Please Approach the Bench

After a solid performance last season, the Braves bench is once again an area of need.

For years it seemed like the bench for the Atlanta Braves was an afterthought. Seemingly focused on defense rather than offense, time after time in crucial situations late in games hinged on players named Bonifacio, Tucker, Flaherty, and Adams. A constant, of course, has been Charlie Culberson, who has provided some clutch performances at the plate since arriving from Los Angeles in the Matt Kemp deal. In 2019, however, Alex Anthopoulos made a concerted effort to improve the offensive output of the 4 man bench. As a group the pinch hitters for the Braves batted .247 with 9 HR, 14 doubles, 37 RBI and ranked 2nd in the National League in OPS with a .767 mark and 3rd in WRC+ with 98.

Leading the charge last season was Charlie Culberson, who carried an .843 OPS in 58 plate appearances as a pinch hitter. Matt Joyce, the Braves leader in pinch hit AB’s at 85, had a relatively solid run in 2019 after being limited by injury in 2018 with Oakland. While sporting an overall impressive .295/.408/.450 line in his bounce-back season, Joyce was not nearly as effective in the pinch hitting role as he was in the starting lineup. As a PH he posted a meager .655 OPS, accounting for only 2 of the 9 total HR hit by the Braves. By comparison, Johan Camargo had 4 HR and a .940 OPS in only 39 plate appearances as a pinch hitter.

There has been a lot of discussion about bringing Matt Joyce back for 2020 but it would seem that he is better suited for a platoon role than a true bench bat, and with the left handed Nick Markakis already slated to fill the strong side in any LF platoon, it makes little sense to pursue Joyce at this time. So who could the Braves be looking at to fill out the bench in 2020?

Old Friends Returning

So much of how the bench shakes out could depend on whether or not Josh Donaldson returns to man the hot corner for the Braves. Nothing is guaranteed in free agency, but it’s generally assumed that the Braves will have the last chance to bid on Donaldson, and barring a purely desperate move by the Nationals a reunion in Atlanta seems likely. For now, let’s proceed under the assumption that Donaldson will be back with Atlanta, which will allow a familiar face to return to the bench: Johan Camargo.

Camargo had a rough season, generally speaking. After a very solid 2018 campaign it seemed that he had done everything he needed to do to secure the starting job at 3B. Anthopoulos even stated early in the offseason that they did not look at 3B as a position of need. Not soon after this “vote of confidence” in Camargo it was announced that the Braves had signed Josh Donaldson to a record 1 year deal of $23M to play third. As shocking as it was for the fanbase, it must have been a huge blow to Camargo. He had a rather pedestrian Spring Training, and the end of April saw him batting a cool .246 with a sub-.400 slugging %. By the end of May, his batting average had dropped to .213. He rebounded briefly in June before struggling again in July and being optioned to Gwinnett halfway through August. He returned to Atlanta with a vengeance, however, just in time to help the team stave off the Nationals in a last ditch effort to win the division, batting .455 in the month of September and slugging 1.182. Unfortunately for the Camargo and the Braves, he suffered a shin fracture after fouling a ball off his leg and ended his season on the injured list.

Along with Camargo, the Braves will have Tyler Flowers back in a bench role for 2019. Last season was an utterly forgettable one at the plate for Flowers, who split time with Brian McCann and saw his offensive production decline for the second consecutive season. In a season where home runs were leaving the park at record rates, Flowers managed only 11 in 2019, slugged a paltry .413, and managed to strike out 105 times in 271 AB’s. He was being counted on to continue his recent trend of lighting up left handed pitchers, but he actually managed reverse splits in 2019, batting over 100 points higher against right handed pitching than left, and 8 of his 11 HR were hit against RHP. It will be interesting to see if the 50/50 split of the catching duties that manager Brian Snitker has employed over the last two seasons will continue with the addition of Travis d’Arnaud.

Adam Duvall looks to be more of a platoon option with Nick Markakis rather than a true bench bat, but his right handed power swing coming off the bench late in games proved to be a formidable weapon late in the 2019 season. He spent most of the season terrorizing AAA pitchers in Gwinnett, and when finally given an opportunity to come up and contribute at the big league level, he slashed .267/.315/.567 with 10 HR in 120 AB’s.

Finally, after nearly creating a fan revolt by not tendering Charlie Culberson a contract by the deadline, allowing Charlie the chance to explore free agency, Anthopoulos pulled a coup and brought him back on a minor league contract with an invite to spring training. This will allow the fan-favorite the opportunity to show he has rebounded from being drilled in the face by a high and tight Fernando Rodney fastball and claim one of the last two remaining roster spots. As mentioned, Culberson was the Braves best overall pinch hitter last season, and while his defensive versatility appears to have declined a bit, he still brings an aggressive approach to the plate with a penchant for clutch hits. Assuming he has no ill-effects from the facial fractures that ended his season, he appears to be a good bet to return to the bench.

Others who were in a bench role last season that may be considered for a return would be the aforementioned Matt Joyce, Adeiny Hechavarria, who was acquired after Johan Camargo was sent to Gwinnett and Dansby Swanson went down with an injury, and Billy Hamilton, who was brought in once it was determined Ender Inciarte would be a long time returning from his injury. The Braves GM has mentioned the need to have a back-up shortstop on the roster, seemingly acknowledging that Camargo and Culberson are not being considered in that role, which hints to a possible return of Hechavarria to Atlanta. Hamilton has become a defense first 4th outfielder as his offense has evaporated over time, making him a less-desirable return candidate with the already offensively suspect Nick Markakis and Ender Inciarte on the current projected roster.

Options on the Market

Alex Anthopoulos went off the board last season when he signed Matt Joyce to a 1 year deal. He was a guy that struggled a bit due to some low back issues and was being forced into a part-time role after some really productive seasons as a full time player. There is reason to believe that strategy might once again be in play, and with the addition of a 26th man to the roster for 2020 that gives him the flexibility to look for an impact hitter that may not be as versatile defensively. We also know he is checking on the backup shortstop options as well, and the overall construction of the team seems to cry out for a left handed option with some pop. With these ideas in mind, let’s look at some intriguing options on the free agent market.

Eric Thames, 1B/OF – Eric Thames played primarily 1B for the Milwaukee Brewers last season, though in 2018 he started 31 games in the outfield and generally rates as an average defender at both LF and RF. A thumb surgery in 2018 limited him to 278 AB’s and limited his offensive output, but he returned to his pre-surgery form in 2019 posting a .851 OPS with 25 HR. He was due a hefty $7.5M option for 2020, and the Brewers decided to buy him out for $1M rather than exercise it. At 33 years old, his days as a regular in the outfield are numbered, but the Braves really aren’t needing outfielders at the moment anyway. What they need is a left handed power threat, and one that can adequately spell Freddie Freeman as well. Thames would be a top end of the salary range target, and there are a couple of teams who may swoop in and take him as their primary 1B, such as the Washington Nationals. If he falls to the Braves, however, he could be a solid power threat late in games and provide Freddie with regular rest throughout the season.

Danny Espinosa – SS/2B – It’s been a minute since Danny Espinosa last played regular innings at the big league level, but he’s a short stop that has some pop from both sides of the plate. He spent last season in the Mets organization, playing at AAA Syracuse, and batted .256/.337/.414 with 20 HR and 27 doubles. His days as an everyday player are obviously coming to an end, but having a switch-hitting option on the bench in the event that Dansby Swanson struggles against RHP in 2020 could be highly beneficial.

Jordy Mercer – SS – Jordy Mercer finds himself in a similar situation to where Matt Joyce was at the end of the 2018. A starter for most of his career, nagging injuries limited him to a part time role last season with the Tigers, playing only 74 games total and finishing with a .270/.310/.438 slash line. Mercer is not a typical power threat, and being right handed he would basically only fill the need of a backup SS and wouldn’t help balance out the right-handed heavy bench. With that said, however, he brings a legitimate threat off the bench when facing left-handed pitching. Last season his OPS was almost 200 points higher v/s LHP than RHP, and he carries a career .297/.357/.462 line against righties overall. The extra bench spot could make it possible to add Mercer and still get the left handed pop you need to balance the bench.

Corey Dickerson – LF – Like Mercer, Corey Dickerson struggled with injuries last season. A week into the season he suffered a shoulder strain that landed him on the 60-day Injured List until he was eventually traded to the Phillies, who activated him on August 2nd. 6 weeks later he was back on the 60 day IL, this time with a fractured left foot. Dickerson may be holding out for a starting position somewhere in the league, but in the event he is unable to secure one, his left handed bat off the bench could be a solid addition.

Assorted Left Handed sluggers – If all Anthopoulos is looking for is a left handed power threat, there is always the option of seeking a return of Matt Adams or trying to bringing in former Marlins designated Braves Killer Justin Bour. Mitch Moreland carried an .887 OPS v/s right handed pitching last season and can spell Freeman on occasion to get more AB’s. Any one of those three players could be a target for the 26th man on the roster and 5th man on the bench, assuming that a back-up short stop is found among the league’s cast offs.

99 problems, and the Bench is one

No matter how you look at it, the bench is going to figure prominently in the Braves attempt to repeat as the National League East champions. Whether they ultimately decide to seek out versatility as in years past, provide a chance for a veteran to re-establish his value, or go big and sign or trade for a major name and move one of their current starters to the bench, ultimately something will have to be done to address the holes on the bench. Don’t see your favorite bench target mentioned? Feel free to comment below with who you think the Braves might be looking at to round out their roster.

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