With the 2021 Atlanta Braves season about 30% of the way through, it’s no secret across baseball that 2021 has brought an unprecedented number of injuries across MLB. Of the 30 teams, according to FanGraphs Injury Report, there are 15 teams with eight or more players injured and nine teams with ten or more players injured. Fortunately, the 2021 Atlanta Braves are part of the 15 teams with less than eight players injured, rounding out their MLB injury total at seven. Still, the Brave have lost some key pieces that will cause some new position players to have to step up.
2021 Atlanta Braves: The Position Player Injuries
Keeping up with this year’s injuries can seem like a full-time in itself, so let’s take a quick review of who the Braves are missing right now:
Cristian Pache began the season with a ton of hype being the number one prospect according to many publications in the Braves farm system, known especially for his elite-level defense. However, in 22 games Pache posted a -3 wRC+ and -0.7 fWAR while striking out 36.8% of the time. It’s much more likely once he returns he will join fellow outfield prospect Drew Waters in Gwinnett to figure some things out before returning to the big league club in Atlanta.
Alex Jackson started the year posed to be Travis d’Arnaud’s backup (another player we will discuss), but Jackson was placed on the IL the same day as d’Arnaud, dashing any hope Jackson had of being a temporary starter for the 2021 Atlanta Braves. While neither of these injuries are good, this unique dilemma did afford William Contreras the opportunity to be called up earlier than expected. It is also worth noting that since starting his rehab assignment in Gwinnett, Jackson has hit four home runs in five games (three in one game) and batting .333 with a 285 wRC+.
As previously mentioned, Travis d’Arnaud went down the same as Alex Jackson, but his injury proved to be much more costly as he tore a “thumb ligament which will require surgery”. Losing d’Arnaud was the first loss of a key piece, other than Soroka who was injured in 2020, for the 2021 Atlanta Braves. d’Arnaud was a key cog in the 2020 Braves offense as one of the four players to win a Silver Slugger for the team. While this loss has been costly, William Contreras has softened the blow by performing at a high level both at the plate and behind it.
The Marcell Ozuna injury has so far been the worst of losses for the Braves. While he hasn’t performed at the 179 wRC+ clip he posted in 2020, the Braves committed $65M to Ozuna over four years this past offseason. After playing in 48 games this season, on May 25th during the Red Sox series, Ozuna fractured two fingers sliding into third base. And by now I’m sure you are aware that Ozuna was arrested on 5/29 on domestic violence charges. His future with the Atlanta Braves is currently unknown.
2021 Atlanta Braves: The New Guys
Ehire Adrianza signed a minor league deal with the 2021 Atlanta Braves at the end of January and quickly impressed everybody at Spring Training. In 40 at-bats, Adrianza recorded 16 hits with eight being for extra bases, walked seven times, and finished with an OPS of 1.200.
Adrianza started the season well enough, being used mostly as a bench bat and utility man on off-days for the starting position players. In the month of April, he posted a .836 OPS through 42 plate appearances on an unlucky .266 BABIP for an above-average 113 wRC+.
The month of May has been much less kind to Ehire. Over 41 plate appearances, he has .552 OPS with a .259 BABIP for a dreadful 52 wRC+. With that Adrianza accrued a -0.2 fWAR, undoing his April progress for a net -0.1 fWAR on the season. Adrianza is posed to be the starting left fielder for the foreseeable future, and the Braves will need him to get out of this slump if they still have dreams of a fourth division title in a row.
Pablo Sandoval also had an eye-popping Spring Training. Being six years removed from the last season he posted an fWAR of 1.0, and four of those seasons being a negative fWAR season, the Kung Fu Panda seems like he may have found a little more secret sauce from his past. This past Spring Training, Sandoval logged 40 at-bats and recorded 16 hits, batting .400 with a .910 OPS.
Unlike Adrianza, Sandoval has only improved off of his Spring Training performance, So far this season he has logged 54 plate appearances with seven walks, 12 hits, and four home runs. His .308 BABIP is certainly a help to him, but a .892 OPS for a 145 wRC+ over what is mostly pinch-hit appearances is nothing to scoff at, especially with a 0.4 fWAR to show for it. With the loss of three outfielders, Austin Riley’s ability to play the corner outfield spots could create an opportunity for Panda to get starts at third base should the need arise. For now, his pinch-hit skills are still incredibly valuable now that the NL is back to having pitchers hit.
Before the start of Spring Training, the Braves claimed Guillermo Heredia off waivers from the Mets. After five seasons performing at the level of a replacement-level player, Heredia has finally figured something out. Since Cristian Pache being injured, Heredia has been the de facto center fielder for the Braves, and he has made the most of his opportunity.
Heredia is already having himself a career-best season, logging 86 plate appearances with a slashline of .293/.384/.520 for a 143 wRC+, and with solid center field defense, he already has 0.8 fWAR. The highest fWAR in any of Heredia’s previous five seasons is just 0.3, so he’s currently on pace to blow his past seasons out of the water.
Heredia’s current BABIP of .408 means he is getting very lucky and is most likely in for some regression at the plate, but if he can even be a shadow of his current self at the plate, the Braves will benefit greatly in a season where outfielders and players, in general, are going down left and right.
William Contreras to start the season was mostly just known as the little brother of two-time All-Star and World Series Champion, Willson Contreras, but it didn’t take long for the baseball world to realize that William is not just some little brother.
The original plan was for Contreras to spend this season at Triple-A Gwinnett in order to play every day and continue to develop. But with d’Arnaud and Jackson going down, Contreras was thrust into the starting role behind the plate. At just 23 years old, having to handle major league pitching plus manage a big-league rotation is a lot to put on the plate of a guy who was sup[posed to be in Triple-A all year, but Contreras has risen to the occasion.
In 74 plate appearances, Contreras is batting .222/.324/.508 for a wRC+ of 125 and is also posting a net positive defensive rating (if you believe in those metrics). All things considered, Contreras is performing at an even higher level than those who were very high on him believed he could do this early into his MLB tenure. Plus, his confidence and knowledge behind the plate is more mature than the Braves could have hoped. The Braves veteran pitchers have spoken highly of him, and when catching guys from his MiLB days such as Huascar Ynoa or Tucker Davidson, it’s easy to see that he brings a level of comfort to a starting pitcher that young catchers do not typically display.
Contreras is poised to be the Braves catcher for years to come, and with d’Arnaud on the last year of his deal, William is very likely here to stay in Atlanta.
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