It makes me shudder to think how the Braves outfield would have performed in 2010 if they hadn’t broken camp with Jason Heyward in right. He was far and away the team’s best outfielder, producing 5.0 WAR in 623 PA. The other seven Braves outfielders combined for 0.3 WAR. Thanks to some offseason maneuvers, the Braves can count on better production in 2011.
The first measure of improvement was to remove dead weight. In 2010 Melky Cabrera produced -1.2 WAR thanks to a .294 wOBA and -15.9 UZR. After the season the Braves cut him, leaving his spot in left field open for Martin Prado, who moved there after the Dan Uggla trade. In the last three years Prado has produced a .356 wOBA and 8.4 WAR in 1408 PA, which quickly turns Cabrera’s negative production into a positive. Prado’s bat might not profile as well in left, but his .352 wOBA would have ranked ninth among left fielders with at least 500 PA last year. Cabrera’s wOBA ranked last in that group.
That brings us to Nate McLouth. The second measure of improvement should have been to find a center fielder who can at least platoon with him, if not replace him completely. But the Braves did not do that. Instead, they placed their faith in McLouth. Fredi Gonzalez has said that his ideal lineup has McLouth hitting second. That’s a lot of confidence in a player who produced -1.3 WAR, including a .283 wOBA, in just 288 PA last year. Clearly, the Braves expect McLouth to bounce back to the form he displayed in the previous two seasons.
A solid finish to the season and a torrid spring must have the Braves feeling good about their decision. In his final 68 PA last year, following his recall from the minors, McLouth hit .263/.358/.509, which is right around his 2008 production. We can’t read much into that, though, both because of the small sample and because September baseball often produces outlying results (thanks to expanded rosters). A shoulder injury has limited him to just 26 spring training at-bats, but he has hit safely in nine of those, including three for extra bases, and has walked an additional eight times. But since spring training numbers are even more dubious than September numbers, it’s tough to draw a conclusion of any kind based on these samples. It might represent an encouraging development, but that’s about it.
Even if McLouth doesn’t return to his previous form, even if he only recovers somewhat and produces a .320 wOBA, the Braves should be fine. Last year the team’s left fielders hit a collective .242/.302/.385. Prado and, in part-time work, Eric Hinske will out-produce this line handily. The team’s center fielders fared a bit better, at .232/.329/.339. That’s a low baseline of expectations for McLouth, even given his down year. If he produces to that level, the Braves should realize a markedly improved outfield in 2011. If he recovers to his 2009 level they’ll have one of the stronger units in the NL.
Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.