The Braves found their replacement for Josh Donaldson in the form of Marcell Ozuna. While he may not be a perennial .900 OPS hitter, it patches the biggest hole in Atlanta’s lineup without any long-term contractual commitments or giving up any young players, minus the draft pick they will forfeit to the Cardinals. Alex Anthopoulos was able to get the best bat left on the market to sign, keeping all his chips on the table as the Braves are primed for a decade of long-sustained success.
With that transaction, the outfield has taken shape. Ozuna will likely slot in at left, Ender Inciarte will man center, and Ronald Acuna Jr. will take over in right field full time, where he thrived in limited opportunities. Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall make up a deep bench, leaving third base as the only gray area left on the roster.
While Donaldson was a lock for production when healthy, the Braves still have two young third basemen that have already shown tremendous upside.
This time last year, many were wondering why the Braves even signed Donaldson, as they had an internal up-and-coming third baseman in Johan Camargo who exceeded all expectations in his first crack at an everyday role. Camargo initially came up flaunting his contact bat but showed he could bring way more to the table in 2018. He ended up hitting for a .272 average with 19 homers and 76 RBI – good for a .806 OPS – in just 134 games, while also being a plus in the field. Camargo seemed like a rising star, but bringing in a bat such as Donaldson’s on such a short time commitment was an offer Alex Anthopoulos could not refuse.
The signing led to Camargo being hyped up to be a super-utility type player before the 2019 season, but this role never came to fruition. Not only did he put on some weight, but he never received the consistent bats required to get in a groove. The team ultimately decided it was in Johan’s best interest to play every day in Gwinnett to break out of his slump, and the results were miraculous. He went 28-for-58 with a ridiculous 1.221 OPS. Needless to say, he did not stay down long, and he started translating this hot streak to the big leagues as well. Unfortunately, he was sidelined shortly after that with a fractured shin for the remainder of the season.
Camargo’s track record shows he was on the path to becoming one of the better third basemen in the National League. And the way he responded to receiving consistent at-bats once again is nothing to gloss over. That very easily could be the source of the issue. Not to mention, it appears he has slimmed down big time this offseason. A bounce-back campaign is far from out of the question.
On the flip side, the Braves also have one of the best young third basemen in baseball – Austin Riley. Sure, his late-season struggles was a sour ending to his rookie year, but don’t be fooled. If he still qualified, Riley would easily be the Braves’ top prospect. He was a consensus top 50-prospect in baseball last season and responded by completely dominating AAA, earning him a spring call up. Riley continued that tear in the big leagues, posting 16 homers and 41 RBI in just 187 at-bats before the All-Star break. Then his production fell off a cliff.
However, Riley is still just 22 and projects to be an impact player in the MLB. Even Mike Trout got sent back down to the minors after his first taste of the big leagues. Expectations should not be lowered after one slump. Perhaps he will not be making an impact as soon as Opening Day, but he is capable of crushing major league pitching.
Riley posesses light tower power, and if he can hit for average contact, he should be an All-Star talent. Not to mention, he will likely be shifting back to the position he played throughout the minor leagues. There is a chance Riley will play some outfield as well, but with it being as crowded as it is and with Donaldson gone, one would think Riley will be competing for playing time with Johan Camargo. If he can put things together as he did during his hot stretch last season, he could even fill in as a pure cleanup hitter, allowing Marcell Ozuna to shift back a spot.
The talent, as well as the resume of these two players, suggests that at least one of them will be a productive everyday third baseman in 2020. In fact, it would not be surprising for both to have fantastic seasons. The production lost from losing Donaldson does not fall entirely on them. Marcell Ozuna will surely offer more offensive firepower than Nick Markakis did, and if these two can give 75% of the production Donaldson provided, the Braves’ lineup can be just as good as it was in 2019, and maybe even a bit deeper. If you are not comfortable with what Atlanta has at third base, it is time to stop being pessimistic. They roster two options with legitimate upside under affordable contracts and the assets to patch a hole if needed.