For the last two seasons, right field has been manned by Nick Markakis, Professional Hitter. This arrangement will likely continue for 2016 as there doesn’t seem to be a potential right-fielder knocking on the door. However, Markakis’s good reputation around the league and his relatively affordable contract make him a perennial trade candidate.
STARTER: Nick Markakis
Markakis enters the third season of his 4-year contract signed in the wake of the Jason Heyward trade in 2014. Markakis has provided two seasons of similar value, but went about those seasons in very different ways. In 2015, coming off off-season neck surgery and not quite up to strength, Markakis concentrated on getting on base by whatever way possible. This lead to a career-high-tieing .370 OBP and a respectable 106 wRC+, despite only 3 hits clearing the fences. Braves Nation looked forward to a stronger Markakis in 2016 and he did deliver 13 homers, which is more on par with his career averages. However, his OBP dropped by 24 points making his overall offensive game slightly less valuable. If Markakis can raise his OBP back near 2015 levels while also maintaining his low-teens home run power, Markakis could be a very valuable player to Atlanta, or to another team if they should come with the right offer. Like most of the Braves line-up, Markakis did some of his best work in August and September, so there’s hope that he can do just that.
BACK-UP: Sean Rodriguez
Yes, Sean Rodriguez will back up pretty much every single position. If Jace Peterson plays the outfield and Markakis is out, it is possible Matt Kemp could move over to right field with Peterson in left.
GWINNETT BRAVES (CLASS AAA)
STARTER: Mel Rojas, Jr.
Rojas was acquired by the Braves in early May 2016 from the Pittsburgh Pirates in a cash transactions. The Braves have to be thrilled with the production of Rojas when he arrived in Gwinnett, hitting .270/.349/.491 with a 139 wRC+ while logging innings in all three outfield positions. Rojas is stretched in centerfield, and with Dustin Peterson projected to be promoted to left field, that leaves right field to Rojas, at least for now. I would not be surprised to see Rojas extended an invitation to major league camp and given the opportunity to challenge for a 4th-outfielder role.
BACK-UP: Matt Tuiasosopo
Tuiasosopo logged 144 innings in right field in 2016 and is a solid defender, though his lack of range makes him better suited to first base. If Rojas does make the Atlanta Braves as a bench player, Tuiasosopo will likely begin the season in right field with Balbino Fuenmayor at first.
MISSISSIPPI BRAVES (CLASS AA)
STARTER: Connor Lien
With a centerfielder’s range and a rifle arm, Lien is a nightmare to opposing baserunners. After a little bit of a breakout in 2015 with high-A Carolina that saw him hit .285/.347/.415 with 9 HR and 34 stolen bases, Lien was injured on Opening Day 2016 and missed nearly the entire first half of the season. Lien never really got going in the second half and finished .233/.320/.408. Lein’s ceiling is limited because he simply doesn’t get on base enough and he strikes out at a +25% rate. Last season it seemed like he was working on being more patient at the plate and his walk rate did tick up, but his strikeout rate exploded to over 30%. Hopefully a another stab at AA will allow him to make progress on this aspect of his game so that his other tools will play up.
BACK-UP: J.B. Moss
Moss was a star at Texas A&M before the Braves drafted him as a senior in the 7th round of the 2016 draft. Moss dominated in Danville for three weeks to start his pro career, and the Braves opted to give him the rare double-promotion to high-A Carolina. There he struggled to a .195/.264/.247 line before the season came to a close. It’s very possible, maybe likely, that Moss will start the season back in high-A. Sean Godfrey can handle right field back-up duties as well, and Joey Meneses could actually be the starter in right field with Lien in center if manager Luis Salazar wants to go that way.
FLORIDA FIRE FROGS (CLASS A+)
**TOP 31 PROSPECT** STARTER (Promotion): Ray-Patrick Didder
With a centerfielder’s range and a rifle arm, Didder is a nightmare to opposing baserunners. No, this isn’t an unfortunate copy/paste error, this is a completely deliberate copy/paste! Didder had a breakout season of his own with Rome in 2016, hitting .274/.387/.381 with 36 stolen bases while mostly hitting lead-off for the R-Braves. A good chunk of that .387 OBP was derived from a ridiculous 39 HBP, so it will be interesting to see if he can replicate that level. Didder will be 22 next season, so a quick promotion to AA Mississippi could happen.
BACK-UP (Promotion): Justin Ellison
Ellison hasn’t quite lit up the scoreboard after being drafted in the 12th round of the 2015 draft out of Western Oklahoma State College, the same JUCO that was a way-stop for Andrelton Simmons. After a solid pro debut, Ellison went .247/.304/.370 for Rome with 4 homers and 6 stolen bases. Defensively he uses his quickness well but is stretched for centerfield. Tyler Neslony will also be a right field option.
** TOP 30 PROSPECT** WILD CARD (Promotion): Alex Jackson
Jackson is a former 1st-round draft pick acquired by the Braves this offseason. Jackson was a catcher in high school and indications are that Jackson will give a go at moving back behind the plate in spring training this year. However, if the Braves decide Jackson won’t be able to successfully make that transition, Jackson would likely be a starting outfielder in Florida, either in right or left field.
ROME BRAVES (CLASS A)
STARTER: Leudys Baez
After a strong pro debut in the rookie leagues in 2015, Baez was pushed to Rome in late 2015. Unfortunately the multi-tool talent hasn’t gotten on track, with low contact and high strikeout rates primarily to blame. Baez ended the 2016 season with an ugly knee injury, but he his expected to make a full recovery. Baez will need to get off to a hot start, because there are many talented outfielders matriculating from the rookie leagues soon. It’s possible that Rome could see Randy Ventura or Anthony Concepcion before too long.
BACK-UP (Promotion): Bradley Keller
Keller will likely be the primary back-up outfielder and is an intriguing enough prospect that they will still want to feed him enough at-bats to see if he can make progression. Cristian Pache is the only really strong prospect projected in the Rome outfield, so Keller may get a shot if he earns it.
DANVILLE BRAVES (Rookie League)
STARTER (Promotion): Randy Ventura
I have Randy Ventura starting in right field and Izzy Wilson in centerfield, but it could certainly play out the other way as well. Ventura is fast and has a strong arm which should make for a very good outfielder. He’ll likely stay in line-ups as well if he keeps his OBP over .350 so he can use that speed on the bases.
BACK-UP (Promotion): Anthony Concepcion
Concepcion could start or back-up both corner outfield spots and first base in Danville or he may get an early look in Rome. Going into his age 22 season, it would not surprise me to see the Braves press the accelerator on his career and bump him directly to Rome for 2016.
FINAL THOUGHTS: While at the major league level the Braves have ‘ole reliable Nick Markakis, the right field position in the minors is somewhat turbulent. Because of the amount of talent the Braves have in center field, a lot of players that could play center are now playing right field (Lien, Didder, Baez, Ventura), which means the bat has to keep up. The Braves also have two right fielders in Alex Jackson and Braxton Davidson whose performance has not quite justified their first-round draft pedigree, but who could just as easily flip a switch and take off. Overall right field is a position of tremendous depth for the Braves, but also a whole lot of questions.
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
- Jared James
Other entries in this series:Catcher
Starting Pitching, Part 1 (Atlanta/Gwinnett)
Starting Pitching, Part 2 (Mississippi/Florida)
Starting Pitching, Part 3 (Rome/Danville)