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Pitching is the priority, but there are position players for the future

Bill Shanks continues his New Year's Eve look at the future of the Braves in part two of his state of the franchise.

Let’s continue with a look at the positions in the Braves organization as we examine the State of the Braves.

CATCHER

A.J. Pierzynski is back and Tyler Flowers is now on board to replace Christian Bethancourt. Look, the Braves just didn’t like Bethancourt. The manager didn’t like him. I thought after Bethancourt went down to Triple-A and did well in mid-season that he would be given a shot. But they just didn’t like him and because of that they needed to get rid of him.

If Bethancourt is given a full chance, I think he might develop into a decent player. He may not be a star, but I still believe he might be decent. It doesn’t matter now, though. He’s gone. The manager really never liked him, and the improvements he did make in Gwinnett obviously didn’t translate when he got back up to Atlanta.

Pierzynski will be here one more season. He should help with the young pitchers. I’m particularly anxious to see how Flowers does. He’s really matured as a catcher, and while there are questions with his bat, Flowers’ value may be as a receiver. Look, these pitchers are going to need leaders behind the dish, and it looks like the Braves have a good pair.

Ryan Lavarnway will be in Gwinnett. The Braves seem intrigued with Willians Astudiollo, a minor league free agent. We’ll see where Tanner Murphy goes this season – back to Rome or up to Carolina. He’s still so young. Tanner struggled a bit last year, but let’s see how he develops.

Of course, everyone is anxious to see Lucas Herbert, a top draft pick last June. He was hurt right after signing, so he didn’t get much time. The Braves love Herbert, so he’ll be one to watch closely in spring training.

Ricardo Rodriguez was acquired from San Diego in the Bethancourt trade. He’s a prospect, but it sounds like he’s a ways off.

The Braves will likely draft a catcher somewhere in the top 10 rounds of the draft. Again, if you stress pitchers, catchers are important.

FIRST BASE

Freddie Freeman is there and he’s signed through 2021. But should the Braves trade him? My answer is yes. I know they need someone to market for Sun Trust Park, but frankly I don’t give a damn. If the Braves could get three or four significant pieces for Freeman, they’d be foolish not to do it.

Freeman would help matters if he proves his wrist is okay and gets off to a great start. It’s obvious the Braves are not going to trade him before the season starts, but that doesn’t guarantee he’ll be here past July 31. If he’s healthy, and if there is interest, they better listen carefully.

Teams like the Astros and Pirates have significant pieces with pitchers and position players that could make it worth Atlanta’s while to at least listen. If the Braves got a young first baseman (like A.J. Reed) and a young starting pitcher (Lance McCullers?) with more involved, they’d have to listen.

I like Freeman. He’s a good player. I am not convinced he can be a leader of this team, yet, but maybe he can surprise me. I would love for Freeman to stick around and be a centerpiece of this franchise. But I just think the Braves are in the position to where they’d have to listen to any significant offer.

If Pittsburgh offered Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows or Josh Bell, would that make Atlanta better for the long term? What if Boston offered Yoan Moncada or Rafael Devers with Andrew Benintendi and maybe lefty Brian Johnson?

This is about value. Freeman has a lot of value right now. What happens to his value a year from now when, for the rest of his contract he will be paid around $20 million per season? Well, that is all up to him. If Freeman has a great first half of the 2016 season, and if teams come a calling on the Braves, Freeman’s value may be through the roof. Then, wouldn’t they have to listen if significant offers were put on the table?

I’m not going to cry either way. If Freeman stays, that’ll be fine. But if they trade Freeman for something better than what they got for Shelby Miller, then heck yeah I think we’ll all be okay with it. Freeman is a fine player, but is he truly the player to lead this team into the new stadium? Well, I’d put my money on Dansby Swanson for that title, making Freeman someone complimentary comparatively.

Long term the Braves will likely have Juan Yepez at first base, maybe in Rome. He can hit, but he has been limited at third base so far and that’s why he might switch to first. If Freeman stays, it’s not like the Braves will need a significant player here for a while. But it might not be a bad idea to get a first baseman in the draft, just in case they are tempted by another team in trade discussions.

SECOND BASE

I like Jace Peterson. I think he’s a nice player. He had an issue with his hand late in the season, and for some reason the manager platooned him at times. But if healthy, I hope they’ll leave Peterson alone and just let him play.

John Hart talked highly of Peterson earlier this year, and he believed Peterson would get better. I think he’ll get better. Will he ever be anything more than a borderline reserve player on a good team? Maybe not. But I think they should give him the chance while they can to at the least increase his value.

Gordon Beckham and Emilio Bonafacio can play second, as can Daniel Castro. So there are other options if the Braves need to look for someone else. But I really hope they’ll let Peterson get the majority of playing time.

Long-term, we know who will likely be here. Ozzie Albies will likely start out in Carolina, but who knows where he winds up at the end of the season. He’s on the Rafael Furcal-fast track, but Albies is telling the truth about his age. He’s a young kid, and he still needs to develop more.

But could Albies be ready sometime in 2017? Yes, I think so. I would be shocked if it’s to start 2017, but I could see him ending this season in Mississippi and then being ready for Atlanta sometime mid-season in 2017. That’s not unrealistic for his timetable.

Albies can hit. He can run. I think he’ll be fine at second base. I can’t wait to see how much better he is in two years. The kid is not very big, but Albies can play. He’s a fun prospect, and if he does well this season then the Braves have a significant piece for the future.

SHORTSTOP

Well, Erick Aybar is there for 2016. He’s a good player. But he’ll be gone after this next season and the red carpet will be out for Dansby Swanson. How in the hell did they pull that off?

Swanson was the number one player in last June’s draft. Why Arizona would trade that player is beyond me. I never would have, but I’m certainly glad they did. He looks to be perfect – a local boy who can be the poster child for this franchise. Oh, and he’s really good at baseball.

It’s going to be tough to have Andrelton Simmons gone. He was a great defensive player. But Swanson is more than a capable replacement. I’ve tried to find something negative about him, but he just looks like the perfect fit for this franchise.

The Braves should be able to get some type of prospect for Aybar near midseason. He’s a fine player, and there are teams that could use his leadership down the stretch. Could the Nationals or Pirates or Diamondbacks (yes, please) or Yankees or White Sox or Astros need Aybar late next season?

But Aybar will just be keeping this seat warm for Mr. Swanson. Can’t wait to see Swanson be the face of this franchise.

THIRD BASE

Well, first it was going to be Hector Olivera. Then he has been moved to left field. Gordon Beckham is in, so he’s a possibility. Kelly Johnson is still an option, although not a pressing need. Adonis Garcia is an option, as (believe it or not) he made more starts at third base last season than any other player for Atlanta.

Let this be a revolving door for a while. Who cares. By all accounts, this position will eventually belong to Austin Riley. But there is another player to consider. The Braves still like Rio Ruiz, and he may be pushed to Triple-A this season even if he could use more time to succeed in Double-A first. Ruiz just needs to pull the ball more and be more consistent. But don’t count him out. He could be ready in 2017 if he puts together a solid season.

How should we look at Ruiz? Well, I’ve heard that other teams have asked about him and have actually offered players that are pretty good in return. So if other teams believe in him that tells you something. Ruiz does have value, and we shouldn’t count him out as a potential starter at third base.

But Riley just sounds like a star in the making. I have not seen him, but the scouts rave about him. The hitting coaches rave about him. There’s not much debate about his potential. But look, not all hitting prospects that look great in Danville become great in Atlanta. So Riley has a lot of development ahead of him.

It is, however, just refreshing to see the Braves have a position player that has generated this much buzz. It’s been a few years since that has happened. And to think this organization was all about pitching, and then to draft someone that seems to have the talent and potential as Riley, well, it’s exciting.

It might be musical chairs until the Braves find an established answer for third base. It might be Olivera, if he doesn’t work out in the outfield. It might be Ruiz in a year or two, or it might actually be Riley, if he proves he’s as good of a prospect as most believe him to be right now. But Riley is young, and he needs more time to show us more about how special he might be. If he does well in Rome, Riley might be a top prospect in this game and be only a year or two away.

OUTFIELD

Let’s take a look at the current situation first. I suppose if the season started tomorrow we’d have Hector Olivera in left, Ender Inciarte in center and Nick Markakis in right field. That actually could be the trio for the next three years, at least contractually.

Olivera has to prove he can play somewhere. Everyone is worried about this guy, and I get it. He’s older than most ‘younger’ players. He has a penchant for being hurt a lot. Now there are questions about where he will play in the field.

But the guy can hit. There’s little doubt about that. He will simply have to prove he can do it consistently. I admit I’m a bit sick about people complaining about the Olivera trade. Okay, so the Braves gave up Alex Wood and Jose Peraza. Who cares about Luis Avilan and Jim Johnson. Some believe they could have gotten a better bat than Olivera for Wood and Peraza.

Well, the Dodgers are going to trade Wood soon. Just watch. They’ve done all the can to try and replace him, first with Scott Kazmir and now they are signing Kenta Maeda from Japan. The Dodgers will have Wood, Kazmir, Maeda along with Clayton Kershaw and Brett Anderson. Plus, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy are expected back at some point from injury, with Mike Bolsinger and Carlos Frias also rotation options. So it’s not like Wood is a vital piece to the Dodgers’ puzzle. He’s likely trade bait.

Peraza has already been traded by the Dodgers to the Reds, so that shows you what they thought of him. Plus, we have to remember that the Dodgers paid for Olivera’s bonus, making him very affordable for the Braves for the next few years.

We need to give Olivera some time to show us what he can do. Then we can determine how good or bad that trade was last summer. But there’s reason to believe if Olivera can become at least a solid contributor in the lineup, this will be a solid trade for the Braves.

Then there’s Inciarte, who came over in the Shelby Miller trade. He’s a nice player, one that can hit and can run a little bit. Plus, he’s under control for five more seasons. That’s huge. He’s a good fielder and looks like he could really be a Martin Prado-type solid player for the Braves.

But they are supposedly getting calls on Inciarte. Should the Braves listen? Well, sure they should listen. If a team is dying to have that type of player, who has that type of value, then certainly the Braves should listen. Remember, this team is rebuilding, so everyone should be available at the right price.

John Coppolella, Atlanta’s general manager, said recently that like with Miller, the Braves don’t want to trade Inciarte but they will listen. I’d love to know the types of offers that are out there on the table for Inciarte. I wonder how tempted Coppy is to pull the trigger on a trade.

The Braves don’t have to trade Inciarte now, but it doesn’t mean he’ll lose his value. A player like that with that much control at that price will have significant value for a couple of years. So if a team makes Atlanta a solid offer with the type of player that might fit even better, expect them to pull the trigger on a deal.

There’s been a lot of speculation about the Cubs offering Jorge Soler for Inciarte. Soler is a power hitter that plays right field. Well, if Soler can hit 20-25 home runs a season, maybe that would be a great trade. But Markakis is on the roster, which could make that a tricky situation since Olivera or Markakis will not play center.

You know how I am about pitching. Well, if a team offered Atlanta a very good (like Top 100) pitching prospect and a very good position player, I’d be all for the Braves trading Inciarte. What about a third baseman for Inciarte? I’d be tempted with that.

Here’s why. If Inciarte was dealt, Michael Bourn could be the starting center fielder. Right now, Bourn looks like the fourth outfielder. But Bourn, whose skills are clearly not what they were when he was originally with the Braves a few years ago, could hopefully hold down the position for a few months until Mallex Smith shows whether he’s ready or not.

Smith is a speedster who hit well in AA Mississippi and when he was promoted to AAA Gwinnett last season. He still needs more time, but there’s a chance Smith could be ready in the second part of 2016. If the Braves got great value for Inciarte, then Bourn and Smith could possibly handle the position.

Of course, the option would be there for the Braves to trade Inciarte for Soler (and a pitcher!) and then trade Markakis to either Baltimore or Kansas City. Soler could then be in right field, with Bourn in center and Olivera in right. Would that make the lineup better?

The problem is the Braves really value Markakis. They like his leadership and the ability for young players on the team to watch how Markakis plays the game. The Orioles and Royals would probably love for the Braves to eat some of that remaining money left on the three years of Markakis’ deal, but why would they do that?

Markakis does need to hit for more power next season. Okay, so he had a neck issue and that was the excuse for him not hitting home runs. Most believed he would hit 10-15 a season, but he couldn’t hit half that. Most believed he was a great defender, but his arm was suspect and he was nowhere near a Gold Glove winner he was the season before in Baltimore.

Of course, Smith is a big part of this equation. There is no consensus on Smith’s potential. Some believe he can be a starting outfielder. There are questions about him playing center, but some believe he can hit enough to start. Others are a little skeptical and wonder if he’s just a fourth outfielder. But most agree that Smith does need more time in Triple-A to show us what he may be able to do once he gets to Atlanta.

If the Braves trade Inciarte, it might mean they are convinced Smith can eventually be a starter. But what’s the problem with holding onto Inciarte for now to give Smith more time to show us his ability?

Nick Swisher is an extra. The Braves would love to trade him and maybe save a million or two bucks. He can play first base when Freeman is out or a corner outfield spot. That was still a good trade with Cleveland to save money, but it will be even better once Swisher and Bourn are off the books.

I have no clue about Dian Toscano. He was recently taken off the 40-man roster. We may see in spring training if he’s worth anything. Hopefully, we will see him in spring training.

Contrary to popular opinion, there are some other outfield prospects besides Smith. Dustin Peterson was having a solid season in Carolina, and then he was injured in the bus crash. Peterson struggled a bit after he returned, so he needs a fresh start and a full season in AA in 2016. He looks like a nice player, but he needs to show more to make us believe he’s a legit starting prospect.

I like Braxton Davidson. He is still raw. He needs at least three more full seasons. But Davidson showed patience at the plate and he really did well in right field. It was a position change, but Davidson was very much improved at the end of season in right compared to when he started the season in April. If he continues making improvement over the next two or three years, Davidson could be a candidate to replace Markakis in right field once the veteran’s contract is up following the 2018 season.

There are three outfield prospects to watch closely in 2016 – Leudys Baez, Ronald Acuna and Isranel Wilson. They had solid seasons in 2015 and the Braves are hopeful all three can develop into very good prospects. We’ll see which ones spend time in Rome his season.

SUMMARY

Look, there are some positions on the field that look set for the future. We could say that Freeman, Albies and Swanson should man first, second and short starting sometime in 2017. The long-term catcher is a question mark, but Flowers could be around for at least two years until they find a better option.

Third base and the outfield are question marks. There are candidates. No, the 2016 lineup doesn’t look great. There are questions. There will be changes. But again this team is rebuilding. Expect more changes and more additions as we go along in this process.

This is another reason the Braves are stockpiling pitchers. Look at the Miller trade. They got a humongous piece for the future in Swanson. Perhaps they get another big position player for Julio Teheran. And look, if Teheran does well and if the pitchers behind him show they are getting closer, the Braves will be tempted to use Teheran to get another solid position player for the future.

That’s why trading Freeman could be tempting. What if Atlanta got two potential starters as position players in a deal for Freeman? What if Boston offered Moncada and Devers for Freeman? That would be a potential third baseman in Devers and you could put Moncada in the outfield. That would be tempting.

The excess and depth the Braves have can be used to get more position players for the future. And there are two more things to think about. A year from now, when we look at Atlanta’s top 30 prospect list, how many new position players will be on the list from trades, the draft and from international signings?

Probably quite a few. We all know the rumors of the two big international prospects the Braves are after for July 2, 2016. I guarantee at least one of those two (Kevin Maitan) will be in the team’s top 10 (maybe top five) prospect list a year from now.

Then there’s the draft. While I sincerely hope that top pick, the third overall, is a pitcher, I would expect the Braves will use a few more draft picks on position players in the June 2016 draft. So 12 months from now, there will likely be a few more significant position players that can be part of this story as we outline the future for this team with the eight positions on the field behind the pitcher.

The addition of Swanson gives this team a face for the franchise, and it showed how pitching depth can be used to improve the organization and fill needs. The Braves used Simmons to get a significant future pitcher (Sean Newcomb) and then turned around and traded a veteran pitcher (Miller) for Simmons’ replacement and a player they can build around in the future.

It helps so much believing that Swanson will be at short for the future and that Albies has a great chance of being the future second baseman. If Freeman is retained, that’s a major position that you won’t have to worry about. Then we just have to wait on a few other players, both in Atlanta and in the minors, to show up and prove they can be good.

If a year from now we know Swanson is ready to take over on opening day 2016 at shortstop, that Albies and Riley are likely choices for the future at second and third base and that someone (Olivera or Smith) can be a big part of the outfield, we may all feel better about how the Braves stack up with their position players.

Most believe pitching is the priority, and they are correct. But the Braves do have talent with position players. They need more, but the cupboard is not bare. The pitching is taking the lead in this process, and that is by design. This situation looks better now than it did a few months ago, and you can bet the position player will include more talent over the next 12 months. That’s why this is a process.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.


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