Ronald Acuna, Jr. is reportedly close to returning from injury. How will the Atlanta Braves lineup adjust for his presence accordingly?
Back in the preseason, you probably would not have found too many that would’ve stepped out onto the limb to proclaim that, in late June, the Atlanta Braves would be the National League’s most productive offense.
That’s exactly what they’ve been to this point, tallying 359 runs on the season. That lineup success can be attributed to a number of crucial factors.
Freddie Freeman is having an MVP-caliber campaign. Nick Markakis is well on his way to his first All-Star game in his age-34 season. The kids, Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies, have filled their roles along the way. Even the ordinary guys like Charlie Culberson have had some extraordinary moments.
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But one still wonders if perhaps this Atlanta offense has stalled in recent weeks without the wunderkind Ronald Acuna, Jr, who has been on the shelf since late May.
True, over the last 30 days, the Braves have accounted for 116 runs, which is 6th in the NL in that timeframe, per Fangraphs.
But it hasn’t been coming from the top.
Ozzie Albies has seen his production take a significant dip. A look at baseball-reference.com shows that the power-hitting second baseman has a paltry .189 average with a .232 OBP over the last 28 days.
Before Albies, it was Ender Inciarte experiencing his struggles in the leadoff role. Inciarte compiled a .282 OBP from the top spot that was, like Albies, staggered by a meager walk rate (5.1%).
One could make the argument that Inciarte and Albies have suffered from the lack of protection that Acuna provides with his presence and that with him returning from injury, things could improve.
According to MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, that time should arrive sooner rather than later for the Atlanta Braves.
"If Acuna continues to progress, there’s certainly a chance he could join Triple-A Gwinnett within the next couple days to begin playing rehab games. The outfielder, who ranks as MLB Pipeline’s top prospect, has been sidelined since suffering a mild sprain of his left anterior cruciate ligament on May 27."
So the question becomes: when Acuna does return, how should the lineup be constructed?
Given the struggles that Inciarte and Albies have had with getting on base regularly from the leadoff role, the Braves might benefit from considering a different option.
Johan Camargo currently sits at a .346 OBP, strongly supported by an impressive 13.5% walk rate. That knack for earning the free pass could benefit the run-producers that’d sit behind him in the order.
You could also slot Acuna himself into the leadoff spot. The uber-talented 20-year old has already proven he’s more than capable of getting on base with success, sporting a .326 OBP in nearly 130 big-league plate appearances. But Acuna’s high power ceiling probably makes him more of a candidate for a spot or two lower in the order.
Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis have been the two best hitters in the Atlanta lineup this year, so it makes sense to keep them in the first four spots of the order.
What could be interesting, though unlikely with Atlanta’s desire to keep Freeman in the 3-spot, is if Atlanta decided to split the lefties and put Acuna between them?
A 1-4 of Camargo, Markakis, Acuna, and Freeman puts probably the best quartet of on-base skills + baserunning + power combination you could derive from this Braves roster.
The catcher-of-the-day (Tyler Flowers or Kurt Suzuki) and Ozzie Albies could provide serious run-producing threats from the five and six spots of the lineup, especially with their ability to hit for extra bases.
This would leave Swanson and Inciarte to fill out the final two spots of the position players, two above-average baserunners that could get into scoring position for the top of the lineup’s next turn around.
The offense of the Atlanta Braves has been a pleasant surprise to this point in what has been a storybook 2018 season. But with the return of Ronald Acuna looming in the near future, the best could be yet to come with the right tweaks.