With the month of January already in the rearview mirror, fans can begin shifting their attention to the start of baseball season! We are less than two weeks away from the beginning of Spring Training with pitchers and catchers for the Atlanta Braves set to report on Feb. 13. While actually preseason games are still down the line, now is the time to begin looking at the projected starters for the Braves and begin debating who will see time and contribute this season. A number of players have moved on or been traded, but there will be a number of familiar faces on the roster, particularly in the outfield.
2018 Atlanta Braves Positional Preview – Outfield
CF – Ender Inciarte
Inciarte was brought over from the Arizona Diamondbacks as a part of the Shelby Miller trade prior to the start of the 2016 season. He instantly became a fan favorite for his likable smile, strong defense, and relentless hustle in the field. Despite posting his lowest single-season WAR of his career last season (3.0), Inciarte remains a solid piece of the Atlanta outfield and offense.
Since arriving before 2016, Inciarte has won back-to-back Gold Gloves and notched his first career All-Star appearance in 2017 while appearing in 157. He posted career-high marks last season in home runs (11), RBI (57), steals (22), runs (93), and his 201 hits marked the first 200-hit season for Atlanta since Marquis Grissom in 1996. While his OPS+ for 2017 was right at 100, Inciarte hits and gets on base enough to complement his elite defense. Barring a trade or unforeseen circumstance, look for Inciarte to hold onto his starting CF spot for the Braves.
RF – Nick Markakis
Markakis is expected to be the starting RF on Opening Day and is the only other returning starter in the OF besides Inciarte. However, it is fair to wonder what sort of production Markakis will provide in the last season of his contract. Atlanta signed Markakis to a four-year, $44 million deal ahead of the 2015 season, and many fans were left questioning the decision. The Braves were in rebuild mode and dedicating that amount of money to an OF who was already over 30 did not make a lot of sense.
In his first season in Atlanta, Markakis did post a 109 OPS+, despite hitting just three home runs, but that number has dropped each season. His OPS+ dropped to 100 in 2016 and 96 in 2017, the second and third lowest marks of his career. He has also eclipsed the 10 home run mark just once with 13 in 2016.
Those who defend Markakis will point to his intangibles and veteran presence, but there is no denying he is on the decline. He will be 34-years old this season, and expecting some sort of bounce-back performance is likely grasping at straws. Additionally, his declined range in the outfield has become an issue on the defensive side of the ball. Markakis may start in RF on Opening Day with a chance to play out his contract, but do not expect to see him around come 2019.
LF – Lane Adams/Preston Tucker
The vacant LF spot left by the trade of Matt Kemp is sure to draw a lot of attention (for reasons discussed later in this article), but the current plan appears to be some sort of platoon between Adams and Tucker to begin the season. Adams did see MLB experience in Atlanta last season while appearing in 85 games. He saw mixed results with the Braves but hit five home runs, stole 10 bases, and scored 19 runs. Adams is likely best suited for a role off the bench due to his elite speed, but it sure looks like he will get multiple opportunities early in 2018.
The left-handed hitting Tucker presents a platoon possibility alongside Adams in LF. Tucker has appeared in 146 MLB games with the Houston Astros, but he stayed in Triple-A for 2017. He hit 24 home runs with 20 doubles and 84 runs scored last season. Tucker did display an ability to hit for power at times in the majors, but he also struck out 108 times and posted a .219 batting average with the Astros. While he will likely get an opportunity to play this season, it remains to be seen if he can consistently contribute to the offense.
OF – Ronald Acuna
Those who have followed baseball over the past year have certainly heard a lot about Acuna, and rightfully so. Acuna began 2017 as a 19-year old prospect with the High-A Florida Fire Frogs. He would finish the season at Triple-A Gwinnett, but his performance led many to wonder if he would receive a late-season call-up to Atlanta. Acuna is widely regarded as one of the top prospects in all of baseball, but it remains to be seen where he will play on Opening Day.
While the vacant LF spot is sure to build fan anticipation, it remains questionable if Acuna will appear on Atlanta’s Opening Day roster. If Acuna were to play right away, the position that makes the most sense is RF. His skillset is playable at any OF position, but playing him in LF with Markakis in RF would be a grave injustice to the youngster’s defense. However, Atlanta does not appear to be interested in moving Markakis to LF at this time. Acuna certainly looks ready to make the jump and will be at Spring Training as a non-roster invitee, but there is still a solid chance that Atlanta will start the season with Acuna in Gwinnett. Either way, the question is not “if” but “when” will we see Acuna in Atlanta this year.
OF – Dustin Peterson
Peterson is another prospect who was overlooked a bit in 2017 but could still find a way to contribute in 2018. He was the Organizational Player of the Year for Atlanta in 2016 and was playing well in Spring Training during 2017 until a broken hand forced him to miss time. The injury limited him to 87 games and he was never able to find the consistency he displayed during his breakout performance in 2016.
Though his numbers were down last season, Peterson remains the No. 14 prospect in Atlanta’s system according to MLB.com. He has also received a non-roster invite to Spring Training and will have the opportunity to try and earn a spot for Opening Day. Even if he does not land in Atlanta for the opener, Peterson is definitely a player that could work his way onto the roster with a strong summer.
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