If you need to catch up, here are our first 3 parts to the series:
After a 2020 season that saw a possible MVP year from Freddie Freeman it likely beggars the imagination that production might get better in the new year but bear with me here. A healthy 2021 might see even greater heights.
Is What You’re Smoking Even Legal in North Carolina?
Ha ha. If healthy, Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson are all among the best in baseball at their positions. I will argue 3rd base and the utility spot should improve as well.
Freddie Freeman will make $22M next season and be worth every penny as always. After starting the restart spring training on the shelf all he did was go out and set new career highs with a 1.102 OPS and a resultant 186 OPS+. He even put in a defensive season that the metrics liked resulting in 2.9bWAR or about 8 wins in a full season. Freddie will be in his walk year so expect an extension to be announced sometime before spring training. Even if he falls back to his normal 5-6 win self we’re good at first.
Ozhaino Albies hurt his wrist in the 2nd spring training and played through 12 games at the beginning of the season before being mercifully shut down. At that point he was rocking a 22 OPS+ and every at bat looked painful. After taking a month to heal, Ozzie came back to post a 150 OPS+ down the stretch. On defense he is loved by Total Zone and (relatively) hated by BIS. A healthy Albies is a 4+ win player which cancels out Freddie’s likely regression.
After hitting and fielding like a house on fire after his 2019 signing, Adeiny Hechavarria looked like his Mets incarnation in 2020 combining error prone fielding with hitting that was pedestrian even by the standards of utility infielders. He is a free agent for 2021 and may well return to see if a larger sample size makes him look better. If so, something like this year’s $1M will be in the offing.
Lt. Swanson finally has a reasonably healthy season on his resume. Even then he had 2 slumps — a 4 for 41 stretch and another at 4 for 43 — that ruined what would otherwise have been a defining season both at the plate and in the field (and he finished with a 110 OPS+ despite those struggles!). Coming off an arbitration award of $3.150M for 2020 I would expect this year’s salary to come in around $7-8M. If he is willing to sign a long term extension I don’t think anybody in the front office would mind.
And now to the part of this review I would really like to avoid. I like Austin Riley. I have followed his career and sometimes gone out of my way to watch him during his minor league time with the Braves. I have seen him be as cold as a pawnbroker’s heart at the plate and hot as UGA’s current cheerleading squad. Austin came into 2020 with 2 major weaknesses for pitchers to exploit: sliders that move out and away and fastballs above the hands. He started slow but then as July became August he went on a tear and raised his OPS almost 350 points in a 12 game span. The secret was that he quit chasing those sliders. Unfortunately, opposing hurlers adjusted by throwing far more high fastballs and an 86 OPS+ combined with putrid fielding made him one of the 5 worst regulars in the game. So, what comes next? He is a good kid, hard working. I bet we see some high fastballs go boom next year and then it will be the pitchers turn to adjust again. Or we get a new guy to man third.
Johan Camargo, Matt Adams, and Charlie Culberson also saw time in the infield and were not good at all :(
Where Do We Go From Here?
Obviously, 3 of the 4 positions are set in stone.
Internal Options: Camargo offers some Riley insurance. He is not arb eligible until next year but is already on a $1.7M contract. He is unlikely to get much of a raise.
Ryan is very high on Riley Unroe, who looks like a decent utility option. Although officially a shortstop, Unroe moves all over the infield as needed. As with all minor league guys we don’t know what happened developmentally for him this year but he was close to MLB-ready in 2019.
My sleeper candidate is Braden Shewmake who was a late first round draft selection in 2019. He finished that year in AA and was at Gwinnett this season. Reportedly adding loft to his swing which would really help his overall production. I doubt the Braves are counting on him out of the gate next season.
Free agents: Ideally, we need a left handed good fielding guy at 3rd who won’t break the bank. None of those happen to be on the market this offseason. Justin Turner, however, will be available after the conclusion of the Series and even at 36 looks to have a lot left in the tank. He will likely require 3/70 or so to sign. Utility guys I’m looking at include Josh Harrison and Marwin Gonzalez who would come considerably cheaper :)