One of the few areas where the John Coppolella-lead Braves front office made a trade to immediately strengthen the major league roster during the course of the rebuild was in acquiring outfielder Ender Inciarte in the 2015 offseason trade of Shelby Miller to the Arizona Diamondbacks, and he’s helped make center field one of the post productive positions on the Braves.
STARTER: Ender Inciarte
When the Braves traded for Inciarte, they knew they were getting a top-shelf defensive outfielder, but given his problems at that point hitting against left-handed pitchers and his acute lack of power, there was some thought he would end up as a platoon or fourth outfielder. While Inciarte is a tougher out for right-handed hitters, he’s developed into a competent hitter against southpaws as well, which has made him a solid choice to be the lead-off hitter. In fact, he has hit .310/.360/.419 overall since August 5, 2016, the day manager Brian Snitker put Inciarte in the lead-off spot an left him there.
Inciarte may face a challenge from infielder Ozzie Albies in the future for hitting lead-off, but playing in the second year of a team-friendly five-year contract extension means he should continue to provide value in center field, and will be a favorite to win his third consecutive Gold Glove award.
**TOP 50 PROSPECT** BACK-UP (Promotion): Ronald Acuna
While Lane Adams can play centerfield adequately in a pinch, it’s perhaps more likely that Acuna would simply slide over from a corner to play centerfield if Inciarte is hurt or just needs a day off. Acuna projects as a solid average centerfielder if pressed into that role.
GWINNETT STRIPERS (CLASS AAA)
STARTER: Jaff Decker
A former first round pick by the Padres back in 2008, Decker has so far been a classic AAAA player, hitting a respectable .268/.362/.400 in five AAA seasons, but only .174/.274/.236 in a small 77 sample in the majors. Decker is an able defender at all outfield positions, is good baserunner, and has some power. The Braves will be the fifth organization to try to help Decker pull those tools together into a credible major league player. He secured a non-roster invitation to spring training, so he’ll have a chance to make an impression with Brian Snitker and his staff.
BACK-UP: Michael Reed
There may be no man in professional baseball that could benefit more from a change in his batting profile than former Brewers farmhand Michael Reed. Reed has prodigious raw power that he uses to kill worms and sky the ball into the infield. The Braves acquired him with a minor league contract without a non-roster invite to spring training, and will see if he can make similar mid-career adjustments that Lane Adams did. Like Decker, Reed is an all-round defensive outfielder.
MISSISSIPPI BRAVES (CLASS AA)
**TOP 50 PROSPECT** STARTER (Promotion): Anfernee Seymour
The Braves moved Seymour from the infield back to his more natural outfield position, and Seymour responded with his best season as a professional in 2017. That said, he has several parts of his game he can improve on, notably his poor stolen base percentage. Given that he likely has the best pure speed of anyone in the Braves system and his equally notable lack of power, Seymour should not be giving away outs on the bases. Seymour also shouldn’t be giving away opportunities to improve his game, as what happened in October when he was cut from the Arizona Fall League before games started for violation of team rules.
**TOP 50 PROSPECT** BACK-UP (Promotion): Ray-Patrick Didder
A sub-par 2017 season offensively isn’t slowing down the Braves plans to push Didder as a potential utility man. In addition to his usual splendid outfield work, Didder also played some second and third base and acquitted himself well. Nevertheless, Didder should get continued work in the outfield, and should be a line-up regular everywhere. Connor Lien or Keith Curcio could also get some playing time in center.
FLORIDA FIRE FROGS (CLASS A+)
**TOP 50 PROSPECT** STARTER (Promotion): Cristian Pache
The third best Braves position player prospect got a surprise invite to big league spring training, showing how much the organization still feels about Pache. The 19-year-old is a polarizing figure among prospect pundits. The doubters point to his groundball tendencies that have prevented him from hitting even a single professional home run to date. The boosters love his tools and potential, his age, and his high floor due to his already superlative outfield defense. For the record, I’m in the latter group.
BACK-UP: Justin Ellison
Ellison or Leudys Baez are capable of filling in centerfield if Pache needs a break, but both are better suited for the corners. If Pache misses time, or more optimistically gets promoted, I think one of the better fielding outfielders from Rome would get called up — Izzy Wilson, Bradley Keller, or Shean Michel.
ROME BRAVES (CLASS A)
**TOP 50 PROSPECT** STARTER (Promotion): Drew Waters
The Braves 2nd-round pick in the 2017 draft is a five-tool talent, but is very raw and a quick low-A assignment will be a challenge for him. However, the Braves aren’t an organization that worries too much about challenging their young talents, so I still expect Waters to start the season in Rome and hit in the top half of the line-up.
**TOP 50 PROSPECT** BACK-UP: Izzy Wilson
If Waters does stay in extended spring training, Wilson will likely slide over from right field to center. Wilson has pretty much the same tools as Waters, except he doesn’t project for quite as much power, and a Waters/Wilson top of the line-up in some order could be fascinating, and sometimes frustrating, to watch this year in Rome. Bradley Keller and Shean Michel could also fit in here.
DANVILLE BRAVES (Rookie League)
STARTER: Jose Bermudez
Bermudez is a speed/defense outfielder that’s shown a fair amount of pitch selectivity in his two years in the complex leagues. Going into his age 20 season, Bermudez could be a lead-off prospect if he can show improvement in making more solid contact.
BACK-UP: Yoeli Lopez
Lopez is another speed/defense with a batting profile very similar to Bermudez: decent pitch selectivity, but needs to square the ball up with more authority more consistently. Where they differ is their style of defense, with Lopez exhibiting an extraordinary arm that will likely land him in right field a lot of the time.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Centerfield should continue to be a relative strength for the organization. Ender Inciarte is a component of the big league team that should help form a strong up-the-middle defense. Two of the top three position players in the organization, Ronald Acuna and Cristian Pache, are capable of playing centerfield, and Pache is arguably the finest defensive outfielder in all of the minor leagues. Beyond them are two very athletic outfielders in Drew Waters and Izzy Wilson that have the potential to explode if they can bring their tools into games regularly. In the middle are high-floor outfielders like Anfernee Seymour and Ray-Patrick Didder, with seasoned minor league veterans at the AAA level.
OFR TOP 5 CENTERFIELD PROSPECT RANKINGS:
- Ronald Acuna
- Cristian Pache
- Drew Waters
- Izzy Wilson
- Ray-Patrick Didder