August 10, 2017

The Braves Should Consider Cashing in Inciarte

Ender Inciarte is the Braves’ second-best player after Freddie Freeman.  He won’t be 27 until October.  He’s under contract through 2021 with a team option for 2022, and he’s not due to make over $9 million in any of his remaining seasons.

But outfield prospect Ronald Acuna has taken huge strides this season, making it to Triple-A Gwinnett at age 19.  He’s a leading candidate for Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year.  He’s slashed .320/.377/.522 this season between High-A, Double-A and Triple-A.  Not only is he an offensive threat, but he’s impressed with his defensive play in centerfield.

With the rise of Acuna and the team lacking legit major league talent to move from rebuilding to contending, maybe it’s time to cash in Inciarte, with his youth, talent, and extremely attractive contract for a legit ace or a legit middle-of-the-order stud.

The downsides to trading Inciarte are obvious.  In addition to Inciarte’s age, tools and contract, the Braves lack quality outfielders besides Inciarte himself.  So, they could easily improve that depth, at least in theory, by inserting Acuna into a corner spot and keeping Inciarte in center.  Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis aren’t great short-term answers for a major league team, much less long-term solutions.  And they are on the team as place-holders until prospects like Acuna come along.

But centerfield would probably be the ideal spot for Acuna next season.  There are some questions about his ability to hit, as he has 118 strikeouts and 39 walks in 111 games this season.  And he’s only 19, so there is a real possibility he struggles to come up to the big leagues next season and perform like a quality major league corner-outfielder at the plate.  Ideally, he would play center where he would add plenty of defensive value, even if he doesn’t hit well for another couple of years.

As far as Inciarte in center versus moving him to a corner spot, his career wRC+ is 94.  That is certainly not terrible, considering he would still be providing plenty of defensive value even in a corner spot.  But with his defense and that kind of offense, his value is maximized as a centerfielder.

As far as aging curves, defense generally peaks early in players.  That’s likely one of the reasons the Braves were willing to part with Andrelton Simmons, who was dreadful offensively at the end of his Braves’ career and at an age when it seemed he would start to slip defensively.  (Simmons has been surprisingly quite good offensively with the Angels, particularly this season.)  At 26, Inciarte isn’t likely to get any more valuable defensively and it’s quite possible he’ll show signs of decline a bit over the next season or two.  And once his defense starts to slip, with his below-average bat, he could lose value faster than many players of his star caliber.  This is probably a factor in the Braves being able to coax such a favorable deal out of Inciarte and his agent.

But, while it’s possible Inciarte doesn’t get much better or will start to decline within the next year or so, he’s still pretty young, even for a baseball player, he plays a premium position, he’s rather cheap and he’s locked up for 4 more years with a team option for a 5th.  If he headlines a package, the Braves could get plenty of value in a trade of Inciarte.  He would certainly be desirable to plenty of teams.

The scary part of considering such a trade is turning over centerfield to a 19-year-old with a lot of swing and miss without a backup option if things go south.  With Inciarte in center and even with Kemp and Markakis in the corners, at least there are replacement-level options should they decide to go with Acuna in a corner-spot and he shows he isn’t ready.

Still, if the Braves can get an absolute stud starting pitcher or position player who is rather young, reasonably priced and under contract for at least 2-3 seasons, an Inciarte trade might be worth all the risk involved in such a trade.  I don’t know who that stud would be, but there is a scenario, not all that far-fetched, where an Inciarte trade makes sense.



One Response to “The Braves Should Consider Cashing in Inciarte”

  1. 1
    William A Says:

    I thought someone had to comment on such a thoughtful and well rendered article, Shaun, so I’ll lead off. You make a compellingly interesting case for trading off Inciarte which, quite frankly, I hadn’t considered before reading your rationale. The thing that makes sense is ensuring the return is a solid proven MLB top or near top of rotation caliber starting pitcher. The Braves are in dire need of a stopper, a guy to lead the young horses to water and any additional cliche one wants to serve up.

    Still, it’s risky to unload a guy like Inciarte who has more than proven his worth as an excellent one hole hitter and defender. But then I look around for that bellcow pitcher on the Braves’ staff and find only inconsistency abounding. I have no confidence that any of the current crop is capable of having a 15 win season next year or any year with a WHIP of around 1.00 to 1.15 and an ERA in the neighborhood of 3.50. THAT is obviously needed for the Braves to take the next big step toward being a viable playoff contender so if it takes serving up Inciarte to get him, I reluctantly agree but would he alone be enough?

    I’m warming to your idea of giving the CF job to Acuna and providing him some cover with his defensive skills while he adjusts to MLB pitching. Another issue: If Inciarte goes, who hits in the lead-off slot? Anyway, good article and keep it up.

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