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the-ankiel-is-gone-long-live-the-ankiel | December | 2010 Articles

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The Ankiel is Gone, Long Live the Ankiel

Written by Paddy McMahon on .

The Nationals made a bold move yesterday. It was the kind of transaction that shapes a franchise for years to come, an acquisition whose implications will reverberate for generations. Yes, ladies and gents, they....they signed Rick Ankiel. And for the kingly sum of $1.5MM for 1 year! I don't think it's an overstatement to suggest that historians will view this as a watershed moment in baseball history.

Ahem. Faux grandiosity aside, Ankiel's not really that bad of a player. Yeah, I wanted the Braves to let him go, but if he'd have come back for $1.5MM, it'd be hard to complain the price for a league-average bench bat (99 wRC+). He did strike out a ton last season - i.e. in 1/3 of his PA, which, wow - but he also raised his walk rate to over 10%, and his .389 SLG last year belies a .441 career mark that suggests 2010 was merely a down year. But, whatever. I'm not here to lament the departure of a fourth outfielder. This article is more about what the Braves' outfield situation is going to look like next year. 

See, Ankiel being signed naturally precipitated my going to check out the Braves' depth chart. Thusfar, the opening day outfield appears to be, from left to right, Martin Prado, Nate McLouth and Jason Heyward, with Jordan Schafer waiting in the wings should McLouth falter. And even though I should know better because these are the Braves we're talking about, and offense hasn't exactly been their forte...that's a trio of guys I can really get excited about having in the lineup. I'm not really sure how it didn't sink in for me until now, but that should be three above-average hitters manning the Turner Field grass, and that's quite a feat considering that the NLDS iteration of the Braves barely had three average hitters in the entire lineup. 

Let's just recap the numbers briefly: Martin Prado is a career .307/.356/.454 hitter who's entering his age-27 season. He's not an ideal left fielder, as the power is a mite lacking, but as long as he can maintain solid secondary skills (i.e. fairly average walk rate and tolerable strikeout rate), he should remain a similarly productive hitter - and that's a far sight better than what we've been seeing from our left fielders. Jason Heyward needs no introduction beyond the fact that he's the superstar in-training; very good contact skills, phenomenal plate discipline and power that is already good and should only improve as he grows into his enormous frame will make him a fixture in right field for years to come. He is, in a sense, the true heir to Jeff Francoeur out there; while Francoeur electrified fans for a month or two, he went by the wayside because of his refusal to develop something resembling a plate approach. Heyward is what we hoped Francoeur would be and more; he's also the answer to Francoeur's immortal question: "If OBP is so important, why don't they put it on the scoreboard?".
 
Finally, there's center field. Nate McLouth is something of a wild card, as he posted an absolutely absymal 2010 (.198/.298/.322) that saw him demoted to AAA in July. He rebounded well, with a 146 wRC+ in September, but that's a misleading number for a couple of reasons: (1) It's September, which means watered-down competition and games against teams that are no longer contending, and (2) small sample small sample small sample. In McLouth's favor is the fact that he's never approached numbers that bad before (or at least I assume so; he may well have been really, really bad in Little League. Seems unlikely, though, no?), as he's a career .252/.337/.438 hitter, which is pretty good for a center fielder, and he had a .221 BABIP that seems destined for regression toward the ~.300 mark we expect from big league hitters. If he doesn't return to numbers that very much resemble his career line, I'll be quite surprised. 

But even if he doesn't, there's former top prospect Jordan Schafer who's presumably ready to play for the big Braves. He's been waylaid by a 50-game suspension for HGH and a broken wrist, and was underwhelming in 2009 (.204/.313/.287), but if he can keep up the strong walk rate and show a little more skill with the bat (which, considering his pedigree and age seems easy enough), then he'll be a wonderful insurance policy for McLouth. I don't think Schafer will reach the heights that Braves fans imagined for him when he was coming up through the system, but then, how many prospects really do? Even if he's only a fourth outfielder, he fills a valuable role for a Braves club that's been hurting for offensive depth.

In any event, while it would've been nice to keep Ankiel around as a fifth outfielder, his departure served as a nice reminder that the Braves should be in good shape in the outfield next year. And doesn't that feel good to see for once?
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