Since the retirement of Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones after the 2012 season, Atlanta Braves third basemen have accumulated 7.1 fWAR. In other words, it has taken five years for Braves third baseman to accumulate as much value as Jones did by himself in 2008. By Fangraphs reckoning, Braves third basemen finished 27th out of 30 teams in value last season. The Braves elected not to bring in outside options in an effort to improve the position, in part because there are several young internal options, including the presence of one of the team’s top position player prospects lurking at the AA level.
STARTER: Johan Camargo
As of the time of this writing, the official stance of GM Alex Anthopoulos is that there will be a competition between Camargo and Rio Ruiz for Atlanta’s third base spot. Competition is great, and here’s hoping that it brings out the best in both players. I give Camargo the narrow lead in winning the competition due to the better impression he left the team with at the end of the season and his strong Winter League play, which is why he’s listed here.
A light-hitting, defense-first shortstop most of his minor league career, Camargo’s body began really filling out at the AA level in 2016. Traditionally a slap hitter with gap power who didn’t take many walks or strike out a lot, Camargo started becoming a gap hitter with some over-the-fence power who didn’t take many walks or strike out a lot and given the opportunity to come to Atlanta in the wake of a Matt Kemp injury in April, he made the most of it. Camargo hit .299/.331/.452 in the big leagues last season. Defensively, he should be an above average third baseman, where his arm — one of, if not the best in the organization — will play up. A switch-hitter, Camargo historically has struggled against right-handed pitchers, and that pattern continued in 2017. This makes Camargo a potential platoon option, perhaps with Rio Ruiz who is left-handed, though the Braves have not extensively platooned since Bobby Cox was managing the team and with the team looking to construct a roster with an 8-man bullpen, that leaves only four bench spots making platooning difficult.
BACK-UP: Charlie Culberson
If Camargo wins the third base job outright, Ruiz is likely headed to AAA and back-up duties would fall to Culberson as the utility infielder. As with all the other positions, Culberson would bring above average defensive ability and a poor bat, so barring major injuries he should be a defensive substitution option and spot start candidate only.
GWINNETT STRIPERS (CLASS AAA)
STARTER: Rio Ruiz
One of the biggest conundrums in the Braves system, Ruiz has flashed impressive hitting tools and solid defensive play at a young age as well as deep and prolonged slumps. It doesn’t help that Ruiz has failed to impress in the limited opportunities at the major league level, hitting only .197/.283/.318 as a major leaguer, albeit in a very small sample of 180 plate appearances. Ruiz’s all-round offensive game took a step back at AAA last season too, though he did improve on two aspects that are often sited as issues: his power and his ability to hit left-handed hitters. Once considered the third baseman of the future for the Astros and then the Braves, it could be that Ruiz’s development is more of a slow burn. For developmental purposes, if he doesn’t have at least the right-handers of a third base platoon, he would be better off playing every day for the Stripers than being utilized as a left-handed bench player.
BACK-UP: Sean Kazmar
Kazmar re-upped with the Braves for his sixth tour of duty with Gwinnett this offseason. The 33 year old is a steady hand at essentially every position, but seems most at home at second and third. He’s also a strong clubhouse presence. He’s only had one shot at the majors, in 2008 with the Padres, and there’s no reason to think he’ll get another one, but he’s the type of organizational player that glues rosters together. Rule V draftee Tyler Smith and even Danny Santana could also get some time at the position as well, as could projected second base starter Travis Demeritte.
MISSISSIPPI BRAVES (CLASS AA)
**TOP 50 PROSPECT** STARTER: Austin Riley
Already a decent prospect after his first full pro season at Rome, Riley took his total game to a new level in 2017 with across-the-board improvements at the plate and in the field, and he did nothing to quell optimism with a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League. He will likely get an invite to major league spring training, so anything is possible, but I think the Braves will have him start back in Mississippi and take it from there. Like Acuna last season, a strong first month could see him move up quickly, and it’s not inconceivable we could see Riley in Atlanta as early as mid-season, but more likely in September.
BACK-UP: Luis Valenzuela
Since being acquired from Kansas City in 2015 for Jonny Gomes, Valenzuela has generally made himself useful by playing all over the infield at several levels and being competent at all positions, though he’s best at second base. He has very little plate discipline, not a lot of speed, and even less power, but he puts the ball in play enough to get a high enough batting average that he usually finds his way in a line-up somewhere. He could play in AA or AAA and at a variety of positions.
FLORIDA FIRE FROGS (CLASS A+)
STARTER: Jordan Rodgers
Rodgers is a former first team ALL-SEC third baseman out of the University of Tennessee, and the Braves took him as a senior sign in the 6th round of the 2017 draft. Installed immediately in Rome, Rodgers proved he had some versatility by playing all three infield skill positions and not embarrassing himself anywhere, though he’s certainly more comfortable at third. It’s possible the Braves elect to play Rodgers at second base, but I don’t think the organization is quite ready to give up on making Kevin Josephina a hitter.
**TOP 50 PROSPECT** BACK-UP: Drew Lugbauer
Lugbauer primarily played third base while at the University of Michigan, and while the Braves insist that they view him primarily as a catcher, it would not be surprising if the organization still put him out at third. His range is limited, but he shows decent hands and a strong arm. Also in the mix here would be organizational fillers Kurt Hoekstra and Kevin Franklin or minor league free agent Daniel Lockhart.
ROME BRAVES (CLASS A)
One of the more intriguing position players likely to start the season in Rome, Encarnacion has been garnering some off-season notice from prospect pundits after making it stateside in 2017 and showing better-than-expected defensive chops and overall athleticism. He has the makings for a power contributor as well, and should be a staple in the middle of Rome’s 2018 line-up.
BACK-UP: Luis Mejia
Mejia is only 20 years old and not really a prospect, but he seems to be well-liked by the organization and could develop into a solid organizational player. Look for him in Rome, backing up multiple positions, but he seems most comfortable at third base.
DANVILLE BRAVES (Rookie League)
STARTER: Braulio Vasquez
An under-the-radar 2016 international signee, and perhaps the player from that class still remaining after MLB sanctions with the most upside, Vazquez could benefit more than most with the clearing out of the lower minors of other infield prospects. Vazquez was signed as a shortstop, but is broad-shouldered frame seems more suited to third base. While he hasn’t hit a professional home run, that same build and his batting profile suggest that we could see some from the 19-year-old in the near future.
BACK-UP: Luis Ovando
While listed as the second base starter, I believe it’s more likely that the Braves will fill that position through the 2018 draft and relegate Ovando to a reserve role.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Third base remains unsettled going into the Braves sixth post-Chipper season, but there is a glimmer of hope. Johan Camargo can build off a successful 2017 season. Rio Ruiz could finally take that step toward being a complete hitter. And maybe the best hope is that Austin Riley can continue the progress he made in 2017 to take a leap and grab third base by the end of the season the same way Freddie Freeman did for first base back in 2010.
OFR TOP 5 THIRD BASE PROSPECT RANKINGS:
- Austin Riley
- Jean Carlos Encarnacion
- Braulio Vazquez
- Luis Valenzuela
- Jordan Rodgers