For 22 glorious years from 1991 though 2012, the Braves averaged over 4 fWAR per season from the third base position thanks to Terry Pendleton, Martin Prado, and especially future Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones (and not thanks to Vinny Castilla, but no one ever talks about that). In the four years since Jones’s retirement, the Braves have averaged only 1.6 fWAR per season, despite Chris Johnson‘s fluky 2013 and two wonderful months from Juan Uribe in 2015. Last season’s third basemen ranked 26th in value, but while the name at the top of the depth chart remains the same, there’s some hope that near-term help is about to bubble up.
STARTER: Adonis Garcia
Adonis Garcia started the 2016 season trying to get Freddie Freeman killed with errant throws to first base. In addition to being on the road to having possibly the worst defensive season in modern major league history, Garcia supplied only 1 home run through 27 games after hitting 10 in 58 games the season before. Failing at both the plate and in the field, the Braves asked Garcia to move to left field to help fill in for the unlamented departure of Hector Olivera. Garcia balked and the Braves had had enough, sending him down to AAA Gwinnett to reaquiant himself with the joys of outfield play. Garcia took his frustrations out on the baseball, hitting .356/.413/.616 in the 19 games of his exile. He was called back up and installed back at third base thanks to an injury to Gordan Beckham. While still showing poor range and hands, Garcia’s throws were more on-line and he hit .276/.310/.430 the rest of the way. Overall, Garcia was was 0.9 fWAR above replacement level and the 32-year-old comes into the 2016 season as the prohibitive favorite to start the season as the Braves third baseman.
BACK-UP: Sean Rodriguez
Rodriguez will back-up third base, as he will every other position. If it turns out that his presence won’t be required as much as anticipated at second base, perhaps because Ozzie Albies is installed as the starting second baseman, Rodriguez could get a more substantial piece of the third base pie, with Garcia moving into the primary right-handed pinch-hitter roll. If Chase d’Arnaud makes the squad he would also be provide depth here.
GWINNETT BRAVES (CLASS AAA)
** TOP 30 PROSPECT** STARTER: Rio Ruiz
Ruiz was anointed the Braves third baseman of the future after coming over from the Astros organization in the Evan Gattis trade. A terrible season in AA Mississippi in 2015 combined with the drafting of Austin Riley put that designation in question, but Ruiz had a very encouraging 2016 for AAA Gwinnett that culminated in a September call-up to Atlanta. Ruiz is still only 22 years old and could certainly do with some more polishing at the AAA level, especially in the area of hitting against left-handers; Ruiz had not had difficulty against lefties earlier in his career, so there is hope that he can progress enough so that he won’t be limited to a platoon role in the majors. However, it’s possible that Ruiz could force his way to Atlanta given strong play and/or another Garcia collapse.
BACK-UP: Kyle Kubitza
A former Braves prospect, Kubitza was traded to the Angels before the 2015 season for left-handed pitching prospect Ricardo Sanchez. Kubitza was given the opportunity to win the third base job for the Halos in 2015, but he couldn’t take advantage and he spent all of the 2016 season in AAA bouncing from the Angels to the Rangers and finally back to the Braves. Kubitza used the time to try to expand his versatility as he logged innings at first base and both outfield corners. Kubitza will have competition for the AAA bench roll from Colin Walsh as well as organizational stalwarts Sean Kazmar, Emerson Landoni, or Reed Harper.
MISSISSIPPI BRAVES (CLASS AA)
STARTER: Carlos Franco
Franco has had an 8-year minor league career in the Braves organization. Franco has flashed power, hitting 11 home runs in 2015 for the Carolina Mudcats, but he had trouble with AA pitching, hitting .255/.339/.330 in 2016. A big left-handed hitter, Franco’s pattern has been that his second season at a level shows improvement and at 25 years old may still have some room for improvement. The Braves also have the option to move Travis Demeritte to third base, starting Dylan Moore at second, and perhaps Omar Obregon at shortstop, so Franco’s position as starting third baseman is fairly tenuous.
BACK-UP: Dylan Moore
FLORIDA FIRE FROGS (CLASS A+)
**TOP 30 PROSPECT** STARTER (Promotion): Austin Riley
Riley will move up to high-A after reinventing his swing and approach in the second half of last season. In the first half at Rome, Riley hit .262/.305/.407 with 5 home runs while striking out at a 30.5% clip. Steady work to improve through the dog days paid off with a dramatic turnaround in the second half as Riley went .276/.343/.565 with 17 home runs and a much more reasonable 23.7 % strikeout rate. Riley will look to keep that progression going. Riley will also need to improve his hands and footwork around the bag to stay viable as a third baseman, though he has one of the strongest infield arms in the system. Regardless, Riley is the top power bat prospect in the system.
BACK-UP: Luis Valenzuela
Valenzuela was the return in the Jonny Gomes trade with Kansas City during the 2015 season. Valenzuela was injured for much of the first half of 2016, but returned to high-A Carolina and provided adequate back-up at all infield positions. I believe Valenzuela will remain in high-A for at least the start of 2017, though both Matt Gonzalez and Marcus Mooney could provide depth at third base if they are double-promoted as I suspect they will be.
ROME BRAVES (CLASS A)
**TOP 30 PROSPECT** STARTER: Juan Yepez
Yepez was the top international amateur signee of the 2014/15 signing class, which put him in the Gulf Coast League and Appalachian League at the same time as Austin Riley. With Riley as the higher upside prospect, Yepez was moved over to play primarily first base. While Yepez has been in the organization almost a full year longer than Riley, they have almost the same amount of pro experience, and Riley is a year older. I believe Yepez will remain in Rome to see if he can be an every day third baseman. Yepez has a good feel for hitting and good power potential, but will need to work on his approach. Injury robbed Yepez of most of his 2016 season, so this will be an important opportunity for him to put himself back on the Braves prospect map.
BACK-UP (Promotion): Ryan O’Malley
O’Malley is a strong left-handed hitter drafted in the 25th round in 2016. A college player, O’Malley was sent straight to Danville and was the primary third baseman. O’Malley showed power, hitting 5 home runs 42 games, and decent patience, but only managed to hit .188/.272/.341. As a third baseman he looked more like a first baseman, so his promotion to Rome is far from a sure thing.
DANVILLE BRAVES (Rookie League)
STARTER (Promotion): Gabe Howell
Usual caveats about the 2017 draft affecting the Danville roster apply. Howell was a 20th-round pick in 2016 out of Trion High School in North Georgia. Howell is a big, athletic kid that was a terror in high school in both football and baseball, but is extremely raw. Howell could start off back in the Gulf Coast League, but I think they’ll place him in Danville to keep him ahead of the Kevin Maitan/Yunior Severino/Yenci Pena group of international players.
BACK-UP (Promotion): Luis Mejia
Mejia and Alex Aquino split third base duties in 2016 for the Gulf Coast Braves, and they will likely get looks in Danville as well. Mejia is the better fielder of the two while Aquino is the better hitter, though both project as back-ups.
FINAL THOUGHTS: The Braves go into the 2017 season with third base still somewhat unsettled. Incumbent Adonis Garcia has shown flashes of being a positive contributor, but it remains to be seen if the power that we’ve seen glimpses of will be enough to offset his shaky glove. Rio Ruiz could be a long-term solution, but there’s almost an equal chance that he won’t be more than a platoon contributor. The top prospects in the low minors, Austin Riley and Juan Yepez, have exciting potential but enough question marks defensively to suspect both may have trouble staying at third. Then there’s Travis Demeritte, who while showing elite-level defense at second base may be blocked by Ozzie Albies, forcing a move to the hot corner. The best long-term answers may be considerably farther away, down in the rookie leagues where the likes of Kevin Matain, Yunior Severino, and Yenci Pena will be getting their first tastes of professional baseball.
OFR TOP 5 THIRD BASE PROSPECT RANKINGS:
- Austin Riley
- Rio Ruiz
- Juan Yepez
- Dylan Moore
- Gabe Howell
Other entries in this series:
Starting Pitching, Part 1 (Atlanta/Gwinnett)
Starting Pitching, Part 2 (Mississippi/Florida)
Starting Pitching, Part 3 (Rome/Danville)