With last night’s victory over the Cubs, the Braves officially moved past the quarter point in the season. Two months ago I don’t think any of us expected what we’ve seen so far. The Braves are currently in first place and have one of the most intimidating rosters top-to-bottom in all of baseball. Each part of the roster has not only contributed but has contributed in a great way.
Well, almost every part of the roster. As you can see from the positional rankings based on fWAR, there has been one black hole on the roster so far:
While there have been a couple positional revolving doors on the roster this year, for the most part, the main pieces have all sorted themselves out. The bullpen, catcher, and LF finally seem to be figured out, but 3B remains the big mystery.
Brian Snitker has written in four names at the hot corner this year: Ryan Flaherty, Charlie Culberson, Johan Camargo, and most recently, Jose Bautista. Individually there have been a few shining moments, but overall it has been a disaster. While Camargo and Culberson have seen the majority of their playing time recently filling in for the injured Dansby Swanson, the collective has still been very underwhelming.
Things started off blistering when Flaherty burst out of the gate on an absolute tear the first two weeks of the season. But it wasn’t meant to be. While Flaherty’s numbers may still look fairly decent for the season, it’s more a testament to his start than what he has accumulated lately. To say he’s turned into a pumpkin may be a bit of an understatement.
For everyone still calling for Flaherty… You may have gotten a little ahead of yourself. His playing time has remained fairly consistent, his production has not. And that’s without even considering the fact he’s a platoon, at best, since he is absolutely useless versus lefties.
With Flaherty’s hot streak falling apart in the last week of April, the move was made to call up Jose Bautista and see what he had left in the tank.
Based on what we have seen, it hasn’t been much. One costly error aside, his defense at 3B hasn’t been crippling, but the biggest concern is the fact his bat speed just hasn’t been there yet. Whether that continues to be a carryover from his steep decline last season, or simply the fact he wasn’t afforded the build to the season as everyone else, remains to be seen. Things aren’t looking promising however you slice it.
But Bautista likely provides the best overall skillset for the Braves current roster. In a lineup that is loaded with players performing at their peak, the one thing that can bring that momentum is a dead spot in the order. Snitker has struggled to find the right order for the pieces, having to also deal with another offensive black hole in the bottom half when you already have the pitchers spot every time through could kill two or three innings a game. Bautista isn’t going to post a sexy batting average, but having a guy in the bottom three who can at least post an ISO over .200 and a walk rate over 10% could be a big difference maker, regardless of where his slash line is.
There are two wildcards if the Bautista experiment comes to an abrupt end, however.
The first is the return of Dansby Swanson from a wrist injury. Not only will it add some consistency to the left side of the infield and give Snitker another name he can pencil in every day, but it will give him the opportunity to play matchup advantages with 3B. While options are currently limited because one of the 3B candidates are also manning SS every day, we will hopefully be able to get a better look at how the options could play out if there are multiple options daily.
Of course, with Swanson return coming soon, one of the four will be likely to go. The Braves are already running with a limited bench thanks to bulking up the bullpen and continuing to carry three players with very similar skillsets in Flaherty, Camargo, and Culberson could prove problematic. Of the three, Flaherty seems to be the smart choice to go, as he doesn’t offer anything that Camargo and Culberson don’t already bring to the table – both are versatile defensively, and with Camargo being a switch-hitter offer a righty/lefty balance.
The other wildcard is currently at Gwinnett and making a very strong case for himself – Austin Riley.
Riley has been nothing short of a stud since the Braves selected him in the 1st round in 2015. His bat has carried him at every level he’s played at so far, but the one question the whole time has been how his glove will play at third. Each season the reports have become more and more favorable. And he does have a lot of help on the left side if he does get the call, having Swanson beside him and Acuña behind him can certainly make for a number of defensive inadequacies. If the organization is comfortable with running Bautista out there defensively every night for the sake of his offensive potential, there’s no reason not to afford the same benefit to Riley.
The question now becomes when do you pull the trigger? Well, it could be a similar situation to that of Acuña and Soroka earlier this season. As long as the status quo isn’t killing you, why rush it? There is a lot going right with the Braves in 2018, and very little that has gone wrong so far. The key to keeping everything rolling is going to be finding the balance between when to cut bait and when to make the necessary moves for change.
Considering the team is ten games over .500, one game up in the division, and the best team in the National League, things aren’t dire. Yet.
For now, I’d continue to ride the combination that is in place, see how everything else holds up when Swanson returns shortly, and if the wheels fall off, make the call.