I’ll continue through the Braves outfield, as today we look at the team’s situation at center field. Be sure to check out FanGraphs center field power rankings, posted last Thursday. Also, take a look at the positions I’ve covered so far…
Last season’s results
The 2021 campaign was supposed to be the year for former prospect Cristian Pache, who after five seasons of development in the Braves farm system, earned an opportunity to start in center field for Atlanta. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you… but… it didn’t go well. And thanks to ineffectiveness and a hamstring injury, Pache ended last season with middling numbers in the majors, hitting just .111 and striking out in 36.8% of his PA. The big league experiment with Pache only lasted 22 games, and with Ronald Acuna Jr. also unavailable due to a major injury, the Braves had to turn to Plan B in a hurry.
Braves center fielders in 2021: .219 AVG / 31 HR / 107 RBI / 81 wRC+ / 4.7 Def / 1.4 WAR
The immediate quick fix was using both Guillermo Heredia (79 wRC+ / 347 PA) and Ender Inciarte (59 wRC+ / 89 PA), and then later – after the trade deadline – it was both Adam Duvall (106 wRC+ / 16 HR / 216 PA) and Joc Pederson (101 wRC+ / 194 PA). Overall, those five players (including Pache) combined to give the Braves a bottom-ten center field group in 2021, per FanGraphs WAR. However, considering the Pache experiment failed miserably and the fact that the team’s best player went down for the rest of the year, it probably could’ve been much worse.
Changes and outlook for 2022
Though not exactly impactful to the day-to-day production of the big league team, perhaps the biggest change for the Braves heading into the 2022 season was the trade of Pache to the A’s. Sure, last year was a rough one for the 23-year-old, but we’ll soon see how he does with a lengthy opportunity in the majors given it’s likely he’ll play consistently in Oakland.
While acquiring first baseman Matt Olson to replace Freddie Freeman in the Pache deal was obviously needed, tendering Duvall a contract last December was also a necessary move for Atlanta and its contention plans in 2022. Duvall and the team still need to settle his arbitration hearing, but bringing his bat and solid defense back into the fold was a must for this season, especially since the Braves had no other plans in terms of outfield adds this past winter. His spike in K rate in 2021 wasn’t ideal, but that power was, as Duvall’s 16 home runs with the Braves during the second-half last season was only four homers shy of his total with Miami in the first half, despite roughly half the PA. Along with Duvall, Atlanta also of course tendered a contract to Heredia, who should see plenty of playing-time off the bench during the first month or so of the 2022 regular season (until RAJ returns).
Drew Waters is a potentially interesting option for center field this season as well. Other than a few unfortunate injuries occurring, I don’t really see a scenario in which the Braves call him up during the first-half of 2022, but you never know. I do know one thing, though: if Waters tears it up in Gwinnett in those first few months of the season, you can bet he’ll get shot in Atlanta at some point this year.
Braves 2022 Center Field Projections
I’m a little confused with what FanGraphs is thinking here, inserting Acuna at center. From everything I’ve gathered this offseason, once Acuna is ready to play the field on defense he’ll be in right field for Atlanta… like he did last season. In fact, I’ve always been under the impression that Acuna and the Braves actually prefer him in right, as it allows him to save his legs a bit and help prevent injury. And so far the trend has matched that logic, for Acuna only started two of 82 games in center in 2021, after starting 30 of 46 there in 2020, 95 of 156 in 2019 and 96 of 111 during his rookie campaign in 2018. Sure, Acuna will likely play some center here and there throughout the rest of his career, but I believe the majority of his starts in 2022 and going forward will be in right field, where he can focus less on defense and more on leading this Braves offense.
But because FG has RAJ receiving 399 PA as a center fielder this coming season, the Braves positional power rankings get a nice boost, ranking third among MLB. Like I said, we could see Acuna there from time to time, but I expect Duvall and Heredia to hold down the position in center, and at least the projections above have both included on the depth chart. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the former approach his career-high in PA from his Reds days, like in 2017 when he came to the plate 647 times in 157 games overall for Cincinnati (the last time Duvall surpassed 600 PA in a single season). I wouldn’t complain, either. Even at 33-years-old, Duvall was an average-to-above-average defender in center last season, and his 30+ homer potential provides plenty of pop in the Braves lineup. Heredia is obviously a step down when it comes to the bat, but he’s had a solid spring this year, and according to Statcast’s OAA, his glove is even better than Duvall’s in center. Many don’t talk about it because he’s not really known for his offense, but in 2021 Heredia recorded the hardest hit ball of his career (109.7 MPH) and matched his career-high for hard hit rate (34.7%). I doubt Heredia gets another 350 PA this coming season, but once again he’ll be an important player off the bench for Atlanta.
Here’s what FanGraphs had to say about the Braves center field situation for this coming season…
“At some point in late April or early May, Ronald Acuña Jr. will return from the torn ACL that cost him the back half of last season and resume terrorizing pitchers, and the Braves will rejoice, at least every time he steps to the plate. Our projections assume that he won’t miss a beat once he steps back onto the field; that triple slash is almost exactly what he produced last year. Given the videos of him in spring training swatting mammoth batting practice home runs at what looks like 10% effort, those estimates might be conservative. The bigger question is whether Acuña belongs up the middle. Defensive metrics have never loved his work in right and are indifferent about his 2020 stint in center. Atlanta didn’t seem interested in a sequel last year, playing him there just twice in his 82 games. And back in 2020, he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “right field is a position I feel more comfortable at.” This doesn’t sound like the ideal situation for someone with a surgically rebuilt knee. Then again, the Braves aren’t exactly flush with better options. They traded away would-be starter Cristian Pache as part of the package for Matt Olson, and Guillermo Heredia is better used as a fifth outfielder and team cheerleader. Barring Drew Waters obliterating Triple-A, that leaves Acuña and Adam Duvall, whose Gold Glove win last year feels like a typo and who, despite his new hardware, grades out as roughly average in center. Sacrificing defense for offense is par for the course for Atlanta’s 2022 outfield, though; it’s not as if Marcell Ozuna and Eddie Rosario belong out there. So long as Acuña can hack it, center field will be his — as much by default as anything else.”
My Braves center field grade: C+
Sure, if Acuna really was expected to total nearly 400 PA as the Braves center fielder this coming season… yeah, I’d probably give the position an A or A+. But I just don’t believe that’s going to be the case. Basically this a grade for what I believe Duvall, and to a lesser extent, Heredia can do over the course of a full season, and I feel an average-ish grade is appropriate. Yes, Duvall will probably pop 20-30 homers (maybe even more), to go with solid D in the outfield, but he’ll also go down on strikes in roughly 30-35% of his PA, once again preventing him from running a .300 OBP (which he has only managed to do four times in his eight-year big league career). A wRC+ around 100 for Duvall and an 80-85 for Heredia is simply average, and even with both of their gloves, I just don’t see center field really being what I’d call a strength for the Braves in 2022. Doesn’t mean I’m not excited… I just don’t see it being one of the better position groups this year.