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Martin Prado, The Braves And The Future

The Braves are four games back of the Nationals in the loss column in the NL East and four games up on a wild-card spot, so they’re right in the thick of the playoff hunt. They’ve survived some terrible pitching performances and injuries thanks to one of the game’s most productive outfields — a unit that ranks third in baseball with 10.5 WAR. Michael Bourn (4.2 WAR), Martin Prado (3.7 WAR) and Jason Heyward (3.5 WAR) all rank among the 15-most-valuable players — and among the eight most-valuable outfielders — so far this season.

Bourn will be a free agent after this season and Heyward is under team control through 2015, so those two are on the opposite ends of the contract spectrum. Prado, 28, is kind of in the middle. He’ll be arbitration-eligible for the third time next season before becoming a free agent 15 months from now. Atlanta is going to try to prevent that from happening…

Chipper Jones has already announced his intention to retire after this season and with all due respect to Juan Francisco, Prado is the obvious long-term replacement at the hot corner. He’s started 141 games (184 appearances overall) at third base over the past seven seasons and the defensive metrics rate his glovework anywhere from average (+2.0 UZR) to well-above (+21 DRS) in the 1,300-plus-inning sample. Fans seem to approve of his defense overall, as well.

Prado had the worst offensive season of his career in 2011 (85 wRC+) thanks in large part to an abnormally low BABIP (.266) and walk rate (5.8%). He went into that season with a 116 wRC+, a .336 BABIP and a 6.9% walk rate in just more than 1,500 career plate appearances. This year he owns a 129 wRC+ with a .339 BABIP and an 8.6% walk rate. This looks like a guy who rebounded from an off-year and has taken a step forward in his prime years.

Finding players comparable to Prado is tough because he’s moved around so much. He’s played at least 170 games and 1,300 innings at three different positions (second, third and left) with another couple hundred innings at other positions. The Braves will play him at third base long-term but all of his career accomplishments are scattered around the field. Here’s what I can dig up as far as similar players who signed multi-year contracts when they were still a year or so away from free agency:

Career WAR Platform Year WAR Years Dollars Options
Alex Gordon 11.9 6.9 4 $50M Player option, $12.5M
Erick Aybar 10.0 4.0 4 $35M None
Rickie Weeks 14.9 6.5 4 $38.5M Vesting option, $11.5M
Dan Uggla 19.5 4.9 5 $62M None
Jose Bautista 8.1 6.8 5 $64M Club option, $14M
Kevin Youkilis 14.4 5.9 4 $41.25M Club option, $14M
Prado 10.0+ 3.7+ ? ? ?

I think we can throw Bautista right out of the mix because of the uniqueness of his breakout. Uggla’s not a great fit either because he hits all those shiny homers that pay so well. The other four guys average out to roughly $41 million across four years, with a 5.8 platform-year WAR and 12.8 career WAR. Prado is likely to finish the season with production right around those two numbers, and he’s earning $4.75 million this year. A jump into the $10 million average annual salary range through arbitration next year and free agency after that certainly seems reasonable. Frankly, it’s probably selling him short a bit.

A contract along those lines — four years, $41 million with a possible option — would be a pretty sweet deal for the Braves. They’d be paying their third baseman like a two-win player — a level Prado has far exceeded in three of the past four years. Even if Prado settles in as an average or slightly-below-average defensive third baseman, he’ll still provide that much value with the bat. His camp should really push for Gordon’s deal, and I can’t imagine the Braves would consider that a dealbreaker. With Chipper heading out the door and Bourn potentially on the way out, Atlanta should make locking up the versatile Prado a priority because he’s about to hit his peak and his flexibility is nearly impossible to match.