Last year after projected left field starter Hector Olivera was suspended from the team by MLB after an off-field domestic violence incident, the Braves scrambled for an alternative. Ten different players had starts in left field before the Braves acquired Matt Kemp at the trade deadline last season, putting a stop to the carousel.
STARTER: Matt Kemp
While Kemp is hardly an ideal solution to left field due to his poor defense, poor baserunning, and injury and conditioning concerns, he should still be the most offensively productive left fielder since Justin Upton left town. Kemp hasn’t had a wRC+ under 100 in the past decade, and it seems unlikely that would stop in his age 32 season. Kemp also represents the most likely source of over-the-fence power in a projected line-up that is otherwise short of that commodity. However, Kemp’s .280/.336/.519, 120 wRC+ production he exhibited after his trade to Atlanta is likely his ceiling and is unlikely to be matched in 2017.
BACK-UP: Sean Rodriguez
At this point it seems very likely that the Braves may break camp without a traditional fourth outfielder. This is due to the fantastic versatility afforded the team by the presence of Rodriguez, Jace Peterson, and Chase d’Arnaud. That trio logged 26 starts in left field in 2016 between them with decent fielding results. Expect one of these players to head out to left field or pinch run for Matt Kemp late in ballgames whenever the Braves have a lead.
GWINNETT BRAVES (CLASS AAA)
**TOP 30 PROSPECT** STARTER (Promotion): Dustin Peterson
Peterson had a very strong season in AA Mississippi and earned the Braves Organizational Player of the Year Award after hitting .282/.343/.431 with 12 HR and 38 doubles. It is hoped that some of those doubles will go over the fence away from spacious Trustmark Park. A good start to his season in Gwinnett could spur the front office to start looking at trade opportunities for Matt Kemp, who is currently scheduled to be the highest paid Atlanta Brave over the next three seasons.
BACK-UP: Ronnier Mustelier
Minor league veteran Mustelier had a solid offensive season with the G-Braves in 2016, hitting .291/.353/.394 with 5 HR. The potential for more power is there, as evidenced by his .506 slugging percentage in the Mexican Pacific League this winter. Mustelier is not particular well-conditioned and is a liability in the field, so a good number of his plate appearances will likely be at Designated Hitter. For defensive purposes, Emilio Bonifacio or Lane Adams could slide to left field as necessary. First baseman Matt Tuiasosopo could also see time at both outfield corners.
MISSISSIPPI BRAVES (CLASS AA)
STARTER: Joey Meneses
At this point I believe the starting outfield for Mississippi will be Keith Curcio, Connor Lien, and Meneses, though the configuration of that outfield could have Lien in center, Curcio in left, and Meneses in right. Meneses has had an up-and-down career with the Braves. At one point Meneses looked like only a first baseman as his poor conditioning precluded his staying in the outfield. Meneses turned that around before the 2016 season and seemed to turn a corneras he hit well enough at Carolina — .342/.401/.490 with 5 HR through the first two months of 2016 — that he earned a promotion to Mississippi. After struggling upon arrival, Meneses hit well down the stretch. Meneses has been tearing up the Mexican Pacific League this winter, hitting .308/.345/.444 with 7 HR in 60 games.
Meneses could also wind up back at first base if the organization wants to aggressively promote another outfielder such as Ray-Patrick Didder.
BACK-UP: Sean Godfrey
Godfrey was a player that got some attention from prospect watchers a few years ago, but injuries and inconsistent play have sapped the forward momentum of his career. Now entering his age 25 season, Godfrey probably doesn’t have many more chances. Godfrey has hit well when he’s had the opportunity, and last season he hit .304/.333/.478 in 11 games with the M-Braves. The organization also has options here with outfielders Stephen Gaylor and J.B. Moss, utilityman Erison Mendez, or the ever-versatile Dylan Moore.
FLORIDA FIRE FROGS (CLASS A+)
**TOP 30 PROSPECT** STARTER: Braxton Davidson
While Davidson has primarily played right field, and played it fairly well in his pro career to date, I am predicting he will slide to left field if Ronald Acuna and Ray-Patrick Didder join him in the Fire Frogs outfield. Davidson is looking to translate his plus raw power into plus game power while also cutting back his strikeouts from the astronomically high 36% he had in 2016. If he can do those things while keeping his solid walk rate intact, Davidson will find himself both back on the Braves prospect map and in AA Mississippi in short order.
BACK-UP (Promotion): Tyler Neslony
The Braves picked up several interesting outfielders in the 2016 draft, including Jared James, J.B. Moss, and Neslony, who was a stand-out senior for Texas Tech. Neslony hit .280/.341/.384 combined for Danville and Rome last season, and can play either corner effectively. Justin Ellison is another interesting depth option that has power and speed and could demand more playing time if he can improve his hitting.
ROME BRAVES (CLASS A)
STARTER: Jared James
James could very well be assigned to Florida as a reserve or even as a starter if Didder starts in Mississippi, but for now I am penciling in his name here. James hit .300/.379/.420 between Danville and Rome flashing power, speed, and quality defense. Ideally he would be playing center field, but the Braves depth in center pushes him to a corner. The only question is how a guy like this dropped all the way to the 34th round of the draft.
BACK-UP: Bradley Keller
A raw but toolsy late-round 2015 high school draft pick, Keller bounced between Rome and Danville last season, hitting .185/.225/.292 between the two levels. That performance was certainly disappointing for a someone who was a popular sleeper candidate a year ago. Now going into his age 20 season, Keller will need to put some numbers on the board to stay in the conversation. Keller is versatile enough to play either corner, and can play center as well though he’s a little stretched there.
DANVILLE BRAVES (Rookie League)
STARTER (Promotion): Sander Boeldak
All the usual caveats about how the 2017 draft will drastically change the composition of the rookie league teams apply. Boeldak is an older international signee out of Curaçao, and has shown some pop in his bat in limited action as well as some speed.
BACK-UP (Promotion): Jackson Pokorney
Pokorney was a 29th-round high school pick in the 2016 draft. In his first taste of professional ball, the switch-hitter went .259/.340/.318 for the Gulf Coast League. A 28/9 K/BB ratio, 4 extra base hits in 97 plate appearances, and being limited to only left field isn’t a great first step forward. Anthony Concepcion may also see some time here as well as in right field and first base, if he doesn’t get to Rome first.
FINAL THOUGHTS: While Justin Upton was far from a perfect player, he was a productive one for the Braves in left field. Since his trade, the Braves have totaled all of -0.5 fWAR from the position, which is beyond terrible. Matt Kemp should be a suitable stop-gap for the time being, even if some of us cringe when he closes in (or doesn’t) on liners and his creaky joints just don’t allow him to make the play. Dustin Peterson is a player who could be a solid option in left field, perhaps has soon as 2018. Beyond the prospects listed, there is always the option of moving players from other positions to left field if the organization thinks their bats would play there, or centerfielders blocked by Ender Inciarte.
OFR TOP 10 OUTFIELD PROSPECT RANKINGS:
- Ronald Acuna
- Dustin Peterson
- Alex Jackson
- Cristian Pache
- Braxton Davidson
- Ray-Patrick Didder
- Connor Lien
- Randy Ventura
- Isranel Wilson
- Jarad James
Other entries in this series:
Starting Pitching, Part 1 (Atlanta/Gwinnett)
Starting Pitching, Part 2 (Mississippi/Florida)
Starting Pitching, Part 3 (Rome/Danville)