The Braves’ Cyber Monday Buys

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays

On Cyber Monday, I bought a sweet coffee cup for my mom (she won’t read this, right?), some toys for my great-nieces and great-nephew, and some other toys for my two kids. I thought it was a productive day.

But then, I’m not Alex Anthopoulos.

As you well know by now since I’m late to the party, the Braves signed catcher Brian McCann for $2 million and on Monday before adding Josh Donaldson on a $23 million pact later in the day. That second bit of news was not official when the Braves and McCann sat down for a press conference at SunTrust Park, though McCann “leaked” the news during the sit-down with Atlanta’s media. Okay, so he didn’t necessarily “leak” the news, but it was a funny moment nevertheless.

There is a lot to talk about here and you’ve likely read a lot about it. But there are a few things that interest me the most. For more on Donaldson, I invite you to read my Due Diligence article on him which goes deep into why I would gamble on Donaldson. I was not alone.

The Camargo Factor

One of the reasons people told me that the Braves didn’t need Donaldson when I wrote my original article was the presence of Johan Camargo. “We already have a good third baseman” was a common retort. Simplistically, this argument holds true. While known as a hitting prospect in the minors, Camargo’s bat never developed until the 2017 season. His success in Gwinnett coupled with Adonis Garcia’s struggles and injuries in the majors opened the door for Camargo and he busted right through, hitting .299 along the way with a .154 ISO.

Naturally, people cautioned that Camargo might be due to some regression and certainly his average fell in his sophomore season. Everything else, including his walk rate and ISO, increased. In his first full season, he had a 3.3 fWAR in 134 games. He was one of the better third baseman to play in the National League during 2018.

So, why replace him?

First off, the Braves aren’t replacing him. They’re bettering the entire roster. One of the big weaknesses we saw with the Braves in the playoffs against a team like the Dodgers was that the Braves bench was horrendous. So desperate were the Braves that they used one of their precious roster spots on Rene Rivera to allow them the opportunity to utilize Tyler Flowers or Kurt Suzuki as a pinch hitter. Ryan Flaherty and Lane Adams, two guys the Braves designated for assignment during the season, were used off the bench as hitters – something neither of the two are particularly gifted at.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers countered with David Freese, Brian Dozier, Matt Kemp, and Chris Taylor. While Dozier had a down season, he’s a former All-Star and the other three had an OPS in 2018 of at least .775. That kind of depth allowed the Dodgers to, in Game 3, start the game with Taylor, Kemp, and Freese in the lineup as the Braves went with the lefty Sean Newcomb.

The Braves cannot match the Dodgers in payroll, but that shouldn’t stop them from rebuilding a bench that has players on it you wouldn’t feel embarrassed to start in a playoff game. With Camargo, they have just that. In 216 career games, Camargo has a .281/.343/.455 career slash with a .341 wOBA. A switch-hitter, Camargo has owned southpaw pitching in the majors with a .385 wOBA.

Like with Donaldson, I wrote about Marwin Gonzalez in my Due Diligence series. One of the issues with Gonzalez, though, was paying a super utility guy the kind of money you expect an everyday starter to make. With Camargo, you don’t have that. Now, we do not know right now if Camargo can play a passable outfield. Outside of an inning in left field during 2017, he’s never played the outfield. Camargo isn’t exactly fleet of foot, either. His sprint speed of 26.3 ft/sec matched another guy who was put in the outfield and turned into a big liability in Rhys Hoskins. In fact, Camargo is slightly slower than Nick Markakis. At the same time, he’s only a tick slower than Gonzalez and nobody was going to blink an eye about the idea of Gonzalez playing the outfield. Defense in the outfield is not all speed-related. Ender Inciarte is not particularly fast – at least compared to the league. He ranked 186th in Sprint Speed. He makes up for it with great positioning, wonderful instincts, and tremendous angles. Whether Camargo can play a passable left field is up-for-debate. I have my concerns, but I doubt he’ll be Evan Gattis-bad regardless.

Super utility players like Camargo who can both play several positions and still hit makes the team deeper. In August of last season, as the Braves struggled to make it through the sweltering southeast heat, the Braves had one true bench player – Charlie Culberson. Adam Duvall was brought in and spectacularly failed to impress. The Braves, trying to contend for a division title, were scared to give Freddie Freeman and company a day off. Now, with Camargo in the fold, they won’t be scared but anxious to give players some time off. Let Camargo play second base one day, left field the next, and give Donaldson a breather the following game. While Camargo won’t be a “starter” for the 2019 Braves, if you are struggling to find Camargo 100 starts for next year, you aren’t being creative enough.

Options Are Good

This week, I floated the idea of occasionally moving Dansby Swanson to the outfield, Ozzie Albies over to short, and Camargo to second. Some liked the idea of the added versatility. Some not so much, arguing that Swanson’s value is higher at shortstop and even moving him for a game or two a month hurts that. One person suggested that Albies moving to left field might be the easier choice to give a guy a day off.

My suggestion wasn’t to advocate for a full-time switch. It’s all about options. While some of the time, it seems Cubs manager Joe Maddon is moving people around just to do it, having the options to move players to different positions keeps the team never in a position where they have players potentially playing positions they are uncomfortable with late in games. Javier Baez played all four infield positions. Kris Bryant played all four corner positions. Ian Happ played every position except for shortstop and catcher. Even Wilson Contreras saw some time in left field and at first base.

Not every player can move around. Not every player should move around. But having options is always a good thing. Of the Braves eight regular players last year, only Ronald Acuña Jr. and Camargo played more than two positions. One other player, Markakis, played two positions entirely because of his previous knowledge of how to play balls off the Green Monster in Boston. The rest of the regular eight played one position and one position only. The Braves can do better than that. Let Albies play shortstop, where he is better suited than Camargo. Let Donaldson take a few reps at first base, where he does have some experience. Even give Flowers or new catcher Brian McCann a day at first base to spell Freeman. Having a flexible roster makes life easier for your manager.

The Donaldson Move

Those against the signing of Donaldson usually had three reasons for their position. We already went over the Camargo Effect. Let’s touch on the other two issues because they are related – claims that Donaldson is injury-prone and washed up.

The second part is just ridiculous to me. In 2017 – which I have on good authority was just over a year ago – Donaldson slashed .270/.385/.559. My quick math gives Donaldson an OPS of .944. Over the last decade, do you know how many Braves have an OPS above .900 in a single season? One. Just one. He did it twice, but Freeman is only one player. In fact, the highest non-Freeman OPS since 2009 was Jason Heyward in 2010. His OPS that year was .849.

Now, to be fair, I’m only using qualified players. Acuña Jr., for instance, had an OPS of .917 last season, but didn’t have the needed plate appearances. Regardless, the idea that Donaldson is somehow washed up because of one bad season after a half-dozen amazing seasons is fairly bogus in my mind.

But can we say that he has been injury-prone? Again, it’s a bit too soon to attach such a label to Donaldson. His first full season in the majors was 2013. He played in at least 155 games during the next four seasons. Calf injuries, along with a shoulder issue, have cost him 130-140 games over the last two seasons and his bat was really struggling to open 2018. Setbacks kept him on the DL, but once healthy following a trade to the Indians, Donaldson hit .280/.400/.520 to close out the season. His quality of contact stats, which showed a very un-Donaldson like 20.2% softly-hit contact with the Jays to open the season, was back to his career norms of 15% with the Indians.

Donaldson will be 33 next season. Such an age can be a bit dicey when projecting continued performance at a level the player has shown an ability to perform at. Older players get tired more often. However, that’s why the Braves still have Camargo. They don’t need Donaldson to start 150 games. What they need is for Donaldson to be fresh, play in 140 games, and be healthy for October baseball. They are also hoping that Donaldson betting on himself for one last big payday delivers huge results for the Braves. Donaldson could have settled for a multi-year contract with a lower base salary and incentives – the kind of deal that protects the team. But he believed in himself and believed he can earn the kind of multi-year contract a player with a career .375 wOBA typically receive. The Braves are hopeful he’s right.

Mac Comes Home

I took some heat on Twitter after calling the signing of Brian McCann underwhelming. While a huge fan of McCann, I had higher hopes than the former Braves All-Star this winter. I didn’t even cover McCann in my Due Diligence article on catchers. I just didn’t feel it was the best fit. But I don’t get paid the big bucks like Anthopoulos does to make such calls.

We can talk a lot about McCann’s offense, how he fits as a platoon member (McFlow nearly rolls off the tongue as well as FlowZuki), and his defense, but this move was not made for the easily quantifiable parts of the game. That said, one of the quantifiable things we can say is that McCann’s pitch framing metrics, which used to be above-average, have trended more toward average over the last few years. That is still an improvement over Kurt Suzuki.

But McCann was brought back for two reasons. With any young pitching staff, you need a trusty veteran to guide them. McCann is respected throughout the game for his leadership skills. Just take a look at how his ex-Astros teammate Collin McHugh reacted to the news that McCann was leaving. Having McCann, along with Flowers, who are both renowned for how they handle pitchers can only help with the on-the-field product. They’re both like extra coaches who aid their pitchers through guile and intelligence.

Another reason McCann is now a Brave may be related to a recent hire of Mike Fast. The former Directer of Research and Development of the Astros is one of pioneers of pitch framing metrics along with other analytics that McCann is comfortable with. It’ll help speed up Fast’s ability to work his magic with the new analytics era that Anthopoulos started soon after he was hired.

McCann and Flowers may not, combined, hit as well as Wilson Ramos or Yasmani Grandal, but their work behind the plate, in the dugout, and during pitchers’ meetings could be a huge reason should the Braves reach their goals in 2019 of a title.

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot I’m not covering yet about these two deals – hypothetical lineups, what this means for Austin Riley and Charlie Culberson, how the Braves remain set up to add further pieces to the team. I do plan on getting around to those things, but as time didn’t allow for a quicker article on the moves, I wanted to focus my attention on a few things I found most important. Obviously, there is still much work to be done. Tomorrow is the non-tender deadline – expect an article soon on that. The winter meetings are in a couple of weeks and shrewd GMs like Anthopoulos will look to add a few key additions. And there is still much to be decided during a slow start to free agency that has scores of players waiting for some bigger ticket players to find a home before reassessing their own value.

The Braves still need a corner outfielder. They could also use help in high leverage relief spots along with a top of the rotation arm to pair with Mike Foltynewicz. But on Cyber Monday, the Braves addressed two needs and did so without tying up millions in future salary and blocking other young players coming through the still talent-rich system.

It was a good day. While I understand those that aren’t jumping for joy, the moves were smart, calculated, and come with a high chance of paying off more than they cost in salary. That’s what you aim for when signing free agents.

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