Third base is one of the deepest positions in baseball. Of the 40 position players to get MVP votes in 2019, ten played significant time at third base. Still, with the 60-game season a month away, the Braves are one of the only teams without dependable production from the hot corner in 2020.
The departure of Josh Donaldson this offseason left a massive hole in the Braves lineup. A core middle of the order bat and above-average defensive asset, Donaldson flew somewhat under the radar last year as one of the very best players on the team. Not only did he put up 4.9 fWAR, 37 home runs, 94 RBI, and a .900 OPS, but he also recaptured his reputation of durability, appearing in 155 games after an injury-plagued 2018. On top of all that, Donaldson had a great year defensively, ranking third at his position with 8 Outs Above Average. He was excellent in almost every aspect of the game — it’s hard to overstate how valuable of an all-around player Donaldson was to the Braves last year.
But, Donaldson is gone now. After he signed with the Twins, picking up Marcell Ozuna was definitely a step in the right direction for the Braves, likely pushing Adam Duvall or Nick Markakis to the bench. Still, Ozuna is not as good a hitter as Donaldson, and he doesn’t help fill the hole at third base. According to Steamer’s 2020 projections, there are more than thirty third basemen projected to produce more WAR than any Braves third base candidate. Seven of those teams actually have two or more third basemen projected to produce more than any Braves option — that includes the Cardinals (with Tommy Edman and Matt Carpenter), who ended the Braves’ brief playoff run last October.
So, with Donaldson gone, what are Atlanta’s options right now? Whoever starts at third on Opening Day will have to earn it — there are a lot of candidates, and only one starting job. Let’s break down all five third basemen Braves fans will see once summer camp is underway:
Johan Camargo is likely the favorite to see the majority of the playing time at third. Camargo, 26, had a pretty rough 2019 (.233/.279/.384, 248 PA), but has seen decent success in the past. In 2018, he had a pretty good year, playing 134 games with an .806 OPS and 3.3 fWAR.
The only issue with that breakout 2018 is that, according to many Statcast metrics, he got pretty lucky. Considering his mediocre batted ball profile that year (88 mph exit velocity, 5.0 barrel %), Statcast says Camargo’s xwOBA was .309, more than 40 points below his actual wOBA of .346. This is a pretty major difference — it’s about the difference between the production of Max Kepler (121 wRC+) and Eric Hosmer (91 wRC+) last season.
The consistency in Camargo’s game is his defense. He’s proven to be versatile (a competent defender at shortstop, third base, and left field) and his career defensive numbers at third base are above-average (4 OAA, 6 DRS). While offensive production is not a given, Camargo can at least be counted on for solid defense.
Barring a true offensive breakout in 2020, however, Camargo should not be the long-term solution for the Braves. Still, I think he at least deserves a chance at the starting role. After breakout seasons from defense-first players like Gio Urshela and Christian Vazquez last year, anything can happen if someone gets enough playing time. I’d like to see Camargo start at third base, and see if he can back up his 2018 numbers with a good comeback season.
Austin Riley has, by far, the highest potential out of any third base option on the team. At 22, he broke into the league with a bang last year, hitting 9 homers in his first 20 games with a 1.065 OPS. After that first month, however, the big leagues exposed some major holes in his game, and some new rule changes might alter how the Braves view his long-term role with the team.
Riley’s power potential is undeniable, and he certainly squares the ball up when he makes contact (44.6% hard hit rate, 13.7% barrel rate). The issue, though, is actually making contact — Riley ended his rookie year in the majors with a sky-high 36% strikeout rate. Paired with a walk rate of just 5.4%, that’s about as bad as you can get when it comes to plate discipline. The good news on this front is that Riley’s minor league track record is far better — over 119 games in AAA, he averaged a 8.9% walk rate and 25.9% strikeout rate, both of which are significantly better. For most players, plate discipline is a skill that carries over well from the minor leagues, so more plate appearances at the big league level should help get Riley back on track. With that being said, he definitely needs to show improvement in 2020.
Riley’s defense is almost as much of a question mark, but we still don’t know just how much playing time he could even see at third. He played more than 85% of his innings in left field last year, so it’s not certain the Braves even see Riley as a full-time third baseman. If he does prove to be a liability on defense, the arrival of the designated hitter in the National League will be fantastic news for him. With the DH, the Braves would be able get Riley’s power bat in the lineup without having to worry about defense.
Despite his inexperience, Riley’s raw talent makes him the only candidate the Braves have that truly has the upside to be a long-term option at third base. He’s under team control through 2025 and has shown major promise with the bat. If he can fill up the holes in his swing and become an average defender, he could prove to be a very valuable option going forward. This season, the Braves would probably like to see him spend most of his time at DH as he develops defensively.
Hechavarria will be more of a bench option for the Braves, coming off the bench as a defensive replacement or pinch hitter. Offensively, Hechavarria doesn’t offer much, with a career 72 wRC+. However, in his brief stint with the Braves last year, he batted an impressive .328/.400/.639. Those numbers are definitely unsustainable, but he does have better career numbers against lefties than righties (.705 vs .622 OPS), so he could be used as an emergency pinch-hitter against lefties.
Hechavarria’s true calling card is his defense. The 30-year-old has proven to be a defensive asset all over the infield, especially at shortstop and third base. Most of his major league experience comes at shortstop, but the Braves will probably want to see him almost everywhere in the infield, including maybe even backing up Freddie Freeman at first base. Last year, the Braves used him at second, third, and short.
Culberson joined the Braves in 2018 and quickly won over the fanbase, hitting two walkoff home runs in a single eight-game homestand from late May to early June. At one point, half of his career homers were walkoffs. Still a fan favorite, he signed a minor league contract in December, earning an invite to spring training. Culberson was entering an arbitration year and reportedly had a few major league offers on the table, but decided on a return to Atlanta and a shot at making their Opening Day roster. Barring injuries, he is still pretty far down on the depth chart, but with expanded rosters to start the shortened season, Culberson should get a spot.
If he makes the team, Culberson will add a ton of versatility, having played every position besides center field, pitcher, and catcher with the Braves. According to Statcast’s Outs Above Average, he’s been about average at every position he’s played, which would make him a valuable backup.
Third base is definitely a complicated situation for the Braves, but expanded rosters and the new DH option has definitely made things easier. The way I see it shaking out is with Johan Camargo at third and Austin Riley at DH. During Spring Training, the biggest position battle was going to be between these two, with Riley’s spot in the big leagues on the line. Now that the Braves can put him at DH, he’ll certainly see plenty of at bats. Hechavarria’s defense will make him the primary backup at third base and probably shortstop too, while Culberson’s versatility and history with the team should make him a utility option all over the field, including at second base. Culberson, Hechavarria, and Riley could all split time backing up Freddie Freeman at first.
The bottom line is that while the Braves don’t have anyone as great as Donaldson was last year, the options they do have give them the flexibility to utilize platoons and defensive substitutions to optimize production at third base and DH. All of these players will probably see time at third this year, which could end up being a positive for several reasons. It’ll keep everyone fresh during the 60-game sprint, with few off-days. It’ll give the Braves potential trade bait as the August 31st trade deadline approaches. Most importantly for the future, it will give players with upside, like Camargo and Riley, a chance to develop into a long-term option on both sides of the ball.
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