January 11, 2013 at 12:22 pm by Mark Smith under Atlanta Braves
Note before we begin: the first post of this series was a preliminary projection of the talent of the team. It was mainly to get a general sense of how good the team was in order to figure out what direction the team should take moving forward. Saying the Braves are already a 90-win team is not meant to say so specifically. Injuries, luck, random production fluctuations, etc. can affect what actually happens. Saying they’re a 90-win team simply illustrates where they are in the competitive cycle: win-now mode. This means that each additional win is more valuable than the average win and that the Braves should look to favor safety over upside (ie. an established player over a prospect – unless the Braves can get a guy like Oscar Taveras, which is all but impossible). What follows here and in two more posts next week is an evaluation of what they “can try” to do to make the team better.
Platoons are the ultimate sabermetric catnip. Most of the time, you find two players who hit with the opposite hand, play the same position, have trouble hitting pitchers of the same hand, and deploy. What the Braves may attempt to fill the spot out in LF would be kitty crack for the sabermetrician. With the retirement of soon-to-be-Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, Martin Prado is the assumed 3B for 2013, but because the Braves haven’t added an everyday LF, the situation has become more complicated.
For now, let’s assume the Braves don’t add anyone. We want to find out what the best internal option is in order to figure out what the Braves would have to find externally to improve upon what they have. We’re basically concerned about 4 players here: Prado, Johnson, Francisco, and the bench player/regular LF/platoon player. They have 5 choices based on the current roster:
1) Prado plays 3B every day, and Reed Johnson does the same in LF.
2) Prado plays 3B every day, and Johnson platoons with Jose Constanza or Jordan Schafer in LF.
3) Prado plays 3B every day, and an unlikely ST performer (Evan Gattis, Todd Cunningham) takes the LF spot or shares it with Johnson.
4) Juan Francisco plays 3B every day, and Prado does the same in LF.
5) Kitty crack – Prado plays 3B and Johnson plays LF when a LHP is on the mound; Francisco plays 3B and Prado plays LF when a RHP is on the mound.
I think most of us can assume what the best option is, but let’s actually check.
Scenario 1 – Prado at 3B, Johnson in LF
This is an unlikely scenario. Johnson will be 37 all next season, and the last time he amassed over 500 PA was 2006 with the Blue Jays. With a BABiP of .366 (30 points over his career mark), Johnson was actually very good that season, netting 4.5 fWAR, but other than that one season, he’s never been worth more than a win and a half. I’d rather not go into the season trying to beat the odds on that one.
As for Prado, his 2012 offense mirrored his career marks, and there’s no reason to think he’ll nosedive in 2013. Defensively, however, Prado might see some regression to the mean as he posted a very high +18 (I’m not saying he wasn’t very good last season, but I also won’t take for granted that he was THAT good), but if he moves to 3B, he’ll gain some positional value along the way and should still be a plus defensively. Our projection of nearly 5 wins seems pretty reasonable (and about what other projection systems have him for as well).
Francisco ends up as a pretty limited bench player in this instance, and the Braves would add a bench player (external or a guy like Ernesto Mejia) for the other 25-man spot currently in reserve for a LF.
Value of Scenario 1: Prado (4.5-5 wins) + Johnson (.5-1.5 wins) +Francisco (.5) + Bench (.5) = 6 – 7.5 wins
Scenario 2 – Prado at 3B, Platoon in LF with Johnson and Constanza/Schafer
This scenario is a little bit more reasonable, but it still doesn’t strike me as terribly likely. Johnson is a very nice complimentary player, but he has his limits. For his career, he is a .266/.324/.380 (84 wRC+) hitter against RHP and a .311/.367/.461 (119 wRC+) hitter against LHP. If he was left-handed and that was flipped, you might be able to get away with Johnson playing every day, but because most pitchers are right-handed, that’s seeing Johnson’s bad side a little more than we’d want. If the Braves are going to use Johnson in LF, we’d probably want them to use him as part of a platoon.
This brings up who would play the other part of the platoon. Two guys already on the 40-man roster are Jose Constanza and Jordan Schafer. They’re left-handed, fast, and can play LF. Let’s take Constanza first. For his career, he’s a .281/.332/.341 (85 wRC+) hitter, and if you want the splits, he hits .340/.365/.340 (97 wRC+) against LHP and .259/.320/.341 (80 wRC+) against RHP (small sample size issues as he has just over 200 PA in his career). Constanza was more conventional in minors, so I expect the platoon issue is a SSS one. Considering his BABiPs are .405 (vs LHP) and .311 (vs RHP), I would expect that he’s not even as good of a hitter as he’s been, which isn’t very good, and Johnson is basically as good against RHP. As for Schafer, he’s hit .233/.317/.314 (75 wRC+) against RHP in almost 700 PA. Both of these players might be better defenders and baserunners, but we can move along now.
In this scenario, Constanza/Schafer is taking the 25th spot on the roster.
Value of Scenario 2: Prado (4.5-5) + Johnson (.5) + Constanza/Schafer ((-.5)-.5) + Francisco (.5) = 5 – 6.5 wins
Scenario 3 – Prado plays 3B, and a surprise ST performance (ie. Evan Gattis, Todd Cunningham) gets or splits LF with Johnson
We’ve talked about Prado and Johnson, so we’ll just move straight to the prospects. The main obstacle to this happening is that neither is on the 40-man roster, and while that does not eliminate them, you would presume that the team would like to hold onto roster spots unless one of these guys shows they are definitely better than the other options on the roster.
Evan Gattis is the common man’s choice. By now, most of you have heard his story, and although I have personal reasons for wanting him to make the majors, I’m not sure April 2013 will be the moment – he’s only had about 200 PA in AA and none in AAA and is right-handed, which doesn’t make a convenient platoon with Johnson. Gattis, however, has significant power and can also serve as the backup C, which could actually save a 40-man spot. If Gattis can hit at the MLB level, he might be able to produce 2 wins of value (if he starts almost every day), which is more than what Johnson probably could give the Braves, but he could also bottom out and be unable to adjust to the superior pitchers of the NL.
Todd Cunningham was the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year for 2013, and he had a promising AA season. Improving his contact rate while keeping his walk rate steady as he made the perilous jump to the upper minors, Cunningham is trying to prove he’s more than just a 4th outfielder. Here’s the catch with Cunningham and other possible prospects – with a playoff berth within grasp, the Braves really need safety over risk, probable production over ceiling. If there’s a better alternative, you’d rather take a couple wins from a safer play over the uncertainty of a prospect, especially one that isn’t star-caliber such as Jason Heyward or Freddie Freeman.
Gattis strikes me as more likely to win a spot on the roster because of his ability to play behind the plate and his offensive promise, but I wouldn’t expect more than perhaps a win or two from Oso Blanco. He has a higher ceiling than Johnson but also a lower floor.
Value of Scenario 3: Prado (4.5-5) + Johnson (.5) + [Gattis ((-.5)-2) or Cunningham ((-.5)-1)] + Francisco (.5) = 5 – 8 wins
Scenario 4: Francisco at 3B, Prado in LF
Now we’re getting somewhere. If you’re not a fan of platoons, this is probably the most likely scenario. As long as Prado stays excellent in LF and continues hitting the way he did, he’s probably still a 5-winish player for 2013. The question really revolves around what Francisco will be once given a full-time spot.
In a little over 200 PA in 2012, Francisco was worth almost a win, and if you’re someone who likes to push that out to a whole season, Francisco would have been worth 3 wins given a full-time spot. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Francisco only has about 400 PA at the major-league level (spread out over 4 seasons), so he’s relatively new to the league. The newness means the league may not have fully caught up to his weaknesses (breaking balls and strike-zone discipline), but once the cat is out of the bag, they’ll exploit it full-force. It happens to every player, and the ones who survive are the ones able to adapt. The Braves’ desire for him to adapt and improve has been well-documented. They worked on mechanical and approach changes as the season wore on (and as the league caught on), and he’s been losing weight this winter. Whether that works or not remains to be seen. One thing Francisco will have to improve is his ability to hit lefties. For his career, he’s hit .272/.320/.487 off of RHP but only .190/.224/.222 off of LHP. Though that encompasses only 400 total PA, there’s no reason to believe he should have been better (1.5% BB%, 36% K%, .300 BABiP). Young players can improve, but again, we’d like to limit risk if we can.
Johnson, in this instance, is relegated to a pretty minimal bench spot, but the Braves would also add another bench bat.
Value of Scenario 4: Prado (4.5-5) + Francisco (1.5-2.5) + Johnson (.5) + Bench (.5) = 7 – 8.5 wins
Scenario 5 – Kitty Crack
So now we get to the fun part. In this situation, Prado would play 3B on days in which a LHP is on the mound and LF when a RHP is on the mound. Francisco would play 3B when a RHP was on the mound, and Johnson would play LF with a LHP on the mound. It’s almost elegant. Doing this would take advantage of everyone’s strengths while limiting key weaknesses. Prado is versatile and needs to play every day, and Francisco can mash righties while Johnson mashes lefties (well kinda anyway). It’s kind of beautiful.
So how does the production shake out? Prado bounces back-and-forth and probably still pulls down 5 wins. Francisco would probably get 425 PA with Johnson receiving about 225. Sheltering each player will help their production. We’ll give Francisco 1.5 wins (about the FANS projection for him) and Johnson close to a full win (basically what he’s done the past few seasons). Altogether, that’s about 7-8 wins from this platoon.
Now, here’s my concern. Moving Prado around like this is a bit unusual, though I guess it’s not unprecedented. Miguel Cabrera played 55 games in LF and 34 games at 3B in 2003, and Pujols basically did it during his first three seasons. So it can be done, though I admittedly just cherry-picked (I’m sure there are more instances). But I still wonder about making someone do that for an entire season. I’d bet that Prado would accept the situation and do what was best for the team, but I guess it just seems inconvenient, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad.
Value of Scenario 5: Prado (4.5-5) + Johnson (1) + Francisco (1.5-2) + Bench (.5) = 7.5 – 8.5 wins
So What’s the Best Internal Option?
These numbers are obviously ballparked, but the best options appear to be 4 or 5. Scenario 5 limits the risk because everyone’s weaknesses are being shielded, but Scenario 4 has a higher upside if Francisco’s ability to make contact improves without much of a drop in power production (Francisco could probably put up a 3-4 win season if he learned to strike out a little less, walk a little more, and still drop pimp-job-worthy blasts, but I just find it pretty unlikely). Scenario 3 has a decent upside if Gattis really comes through, but again, I’m not sure a team wants to really bet on that (to be honest, I love Gattis, but I think his most likely future is a lefty-mashing bench guy who has some added utility because he can catch and play OF; that’s valuable, but it’s also not a saving grace).
Either way, the best ways of shuffling these 4 spots around seems to get the team 7-8.5 wins. If we look back at the projections from Thursday, we get 6.1 wins (4.7+.7+.7) from Prado, Johnson, and Francisco with the last spot left to fill. In order to improve the team over what is currently on the roster, the Braves would have to add a player likely to get 1.5-2.5 wins, or an average MLB starter (ie. Jason Kubel). The discussion, however, doesn’t end there. Acquiring an outside player would cost in additional money and/or prospects while a decent bench bat might cost $1-2 million (if they didn’t just go with Mejia). That means the Braves would want to get a better than average player if they wanted to improve efficiently.
That now sets our target range. Adding a platoon player to pair with Johnson isn’t likely to make much of a difference, basically because the Braves already have a platoon situation (although odd) on the roster. Over the next couple posts, I’ll look at various external options – free-agents and trade – that could fit the bill.