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?

 

The Braves should look into extending Tyler Flowers

On December 8th 2015, the Atlanta Braves signed former White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers to a 2-year $5M contract with a 2018 option worth $4M. As we reach the home stretch of the 2017 season, no one could have possibly known what a bargain he would be.

Over the last two seasons, Flowers has hit .285/.371/.442 with a 118 wRC+. On top of, he’s graded out as 4th best pitch framer in 2016 and the top overall pitch framer in 2017. Sure, his caught stealing rate of 11% leaves plenty to desire, but his framing skills help overcome his other defensive shortcomings. By OPS, Flowers (.856) is only behind Buster Posey (.900) and Alex Avila (.864) among MLB catchers. By wRC+, Flowers (127) is only behind Posey (140) and Avila (133) yet again. Quite frankly, Flowers has turned into one of the top catchers in all of baseball.

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Before joining the Braves, Flowers was a below average hitter by all accounts (665 OPS; 83 wRC+). Flowers credits adding a leg kick to his swing as the ultimate difference maker. Per Fangraphs, Flowers’ batted ball profile showed only a 30.4% hard-hit rate in Chicago. As a Brave, Flowers has seen that rate jump to 41.6% (8th in all of baseball since 2016), thanks in large part to the leg kick. After his 2016 success, it was a valid question to wonder whether or not his first season in Atlanta was a fluke. But as we enter the home stretch of 2017, the results continue to impress. Flowers has turned into the real deal in a Braves uniform.

His $4M option for 2018 is sure to be picked up, but it’s time for the Braves to look beyond 2018. Yes the organization has young talented bats like Alex Jackson (.261/.333/.482 with 14 HR in A+ and AA) and Brett Cumberland (.277/.419/.479 with 11 HR in A and A+) that could potentially be ready to replace Flowers in 2019, but as we all know, no prospect is a safe bet.

As Dave Cameron points out, even though catchers do see a decline in their 30’s, the performance drop is not as steep as you might expect. Flowers will be 32 in 2018, so any sort of contract extension should be calculated carefully. Twins catcher Jason Castro signed the top free agent contract among catchers last offseason when he signed a 3-year $24.5M contract (at 30 years old), and Nationals catcher Matt Wieters signed on for $10.5M in ’17 with a player option for the same salary in ’18. If the Braves could offer Flowers a bump in his 2018 salary to something similar to the salaries of Castro and Wieters ($8M-$10M range), along with a similar salary in 2019 as well as a potential club option (with a reasonable buyout) for 2020, the Braves could secure the catcher position while guys like Jackson and Cumberland continue to develop their offensive and defensive skills at the minor league level.

Wisler to the bullpen is the right call by the Braves

The Braves announced on Thursday afternoon that 24-year-old RHP Matt Wisler was moving to the bullpen in Gwinnett. The move comes after nearly three years of Wisler rotating back and forth between Gwinnett’s rotation to Atlanta’s rotation. Ultimately Wisler was unable to replicate his AAA success (3.90 ERA; 3.55 FIP) at the big league level (5.12 ERA; 4.93 FIP). The biggest issue for Wisler has been the lack of an effective third pitch to attack left-handed hitters, and the numbers speak for themselves:

Wisler vs LH: .376 OBP; 5.11 K/9; 5.05 BB/9

Wisler vs RH: .287 OBP; 7.31 K/9; 1.41 BB/9

The move to the bullpen will allow Wisler to focus on being primarily a two-pitch pitcher. His fastball, which has averaged 93.0 MPH over his MLB career, could see a spike in velocity that allows him to pitch more along the lines of 95-96 MPH in one-inning stints. On top of that, a bump in velocity could make his already effective slider even more of a weapon. According to Fangraphs, Wisler’s pitch value of his slider graded out 26th in all of MLB in 2016 among pitchers that threw at least 150 innings. That was ahead of guys like Zack Greinke and Marcus Stroman, who are both known for their excellent slider.

Unfortunately not all of the Braves highly regarded pitching prospects will live up to they hype. In fact many may never amount to much of anything at the big league level. With that being said, if the Braves can utilize Wisler as a reliever primarily working against right-handed hitters, his mid-90’s fastball and strong slider could make him a very effective MLB reliever.

The crowded infield in Atlanta

When the Atlanta Braves opted to option Dansby Swanson to AAA Gwinnett last week, it seemingly cleared up a crowded infield situation for the Atlanta Braves. Swanson was in the midst of a year-long slump, and manager Brian Snitker had decided to give the majority of the shortstop starts to fellow rookie Johan Camargo. With Swanson moving on to everyday at-bats in Gwinnett, the infield situation seemed to be clearing itself up.

And then the Braves promoted Ozzie Albies.

Albies arrived in Atlanta as a two-time Top 100 prospect, regardless of which prospect publication you prefer. Unlike the last couple weeks of Swanson’s 2017 season in Atlanta, Albies was not coming up to be a part-time player.

Which shifts our focus to Atlanta’s other second baseman, Brandon Phillips. Despite turning 36 this year, Phillips has yet to show signs of his age. His slash line of .292/.335/.436 and his 101 wRC+ are as good of numbers as we’ve seen from Phillips since his 5.4 fWAR season of 2011. On a bad team, this guy is too good to be sitting the bench. So if you aren’t going to use him, why not trade him?

Trading Phillips is tricky. In 2012, Phillips signed a $72.5M contract extension with the Cincinnati Reds, which included limited no-trade protection (allowing Phillips to block deals to 12 teams). Phillips’ list of 12 teams is currently unknown, so it is entirely possible the Braves worked a deal to trade Phillips and he ultimately shot it down. After all, Phillips is from nearby Stone Mountain, GA, and he’s made it very clear he’s happy to be back near home. Having said that, there are no reports at this time of Phillips blocking any trades. It could just be that there isn’t a huge need for second basemen among playoff contending teams right now.

With Phillips in Atlanta, the optimal Atlanta lineup does not include him on the bench. The Braves could easily shift Albies to shortstop (he made 215 appearances at shortstop in his minor league career, with 166 appearances at second base). The only reason Albies was moved off of shortstop last year was to accommodate the organization’s addition of Swanson. Albies was regarded as a strong defender at shortstop, but Swanson was considered even better.

With Albies and Phillips up the middle, Snitker could mix and match the rest of the field how he pleases. Camargo has been a pleasant surprise, and Atlanta could give him the majority of the reps at third base for the time being. This would allow Freddie Freeman to move back to his natural position at first base. And although Matt Adams has turned out to be a great move by GM John Coppolella, he has started to cool off in recent weeks (.225/.273/.350 since July 17). Snitker said he plans to use Adams in left field going forward, but the outfield transition was one he struggled in with St. Louis earlier this year. Snitker could attempt to use somewhat of a platoon situation with Adams in left field and Camargo at third versus right-handed pitching, (or to take it a step further, use them in these positions when the Braves have more of a ground ball pitcher on the mound, where Adams’ shortcomings in left field may not be as glaring as expected) and then possibly play Sean Rodriguez in left field versus left-handed pitching.

In the long run, the best thing for the Braves would be finding a trade partner for Brandon Phillips. He’s not under contract for the 2018 season and Ozzie Albies appears to be the second baseman of the future. But until they can find a trade partner, the best Atlanta infield includes both Brandon Phillips and Ozzie Albies.

Time for the Braves to cash in on Kurt Suzuki

When the Braves signed Kurt Suzuki in January, they knew they were landing an experienced catcher at a cheap price ($1.5M for the 2017 season). The game plan was for Suzuki to provide insurance in case of a Tyler Flowers injury, as well as catch R.A. Dickey every 5 days. But there is no way the Braves could have known what they would actually be getting from Suzuki.

Through 49 games and 180 plate appearances, Suzuki has hit 12 HR while on his way to a career best .872 OPS and a 122 wRC+.  All told, Suzuki’s 1.5 fWAR ranks 13th among MLB catchers, despite not being his own team’s starting catcher. Much of Suzuki’s success has come from a large spike in his home runs per fly ball rate (17.6%; career rate of 6.4%). On top of that, Suzuki seems to have taken a play from Josh Donaldson’s playbook of trying to hit more fly balls. Through August 1st, Suzuki has posted a 50% fly ball rate, well above his career rate of 39%. So far, the shift in strategy has paid huge dividends for Suzuki’s offensive performance.

Entering today’s action, there are 21 teams with below league-average (100 wRC+) offensive production at catcher. Among those 21 teams, 9 are above .500 and chasing a playoff spot (although one of those teams, the Rockies, recently added Jonathan Lucroy). That would leave 8 teams that could potentially receive a shot in the arm with the addition of Suzuki. At a modest $1.5M 2017 salary and a visit to the free agent market once again in 2018, Suzuki could be a very intriguing short-term option for someone.

The 2017 non-waiver trade deadline ended with Suzuki still wearing a Braves uniform on Monday, but it’s not too late to place Suzuki on revocable waivers and try to work out a deal with a contender.