When the Atlanta Braves made the call to option Ian Anderson and Bryce Elder to AAA, the reactions were on the order of Star Trek’s Spock finding something “fascinating”.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Spring stats are often phantom numbers. While they may suggest trends for the regular season, they aren’t 1:1 ratio predictors of the future. Clearly.
As nice as this might be, Matt Olson, for instance, isn’t terribly likely to hit .438 with a 1.548 OPS for the year.
That said, there is the idea out there that some players do have their internal switches flipped to the “on” position occasionally.
Such was the case with 25-year-old Braden Shewmake. He’s seemingly been sliding down the prospect rankings ever since being drafted as a 1st rounder in 2019. In fact, it seemed that he’d hit a wall once arriving at the AA level, slipping from a perennial .300 hitter to something in the low-to-mid .200’s since.
That does happen. Not everybody makes it to the bigs, of course, and new levels are big tests for players.
This Spring, though, saw Shewmake – with a reported extra 15 lbs. added to his 6-4/190 frame – suddenly announce his presence with authority: 10 hits over 35 PA (.323) with a .452 slug rate. He hadn’t done anything like that since Texas A&M and A-ball.
Likewise, the 22-year-old Grissom – who I expected would soon join the Braves track meet this Spring – recovered well from his September swoon in 2022 when pitchers started throwing him lots of sinkers (.125 after Sept. 8th) and sliders (.191).
Against decent competition (i.e., the earlier innings of games) this Spring, Grissom has hit .371 with 13 hits in 40 PA. It’s mostly been singles (2 doubles), but on the surface, that should have been enough to win the shortstop job.
Until it wasn’t.
It’s Definitely Not About the Bats
For his part, Orlando Arcia has hit .240 over 30 PA (6 hits – one of them a homer). Baseball reference.com rates his competition level better than that of Grissom (7.4 vs. 6.9) but less than that seen by Shewmake (7.6).
But for Arcia, the 28-year-old is more of a known quantity: in 7 major league seasons, he’s been called upon as a full-time starter relatively infrequently, reaching 150+ games played only twice (2017, 2019… though 2020’s 59 games technically constituted ‘the entire season’).
Since then, neither Milwaukee nor Atlanta thought enough of him to get more than 240 PA. He’s a .243 career hitter with a .295 OBP and modest slugging. His OPS+ stands at a lackluster 75.
Heck, even frugal Milwaukee (Arcia was making just $2 million at the time) dumped him in a trade with Atlanta and then proceeded to wrest Willie Adames from Tampa Bay… costing them a lot more.
So is Arcia a defensive wiz that justifies leaving some offense on the table? Not really. While that might have been the case in 2017-18 (11 total defensive runs saved), the years since have seen a notable dropoff at the shortstop position (-6 DRS starting in 2019). As it happens, he’s only been used at short for a total of 36 MLB innings since the beginning of the 2021 season.
Grissom has played the position a lot, but almost exclusively in the minors. At second base, his 347 innings in 2022 was good for a -3 DRS score and the numbers are generally below average all the way across. But that’s why he worked hard over the Winter.
The rumored knock on Grissom at short involves his range, but if that were a big factor, then that’s where Shewmake appears to shine more brightly. So if it’s defensive skills that you crave, Shewmake likely ranks highest… yet he’s not getting the nod either.
Ah, but can you trust Shewmake’s new-found hitting skills? Well, I can understand it if you don’t, but there’s still every reason to believe he’d out-hit Arcia… it’s frankly a low bar to leap.
There’s also reasons to value defensive over offense at the shortstop position: that and the 2nd base positions require the busiest gloves for batted balls.
So Why Would the Braves do This?
But here’s the question: if the Atlanta Braves trusted Grissom enough to bring him up to man 2nd base last year – especially after his successful internship program with Ron Washington during the Winter – then why would you choose the oft-rejected Arcia to start 2023?
Moreover, why also (apparently) select the 33-year-old Ehire Adrianza as the backup infielder for the bench? Shouldn’t the Braves keep at least one of the kids around?
It isn’t about money: neither Arcia nor Adrianza is making enough to demand their continued presence on the roster.
It’s not completely about options, either: Adrianza is on a minor league deal, though such contracts often have some sort of ‘escape clause’ allowing a player to become a free agent should they fail to make the team by the end of March if there’s a major league gig available elsewhere.
The culprit appears to be a procedural decision as much anything else. The Braves are not deep in the middle infield positions at all (to that extent, the re-discovery of Shewmake this Spring has likely been a very welcomed surprise). That wasn’t a big problem whilst Dansby Swanson was playing 160+ games a year; but after his departure, depth is now a ‘thing’.
Ultimately, Atlanta is fearing the loss of depth more than the loss of performance. Should Arcia and Adrianza fail to make the opening day roster, the Braves could lose them both. Arcia could refuse an assignment to the minors (he has more than 5 years of service time) and an escape clause (if present) would allow Adrianza to leave.
Grissom and Shewmake have no such restrictions on their placement. Meanwhile, they will probably continue to wage a silent battle for the right to be The Next Guy Up… whenever the Braves inevitably decide they can’t wait any longer.
Will either of these kids get to the majors this year? Almost certainly so… but there’s a bigger question: how many games will the Braves give up before that happens simply because an inferior offensive performer is being used when multiple better options are just 28 miles away?
Hopefully things don’t pan out in that manner… and hopefully there’s enough offense coming from the rest of the lineup to overcome the 9-spot in the order.
Or maybe Alex Anthopoulos is still lurking about for a different solution that materializes during next week’s roster finalizations.
Stay tuned… but keep your reaction meter at the ready.