Atlanta’s Outfield is a Mess of Options

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Nick Markakis
Nick Markakis #22 of the Atlanta Braves knocks in two runs with a third inning single against the Colorado Rockies at SunTrust Park on August 18, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Source: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

When Atlanta signed Adieny Hechavarria to stopgap shortstop and got the news that Dansby Swanson was getting closer to returning, the Braves infield situation became much more clear.

Of course, it really wasn’t that muddy to begin with considering shortstop was the only question and that question only existed because of the Swanson injury. The infield alignment has been remarkably consistent all year long and, if they can make it to October, an infield of Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, and Josh Donaldson seems pretty set. Aside from future injuries, it’s crystal clear.

The outfield situation, however, is about as clear as a Jon Heyman tweet.

If I asked you right now to tell me who the starting three outfielders would be and where they would line up in game 1 of a playoff series, no one could do it. Ronald Acuña Jr. will be one of the three, we know that, but where he plays and who plays beside him is, as of now, a complete mystery.

Here are the candidates:

  • Nick Markakis
  • Ender Inciarte
  • Adam Duvall
  • Austin Riley
  • Charlie Culberson
  • Matt Joyce
  • Billy Hamilton
  • Rafael Ortega
  • Drew Waters

Nick Markakis fractured his wrist in late July. The recovery timetable for that injury is typically about eight weeks, though most will tell you it’s specific to the individual. Eight weeks puts Markakis coming back right as the season ends. He might be able to get in a few games in late September but also, he might not. Would Alex Anthopoulos put him on a playoff roster after being out two months and without sufficient playing time before? I don’t know.

Ender Inciarte just strained his hamstring. The recovery timetable for that injury is 4-6 weeks, though again, it’s different for everyone. Again, that timetable would put his return around the end of September. All the same points I just made about Markakis apply to Ender and probably even more so, just because hamstrings can be so unpredictable. How much regular season time does he need before they feel comfortable playing him in the postseason? I don’t know.

Adam Duvall is a solid piece. Not great, but solid. If the postseason started today, I’m comfortable saying he would get one of the other two spots alongside Acuña. Of course, Duvall is also prone to riding the highest of highs and lowest of lows. Which one he’s experiencing at the end of September probably decides his fate. As well as the health of the two guys above. Which Duvall will we get? I don’t know.

Austin Riley
ATLANTA, GA – MAY 28: Austin Riley #27 of the Atlanta Braves hits a two-run home run in the eighth inning of an MLB game against the Washington Nationals at SunTrust Park on May 28, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

Austin Riley has been fighting a knee sprain. Atlanta got good news as multiple doctors declared he did not need surgery and, even better, he could be back by the end of the month. Of course, a knee injury isn’t the only thing Riley has been fighting. Sliders still exist, unfortunately, and frankly, Austin is going to have to play his way onto a playoff roster. The Austin Riley from May and June not only gets a spot but probably starts. The Austin Riley from July and August gets a pat on the back and a ticket home after the season. Which one will show up post-injury? I don’t know.

Charlie Culberson is the prototypical backup. I say that as a compliment. He’s currently backing up like 5 positions for the Braves. The bench is considerably better when he’s on it and the best-case scenario for the Braves is that he remains there. His inclusion into the starting lineup is entirely tied to the others. There is no preferred path forward that has Charlie in the starting lineup. He is the fire alarm Atlanta will only pull if everyone else is out. Will they have too? I don’t know.

Despite what you’ve seen, or I guess more accurately, not seen this year, Matt Joyce is an outfielder. Brian Snitker apparently views him about as skilled as Matt Kemp out there, so it feels like his chances of starting are the worst out of anyone. He’s the LH power bat off the bench and that’s most likely where he’ll remain. But he is an outfielder, so his name gets included as an option.

Billy Hamilton was just claimed by Atlanta off waivers from Kansas City. He is an elite defensive CF as well as an elite base runner. Those traits are valuable in October. But he can’t hit. His bat carries about as much weight as a Bob Nightengale piece on the state of baseball. If Swanson is back, then playing Hamilton in CF and batting him 8th isn’t the worst thing ever. If Inciarte can’t go, playing Hamilton does at least allow Acuña to play RF, which appears to be his most comfortable position. Still, it’s not great. He’s much more useful off the bench pinch-running and/or as a defensive replacement. Will they get desperate enough to completely forget about offense from CF? I don’t know.

Ortega is AAAA outfielder at this point, though he did just come through with one of the biggest hits of the season against the Dodgers. Feels like he would have to play lights out baseball for the next 6 weeks to be given serious consideration. But he did put up a great season at Gwinnett. And yeah, the AAA ball is wound tighter than Joe Simpson, but so is the MLB ball. So who knows, maybe he’s a player.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now, the 3 most talented outfielders in the organization are Acuña, Cristian Pache, and Drew Waters. That is the outfield of the future. Pache is still developing his bat at AAA and isn’t really a consideration for 2019. But Waters? Waters could get himself into the conversation. He has to cut down on the strikeouts, first and foremost. But if he played at a high level for over the next few weeks in AAA, and, assuming a call-up, held his own in September in Atlanta, I could see it. Anthopoulos keeps using the phrase “we’re taking the best 25” and Waters could absolutely play his way there. Now if Markakis and Inciarte both get back, then no, it’s not going to happen. But if their injuries don’t mend quickly enough…I don’t know?

“We’re going with the hot hand. We’re taking the best 25. … We have a responsibility to the 24, 25 guys who are here, the fan base and everyone else. So if we think someone gives us the best chance to win, we’ll do it.”

And even after you get through all the different personnel options and injury scenarios, there’s also opponent considerations to take into account. What if the opponent is Chicago? They can throw three LH starters in Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, and Cole Hamels. If they’re on the fence about Inciarte or Markakis on the roster, and it does end up being the Cubs with all those LHs, does that make the difference? Does that give an edge to Duvall and Riley?

Atlanta still has to get to the playoffs of course, but you can ask all these same questions about September as we did October. Do they go Duvall-Acuña-Riley when Austin gets back? Are they going to start Hamilton at all? Does Snitker remember Joyce actually is an outfielder? Does Ortega play more now?

I don’t know.

I don’t know much of anything.

Ronald Acuña Jr will be out there, somewhere. I do know that. As for the rest, your guess is as good as mine.

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