The last free agent domino finally fell Tuesday, after teetering for about four months. The long wait made it all the more surprising that Yasiel Puig ultimately landed with the Braves, a team that was never closely linked to him. We heard all about the Giants and Rockies. More recently, we heard about the Orioles. But the Braves? Seemed like their lineup was already well in hand.
And honestly, my biggest hesitation when drafting the unattached Puig these past few months was the possibility he'd sign with a contender that didn't really need him, making him nothing more than high-profile depth. It's not so much a concern here, though, because while the Braves seemed settled in left field with Adam Duvall (allowing the defensively challenged Marcell Ozuna to man DH), Puig represents a stabler alternative and what most would consider an upgrade. It's certainly true in a Fantasy Baseball sense, if only because Puig is good for some stolen bases and Duvall isn't.
Besides, the only reason Duvall was positioned to play so much left field is because the Braves' depth was already stretched. He was kind of the last line of defense in what started out as considerable excess. First came the addition of the DH spot. Then came Nick Markakis' decision to opt out. Then came Freddie Freeman's positive COVID-19 test. The Braves know as well as any team how quickly depth can evaporate in a pandemic. To say they were set with Duvall in left field was to presume everything else would go right.
But what about when Freeman returns? What if nothing else goes wrong between now and then? Wouldn't it mean someone other than Duvall is out of the lineup? And couldn't that someone be Austin Riley? He's the one expected to fill in for Freeman at first base, after all.
Ah, Riley ... the suspicious sophomore with the 70-grade power bat. One silver lining for the Braves' recent string of misfortune is that it seemingly assured him consistent playing time, shifting to left field or third base once his time at first base was through. Now, when Freeman returns, Riley is basically back where he was at the start of spring training: Competing with Johan Camargo for time at third base.
There is one key difference, though: The Braves don't have to make that decision ahead of time. Provided Freeman misses some time, Riley will have a chance, in regular season play, to prove he's closer to the guy who hit nine home runs in his first 18 games last year than the one who hit .192 in his final 62. He'll have a chance to show that the work he did with hitting coach Kevin Seitzer this offseason to lay off breaking balls and cut down on strikeouts has indeed paid off. And if he doesn't, well, chances are he wasn't going to emerge a Fantasy asset this year anyway.
But at least now we'll know. The Braves don't have to commit. They can just let it play out. And if Riley is showing all the right signs in those early days at first base, then Camargo won't be too much of an obstacle for him at third base. (And I suspect a tie would go to Riley. As a 23-year-old with a top prospect pedigree, he deserves that benefit of the doubt.)
So this signing, then, doesn't take an opportunity away from a potential sleeper (unless that sleeper is Duvall). It doesn't do anything that should in any way upset Fantasy Baseballers. What it does do is ensure the last big free agent an everyday job in a deep lineup, which should be roundly celebrated. Inserting Puig back into the draft pool adds another power-speed threat at a critical stage of the draft and another steady contributor at a point when they're beginning to dwindle.
Of course, it's worth mentioning given the hazy health picture across the league that Puig must pass his physical before this deal is complete. It's not the foregone conclusion it might otherwise be, so stay tuned.