Braves Continue Outfielder Parade, Bring in Soler From Royals

The Braves have added an entire outfield in one deadline day. They swung two deals earlier on Friday, one with Cleveland and one with Miami, helping them set up a left-field platoon of Eddie Rosario and Adam Duvall. But they made an even bigger splash just prior to the buzzer with a one-for-one deal with the Royals, acquiring Jorge Soler from Kansas City in exchange for righty Kasey Kalich.

Soler is a huge name on paper, but he’s in the midst of a major down year. He’s pretty much your typical big-power, swing-and-miss outfielder, but a deflated BABIP at just .229 and a below-career-norm ISO at .179 have contributed to an uncharacteristically low .192/.288/.370 triple slash, good for a 81 wRC+. He’s still slugged 13 homers, but the lack of production at the plate — in combination with poor defense in right field and half of his starts coming at designated hitter — has yielded an ugly overall output. Soler has been worth -1.0 WAR, the fourth-lowest mark among all position players.

Still, there’s plenty of reason to think that Soler’s 2021 is something of an anomaly. He’s hitting the ball hard — his average exit velocity and hard-hit rates are both in the 91st percentile — and he’s still hitting the ball in the air, with a 17.3 degree average launch angle and just a 39.7% ground ball rate, a touch below his career averages. Perhaps he is hitting too many popups though, as the percentage of batted balls he’s “under” has risen to his highest level since 2017, before his breakout. Perhaps that is still a bit nit-picky for someone who has seemingly just been dealt a lot of poor luck; Soler’s expected wOBA is still roughly in line with his 2020 figure, and the disparity between his expected and actual wOBAs is the fifth-largest in the game.

He’s also been turning it on as of late, with seven homers in 75 plate appearances since the calendar flipped to July; he has the 12th-highest ISO this month and likely would’ve made a lot more noise if it weren’t for a .159 BABIP in that time. Soler’s July line is ultimately pretty funky: .212/.307/.561, with a 131 wRC+.

In moving to Atlanta, Soler’s time spent at DH will obviously be coming to an end, leaving him as their right field option for the remainder of the year. Normally Ronald Acuña Jr. plays there, but a torn ACL prematurely ended his excellent 2021 season earlier this month. Soler is not as talented as Acuña, but he still provides an interesting option with the potential for more upside if his hot stretch continues for the rest of the season. And it’s not like the Braves will run into any real roster construction issues; Soler’s an impending free agent, and while he certainly could re-sign to play the other corner outfield slot in future seasons, this looks like a stopgap option at the moment to help them stay in the hunt without really sacrificing anything important for the future.

With that said, we’re not too optimistic on Atlanta’s postseason odds. We have them at a 9.7% chance to make the postseason, with almost all of that concentrated in their divisional odds (8.4% chance to win the NL East). They’re only four games behind the Mets, so a run at the division crown this season without Acuña isn’t impossible, but that does require them leapfrogging both New York and Philadelphia. The Phillies are only a half-game ahead but play a much easier schedule and aren’t dealing with the same level of injury issues as Atlanta, who, in addition to missing Acuña, also find Travis d’Arnaud, Ian Anderson, Mike Soroka, and Huascar Ynoa on the Injured List. Marcell Ozuna is also out due to injury as well as domestic violence charges and a possible MLB suspension following a May incident at his home.

The Braves outfield currently consists of some combination of Soler, Joc Pederson, Duvall, and Rosario when he returns from the IL. That group is certainly an interesting one, though for the most part, they have been unspectacular in 2021. Duvall has been the most productive of the bunch with a 104 wRC+ and 1.1 WAR, while the rest of the quartet has all been below the 100 wRC+ watermark so far. Defensively, Soler certainly raises the most questions, as he has been downright bad in right field this season and hasn’t really been all that good in the outfield in prior years. He has been worth -41 defensive runs saved in right field for his career, ranking second-to-last in the metric since his debut seasonin 2014. UZR likes him a bit more at just -17.6, though that only raises him to fifth-worst. When hitting, he strikes all as a pure DH, but perhaps the Braves can hide the poor defense in late-and-close situations with some of their bench outfielders.

Then there’s the return. The 23-year-old Kalich is currently in High-A, where he has a 3.26 ERA, 24.6% strikeout rate, and 12.0% walk rate. He throws in the mid-90s with a velo-driven slider, and having never started at any professional level, is a pure bullpen arm. Kalich was the team’s fourth-round pick in 2019 and did earn an honorable mention on the team’s top 30 prospect list from this spring, where he was described as “an under-scouted, sleeper relief prospect.”

All told, the Braves seemingly didn’t have to give up much to get one of baseball’s most powerful hitters. While Soler is having a down year and is an impending free agent, it certainly seems like a nice value add by Atlanta, even as their postseason odds suggest that they’re sitting squarely behind New York and Philadelphia. But they are still aiming for the division crown, and if they do get there, it may just be because Soler hit plenty of big homers for them down the stretch.

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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1 year ago

I don’t think Soler will get the right field job. I think he’ll mostly start against lefties, replacing Peterson (Duvall and Rosario could also be headed for a platoon but I think Duvall will get starts against righties). Despite all the names the Braves traded for, it seems Heredia’s center field job may be safe as I don’t think any of these guys would even be passable there.