With Winter Meetings underway, one name we haven’t heard much about this offseason is Ender Inciarte. That’s not shocking considering free agency is only beginning, and the trade market has yet to start moving, but at some point, questions will arise about his future in Atlanta.
I haven’t been shy with my predictions regarding Inciarte. Last year, when he spent a prolonged amount of time on the IL with a back injury, I went out on a limb and said that would be the last we see of him in a Braves uniform. At the time, Austin Riley was as hot as a bikini contest in the Sahara, and Inciarte isn’t exactly an ideal bench bat. Plus, with the trade deadline looming, he seemed like a candidate the Braves might have been able to move on from. However, Riley eventually cooled down, and a host of other injuries made Inciarte a necessity.
The three-time Gold Glove Award winner played exceptionally well in his return, but it was short-lived, as a hamstring injury wound up costing him the rest of the season. With Nick Markakis set to return for one more year, the projected outfield looks to be Markakis in left, Inciarte in center, and Acuña in right – if the season were to begin today. But it doesn’t, and there could be several more tricks up Alex Anthopoulos’ sleeve.
The recent deal for Mike Moustakas should make Braves fans uneasy about Josh Donaldson’s situation. A projected contract for Donaldson was three years for $75 million, but after Moustakas received four years and $64 million (way over his projected contract of two years for $20 million by MLB Trade Rumors), it’s hard to imagine Donaldson not exceeding his estimation. If that’s the case, there is a chance the Braves have to move on without him. Given Atlanta’s hesitancy towards handing out long-term, lucrative contracts, it would be difficult to justify giving a 34-year-old with an injury history somewhere around $100 million, meaning Anthopoulos will have to get creative in order to improve his team this offseason.
One way he could do that is by bolstering the outfield. Acuña’s versatility keeps Anthopoulos’ options open. The Braves can continue with their current set up, or they could shift Acuña to center and add a power bat at one of the corner outfield positions. Markakis’ ability to play right field helps as well if the Braves decide to make a move in this direction. Atlanta has already been mentioned as one of several teams interested in Marcell Ozuna, and he’s probably not the only outfielder they have inquired on.
With that being said, the Braves might want to hold off on investing in their outfield, considering their top two prospects are outfielders and already in AAA Gwinnett. It won’t be long before either Cristian Pache, Drew Waters, or both are ready to don the tomahawk across their chest. Their arrival is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation when talking about Inciarte.
On one hand, you don’t want to invest heavily in a position and block out your top prospects. On the other hand, it provides even more ammunition to trade Inciarte, who is scheduled to make $7.7 million next season and $8.7 million in 2021. With Pache and Waters on the horizon, it seems highly unlikely the Braves will allow Inciarte to finish out the remainder of his contract, especially with their payroll limitations.
Following the acquisition of Cole Hamels, the Braves have a current projected payroll of about $132 million, according to Spotrac. If you’re going off last year’s payroll, it leaves them with very little to make moves this offseason. Fortunately, it looks as if the budget for this team has increased significantly. Donaldson remains a top priority, and while it may be costly, the Braves might pull the trigger and give him the long-term contract he deserves. With that said, Atlanta will still be trying to save money at every corner, and Inciarte seems like an obvious place to do so.
Inciarte’s name will come up in trade rumors throughout the offseason, and they will probably continue up until the trade deadline, and then stop, until next offseason of course. The Braves have to mull over the possibility of dealing him, but they have other needs to address first, and they probably don’t want to create another one by trading their starting center fielder. But that could all change if Donaldson signs with a division rival. Then Atlanta will be forced to make a responsive move, which could mean re-tooling an outfield that could improve in multiple areas.