Atlanta Braves Spring Training Storylines: Who will the Braves play in left field?

Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos’s shrewd dealings have meant that Atlanta has six of their eight starting positions locked down with young players on team-friendly deals. Sean Murphy, Matt Olson, Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley, Michael Harris II, and Ronald Acuña Jr. are all likely to be Braves until 2027 – leaving only shortstop and left field as question marks.

Vaughn Grissom has a real chance to take the shortstop job out of camp. In 2022, he made the jump straight from Double-A Mississippi to the majors, slashing .291/.353/.440 with an excellent OPS+ (a park-adjusted stat where 100 is league average) of 121 while playing second base to cover for an Albies injury. While there are questions over his ability to play the defence needed to be an everyday starting shortstop, he looks like a good bet to at least start the season there.

That just leaves left field as a position with no standout candidates. So what are the Braves planning? Here are a few options.

1) Marcell Ozuna

Subpar human and subpar outfielder Ozuna is the first on the list. After signing a four-year $65 million contract with the Braves, he was pegged as the everyday left fielder for the next four years. He had a monster 2020, as he led the NL with 18 homers in the shortened season and came sixth in MVP voting – and has since become one of the worst players in baseball. When comparing him to players who have played at least as many games as him in the last two years, there are only eight players less valuable than Ozuna, who has ‘amassed’ a miserable -1 bWAR – which essentially means that any old player that could be picked up off waivers is probably worth an extra win than him over that span. While in previous years, his offensive output has made up for his abysmal defense, that hasn’t been the case the past two years, and the Braves have tried to find ways of heating up his bat without playing him in left field.

It’s also been no secret that the front office has been trying to trade Ozuna away since his second arrest in August 2022. The likelihood of that trade goes up with every day that goes by since the Braves will owe him less and less money, and there is a possibility he does rekindle some of that 2020 form, but Anthopoulos will definitely be seeking out offers. After the last two years, Ozuna is on a very short leash.

2) Eddie Rosario

The 2021 NLCS hero, Eddie Rosario, had an awful start to 2022, collecting just three hits in his first 44 at-bats, before being diagnosed with blurry vision and taking a long stint on the IL. On his return in early July, he performed a little better – slashing .243/.281/.379 over the rest of the season. Thanks to his poor start, he was, by WAR, the fourth-worst player in the MLB in 2022. He did perform well in his 33 games in Atlanta in 2021, registering an OPS+ of 134 and had one of the best postseasons in franchise history, as he played out of his mind against the Dodgers to send the Braves to the Fall Classic for the first time since 1999. 

One very likely scenario is that the Braves might look to give Rosario the start against right-handed pitching and find a platoon partner for him to bat against left-handed pitchers. While there was a small sample size with only 28 at-bats against lefties last year, he did perform significantly better across the board against righties. This is Rosario’s final year under contract for the Braves, so they’ll likely take a good look at him in spring training, hoping he returns to form.

3) Jordan Luplow

Luplow, a five-year vet with experience playing for the Pirates, Guardians, Rays, and Diamondbacks, signed as a free agent with the Braves this offseason. In 2022, he played all across the outfield and registered an underwhelming .176/.274/.361 with average defence. However, the Braves might see his value in being a good hitter against lefty pitching. Over his career, he has a wRC+ (another adjusted stat that measures a player’s ability to create runs, where 100 is league average) of 125 against lefties but only 76 against righties. He’s also an average fielder in left field according to Statcast outs-above-average, which is about all that’s required when you have Michael Harris II in centre.

While he has generally played at a just-above replacement level for most of his career, his 2019 was a positive outlier – that year, in 155 plate appearances against left-handed pitching, he slashed a .320/.437/.742 with an outlandish 1.181 OPS – a mark that put him fourth in the MLB among players with 50 or more games that year. While he might not hit those heights again, a performance closer to that mark might make him an attractive option to platoon with Eddie Rosario.

4) Eli White or Sam Hilliard

These two players are grouped together as they have some similarities. Firstly, their play style – they are both high-level fielders with below-average bats. Both players hover around a .200 batting average for their careers, with the edge going to Hilliard – though both players are found in the top 40 outfielders by defensive WAR in 2022, with the edge going to White (since he played fewer games). The Braves might choose to go defence-first at left field – it would allow the left fielder and Michael Harris II to cover more of the field to help Acuña while also providing a higher standard of defensive cover for the games Harris might miss in centre. 

They also have another similarity – they were both acquired on trades this offseason, showing that the front office actively wanted to secure the services of these players. What is different, however, is their ability to be sent to the minors – Eli White still has 2 MiLB options left, whereas Hilliard does none, and must either be kept on the main roster or subjected to waivers. If the Braves do decide to go in this sort of direction, it’s likely they option White and keep Hilliard for that reason – both are similar, but even if White seems to edge Hilliard out at spring training, the ability to keep both might be too good to pass up. 

My prediction is that Ozuna, Rosario, Luplow and Hilliard will all make the roster, with White heading to the minors. Ozuna then might take some at-bats at DH alongside Travis D’Arnaud and Murphy when the other is catching – but it’ll be Rosario and Luplow in a platoon at left field. Maybe the Braves will bring in some more competition, or a dark horse will emerge – we will know very soon!

Featured image of Eddie Rosario by @MLBStats on Twitter. 

Charlie Deeks is the Atlanta Braves correspondent on Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @Omashaft!

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