles right-handed pitching just fine carrying a career 129 wRC+ against them and a 118 last season. The only downside here would be his poor defensive reputation, but this could likely be masked by playing alongside Ender Inciarte.
Bringing McCutchen to Atlanta should be much easier than it would be to ink Bryce Harper. Predictions for McCutchen’s next contract range anywhere from 2 years and $26 million to 3 years and $45 million. He should be worth any of these contracts as he is projected to be a 2.6 fWAR player next season and the drop off in the future likely won’t be so bad as to make any reasonable deal for McCutchen an albatross.
Michael Brantley projects to be essentially what Nick Markakis was last year. A high on-base corner outfielder with a little power that rarely strikes out. If the Braves could guarantee another 2018 Markakis season, they should probably sign up immediately. The only issue is the durability concerns surrounding Brantley. While he was healthy last season and collected 631 plate appearances, it was his first year racking up 600 or more PAs since 2014. However, he has been good when healthy and has even been an elite hitter at times. While he doesn’t provide the walk rates of Harper or McCutchen, what he lacks in that department he makes up for with his incredible contact rate. His 9.5% strikeout rate last season ranked second in the majors among qualified hitters. Similar to the others, Brantley is not a defensive stalwart but he shouldn’t be any worse than Markakis was a year ago. Brantley also fits the need for the need for a left-handed batter and crushes righties but he is much weaker against lefties than the other options.
Consensus on Brantley is that he will sign a deal for around $45 million over 3 years. Given relatively good health, Brantley should be worth this size contract as he has been a good hitter over the healthy years of his career. It wouldn’t be shocking however to see him sign for fewer years and more dollars per year due to his injury question marks.
On the free agent market it appears that Andrew McCutchen and Michael Brantley are the two best options for the Braves. They are very similar talents and either would be a good pick up for the team. I would lean toward McCutchen all things being equal due to the power and on-base ability. However, I would prefer either player on a two-year deal at a higher annual salary than giving either aging player a third year. They both seem to be good bets to be productive players over the next couple of years, but the third year is where I would get nervous. A two-year deal would also allow a proper amount of time for the Braves to develop their two talented outfield prospects, Christian Pache and Drew Waters. If either player were willing to take a 2 year $30 million the Braves should make that move. Next time we will discuss the potential trade targets the Braves could land to fit in their outfield.