The Angels and Braves Bring in Outfield Reinforcements

The Angels and Braves have both suffered through largely disappointing seasons and through some serious woes in the outfield. In Los Angeles, a calf injury to Mike Trout and Justin Upton’s back issues have kept the two off the field for a significant amount of time. In Atlanta, things are even more dire. Marcell Ozuna dislocated two of his fingers back in May, but a pending domestic violence charge means he likely won’t see the field again this season. Then, on the Saturday before the All-Star break, Ronald Acuña Jr. tore the ACL in his right knee, ending his season.

Both teams are within shouting distance of a playoff spot; the Braves are four games behind the Mets in the NL East, and the Angels are five and a half back in the AL Wild Card. But to have any hope of making noise down the stretch, they needed to bring in reinforcements for their outfield depth. That’s exactly what both teams did during the break. On Wednesday, the Angels signed Adam Eaton after he was released by the White Sox on Monday. On Thursday, the Braves traded for Joc Pederson, sending prospect Bryce Ball back to the Cubs in return. Trying to replace the production of Acuña or Trout is a fool’s errand, but finding someone who’s above replacement level (even if barely in both cases) goes a long way toward filling the holes in these two lineups.

In their final game before the All-Star break, the Braves ran out two converted infielders in the corner outfield spots, playing Ehire Adrianza in right and Orlando Arcia in left. In Pederson, they’re getting a capable outfielder who can play anywhere — he has plenty of experience in center field and covered left regularly in Chicago — and who’s an offensive boost to their lineup. With Guillermo Heredia already in center, Pederson will probably shift over to right, with Atlanta likely to use a rotating cast of players in left for now.

Pederson signed a one-year agreement with the Cubs this past offseason but started 2021 off slow, collecting just seven hits in his first 16 games and then hitting the IL with wrist tendinitis. Since returning in early May, he has put up a 108 wRC+ with 10 home runs, but his power output is something the Braves should be concerned about. His ISO has fallen precipitously over the last three years and is now sitting at a career-low .188. And while his batted ball peripherals are all in good shape, he’s struggling to produce extra-base hits at the same clip as a Dodger.

Joc Pederson, Batted Ball Peripherals
Year ISO Avg EV Max EV Barrel% Hard Hit% HR/FB%
2019 0.289 91.2 113.7 10.0% 42.8% 25.9%
2020 0.207 92.9 112.1 10.2% 44.3% 22.6%
2021 0.188 91.2 113.6 10.2% 46.2% 13.3%

It would be foolish to expect Pederson to maintain the 25% home run rate he enjoyed in 2019 that led to a career-high 36 dingers, but 13.3% seems low, especially considering his unchanged barrel and hard hit rates.

The other concern with Pederson is his significant platoon split. He’s posted a nearly 100-point difference in wOBA against left-handed pitching in his career, though he’s posted identical marks against both righties (.310 wOBA) and lefties (.311) this year. One of the reasons why Pederson signed with Chicago was because the team was willing to give him regular playing time against left-handed pitching. He responded with his best performance against same-handed pitching in his career, though it seems to have come at a significant cost to his results against the opposite side. Still, his excellent batted ball peripherals and strong track record suggest he could run into some home runs over the summer. His presence on the roster is also a strong indication that the Braves aren’t ready to give top outfield prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters an extended run at the major league level yet.

As for the Cubs, the fact that Pederson was available should be a hint that they’ve thrown in the towel on the 2021 season. Despite being just a half-game behind the Braves in the standings, these two teams aren’t heading in the same direction; Chicago just suffered through an agonizing 11-game losing streak and has won only 11 times in its last 30 games. With just a few weeks to go until the trade deadline, Pederson’s departure could be the first of many dominoes to fall.

In return for Pederson, the Cubs received Ball, a power-hitting first baseman. He ranked 11th on our most recent Braves prospect list, and Kevin Goldstein chose him as a pick to click earlier this offseason, writing, “He has potentially special power to go with a very good approach and an impressive feel for contact for a long-levered slugger.” Bell had mashed nearly everywhere he’s played — that is, until he hit just .207/.354/.396 in High-A this season. Already 23, he’ll head to Chicago looking to turn things around.

On the other side of the country, the Angels are bringing in Eaton to address their own clear need in the outfield. Since losing Trout in mid-May and Upton in late-June, Los Angeles has been using a rotating cast of players to cover all three outfield spots, though just one of those replacements is a true outfielder: Juan Lagares. Jared Walsh, Phil Gosselin, Taylor Ward, Luis Rengifo, and Jose Rojas are all infielders by trade, but all of them have been employed in the outfield more than 10 times by the Angels this year.

It’s telling that the Angels were able to bring in Eaton so easily and after he was released by the White Sox, a team with its own injury issues in the outfield. In his first stint in Chicago and then with the Nationals, he established himself as a solid outfielder who was never great at any one thing but had many above-average pieces to his profile; the sum of all those parts resulted in 18.2 WAR across six seasons from 2014 to ’19. But he struggled at the plate in 2020, and his second go-around in Chicago was just as disappointing. The biggest issue is a huge spike in strikeout rate. Eaton had never posted one above 19.0% before this year, but it’s at 25.1% now, while his contact rate has fallen by eight and a half points and his chase rate has stayed at the career-worst mark he set last season. He’s had some success when he does make contact, but the deteriorating plate discipline has sunk any offensive value he could provide.

For the Angels, Eaton is more of a low-risk stopgap measure. Trout’s initial recovery window from his calf strain was 6–8 weeks, but we’ve hit the latter mark and he still hasn’t begun running yet. His timeline is still unclear, but he might be out until mid-August at the earliest. Upton’s back issue was thought to be a minor, day-to-day injury, but he hasn’t resumed any baseball activities either, and there’s no clarity to his timeline as well. Worse, he was in the midst of a resurgence at the plate that had helped cover for the absence of Trout.

With both of them sidelined, Eaton gives the Angels another option to use in the outfield while they wait for their return, even if he’s a weak one. Helpfully, at least, he’s left-handed, giving the Angels an option to pair with the replacements they’ve used most frequently — Lagares, Ward, and Gosselin — who are all right-handed.

Angels in the Outfield
Adam Eaton 219 .256 16% .143 82 -1 (RF)
Taylor Ward 219 .278 16.50% .171 98 -1 (LF/CF/RF)
Juan Lagares 192 .266 17.20% .131 61 +3 (CF)
Phil Gosselin 131 .410 19.80% .125 120 -2 (LF)

Of the four options, Lagares has performed the worst at the plate, though he has been the best defender of the bunch. Ward has played all three positions in the outfield this year and has been decent at the plate. His success looks a bit more sustainable than Gosselin’s, who is probably best deployed as a super utility player. Eaton will likely see regular playing time anyway until the return of Trout or Upton, but the question of which outfield position he’ll play is a little trickier to answer; he has experience at all three, but he hasn’t played center since 2017.

The most likely outcome is a rotating cast with Lagares and Ward covering center most often and Eaton entrenched in right. With a new start on a new team, he has the opportunity to seize the right field job even after Trout and Upton return. He’ll need to solve his contact and plate discipline issues first, but if he can salvage his season, he’ll give the Angels a needed boost to their outfield in the middle of their playoff chase.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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Dr Hocker
Dr Hocker

Very well researched and thorough article. Nice work!