Mark Kotsay returned from the DL to play in last night’s game, but the Braves’ outfield remains one of the league’s worst at the season’s halfway point. I’ll quickly analyze the current players, minor leagues, and trade possibilities to figure out how the Braves might improve their currently dismal situation.
Active Roster and Disabled List Players
Kotsay is actually the Braves’ best outfielder right now, as long as his injury troubles are somewhat behind him. He’s past his peak, but he has established a league-average level of performance when he is healthy. Defensively, he’s adequate in center field, which makes his sometimes below-average offense tolerable. His OPS+ is 104 this year, though, and that will be a perfectly acceptable level of output from a capable center fielder, even one who hasn’t played a season of 140 games since 2004.
For once in his career, Matt Diaz started a season as an everyday player, so you’d think a knee injury wouldn’t completely derail that train. Before the injury, he was hitting .250/.270/.311, which is basically an empty .250 average. Plate discipline was never a strong point for Diaz, and he doesn’t have great power, which means his value is tied to his batting average more so than most other players. He may not have been hitting well before the injury, but his body of work suggests that he’s an adequate starter if he returns at 100%. Gregor Blanco will probably cut into his playing time, and it remains to be seen how much of an effect that will have on Diaz’ performance. A time-share arrangement could be bad news for Matt’s PT, since he’s better against lefties (career 119 OPS+) than righties (79).
While he has very little power, Blanco’s on-base skills should make him a serviceable fourth outfielder/occasional starter with good speed off the bench. The Braves’ lack of depth has forced him into a regular role, and he’s done about as well as you might expect given his fairly consistent minor league track record, posting a low-.700s OPS. Like Willie Harris last year, Blanco started out well and parlayed that performanceinto more playing time than he probably deserves. He’ll presumably be sharing time with Diaz in LF when the latter returns in a few weeks, but as the lefty batter and only backup CF, he will certainly be a regular fixture in the lineup.
Forget for a moment how well his career started, if you can. Jeff had a decent 2006 season, his first full season in the majors, hitting .260/.293/.449, winning over plenty of casual fans by hitting 29 homers and driving in 103 runs. His OPS was below average, but there was plenty of reason for hope, even more so after 2007. The power stroke wasn’t there last year, but Frenchy was more patient and hit for a higher average, finishing at .293/.338/.444 and above average in OPS.
This year, the power is still down (his ISO went from .249 to .189 to .151 and is now .144), and the hits just haven’t been falling even though he’s currently sporting a career-best 21.2% line drive rate. He seems to be pressing more and more, and the results just aren’t there this year, with his season slash line now down to .239/.294/.383. He’s currently the Braves’ biggest under-performer in J.C. Bradbury’s PrOPS rating, which indicates he’s due for a little improvement.
There’s reason to believe that his struggles may be related to vision problems during night games, since his split for this season is much larger than it is for his entire career, but he has been fitted for a contact to address that issue. It may also be psychological. Only the Braves know that, and if his head is the problem, I could see that as a justification for sending him back to the minors to work out his problems.
Jeff Francoeur is not a good player right now, and he needs to develop his power stroke if he’s ever going to live up to the high expectations initially placed on him. He’s slowly becoming more patient, though, and his low batting average may only represent a long stretch of bad luck. If the Braves send him down to work on any of the above issues, they’re going to need a replacement, and I’m not sure who it will be.
Only 1/3 of the outfield is league-average right now, although a less-unlucky Francoeur and a returning Matt Diaz would certainly make a difference. The Braves’ infield and catcher are excellent producers as long as they’re healthy, and this is a decent enough arrangement of players in the outfield for the Braves to maintain one of the NL’s 3-4 best lineups. The problem is that Diaz isn’t back yet and Francoeur is looking worse and worse. What to do?
The Braves’ minor league system has more than its fair share of outfield prospects, but the better ones are at least a year away from making a major league impact. Gorkys Hernandez and Jordan Schafer look like the best of the bunch at this point, with Brandon Jones slightly behind them. Jones performed well in his injury-necessitated trial, but I don’t see him being any better than Francoeur or a Diaz/Blanco platoon. Josh Anderson is a fringe major-league talent who could play if necessary, but he’s really no different from Blanco, and he may not even be as good at getting on base in the longer term. I’d say Joe Borchard is a Quad-A player, but he’s not even mashing at AAA anymore. Jason Perry is hot right now at Richmond, so he might get a call-up if the Braves decide to make a move internally. That’s basically it for the guys who are close to major-league ready.
Tim Dierkes from MLB Trade Rumors has noted links from the Braves to Randy Winn, but there’s been no specific talk about other players from what I’ve read. Winn might be a marginal improvement, and the Braves could use some major league depth, but not if they have to take on his $8M contract.
Other outfielders who are possibly on the market (for the Braves, since I’m assuming the Phillies wouldn’t trade Burrell or Werth to their division rival) include Jason Bay, Matt Holliday, Adam Dunn, Brian Giles, and Xavier Nady, as well as lesser names like Matt Murton. I have thoughts on all of them, but Bay is probably the most enticing option. He might also require the most in return, though, and it’s unclear to me whether the Braves should be buyers or sellers at this point. I certainly wouldn’t want them to have to give up as much as they did for Teixeira last year.
The only thing that’s perfectly clear to me right now is that the outfield is one of the biggest areas of possible improvement for the Braves. There’s no quick fix for it in the minors, or maybe even on the trade market. It should be interesting to see which way the Braves decide to go, if they decide to do anything at all.