Potential 2018 Brave: Nick Castellanos

Nick Castellanos 3B/OF

Current Team: Detroit Tigers

Current Contract: 2 arbitration years remain of team control. Currently making $3M in 2017.

Current 2017 stats: .265/.317/.476 with 22 HR and a 105 wRC+

2018 Age: 26

The Player: Castellanos broke in with the Tigers in late 2013 and has been their everyday 3B since the 2014 season. His power numbers have steadily improved each season with 2017 being no different, as he’s currently at a career-best 22 HR entering today. His batted ball profile suggests Castellanos could be on the verge of a breakout type season. From 2013-2016, Castellanos had a hard-hit rate of 33.8%, however his 2017 season has seen that rate jump to 43.6%. Even though Castellanos is hitting the ball harder than ever, his career-worst .310 BABIP has kept his numbers right around his career slash line (.265/.313/.442). If his 2017 BABIP had been closer to his career .329 BABIP, he may have been looking at a career year. His walk rate has always hovered around 6%, so Castellanos’ OBP relies heavily on his average and BABIP.

Why it would work: Two months ago, the Tigers worked out a deal that sent catcher Alex Avila and reliever Justin Wilson to the Cubs in exchange for 3B Jeimer Candelario and SS Isaac Paredes. It wasn’t a massive blockbuster deal, but including Candelario was very noteworthy. Candelario was the top 3B in the Cubs’ minor league system, but he was clearly blocked by Kris Bryant. With Candelario joining the Tigers active roster in September, the Tigers decided to shift Castellanos to the outfield, a place he hasn’t appeared since 2013. With the Tigers willing to try a younger player at third, they may be open to trading Castellanos during the offseason. Castellanos could provide the Braves with a useful stop gap until prospect Austin Riley proves he’s ready, or they could move Castellanos to the outfield to join Ender Inciarte and Ronald Acuna (should the rumors of trying to move Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis come true).

Why it won’t work: With the Tigers recently trading both Justin Upton and JD Martinez, they may be relying on Castellanos to be mainstay at a corner outfield spot for the next two seasons. He’s settled in nicely over the last two months (.298/.323/.544; 123 wRC+ since July 17), so the Tigers may feel like he could continue to build value in 2018 and make a trade sometime next year. 

Conclusion: Castellanos would provide the Braves with another right handed power bat to join the middle of the order (which could prove very important should Kemp be traded). He’s unlikely to be overly expensive during the arbitration process over the next two seasons, so he could be a smart investment. Atlanta could utilize him at third in 2018, and potentially shift him to the outfield in 2019 if Riley is ready by then. His below average defense at third tends to drag down his fWAR (1.8 in ’16, 1.5 in ’17), but it should be noted his UZR/150 (currently -8.7) has showed steady improvement each year since reaching Detroit.

 

 

Braves Top 20 Prospects, #19: LHP A.J. Minter

19. LHP A.J. Minter

Age: 24

Size: 6’0 205

Bio: The Braves drafted Minter 75th overall in the 2015 draft after a three-year career at Texas A&M. When healthy, Minter was one of the top pitchers in the country while at A&M, but he dealt with both shoulder (Thoracic Outlet Syndrome) and elbow issues (Tommy John surgery in March 2015) that caused his draft stock to slip in ’15. Once a likely 1st rounder, Minter slipped to the Braves at #75 and they felt like they were getting a steal.

Scouting Report: Minter has a strong lower half that helps him generate plenty of velocity on his sinking fastball, which usually sits around 95-97 MPH. His slider is one of the the top offspeed pitches in the Atlanta system. It has a very sharp, late break, and is consistently in the upper 80’s and occasionally hits 90. He featured an occasional changeup in college, but has pretty much scrapped the pitch now that he’s working exclusively out of the bullpen as a pro. Over Minter’s brief minor league career, he limited his walks to 3.57 per nine innings.

Pitch Projection:

Fastball 70

Slider 70

Command 40

Future: The Minter era began three weeks ago when Atlanta brought him up to join the bullpen for the remainder of the 2017 season. So far, the results have been strong. Minter is expected to be a big part of the Atlanta bullpen going forward, and may eventually be Atlanta’s closer. With the injury history, there is always the chance that the elbow issues could return. Having said that, he has the upside to be the best LHP in the Braves bullpen since a healthy Jonny Venters.

2017 Stats:

Minors (A/A+/AA/AAA): 3.33 ERA, 3.39 FIP, 11.10 K/9, 4.44 BB/9 over 24.1 IP

Majors (as of 9/14/17): 3.12 ERA, 1.88 FIP, 12.46 K/9, 0.00 BB/9 over 8.2 IP

Video courtesy of @Fangraphs:

Braves Top 20 Prospects, #20: RHP Freddy Tarnok

20. RHP Freddy Tarnok

Age: 18

Size: 6’3 185

Bio: The Braves took Tarnok with the 80th overall pick in the 2017 MLB draft. He was a bit of a late bloomer as Tarnok originally committed to the University of Tampa as an infielder/pitcher, but his draft stock skyrocketed during his senior year when he started pitching more. Tarnok was primarily a SS/3B  as a junior in high school, but started pitching some late in his junior year. For his senior season, he finished with a 0.66 ERA over 53 innings pitched and posted a 63/11 K/BB ratio.

Scouting Report: Despite the thin frame, Tarnok consistently pitches 92-94 MPH and has been clocked as high as 97 MPH. He has a relatively smooth delivery with a high leg-kick. He repeats his delivery very well thanks in part to his above average athleticism. The fastball shows nice arm side run, and he has solid control despite not focusing on pitching until a year ago. His curveball sits in the upper 70’s with a sharp, downward break. The changeup is still a work in progress as he primarily relied on his fastball/curveball combo in high school.

Pitch Projection:

Fastball 65

Curveball 60

Changeup 40

Command 40

Future: Tarnok only threw 25 innings as a junior in high school and then followed that up his senior year with 53 innings in 2017 (with an additional 14 innings for the Braves’ GCL club). Tarnok finished his GCL season with a 2.57 ERA with 10 K’s to just 3 BB in those 14 innings. Expect Tarnok to open the 2018 season in an extended spring training where the Braves will monitor his pitch counts and work with him on his command and developing his changeup. Once the Danville Braves season starts in late June, Tarnok should get 10-12 starts to finish out his 2018 season. Tarnok has plenty of upside but he remains a bit raw as a pitcher, so Atlanta will certainly be patient with him.

2017 stats:

GCL Braves: 2.57 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 6.43 K/9, 1.93 BB/9 over 8 GS and 14.0 IP

Video courtesy of @SteveGivarz.

 

Season in Review: Mississippi Braves

Hitter of the year: OF Ronald Acuna

Age: 19

2017 stats: .326/.374/.520 with 9 HR, 19 SB and 159 wRC+ in 57 games

Plate discipline: 7.4% BB rate, 23% K rate

Disclaimer: You could make a case for Acuna to be the MVP on 3 different teams in 2017, so instead of giving him all 3 I picked the team he played the most games with. 

There’s not much to say about Acuna that you don’t already know. He’s the best player in the Atlanta system. He may very well be the best player in any system. Needless to say, he’s a can’t-miss prospect. He played for Florida, Mississippi and Gwinnett in 2017, and in 139 games, he posted a .325/.374/.522 slash line. On top of that, he hit 31 doubles, 21 home runs, and added 44 steals on the base paths. Oh and his 181 hits led all of the minor leagues. He is a true five-tool talent and will almost certainly open the 2018 season in Atlanta’s outfield. Will it be LF or RF? Who knows? We will have to wait and see if Atlanta can find any takers on parts of Matt Kemp’s and/or Nick Markakis’ contracts. Atlanta fans love to throw out the Andruw Jones comparisons (and rightfully so), but he reminds me an awful lot of a younger Andrew McCutchen. Either way, it’s hard not to get excited about Ronald Acuna joining the Atlanta lineup in the near future.

Pitcher of the year: RHP Mike Soroka

Age: 20

2017 stats: 2.75 ERA, 3.19 FIP in 26 starts and 153.2 IP

K/BB rates: 7.32 K/9, 1.99 BB/9

The 6’5 Soroka was one of the youngest players in all of the Southern League in 2017 (didn’t turn 20 until August). Despite being much younger than most of his competitors, Soroka was downright dominating. He throws a two-seam and a four-seam fastball, both of which stay in the low 90’s while occasionally touching 95-96 MPH. He gets excellent sink on his two-seamer and has produced a ground ball rate north of 50% over the course of his minor league career. He has an outstanding changeup that is tough for hitters to get a good read on out of his hand. He also has a slurvy-type breaking pitch that he mixes in. Even though the breaking ball is probably his least effective pitch, he’s still able to induce many swings-and-misses with it. Of all of the big-time pitching prospects in the Atlanta system, Soroka likely has the highest floor. He has MLB-level command to go along with an ability to get plenty of ground balls. Should his fastball add a tad more velocity as he continues to fill out, Soroka could end up becoming a #2 caliber starter at the big league level. And if the stuff remains about the same, he’s got a floor of a #4 or #5 starter. Soroka will likely open 2018 with Gwinnett, but we will definitely see him in Atlanta at some point in the 2018 season.

Name to watch: 3B Austin Riley

Age: 20

2017 stats: .315/.389/.511 with 8 HR and a 162 wRC+ in 48 games

Plate discipline: 9.9% BB rate, 24.6% K rate

Like Acuna and Soroka, Riley was also one of the youngest players in the league. Riley opened the season with Florida, and although his .252/.301/.408 slash line didn’t jump out at you, the Braves could tell he was ready for the next step. 2017 was the second straight year that Riley produced 20 HR, making him one of the top power hitters in the Atlanta system. Already blessed with a strong arm, Riley also played this season much leaner than the Braves had seen from him in ’15 and ’16. As long as he can keep his weight in check, he should be fine at third base moving forward. A strong showing to start next season could put him in line to join Atlanta at some point in the second half of the ’18 season.

Others of note: 

-LHP Kolby Allard: Right up there with Soroka as one of the top arms in the system, Allard was strong yet again in ’17 (3.18 ERA, 3.27 FIP). Will open ’18 in Gwinnett, but Braves won’t hesitate to bring him up if could help the big club.

-LHP Max Fried: The stuff is filthy with a mid 90’s fastball and arguably the top breaking ball in the system, but control issues continue to keep Fried from taking that next step in his devlopment. If he can improve the command, he’s got as much upside as anyone in the system. If he can’t, he may end up in the ‘pen.

-LHP Luiz Gohara: Just as Acuna could have been MVP for 3 different teams, you could make the same case for Gohara in ’17 (and he even took it a step further, joining Atlanta this week). Looks like a C.C. Sabathia clone on the mound, and blows away hitters with mid to high 90’s fastballs and a devastating slider. Had a 10.7 K/9 rate to just 3.2 BB/9.

RHP Wes Parsons: Has been in the Atlanta system since 2013 but dealt with injury issues much of 2015 and 2016. Was healthy once again in 2017 and was very effective as both a starter and a reliever. Had a 2.71 ERA over 103 innings in Mississippi in ’17. Leaves Braves with interesting choice regarding a 40-man roster spot this offseason. Could very easily be claimed in the Rule V draft if not protected.

LHP Phil Pfeifer: Yet another Vanderbilt LHP that has pitched well as a pro, Pfeifer could be in the Atlanta bullpen at some point in 2018. Had 68 K’s in just 44.1 IP for the M-Braves.

-OF Jared James: Somewhat similar to Tyler Neslony, James has a solid hit tool that could eventually provide a path to the majors as a 4th OF type. Despite skipping high-A in 2017, James posted a 122 wRC+ in his first taste of upper minors.

Season in Review: Florida Fire Frogs

Hitter of the year: C Alex Jackson

Age: 21

2017 stats: .272/.333/.502 14 HR and 143 wRC+ in 66 games

Plate discipline: 4.6% BB rate, 26.2% K rate

The Braves acquired Jackson (and a PTBNL… see below) in a trade with the Mariners last November that sent pitchers Max Povse and Rob Whalen to Seattle. Jackson was the 6th overall pick in the 2014 draft and had struggled with consistency in his three seasons in the Seattle organization. The talent was there, and the Braves were hoping he’d find success with a fresh start somewhere else. On top of that, Jackson would be moving back behind the dish (where he played in high school) instead of working in the outfield as he did with Seattle. The Braves were able to ease Jackson back behind the plate as he platooned with Jonathan Morales for the 1st half of the 2017 season. Jackson appeared in 33 games behind the plate while starting as the DH for another 33 games. Jackson’s .502 SLG was 2nd in the league, and his 14 HR were tied for 6th in the league despite only playing in 66 games. Despite a slow start in Mississippi after his midseason promotion, Jackson would hit .310/.341/.517 over the final 4 weeks of the 2017 season. The bat is very real, but Jackson’s path to Atlanta now appears to depend largely on his defense. Can he stick behind the plate, or will he end up back in the outfield?

Pitcher of the year: LHP Tyler Pike

Age: 23

2017 stats: 2.20 ERA, 2.94 FIP over 69.2 IP and 12 starts

K/BB rates: 8.78 K/9, 3.49 BB/9

The PTBNL in the Jackson trade turned out to be Pike, and he very easily could turn into one of those rare PTBNL’s that actually turns into a big league player. Pike was a 3rd round pick by the Mariners out of high school in 2012, but struggles with command started to move Pike down the Mariners’ prospects lists in recent years. Pike’s fastball generally sits in the high 80’s to low 90’s to go along with an average breaking ball. Pike’s top pitch is his changeup (which current Braves’ scout Kiley McDaniel rated as a grade 65 when Pike was coming out of HS). Pike has a fairly smooth delivery, which makes the control issues somewhat puzzling. Despite the solid 3.49 BB/9 rate in Florida, Pike posted a 7.59 BB/9 rate in Mississippi. Expect Pike to open 2018 in Mississippi again where he once again will try to find some consistency with his control.

Name to watch: RHP Touki Toussaint

Age: 21

2017 stats: 5.04 ERA; 3.39 FIP over 19 starts and 105.1 IP

K/BB rates: 10.51 K/9, 3.59 BB/9

If you are an old school stats guy, the 5.04 ERA may scare you off, but if you take a deeper look at the numbers, Toussaint had a very strong year for Florida. Toussaint definitely had some issues in the early part of the season (4 ER or more in 4 of his first 6 starts), but from June to the end of July he would post a 3.33 ERA and a 3.01 FIP over his final 9 starts in Florida. This was all the Braves needed to see before sending him to AA Mississippi to finish out the season. Over 7 starts with the M-Braves, Touki continued his strong work by posting a 3.18 ERA and nearly 10 K/9. He possesses a mid 90’s fastball, but the headliner here is his curveball. Many grade it as a 60, but I’d give it a 70 when he’s on. Touki kind of reminds me of a right handed Sean Newcomb. If the command is on, he’s nearly unhittable, but you never when he’ll have his command working. It’s possible that Touki moves on up to Gwinnett to open 2018, but depending on the numbers, he could very easily open the season back with Mississippi.

Others of note:

-OF Tyler Neslony: Hit .309/.378/.442 before a midseason promotion to Mississippi. Potentially a 4th OF at some point.

-LHP Chase Johnson-Mullins: 6’8 270 LHP with 50 K/16 BB in 44 IP. Could join Atlanta bullpen at some point in 2018. Two-seam fastball sits in 91-94 range with a sharp curve.

-LHP Adam McCreery: Another tall lefty (6’8) that was strong all year. 2.64 ERA in 18 appearances with Florida after spending 1st half with Rome. Mid 90’s fastball with solid slider and curve.

-LHP Corbin Clouse: 2.31 ERA over 25 appearances before a midseason promotion to Mississippi. Solid combination of sinker/slider.

 

 

Season in Review: Rome Braves

Hitter of the year: C Brett Cumberland

Age: 22

2017 stats: .263/.432/.531, 10 HR in 55 games

Plate discipline: 13.1% BB rate, 25.8% K rate

Cumberland was drafted by the Braves 76th overall in 2016 as a draft eligible sophomore from Cal. Cumberland was viewed as a power-hitting prospect that might eventually move to the outfield to speed up his path to Atlanta. Despite the great reviews on Cumberland’s bat, he got off to a very slow start as a pro. Through his first 71 games, Cumberland was hitting .207/.358/.338 with just 5 home runs, but he went on an unbelievable tear starting in late May of 2017. Over Cumberland’s final 29 games with Rome (before a midseason promotion to Florida), he hit .320/.434/.680 with 8 HR and a 204 wRC+. Cumberland’s power numbers came back down to earth has he hit .269/.384/.363 with just 1 HR in 56 games with Florida, but he remains a very interesting prospect heading into 2018. Defensively, Cumberland threw out 22% of base stealers in 2017 and had 6 passed balls in 47 starts behind the plate.

Pitcher of the year: LHP Joey Wentz

Age: 18

2017 stats: 2.60 ERA, 2.68 FIP over 26 starts and 131.2 IP

K/BB rates: 10.39 K/9, 3.14 BB/9

It was a tough call deciding between Wentz and fellow 2016 draft picks Ian Anderson (3.14 ERA over 20 starts; 10.95 K/9 and 4.66 BB/9) and Bryse Wilson (2.50 ERA over 26 starts; 9.13 K/9 and 2.43 BB/9), but Wentz was arguably the most consistent pitcher for the 2017 Rome Braves. A case could easily be made for all three guys, but I gave Wentz a slight nod over the other two. In 26 starts for the Rome Braves, Wentz allowed 3 ER or less in 22 of those starts. His worst month of the season came in May, when Wentz posted a 3.66 ERA over 5 starts. Although the 6’5 lefty’s low 90’s fastball isn’t overpowering, it has great armside run to go along with a sharp curveball and a solid changeup. Wentz has a very repeatable delivery and his athleticism makes it even easier for him. It will be interesting to see whether or not the Braves fast-track Wentz, Anderson, and Wilson in ’18 like they did Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard in 2017. They could play it safe and send them to Florida to open the ’18 season, but there is little doubt that all three guys are ready for AA Mississippi.

 

Name to watch: CF Cristian Pache

Age: 18

2017 stats: .281/.335/.343, 32 SB

Plate Discipline: 7.6% BB rate, 20.2% K rate

The Braves signed Pache on July 2, 2015 during the international signing period. At the time, Baseball America ranked Pache the 21st best international prospect in the 2015. He is praised for his athleticism and above average speed in CF, but some scouts question how his funky swing will translate at higher levels. Despite hitting just 32 extra base hits (none of which have been home runs) in 176 professional games, Pache projects to eventually hit for average power as he adds muscle to his 6’2, 185 pound frame.

Others of note:

-RHP Tucker Davidson: 2.60 ERA over 103.2 IP split between bullpen and rotation. 8.77 K/9 to just 2.60 BB/9.

-LHP Thomas Burrows: 2.16 ERA over 66.2 IP out of the ‘pen. Had 92 K’s to just 25 BB. Could move fast in 2018.

-RHP Matt Custred: 6’6 240 pound righty was dominant out of the ‘pen, posting a 1.16 ERA and 11.17 K/9 in 38.2 IP.

-RHP Brandon S. White: 1.82 ERA and a 2.89 FIP in 25 appearances as Rome’s closer.

 

 

Potential 2018 3B: Kyle Seager

Kyle Seager, 3B

Current team: Seattle Mariners

Current contract: Year 3 of 7-year $100M contract (with a 2022 team option)

Current 2017 stats: .259/.326/.450 with 19 HR in 121 games

2018 Age: 30

The Player: Seager, the older brother of Dodgers star SS Corey Seager, first broke in with the Mariners in the middle of the 2011 season. Since taking over the Mariners’ 3B job six years ago, Seager has posted a career slash line of .265/.333/.447 and a 117 wRC+. 2017 will mark his sixth straight season of 20+ HR, and he’s been worth an average fWAR of 4.2 since his first full season in the big leagues. Like most left-handed hitters, Seager does show significant career splits (126 wRC+ vs RHP; 99 vs LHP), but over the last 4 seasons he’s actually been above average vs LHP (107 wRC+). On top of his strong offensive numbers, Seager also grades out as an above average defender at 3B (career 2.8 UZR/150), and even won a Gold Glove in 2014.

Why it would work: Take a moment and look back to the 2012-2013 offseason. Arizona had three years remaining on the contract extension of 25-year-old outfielder Justin Upton. Upton had signed a 6-year $51.25M deal with the Diamondbacks of March 2010, and his salary was about to hit a significant spike in 2013. After making an average of $5.5M over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, Upton was set to make $31.5M over the next three years of the contract. It was a significant pay increase for Upton, and the Diamondbacks saw this as a great time to unload his contract.

Fast forward to 2017, and you see Seager’s contract shows that he made $4M in ’15, $7.5M in ’16, and $10.5M in ’17. Then it bumps up to an average of $19M over the next 4 seasons. It’s a huge payday for Seager, and if the last few seasons are any indication, he will be worth every penny. The Mariners could see this as an opportunity to unload a very large contract while lightening the load on a payroll that includes over $250M owed to Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez and Jean Segura between now and 2023. 

Why it won’t work: Quite frankly, the Mariners could choose to keep Seager while attempting to trade Cano and part of his contract. Even though Cano has continued to play at a high level in 2017, he and his massive contract will only become harder and harder to trade as he ages. With that being said, trading a contract that large with a player that old (he’s entering his age 35 season) could prove quite difficult for the M’s. Even if they eat a significant portion of the contract, they are unlikely to get a great return for the aging slugger.

Internally, the Braves have Austin Riley crushing at AA Mississippi (.305/.369/.468), and Riley won’t turn 21 until Spring Training 2018. The Braves could view Riley as the long-term answer and ultimately decide not to pursue a multi-year player like Seager. On top of that, the Braves have infielder Kevin Maitan in Danville. Even though Maitan is off to a slow start in the Appalachian League, he’s considered by many to be one of the top international signings in a decade. There are definitely some intriguing internal options at third base over the next few years.

Conclusion: The numbers speak for themselves. Kyle Seager is a very good hitter that would give Atlanta a strong player over the next 4 or 5 seasons. Although he’s older than Upton was when the 2013 trade occurred, Seager’s contract is much larger. So the return for the M’s could be somewhat similar to what the Diamondbacks got from Atlanta in 2013. The Braves sent one year of team control of Martin Prado, top-5  prospect RHP Randall Delgado, and 3 good-not-great prospects in RHP Zeke Spruill, IF Nick Ahmed, and IF Brandon Drury to Arizona (it’s worth noting the Dbacks also included Chris Johnson in the Upton deal). Would the Braves be willing to part with a similar package in 2018? They certainly have the prospect depth to pull it off.

 

Ronald Acuna and his historic 2017 season

In 1982, Texas Rangers’ farmhand Chuckie Canady posted a .266/.375/.467 slash line with 51 SB and 20 HR. Since then, not a single minor leaguer has gone over a .375 OBP, 40+ SB and 20+ HR in any season in the minors. As we enter the final weeks of the 2017 minor league season, one man in the Braves’ system may top Canady’s outstanding year.

Hello Ronald Acuna.

As of today, the Gwinnett Braves outfielder has reached base at a .375 clip, to go along with 37 SB and 19 HR (Gwinnett, Mississippi and Florida stats combined). Barring a late August call-up, Acuna will have 21 games to break the 40 SB and 20 HR mark, while hoping to maintain an OBP of at least .375. It’s entirely possible the Braves could decide to bring up Acuna at any moment, but it appears more likely that a call-up (if it happens) would happen in early September, when MLB rosters expand from 25 to 40 men.

There have been a few men that have come close to Canady’s mark, but they all fell just short:

Butch Davis (Royals, AA&AAA, 1983): .380 OBP, 42 SB, 19 HR

Marty Brown (Reds, low-A, 1986): .372 OBP, 58 SB, 18 HR

Andruw Jones (Braves, low-A, 1995): .372 OBP, 56 SB, 25 HR

Dante Powell (Giants, AA&AAA, 1996): .371 OBP, 43 SB, 21 HR

Marlon Byrd (Phillies, low-A, 2000): .379 OBP, 41 SB, 17 HR

BJ Melvin Upton, Jr. (Devil Rays, AAA, 2005): .392 OBP, 44 SB, 18 HR

Grant Desme (A’s, low-A and high-A, 2009): .365 OBP, 40 SB, 31 HR,

Needless to say, some of the names on that list went on to very long and successful major league careers. In fact, with the exception of Desme (who left baseball after his historic 2009 season to pursue a career as a priest), every other player on this “almost” list reached the majors.

And maybe the most interesting part of all of this? Despite that mega season in 1982, Chuckie Canady never reached the big leagues.

 

Braves 2018 third baseman…. Neil Walker?

As I mentioned in my last piece, third base will be a big question mark entering the offseason. Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas is arguably the top free agent option at the hot corner, but could we see the Braves get creative with a 2018 signing? Look no further than a divisional foe of recent years, one Neil Walker.

Neil Walker, INF

Current team: Milwaukee Brewers

Current contract: 1-year $17.2M (accepted qualifying offer after 2016 season)

Current 2017 stats: .268/.341/.442 with 10 HR in 74 games. 108 wRC+

2018 age: 32

The player: Walker is in his 9th MLB season and recently joined his third team of his career. The vast majority of his career has been spent in Pittsburgh, but the Braves saw plenty of Walker in a New York Mets uniform over the last two seasons. Once it became clear the Mets weren’t reaching the playoffs in 2017, they worked out a deal with the Brewers, where Walker hopes to reach the playoffs for the third time of his career. Over 1,023 MLB games, the switch-hitting Walker has posted a .273/.339/.437 slash line, good for a 114 wRC+. Although Walker is not known as the typical middle-of-the-order masher, he has been good for a 162-game average of 31 doubles and 20 HR over the course of his career. Needless to say, he’d make a nice addition to Atlanta’s 2018 lineup.

Why it would work: The biggest concern with a Walker signing would be the position change. Braves prospect Ozzie Albies is arguably the top second base prospect in all of baseball, and appears to be a lock to hold down the position for the 2018 Braves. Meanwhile, Walker has only appeared in 18 games at third over his big league career. Could a switch to third base work for Walker? Well you have to take a deeper look at his professional career. Walker initially came up as a third baseman in the Pittsburgh system (354 career minor league games at 3B; only 32 games at 2B). He graded as a strong defender as a third base prospect, but was moved to second base to allow the Pirates to get both Walker and Pedro Alvarez in the lineup together. The position switch worked out well, and Walker stuck at second for the majority of the his time in Pittsburgh.

Why it won’t work: Like Moustakas, Walker is one of the top free agent options entering 2018. There are plenty of teams with question marks at second base entering the offseason (most notably the Mets and the Blue Jays), and there’s always the chance a mid-market team like Atlanta wouldn’t be able to outbid other suitors. Another reason it may not work could be the fact that Atlanta may not be willing to sign a player like Walker to a multi-year deal without knowing how well he’d transition back to third at this stage in his career (it’s worth noting Walker’s first game with the Brewers was at third base as Travis Shaw nurses a foot injury). Having said that, don’t forget how smooth Brandon Phillips has looked at third. Phillips is a great defender in his own right, but this move is not unprecedented.

Conclusion: Neil Walker would be a great addition to the 2018 Atlanta lineup. His switch-hitting ability would fit in perfect between Ender Inciarte and Freddie Freeman at the top of Atlanta’s lineup. With Walker turning 32 soon, the Braves probably wouldn’t be willing to go for more than 3 years on a contract offer, but he could give Atlanta solid production at a position of need. On top of that, he could be insurance at second base if Albies suffers a sophomore slump similar to what we’ve seen from Dansby Swanson in 2017. Signing Walker and moving him to third base would definitely be thinking outside the box, but a mid-market team like the Braves needs to be creative if they want to get back into playoff contention.

Potential 2018 Brave: 3B Mike Moustakas

This is the first installment of potential offseason additions for the Atlanta Braves. We will take a look at players that could be available in the free agency market, as well as any potential trade options. I hope you guys enjoy.

Mike Moustakas, 3B

Current team: Kansas City Royals

Current contract: Final year of two-year contract extension signed with Royals in 2016 ($8.7M salary in 2017 season).

Current 2017 Stats: .274/.305/.551 with 31 HR in 100 games. 118 wRC+

2018 Age: 29

The player: Moustakas is in his seventh season with Royals after bursting onto the scene in 2011 as the Royals’ #3 prospect. The left-handed hitting third baseman struggled with consistency through his first 4 seasons, but finally turned the corner at age 26 in 2015. Since the 2015 season, Moustakas has hit .276/.327/.503 while playing a solid third base. He would provide a power bat to join Freddie Freeman in the middle of Atlanta’s order. The biggest weaknesses for Moustakas are his walk rate (6.3% over his career), as well as his significant splits (only a .239/.288/.396 slash line vs LHP).

Contract comparisons:

2017- Justin Turner re-signed with the Dodgers for 4 years and $64M ($16M per year).

2015- Pablo Sandoval signed with the Red Sox 5 years and $95M ($19M per year) and Chase Headley signed with the Yankees for 4 years and $52M ($13M per year).

Both Turner and Headley were a couple years older than Moustakas when they hit the free agency, but Sandoval was nearly the same age. Moustakas could very well land a contract in the 4 to 5 year range worth somewhere between $15-20M a year. 

Why it would work: Per Fangraphs, the Braves have finished 20th or worse in third base fWAR in 4 of the 5 seasons since Chipper Jones retired. The lone outlier is the 2013 season, in which Chris Johnson nearly won the NL batting title en route to a career best 2.5 fWAR. The position has been full if inconsistencies and below average performances in recent years, and 2017 has been no different. The Braves briefly toyed with the idea of Freddie Freeman at third, but that experiment only lasted a few weeks. Johan Camargo and (most recently) Brandon Phillips have played well this year, but Camargo has been moved to shortstop full-time and Phillips will be a free agent after 2017. Gwinnett 3B Rio Ruiz was once a highly regarded prospect brought in through the Evan Gattis trade, but Ruiz has struggled in his brief MLB career and his 2017 AAA line is currently at .251/.321/.447.

Why it won’t work: Moustakas is clearly the top third baseman in the 2017-2018 free agent class. Teams such as the Yankees, Mets, Angels and Giants will also be in the mix for Moustakas’ signature. All four of those teams have higher payrolls than the Braves, and don’t rule out the Royals trying to bring back a fan favorite. Even though the Braves will officially rid themselves of contracts like Bartolo Colon, current Twin Yankee Jaime Garcia, and possibly parts of Matt Kemp and/or Nick Markakis’ contracts, they will have to be very selective on how they spend in the offseason. While third base is definitely a high priority, the Braves could also spend big money on starting pitching, or possibly a corner outfielder if Kemp or Markakis is traded.

Conclusion: Mike Moustakas would be a great fit in Atlanta. The Braves will definitely be in play for his services, but it will ultimately come down to whether or not they would rather spend big on a starting pitcher or an outfielder. The Braves will definitely have the money to make a big splash signing, but they also have the prospects to pursue a big name in a trade. Which route will they choose for third base?