There is much excitement around Atlanta Braves Country these days. More excitement than I can recall for a team that hasn’t been above .500 at any point in the first half of the season. But the excitement is not totally unwarranted. The Braves played well in June, finishing 16-12 for the month thanks to a strong 8-4 record in their last 12 games. That was bolstered by swapping a completely ineffective Bartolo Colon for a rookie off to a hot start in Sean Newcomb. Beyond the improving record, Freddie Freeman and Sean Rodriguez are providing additional hope by returning to game action in minor league rehab assignments.
What shouldn’t be lost in the excitement about the future is the next prospect who should soon be making his debut, switch-hitting second baseman Ozzie Albies. In fact, if he plays well in the first couple of weeks in July, the call up could happen by August 1.
Many people might be surprised by this for two reasons. One, they are under the impression he needs more time, and looking at his two stints in AAA, that’s understandable:
The second is Brandon Phillips. Phillips has been solid so far this season posting a 103 wRC+ through June. He also has an award-winning smile and loves being in Atlanta. All these are reasons to keep him. But there are three reasons to trade him. I’ll tackle these first and then address Albies performance.
Reasons to trade Phillips:
- He’s not going to be around next year on this contract. If he wants to come back next year and back up, great. But his contract expires at the end of the season, and I’d rather get something for him than not. Also, I’d rather get our actual second baseman of the future playing if he’s ready.
- The Braves still have a low probability of making the playoffs. The odds have increased, sure, and it would be awesome to actually make the playoffs. But the team has to be careful not to adjust the long-term plan too much trying to make it happen. The future should not be sacrificed for a long-shot in the present. After all, the Braves basically had a 12-game run at the end of June where they played above .500 ball, and at mid-season they have yet to achieve a .500 record. Is it impossible to make the playoffs? No. But there’s still quite a steep hill to climb. Trading a short-term asset for anything of value beyond 2017, and calling up the person expected to the be the long-term answer to second base who is ready is the right decision in the big picture.
- I wouldn’t suggest this if I thought it would leave an unfilled hole at second. As much as the Braves must keep the big picture in mind, they can’t leave a void at second base based on how they are performing currently. Even though Albies should be called up soon, and could perform well, he might struggle as many rookies have before him. The decision to trade Phillips and bring up Albies is made easier by Sean Rodriguez nearing return sooner than expected. I’m not sure who will be traded during the next month, though I have my suspicions, but in Rodriguez we have a quality stop-gap if the Braves do make a strong playoff run in the second half and Albies isn’t performing well right off the bat.
Now that I’ve made my case for the need to trade Phillips, I want to circle back around to why Albies performance in AAA demands it.
Let’s remember that Albies was the youngest player in AAA in 2016 and is the youngest player in AAA in 2017. We talk about how young 19-year-old Ronald Acuna is in AA this year, but that’s how old Albies was when he advanced to AAA last year. In 2016, Albies struggled his first month in AAA (82 wRC+), but held his own against much older competition in the second month (95 wRC+) before returning to AA. (Note: wRC+ is a comprehensive measure of hitting where 100 is league average and 95 indicates Albies created runs at 5% less than the league average, so he was just off the pace).
This year, he again struggled in his first month, but he has grown tremendously each month:
By May, Albies was performing at league average, and in June he was dominating much older competition. The improving line also parallels recent improvement hitting from the left side (with help from Chipper Jones). He also did it with a Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABiP) lower than he put up at other levels, and about where I would expect for someone with his hitting profile. I doubt he will maintain the power output of June going forward, but there is no reason to think he won’t regularly send balls into the gap and use his speed to take extra bases. Also, don’t overlook Albies accomplishments on the base paths. He’s stolen 19 bases so far this season, but perhaps more impressive for his age is only getting caught twice. That’s a great rate. Oh, and let’s not forget he’s also a plus defender, too.
Brandon Phillips seems like a great guy and he’s put up solid numbers. But a middle infield of Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies is the future of Atlanta Braves baseball. The other half of that future is ready to take the field in Atlanta. The Braves front office should not let a nice, 36-year-old veteran player on an expiring contract stand in the way…especially with a backup plan in place if Albies struggles.