The biggest surprise of the 2018-19 offseason to date (and just the biggest splash yet overall, for that matter) came on Monday afternoon, when Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos and company came out of nowhere to sign soon-to-be 33-year-old third baseman Josh Donaldson — a three-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger, and the 2015 AL MVP — to a one-year, $23 million deal.
While Donaldson is coming off his worst season since 2012, the addition of a former MVP to an exciting core that already includes elite players like Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr. is undeniably huge, and it should be treated as such. But the addition of Donaldson did leave baseball fans and media members everywhere with one major question: What will become of incumbent third baseman Johan Camargo, who inspired plenty of confidence in his first full season as an everyday major-league starter?
The initial answer to that question came on Monday night, as multiple writers were quick to mention the possibility of Camargo filling a utility role similar to the one Marwin Gonzalez (who has evidently replaced Ben Zobrist as the guy everyone who is trying to become a multi-position player gets compared to) filled for the Astros over the past two seasons:
#Braves are planning to use Camargo in a Marwin Gonzalez-type role, get a lot of starts in infield and some in outfield. Even some starts at 1B.— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) November 27, 2018
With Josh Donaldson deal official, Johan Camargo moves to super utility for Braves. All 4 infield positions, plus a little outfield. “Our Marwin Gonzalez”— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) November 27, 2018
Current #Braves plan is for Camargo (displaced from 3b by Donaldson) to become their Marwin Gonzalez. Already plays 2b, SS, 3b. Plan is to work in at 1b in spring, maybe corner OF to keep getting regular ABs.— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) November 27, 2018
It’s easy to see why Braves fans are excited about the prospect of having Camargo in the fold as a super-utility player. If you can create a super team and go into the season with 10 or 11 legitimate starting-caliber position players, much like the Cubs and Dodgers have done in recent seasons, why not? The fact of the matter, however, is that they still have other needs they have to address. The Braves are losing one of their most consistent hitters (and a reigning Gold Glover) with Nick Markakis hitting free agency, and they lack an obvious in-house replacement at whatever corner outfield spot Acuna isn’t playing. They could probably get decent production from Adam Duvall in a starting role, but all indications are that they’ll try to add a player with a better track record from the outside. Even with their impressive collection of young starting pitchers, they probably should also address the rotation; Anibal Sanchez, who was perhaps their most consistent starter in 2018, is a free agent, and none of Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, or Kevin Gausman have definitively proven that they’re capable of being the consistently dominant ace you usually find at the front of a World Series contender’s rotation. While the Braves have a multitude of intriguing bullpen options, they should probably add some more proven contributors out there as well, especially with Brad Brach becoming a free agent. Arodys Vizcaino has been injured too much to be considered a reliable closer, and the Braves should definitely consider upgrading in the ninth inning if the opportunity presents itself.
Perhaps they’ll address all of those needs through free agency. After the situation that unfolded last offseason, it feels wrong right now to even say that a team should be careful about spending on free agents, but if they have a young, talented player who doesn’t have a role clearly carved out in the organization going forward and could potentially bring back some value in a higher-priority area of need, it just doesn’t make sense for the Braves to be totally close-minded to the idea of a trade — particularly if it allows them to conserve financial resources and acquire a controllable player in his prime.
With Austin Riley — ranked as the No. 3 third base prospect and the No. 43 prospect overall in baseball by MLB Pipeline — in the fold and arguably already major-league ready after thriving over 75 games at Triple-A Gwinnett this year, it’s not as if Camargo has a clear role in Atlanta beyond 2019, even if Donaldson is a one-and-done with the Braves. And though the front office is obviously going to speak excitedly for the time being about the possibility of having Camargo as the team’s top bench player, it’s debatable how well Camargo would really fit in that type of role.
First of all, even with players becoming more accepting of the “everyday utility” role as this decade has progressed, Camargo is kind of overqualified to be a super-sub. He was pretty clearly the second-best defensive third baseman in the National League in 2018 — not too shabby when you consider that the best, Nolan Arenado, is frequently talked about as one of the best defensive third basemen of all time. He posted seven defensive runs saved, which ranked second among NL third basemen with at least 500 innings played at the position, and an 8.9 UZR/150 that ranked first among that group. Clearly he’s not going to start ahead of Donaldson, but moving him around on a daily basis would be a waste of his already-polished skill at that position. He was a shortstop for most of his minor-league career, so take that as a positive or negative depending on how you feel about the fact that he still has just 266 games of professional experience at third. But trying to get a player that’s still just 25 years old to master six or seven different positions, including several that he’s never played before, may ultimately just result in a mental overload that causes him to be mediocre or below-average at all of those positions in the long run.
Camargo was no slouch at the plate in 2018, either, posting a .272/.349/.457 slash line — good for an .806 OPS that was better than those posted by former All-Stars such as Mike Moustakas, Evan Longoria, and Kyle Seager — with 19 homers in 524 plate appearances. His 116 OPS+ was roughly equivalent to Donaldson’s 119 mark in that category, and his 3.7 bWAR was more than two wins better than Donaldson’s 1.2. Obviously, there’s real hope that Donaldson will be able to rediscover his MVP, Silver Slugger form from a few years ago, but it’s interesting that Camargo was very arguably better than him in 2018.
Secondly, it’s uncertain — arguably unlikely — that enough playing time will be available for Camargo to truly fill a Gonzalez-like role. Gonzalez’s greatest asset may be his versatility, but he’s essentially been an everyday starter for the last two seasons. He started 120 games in 2017 and was their primary left fielder down the stretch and throughout their postseason run. This year, he was their Opening Day first baseman and started 136 games, plus all eight of their postseason games, serving as their starting left fielder before shifting to second when Jose Altuve got injured in the ALCS.
Unless Camargo gets significantly more comfortable at another spot, it’s difficult to project where he’s going to get that type of playing time. If Donaldson is healthy, manager Brian Snitker should plan on penciling him into the lineup at least 130 times (and if he’s not, then the Braves’ $23 million gamble probably will have failed). Camargo could definitely spell Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies — or outright replace them if they struggle — and would perhaps provide an offensive upgrade at those positions, but since he’s not an aggressive baserunner and is widely considered to be an average-at-best defensive middle infielder, he’d have difficulty replicating the outstanding production Swanson and Albies provide from a speed and defense standpoint if he ends up platooning with or supplanting one of them. And even if he starts taking grounders at first base, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll get much playing time there unless an injury occurs, as Freddie Freeman started 160 games there in 2018. Perhaps there’d be an opening for him to get near-everyday playing time if the Braves don’t go out and sign another corner outfielder and decide to plug him in there several times per week, but he’s played exactly one professional inning in the outfield (he made a late-game cameo appearance in left for the Braves in 2017), and with teams valuing outfield defense more than ever before, it’d be extremely risky for Atlanta to play Camargo out there on anything close to an everyday basis.
One other thing as it pertains to Camargo being consistently integrated into the lineup: Managers can always change and evolve (especially under pressure from the front office), but Snitker certainly doesn’t seem like the type of skipper that is all of a sudden just going to turn into Dave Roberts and start throwing different lineup combinations out there every single day. Even with a near-50-50 timeshare at catcher, Snitker used just 55 different defensive lineups in 2018 — by far the fewest in the National League. For some perspective on just how much Snitker values having the same players on the field every day, there were only four other NL teams that used fewer than 100 defensive lineups, and the Nationals had the next-fewest with 89.
It’s true that you can never have enough good depth — teams like that Dodgers and Cubs have proven that in recent years, though it’s also fair to argue that their inability to field a consistent lineup has hurt them in the playoffs — but it’s not as if the Braves are in desperate need of a super-utility guy, anyway. Receiving his most extensive big-league action to date in 2018, 29-year-old Charlie Culberson was an extremely effective utility player, hitting for a .270/.326/.466 slash line with 12 homers in 322 plate appearances and posting an OPS+ that was 12 percent better than league average. The 29-year-old Gonzalez, meanwhile, came back to earth after a spectacular 2017 season, hitting .247/.324/.409 with 16 homers in 552 plate appearances, good for an OPS+ that was three percent better than the league average. Culberson saw extensive action at third base, shortstop, and in left field while pulling spot duty at second base, first base, right field, and pitcher. Gonzalez saw extensive action at first base, second base, shortstop, and left field while seeing brief action at third base, center field, and right field. Essentially, Culberson was a better and more efficient hitter than Gonzalez in 230 fewer plate appearances while playing the same number of positions, though Gonzalez played one more spot on a regular basis than Culberson did. And before you argue that the late-blooming Culberson’s 2018 season was an aberration, consider that Gonzalez himself didn’t have his breakout season until he was 28. Having both Camargo and Culberson on the bench would be an incredible luxury, and it’s very possible that Culberson would get overexposed if he was forced to start 130 games. But barring a catastrophe, do we really believe that that type of playing time is going to be available for either Culberson or Camargo? With Donaldson in the fold for next year and Riley on the horizon, it would be misguided for the Braves not to at least see what teams are willing to offer for the soon-to-be 25-year-old; they might get a player that could really help them in another area.
Though they’ve already been linked to older, more established corner infielders such as Paul Goldschmidt and Mike Moustakas this offseason, the Cardinals would present a fantastic fit for Camargo, as he’d vastly upgrade the defense at third base while also boosting the middle of their lineup. With St. Louis having an incredible surplus of major-league starting pitching and hard-throwing right-hander Carlos Martinez seemingly having tested the organization’s patience several times in recent seasons, there’d be an extremely logical trade match as well. Even though he’s coming off somewhat of a tough season, the 27-year-old Martinez is still a great bargain — he’s signed through 2021 at $11.7 million a season with a $17 million club option for 2022 and an $18 million club option for 2023. Perhaps a willingness to deal Camargo and one of their younger, second-tier pitching prospects such as Joey Wentz, Kyle Muller, or Tristan Beck would be enough for the Braves to acquire Martinez, who would be a fantastic addition to the front of Atlanta’s rotation alongside Foltynewicz and Newcomb.
At least three other teams would match up well with the Braves for a Camargo deal. While the Giants already have two established veterans on the left side of the infield, Camargo could add some much-needed youth to their infield — and new president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi presumably wouldn’t have much of a problem cutting into the playing time of Evan Longoria, seeing as he didn’t trade for him and the $62.2 million guaranteed that the Giants still owe him over the next five years. He’s not an absolutely ideal fit for their current lineup, but his youth, polished offensive approach, and slick defense would be valued in San Francisco, and if the Giants are looking to get good return value for 29-year-old ace Madison Bumgarner — who is a free agent next winter and grew up as a Braves fan — Camargo might be as good as it gets.
Joel Sherman mentioned the Yankees as a potential match for a Camargo trade, and that seems to make sense considering that they’ll need a temporary fill-in at shortstop while Didi Gregorius recovers from Tommy John surgery, and in the long term they could use a better defender at third base — one would allow them to shift Miguel Andujar to first base or DH. But the return will probably have to be better than the one Sherman suggested — concussion-riddled outfielder Clint Frazier — and the Yankees don’t really have any movable pieces that would appeal to Atlanta, with the possible exception of reliever Chad Green. Though it would put them in the awkward position of having to move a highly-skilled defensive third baseman — either Camargo or Jose Ramirez — to second base, a Camargo trade to the Indians would also make sense, and the talented infielder could be one of the key pieces if the Braves want to try to trade for either Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco, the two Cleveland starters who have been rumored to be available this offseason.
Ultimately, it’s not going to hurt the Braves if they bring Camargo to spring training as a bench player. In all likelihood, it’ll be a good thing. But with a third baseman not named Camargo entrenched in the starting role for 2019 and another third baseman not named Camargo seemingly having the “third baseman of the future” role locked down, they might as well see what kind of return they could potentially get for him as they attempt to build the strongest possible roster for 2019 and beyond.