Where Do We Go From Here? Part 4, The Infield

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 :)

23 thoughts on “Where Do We Go From Here? Part 4, The Infield”

  1. From the last thread… Melancon’s cutter is VERY good and he throws strikes like a metronome. That’s enough for him to compile ERAs in the mid to low 3s for the next 5 years, IMO.

  2. I don’t know what metrics say that Riley’s fielding is “putrid,” but whatever they are, I’d at least wait until a full year before actually paying any attention to them whatsoever. That seems a highly uncharitable description of the defense he played at third base this year.

  3. I’d prefer to let riley stay at 3rd at least out of the gate than go and sign someone. If he stinks we can look at the trade deadline, maybe Matt Chapman magically comes available. Also I think 3/70 is high for a 36-year old turner, I’d guess he gets more in line with 2/40.

  4. Agree with @2. What metric calls Riley’s defense “putrid”?? Those seem like the same metrics that call Freddie below average at 1st. Eye test speaks differently to me. But yes, 3rd is the weak point on the infield from an offensive standpoint.

  5. Riley looks like a pretty solid defender at third but I’m just not sure that he’ll ever hit. He’s young enough that I’m okay to give him another year, but if we find an opportunity to upgrade I certainly wouldn’t say no.

    On the Dansbo side, I’d also slow the roll slightly — I loved the year he had this year, and I thought last year pre-injury was really positive as well. That said, I don’t think we can call him “among the best in baseball” at shortstop. Maybe it’s just a semantic point, but in my opinion, he’s clearly behind at least Tatis, Lindor, Correa, Seager, Torres, Bogaerts, Story, Baez, Tim Anderson, and Trea Turner. So he might be in the upper half of shortstops in baseball, but I don’t think he cracks the top ten. Albies and Freeman are clearly elite; Dansby is very likely above-average, but unclear that he’s any more than that.

  6. Ultimate zone has Riley at -12.4/150 while Total zone got and incredible -43/150 and BIS got -22/150. BIS at least adjusts for shifts. He is good on balls that can be got by a step-and-a-dive but needs a lot more lateral range. We also led the NL in infield hits given up and I don’t believe the Luke Jackson experience is entirely responsible.

    As for Dansby, he had more bWAR than every one of those guys this season…

  7. Thank you, Karl.

    IMO, the left side of our infield needs to be strengthened. Either the incumbents need to improve, or the Hammers need to replace them. Left field also needs an upgrade.

    And Trevor Bauer needs to wear an Atlanta uniform.

  8. Riley was playing hurt, same as Acuna, since september, so I’m willing to give the bat a chance next year.
    Regarding his defense, I’m sure those ratings were negatively impacted by the actually putrid defensive positioning employed by the team.
    I’m willing to give him and Camargo another chance to impress; we have bigger issues to spend money on (assuming we can even keep payroll at current levels).

  9. Law has always said Riley’s bat is too slow for sustained success in the majors. I’d like to disagree but it is becoming harder to. The one thing I will say in Riley’s favor is that he has shown the tendency to make positive adjustments.

  10. @7, it’s awfully hard to buy 60-game bWAR, FRAA, etc., especially compared to established level of performance — that’s why I believe Riley’s glove isn’t that bad and that’s why I believe Dansby’s true talent isn’t that good.

    Are you really projecting Dansby to outperform Lindor, Seager, Tatis, Turner, Anderson, Story, Bogaerts, etc., in 2021?

  11. @11

    Lindor 35% odds of Dansby outproducing
    Seager 50%
    Tatis 20%
    Turner 40%
    Anderson 55%
    Story 45%
    Bogaerts 65%

    So I think while he’s got little chance of being top 5, I’d expect him to be 6-10 given health.

  12. I believe that Riley has the skills to be a good 3rd baseman, which is quick reactions and a strong throwing arm. However, I also think he lacks the skills to be a great 3rd baseman as he’s not so great at coming in on the ball and his footwork sometimes seems like he’s moving in wet cement. It also seems like the first set of skills will stick with him while the 2nd will deteriorate in his later years of baseball life.

    Statcast thinks Riley is an average defender and that seems about right.

  13. If we happen to lose Ozuna I’d like them to look into marcus semien if he’d take a 1-year deal. 3rd in MVP voting in 2019 with 7.6 fWAR. 3.8 fWAR in 2018, but he didn’t hit super well in 2020 which could be attributed to lingering injury issues. He has experience at 2nd and 3rd albeit a few years ago. He could possibly be the true utility guy you hoped camargo would become. Use him at DH 3 days a week and then have him play a day each at 2nd, SS, 3rd while the starter DHs. Or if the DH goes away you could still likely find 4 starts a week for him. Or play him almost full time at 3rd with riley splitting time between 3rd/LF.

  14. Riley seems like a dude who we’ll look back on in a decade and wonder “why were we so attached to that guy?” He’s played unremarkable defense, his offense hasn’t progressed, and I don’t really expect either to improve much with a full year next year. Hopefully the Braves can go elsewhere for their long term needs.

  15. I get the riley hate and desire to look elsewhere, but he’s still only played 131 major league games after tearing up the minor leagues. He looked like a star the first month in the league, then pitchers made adjustments and he had to work on improving in the offseason which it looked like he did in spring training, but then the covid stuff happened and I’m sure that messed with his development. I’m not making a judgement on a 23 year old until he gets a fair shake and a full year.

  16. Yeah, zone rating and the like are just not compelling at all for a 60-game season. Honestly, I don’t think defensive range stats are particularly compelling over any length of time, but using them on Riley over 60 games to call him putrid is borderline ridiculous IMO.

  17. Riley has elite power, so I don’t think the Braves will give up on him quite yet, unless he’s packaged in a trade.

  18. Hard to have elite power when all that you can do is hit a grooved mediocre fastball a country mile, but literally nothing else.

    The guy will never hit enough at this level. His bat speed is slower than blazon’s. But I hear blazon was a helluva cricket player back in the day, though. :)

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