The back injury that Ender Inciarte suffered turned out to be way worse than initially thought. Thankfully, that gave the Braves an extended look at Austin Riley in the big leagues, and the 22-year-old rookie has given Atlanta’s offense a whole new identity since being called up on May 15th.
With seemingly every moonshot he sent out of the park, Riley became the fastest player to “X” amount of home runs. He is breaking records and dropping tanks. And by no coincidence, Atlanta has won 33 of the 49 games he’s appeared in, stretching their lead in the NL East to 6 games at the All-Star break. Prior to Riley’s arrival, the Braves were a measly one game over .500 and well behind the Phillies for first place. But now Inciarte is nearing a return, completing his second rehab start in AA Mississippi, going 2-2 with a stolen base. He will soon be ready to join the big league club, which means it is decision time in Atlanta
Getting the elephant out of the room first; there is not a chance in hell the Braves decide to put Riley on the bench or back in AAA once Inciarte is ready. That leaves them with two options – use him as an outfield utility piece off the bench or trade him.
The first choice sounds ideal, and on 99% of major league teams, Inciarte would be a blessing to have coming off the bench – both as a contact bat that can run the bases and a defensive stalwart. But that is not the case on the Braves.
Atlanta has perhaps the most organizational depth (as far as position players go) of anyone in baseball. One through eight in the lineup is a nightmare for opponents. Seriously, Ozzie Albies – who was an All-Star snub – bats right before the pitcher. Their bench consists of a multitude of players who can change the game with one swing and play multiple positions. Inciarte’s an unbelievable defensive prospect, but it is difficult to justify him taking Matt Joyce, Johan Camargo or Charlie Culberson’s spot because of the lack of pop and consistency in his bat.
Not only that, but the Braves have a couple of players in AAA that are deserving of major league roles. Adam Duvall has slugged 26 homers already for the Stripers, and Travis Demeritte is putting up MVP type numbers as well. If there is a hierarchy of positional players in the organization, Inciarte likely finds himself behind both of those guys too.
There is the possibility that Alex Anthopoulos chooses to keep Inciarte in the minors in the event of a potential injury. Ronald Acuña is the only one of the bunch that has consistently played center, and if he went down, Inciarte would likely be the next choice to assume the starter’s role. However, at some point, the plan is to trade him – whether it is now or the offseason – and leaving him in the minors all season will do nothing but diminish his already tainted value. Plus, is it entirely out of reason to believe Cristian Pache or Adam Duvall would be a better replacement if an injury were to occur?
It is decision time in Atlanta, but the best conclusion for both sides is that Inciarte is traded before the July 31st deadline. The Braves will not receive a hefty haul in return, but it won’t be any better if they let him rot in the minors. Inciarte is too good of a player not to be playing major league baseball, and 25 other teams could use him.
Unfortunately, the Braves are not one of them. I stand by my statement: Ender Inciarte will not play for Atlanta again barring an injury.
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