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Is now the time to trade Ender Inciarte?

I would like to preface two factors into this article. First, I am a fan of Ender Inciarte as a person. Despite being a frequent antagonist of Braves Twitter due to a weekly block party Atlanta has not seen since Dikembe Mutombo, Inciarte seems to be a wonderful person and teammate. Few athletes have shown more support for their team and teammates than he has.

Second, I believe Ender Inciarte is a true asset as a player. His defense has yielded three straight Gold Gloves. While the validity of fielding statistics may be questioned, Inciarte’s high rankings in his three years as a Brave proves he is an elite fielder.

Furthermore, he has shown he puts the team first. He was a complete professional in the handling of the Adam Duvall acquisition. He made it clear he was for whatever made the team better, and responded through better offensive play on his end.

It seems to be a pretty unanimous opinion that Inciarte clearly adds value as an everyday center fielder. Furthermore, his team friendly contract through 2021 (with a 2022 team option) means he will remain a controllable asset for the foreseeable future. Obviously, the question is not whether he is valuable; the question is whether he is a critical piece to the Braves’ future as a trade chip or a starting center fielder

The beauty of debating this question is that there is not a wrong answer. The chances are quite high Inciarte provides good value over his contract. However, if the Braves can use Inciarte’s present value to get a different cost-controlled asset in a bigger area of need, it makes sense to strike now. There are three important factors that can help determine which preference makes more sense for the Braves.

INCIARTE’S FUTURE VALUE

Inciarte will be 28 in 2019, which means he’s still on the right side of 30. In his three seasons as a Brave, his wRC+ has been 96. The range of individual season measures has been between 90 and 98 over that time frame. In other words, Inciarte is about as consistent on offense as one can be.

While the consistency is great, the level of offense defines Inciarte’s likely offensive ceiling as league average. This past year, Inciarte became more patient at the plate while applying more effort with his swing. As a result, he had the highest FB%, LD%, Pull%, and Hard% measures of his career.

He made the hardest contact of his career, and a .293 BABIP for 2018 compared to a .321 career mark proves he was a bit unlucky, if only relative to how lucky he previously was on balls in play. As a result, if Inciarte applies his 2018 approach, which seems keyed into hitting more pulled fly balls with his usual luck in 2019, he could experience more positive results.

Despite the absence of his usual levels of luck, different offensive approaches have yielded similar results. While his value as a player will likely remain consistent, the added value of his team friendly contract will only diminish over time as he loses years of control. This supports the logic now could be the right time to trade him in the right deal.

INCIARTE’S TRADE VALUE

If you go to Inciarte’s profile at Baseball-Reference, you can see a similar player highlighted based on career numbers: Adam Eaton. In the winter of 2016, Eaton was traded to the Washington Nationals in a trade that included two top 100 pitching prospects. When comparing Eaton then to Inciarte now, it could be argued Inciarte is likely at 60%-70% of the value of Eaton.

Inciarte has one less year of potential control, and while he is a better defender, has shown a lower offensive ceiling and produced a career OPS+ measure of 95 versus Eaton’s 115. The other difference is that Eaton was the difference-maker being traded for, while Ender will presumably be in the package to acquire a different difference-maker for the Braves.

Based off that comparison, you can formulate an idea of Inciarte’s trade value. And that value is not limited to just contenders. Inciarte’s contract means he has value to nearly any team in the majors. Add to the fact that he plays elite CF defense, and he reasonably fills a big need for most teams into the foreseeable future. This includes several teams that the Braves matchup well with in potential trades.

As a result, including Inciarte in a package to acquire a cost controlled frontline starter or to fill multiple needs for the Braves makes logical sense. Just as importantly, it substantially lowers the prospect cost the Braves would have to surrender. Those prospects can then be used to acquire a player to fill another need.

INCIARTE’S ROSTER IMPACT

In my opinion, the Braves roster needs with Inciarte, in terms of importance, are simple:

  • Frontline Starter
  • OF Starter
  • Bullpen
  • Catcher
  • Bench

In comparison, assuming Inciarte is traded for a frontline starter or to upgrade the outfield, the remaining needs are:

  • Outfield
  • Bullpen
  • Catcher
  • Bench

Inciarte should only be traded for a cost controlled frontline starter or getting multiple cost-controlled upgrades elsewhere. The Braves know they are a playoff contender with Inciarte. However, if they can upgrade the rotation or lineup by using him in a trade, they could easily become true pennant contenders for years to come.

The strength of the Braves’ roster is their defense. They had three Gold Glove winners, and were top 10 as a team in several defensive metrics. Their defensive success was a significant reason they won the division and got to the playoffs. However, recent history could suggest that offense and pitching make the difference once you get to the playoffs.

I researched the OFF, DEF, and Pitching WAR team rankings for each LCS participant over the past ten years at Fangraphs leaderboard page. I did this to see how important it was for a team to have each measure as a strength to advance in the playoffs. Of the 40 participants over that time frame, 82.5% were Top 10 in the league in OFF for that specific season, 62.5% were Top 10 in Pitching WAR, and 42.5% were in the Top 10 in DEF. This shows that while all three aspects are needed to get to the playoffs, offense and pitching arguably carry a bit more value to advance.

The Braves finished 19th in OFF, 6th in DEF, and 15th in pitching war in 2018. As a result, if the Braves can improve their offense or pitching by trading a defensive first player in Inciarte, it could make a difference in the postseason. Adding to this logic is the fact they have a suitable replacement in Ronald Acuña Jr. to take over in center. Furthermore, a true difference maker that the Braves could afford for multiple years in their budget is more likely to be found via trade than free agency. As a result, if Inciarte can be the needed piece to land such a player, the Braves could then replace his value through free agency or using prospects in trades. Atlanta could even try some familiar faces, such as Johan Camargo and Austin Riley, after an eventful Monday.

Overall, these three perspectives pinpoint the approach I feel the Braves should take with Ender. If they keep him, they have a critical need filled for years as postseason contenders. However, if they trade him for an ace or multiple roster upgrades, they make a move that can truly make them title contenders.

The Adam Duvall trade gives us a hint into the Braves’ mindset. The significance is not in Duvall, but in the purpose of the move itself. Alex Anthopoulous felt platooning Ender in his first half season as the Braves GM was the right move. The reason being is that Anthopoulos seems to think Ender’s value is replaceable. As Anthopoulos explained at the trade deadline, the Braves’ desire in acquiring Duvall was to upgrade the offense without sacrificing much defense. If the Braves can identify a target they feel confident will do that going forward, Inciarte becomes expendable to acquire that piece or another roster upgrade.

Atlanta’s surprise success last year makes the future bright. Not only does it reveal how much talent the Braves have, it sheds light on what the Braves need. Alex Anthopoulos has shown that he values the quality of the Braves farm system through his creativity in acquiring assets last year. As a result, it seems Ender Inciarte’s future value with the Braves is more based on what he can bring them through the trade market than on the field.

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