LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The areas that former Braves president of baseball operations John Hart mentioned as three likely offseason needs – third base, bullpen, starting rotation -- still could be considered as such, but the new man in charge, general manager and vice president Alex Anthopoulos, pointed to another area that’s moved to the top of the priority list.
Improving the defense.
“It’s not an easy one the way we’re currently set up,” Anthopoulos said Monday near the end of the first day of baseball’s annual Winter Meetings. “It’s going to take some creativity. But that is a goal, if we can do it. And maybe it’s just one area instead of two or three. But the backdrop of everything we’ve talked about is, what can we do to get ourselves better defensively. And that ultimately should help the entire (pitching) staff.
“Because we’re going to have to rely on these arms. I don’t know what’s going to happen – are we going to add a starter, a reliever and so on – but regardless whether we’re going with kids or established free agents, we still want to catch the ball behind them.”
Anthopoulos, hired last month and given complete control of baseball operations, comes to the position after two years in the Dodgers’ sophisticated baseball operations department. Prior to that he was known for incorporating new analytics alongside scouting during his six years as Blue Jays GM.
A glance at FanGraphs’ advanced defensive statistics for 2017 shows the Braves ranked in the bottom half of the majors – and mostly in the bottom third -- in virtually every category including Defensive Runs Above Average (DEF), Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Outfield Arm Runs (ARM), Revised Zone Rating (RZR), Range Runs (RngR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) -- they were a lousy 27th in DRS.
“I think coming in, what John Hart and the baseball operations staff had talked about, they had talked about third base, bullpen, maybe a starter” as offseason needs, Anthopoulos said. “Which I think that’s fair; obviously those are areas we can probably get better. (But) I think the one thing I probably still have my eye on is just seeing where we can improve defensively.
“That’s easier said than done, and I know the follow-up (question) is, where? (Discussing specific positions) is probably not fair to players that are here. But I think, generally speaking, with young, talented arms, not knowing the innings load, overworking the bullpen and so on, the better we are defensively – if we improve just one area defensively, we’re going to make 12 to 13 guys on that (pitching) staff a lot better. I think that’s just a general theme.
“I can’t sit here and tell you it’s going to get done; there’s some hoops to jump through to do some of those things. So, we’re going to see.”
He didn’t mention names, but one area where the Braves could get better quickly if by trading one of their corner outfielders, preferably left fielder Matt Kemp, and replacing him with five-tool super prospect Ronald Acuna. If they find it impossible to trade the injury-plagued Kemp and aren’t prepared to eat all or most of the $36 million they still owe Kemp over the next two years, the second option for getting Acuna in the lineup would be trading veteran right fielder Nick Markakis.
Again without naming specific players, Anthopoulos made it clear the Braves aren’t likely to trade any of their top defensive players such as two-time Gold Glove center fielder Ender Inciarte, who was rumored to have been targeted by at least a couple of teams earlier this offseason.
“As a general theme, we’ve been asked about some of our better defensive players,” Anthopoulos said. “You guys can read between the lines. It’s hard to do if we’re trying to get better defensively.”
When a reporter mentioned Inciarte, Anthopoulos said, “The guy in center is doing a really good job. I’m excited to see him play.”
One thing that several others in the Braves front office and scouting departments have mentioned about Anthopoulos is how much he seeks the opinions of everyone in the organization regarding players. This was a criticism that many had of previous general manager John Coppolella, that he wouldn’t listen to others’ opinions and eventually even demoted some who disagreed with him.
Coppolella was forced to resign on Oct. 2 amid an MLB investigation into infractions in international free agency and the draft, and last month he was banned for life by Major League Baseball as part of the severe penalties it handed down against the Braves.
Hart was stripped of baseball-operations duties the day that Anthopooulos was hired, and a few days later Hart stepped down from a senior adviser position and left the organization.