Braves have a huge decision to make with two weeks left in camp
In a perfect world, the Braves would be looking down the barrel of the 2021 season secure in the knowledge that rosters would remain at 28 as they were in 2020, and the National League would once again employ the designated hitter. The sad reality, however, is that in two weeks Alex Anthopoulos has to figure out a way to pare down the current contingent in camp to 26 players without the benefit of a DH. Conventional wisdom would be to bring back as many players as you could from the team that took the Dodgers to a 7th game in the NLDS and then fill any remaining holes with upgrades, but it’s not always that simple.
The starting 8 for the Braves seems pretty much set in stone with Ozuna, Pache and Acuña manning the outfield and Riley, Swanson, Albies, Freeman and Travis d’Arnaud reprising their roles in the infield. The rotation, figuratively and literally the Achilles heel for Atlanta last season, was bolstered in the offseason by the addition of Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. There were some notable departures from the vaunted bullpen that so admirably picked up the slack from a beleaguered starting corps, particularly Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Darren O’Day, but there seems to be ample depth in this unit to fill those holes. Will Smith, Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter, Chris Martin, and Jacob Webb look to anchor the high-leverage innings, and Josh Tomlin returns to his role as long-reliever, spot starter, garbage-time filler, and pseudo pitching coach.
The critical decisions left seem to surround the makeup of the bench roles. A typical roster construction for the Braves would dictate the bench be comprised of a backup catcher and three reserves. William Contreras and Alex Jackson will spend the next two weeks competing head to head for the role of d’Arnaud’s understudy, though ultimately that decision might come down to service time manipulation. The most compelling decision remaining is who fills out the three remaining bench spots.
The all stars
Faced with restocking the bench after the departure of Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall, Alex Anthopoulos quietly added three former All Stars to the spring training roster in an effort to provide a variety of options. Corner infielder Pablo Sandoval and second baseman Jason Kipnis were signed to minor league contracts with invitations to spring training and Jake Lamb, corner infielder and left handed slugger, was given a 1 year, non-guaranteed MLB contract. The current projected starting lineup is dominated by right handed hitters, so the additions of Lamb, Kipnis and the switch-hitting Sandoval provides some legitimate MLB-caliber left handed bats.
Jake Lamb has been trying to re-energize his career after a couple of debilitating injuries seemed to sap his notable power. After disappointing seasons in 2018, 2019, and the first half of a shortened 2020, Lamb latched on to a power-starved Athletics team and managed to provide some hope that he still had something left in the tank. He batted .267/.327/.556 with 3 HR in only 13 games with Oakland and re-established some of his value on the free agent market. So far this spring he is 3-21 with a double in 10 games with 2 walks and 6 strikeouts, but he is looking more comfortable at the plate in recent games and the Braves are hoping he can provide some insurance for both Austin Riley and Freddie Freeman.
Pablo Sandoval joined the Braves mid-season in 2020 and spend most of his time at the alternate site. He found himself on the post season roster, however, and by all accounts was an energizing presence in the clubhouse despite his lack of productivity at the plate. The gregarious corner infielder lovingly nicknamed “Panda” has a physique that might have been more common back in the era of Kirby Puckett and John Kruk, but he’s shown that he still has the mobility to play both 3B and 1B as needed. He also has the advantage of being a switch hitter, which would provide some matchup problems for opposing teams late in ballgames. Sandoval has the second most AB’s on the Braves roster this spring at 25 and carries a .360/.414/.400 slash line. He also is a better left handed hitter than he is right handed, carrying a career .817 OPS left handed and .661 OPS right handed.
Jason Kipnis has played primarily 2B in his career, but he came up as an outfielder and has expressed willingness to play wherever the team needs him to. He has legitimate power from the left side and still maintains some solid platoon splits that would make him an asset late in games against right handed relievers. He struggled early in spring but like Lamb has started to find comfort at the plate, going 4-8 with a double and a HR in his last 3 games.
With the emergence of Cristian Pache, Ender Inciarte finds himself being relegated to battling for a bench role. His offensive profile has eroded to the point that Brian Snitker might be tempted to pinch hit one of his pitchers for him in a critical spot, but he still possesses top tier defensive instincts. He might not have as quick a first step in center as he did when he was racking up Gold Gloves, but he does provide value to the team as a defensive replacement late in games as the Braves seek to pass Marcell Ozuna off as a legitimate outfielder. He’s been limited to just 13 AB’s this spring after suffering a nagging thumb injury that left him unable to grip a bat for over a week. He has three hits, all singles, in those 13 AB, but only 1 strikeout and 2 walks.
As for Johan Camargo, he came into camp with the “best shape of his life” tag and hoping to prove he still has the range and ability to provide some defensive protection for Dansby Swanson in case of injury. In 28 innings so far at SS he’s only had 10 balls hit his way, 5 of those resulting in putouts, so it’s difficult to say if Camargo is a viable replacement for Swanson if he were to miss time this season. He hasn’t been able to get on track offensively yet this spring, racking up only 4 hits in 14 AB’s but he has shown some pop with 2 of those 4 hits being for extra bases.
Wile the names listed above may all be household names, there are also a handful of players who may actually be more accustomed to playing a supporting role. Outfielders Phillip Ervin and Abraham Almonte have seen a number of opportunities in the early going this spring, though neither have really distinguished themselves to this point. Ehire Adrianza, however, has looked pretty impressive in his limited action. He’s put up a .298 batting average and a 1.008 OPS in his 17 AB’s with a double and a HR. He’s also made several athletic plays while manning 3B, 2B and SS. He would be a darkhorse candidate to join the bench, but he might have a shot if the Braves choose to go with a longer bench instead of 9 relievers in the first week of games. The Braves won’t need a 5th starter until April 7th, and they could delay that even longer if they chose to go with a bullpen game instead of adding a starter for that game.
Predictions are easy, but just because it’s easy doesn’t make it right. The Braves will probably choose to go with a 9 man pen, leaving only 4 spots on the bench. Alex Jackson will probably get the nod early to let Contreras continue to get AB’s in minor league camp and to tick off MLB games that would otherwise be counted towards his service time. Inciarte is still owed $8M for this season, so the thought of cutting him seems to be a long shot. Johan Camargo is a known quantity to Snitker and Anthopoulos, and he’s already on the roster. Barring some sort of injury it’s unlikely that he start the season at Gwinnett even though he does still have two minor league options available. Finally, Jake Lamb is on a MLB contract, albeit a non-guaranteed one, and thus already on the 40 man roster. He’s shown defensive ability at both corner infield spots and has an offensive profile similar to what Matt Joyce brought to the Braves a couple of years ago when he was trying to put behind him some nagging injuries that sapped his power.
Here is where I will interject my personal opinion, however. Ender Inciarte’s contract is sunk cost. We can pay him to hit rollovers to second base for us or for any one of the 29 other clubs in the league, but hanging onto him for defensive value at $8M is ridiculous. Ronald Acuña, Jr. can back up CF, and Austin Riley can back up the corner OF spots. If you can’t trade Ender by the end of Spring, cut him loose and take the best players you can north with you. That would leave room for Jason Kipnis on the roster. He also can back up the corner OF spots and is the kind of veteran presence that this team is always looking for.
I’d also utilize one of the options on Johan Camargo and start him in AAA. Let him continue to take balls at SS for Gwinnett and work on his offensive game. This would enable the Braves to bring back Pablo Sandoval as a switch-hitter off the bench and backup at 3B and 1B. Lamb would be the primary backup at those positions, of course, but the versatility at the plate strengthens the bench.
Of course, there is one position on the field that doesn’t appear to have a back-up, and that’s shortstop. On it’s surface, this would seem to mandate that the Braves carry Camargo despite his weak bat. However, if we are talking about a nagging injury for one or two games, there is no reason Ozzie Albies could not slide over to short and let Kipnis man second base during that time. If the injury requires an IL stint, Camargo could be brought back up to fill the void in the corresponding roster move.
Personally I would have much more faith in a bench of Lamb, Kipnis and Sandoval than I would with Lamb, Inciarte and Camargo. There is zero chance it happens, of course, but a an can dream, can’t he?