By DYLAN SHORT
680 THE FAN, ATLANTA – There’s no denying this has been a disastrous start to the season for the defending champs. Whether it be injuries or ineffectiveness, the Braves just can’t seem to get anything going with any consistency. It’s a familar refrain for Braves fans, who just experienced this roller coaster a season ago. That can be a double edged sword, however. Yes, the Braves struggled until August last season and then went on to win the World Series. Yes, 2021 is a good lesson in why you never count a team out until they’re out. But, despite what happened last season (or what you may hear or read from others covering the Braves), this is not something to simply write off. Rather than use last season’s World Series run as a template for why you shouldn’t worry about the team’s dreadful start to the season, you should be using it as a reference point for just how many things have to go right to dig yourself out of the hole bad play can put you in.
Let’s be very frank: this is not a good baseball team right now. The offense struggles to perform with any regularity, seemingly boom or bust night in and night out. The starting rotation is starting to come around, but for the most part has been horribly inconsistent outside of Max Fried, a top 2 or 3 lefty in all of baseball, and Kyle Wright, a player that has somehow gone from “what a wasted pick” to “Man, this guy might be an ace”. And the bullpen, while getting consistent outstanding performance from Kenley Jansen, Spencer Strider, and AJ Minter, have struggled with major bouts of inconsistency and injury.
Major League Baseball messing with the baseballs for a 4th consecutive year most certainly has something to do with the inconsistencies of the team, but that excuse doesn’t do much for me when every team is dealing with the same issues. Yes, the Braves are a team built around power, which has been severely dampened by MLB, but when you look at the roster here, that doesn’t really excuse the inadequecy we’ve seen to this point. There is talent on this roster. A lot of it. But you can’t expect to dig yourself into a hole every season and count on the other teams in your division to help you dig out of it. Unfortunately for Atlanta, we already find ourselves in this situation. Last season, Alex Anthopolous was able to overcome this by making a flurry of deals at the trade deadline that all managed to work out and propel this team to glory. Counting on that for a 2nd consecutive season seems inadvisable at the very least. So what’s the answer?
Unfortunately, this answer isn’t so easy. If it were, we’d all be GMs. The easiest answer for a team underperforming at certain positions is to make trades to shore up those positions. But, as I just pointed out, trying to do this and hit on those trades every season is a long shot at best. Throw in the incredible offensive struggles around the league and I start to wonder whether or not trades are even a viable option. Take CF for example: To say Adam Duvall has struggled offensively is to say a house flood is a little damp. He’s been one of the most imacted players by the deadened ball, and thus has been one of the worst offensive players in baseball to this point. Easy choice to replace, right? Except it’s not that easy. Looking around the league, there aren’t exactly a plethora of CF options that are available. And the ones that might be? Not exactly ones to inspire confidence. Could the Braves go after someone like Andrew Benintendi to shore up the offense? Sure. He’s had an excellent start to his season in a year where everyone else has seemed to struggle. Unfortunately, as we Braves fans have seen multiple times this season (and the Philthies have shown us year after hilarious year), you have to play defense as well if you have any hope to win games. Say what you will about Duvall at the plate, but he’s been superb in patrolling center this season. This is where the trade market gets supremely dicey. There just aren’t a lot of players available who wouldn’t completely wipe out the gains the team would make offensively with a massive defensive drop off. Maybe the Braves look at someone like Manuel Margot in Tampa? He’s in the midst of a colossal campaign offensively, and has been a consistently above average defender his entire career, including time in CF. That’s a good option, one that should and probably will be explored knowing Alex, but what do you do if that doesn’t pan out? You look to your farm system.
This is where things take a turn. The Braves farm system has plenty of talent. Not as much as it had a few years ago, but that’s the price you pay when you’re a team of mostly home grown players. Unfortunately, while you have some very good talent on the farm, including a number of players who are extremely undervalued around the prospect circuit, you don’t have many to fill the offensive roles you’re looking for. Drew Waters is a player with a load of promise. He’s fast, aggressive, an excellent defender, with a cannon of an arm. He hits the ball harder than almost anyone else in the Minors. There is a lot to love about the young switch-hitter, and I personally think he’s going to be a perennial all-star, particularly now that CF is his to lose. But he isn’t ready at this moment. I have no doubt that he could come up and hold his own defensively, and I have no doubt that he would make some sensational plays both in the field and in the box, but there are still some major areas of improvement he needs to make before being a truly viable option for this club. For starters, he has to curb his tendencies to swing and miss inside the strikezone. This is one of the biggest indicators for success at the big league level from an offensive perspective: if you can’t make contact with pitches in the zone, how are you going to consistently get on base? The obvious answer to counter a strikeout tendency is to walk. Unfortunately, this is Waters’ weakest area of his offensive game. It isn’t surprising, most young hitters with good contact skills tend to be extremely aggressive. But it is a major concern when gauging how Waters would perform over the course of the rest of the season at the big league level. Personally, I think it very likely we see Drew Waters at some point in 2022, but counting on him to come up tomorrow and instantly flourish seems like a stretch at best to me.
Ok, so what about Michael Harris II? If you’re plugged in at all to the prospect scene, you know Michael Harris. He’s an electric prospect that has had an incredible ascent up the ladder. He has a terrific eye at the plate, is fantastic at making contact, can hit to all areas of the field, and has consistently played outstanding defense in center. He’s also played a grand total of 35 games of AA baseball. The list of players, particularly position players, that skip AAA entirely and perform at a high level is vanishingly small. He’s made big gains offensively, particularly in the power department, which was his biggest weakness prior to this season, but he’s not the type of player the Braves want to bring up before he’s ready to stay. It’s also very important to note that, while hes performing exceptionally at AA (122 wRC+), it still hasn’t been to the level of what Drew Waters himself did in a far larger sample in AA (144 wRC+ en route to a AA MVP). While Harris is seen as a far more patient and selective player at the plate, that really isn’t born out by the numbers, and seems to be more a case of prospect fatigue in the case of Waters, while in what I like to call the “Prospect Honeymoon” phase for Harris. That isn’t to say that Michael Harris isn’t an incredible prospect, he’s an amazing prospect and someone the Braves presently consider the most untouchable prospect in their system, and someone who most certainly deserves a call up to Gwinnett. But whether Drew Waters or Michael Harris II, once the Braves make that call they aren’t going to be looking to send them back down. Neither of these two, the most ready and impactful prospect still in the system (though Vaughn Grissom is closing that gap very quickly) appear feasible options for me at this present moment. All that to say, while the future looks bright, the current big leaguers on this roster are going to have to figure this out.
Let’s hope that starts Friday against the Miami Marlins.