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ATLANTA — Third baseman Pablo Sandoval has signed a minor league contract with the Atlanta Braves.

Sandoval would receive a $1 million, one-year contract if he is added to the team’s 40-man roster under a deal the Braves confirmed Monday.

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Sandoval, 34, hit .214 in 84 at-bats with the Braves and San Francisco Giants in 2020. He had no hits in two at-bats with Atlanta but was kept on the team’s postseason roster, and he had no hits in four plate appearances.

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Sandoval, whose nickname is Kung Fu Panda, will try to prove he can return to the form he showed in 2019, when he hit .268 with 14 homers with the Giants. The 2012 World Series MVP with San Francisco signed with the Braves late last season following his release by the Giants on Sept. 10, ending his second stint with the team.

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Austin Riley will enter spring training as the favorite to start at third base for the Braves. Riley also is an option in left field.

The switch-hitting Sandoval has a career .279 batting average with 149 home runs in 13 seasons with the Giants, Boston and Atlanta. He hit .330 with 25 homers and 90 RBIs for San Francisco in 2009, his second season.

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It’s no secret… third base was a weakness for the Braves last season. With Austin Riley as the primary starter there (45 starts at 3B), followed by Johan Camargo (10 starts) and a one-time appearance at the end of the year from Pablo Sandoval, Atlanta collectively managed -0.5 fWAR from their third base group — the lowest total in the majors. No one stood out, and the position suffered, evident by the group’s .228 AVG overall to end the 2020 season.

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As of right now, nothing appears to be changing anytime soon. Sandoval will most likely latch on somewhere eventually or retire as his services are no longer needed in Atlanta; Camargo still sits on the Braves 40-man; and thus far, Riley remains the team’s projected starter for the 2021 season. Is that really the best the Braves can do? Well, of course not.

In 131 total games over the last two seasons, Riley has been worth exactly 0.1 WAR for the Braves. Of course, that’s still a rather small sample size, and at 23-years-old there’s plenty of time for Riley to figure things out. But so far, in 503 PA, the kid has hit just .232 and tallied an 87 wRC+ as a big-league player. Objectively speaking, Riley is a below-average major league hitter… and in 2020, he was even worse than that.

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Although with the bullpen strong and coming off a 2020 campaign in which it was one of the best in the majors, and the starting rotation looking much more formidable than just 2-3 months ago (with the additions of Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly), it seems unnecessary to just blindly trust Riley as Atlanta’s everyday third baseman in 2021.

Another option?
As of right now, the FA market’s third base position group has mostly been left untouched. Justin Turner, Eric Sogard, Todd Frazier, and Marwin Gonzalez are just a few available names that currently stick out, and each of those four players could make for solid competition at third base this spring. Then there are the lower-tiered options such as Brock Holt, Maikel Franco, Jake Lamb, and Zack Cozart, who are also still unsigned — players that, sort of like what Camargo was originally set to do in 2020, could share time with Riley at the hot corner or provide the Braves with a solid bench bat.

All-in-all, thanks to a prolific offense, a stingy bullpen, and a pieced-together starting rotation, the Braves were able to overcome their glaring weakness at third base and still win the NL East title. But just because the 2020 campaign concluded with a third-straight division championship and an NLCS appearance doesn’t mean obvious holes shouldn’t be filled. Riley should get his hacks in 2021 and continue his development as a big-league player, but there’s also plenty of available talent if Atlanta decides to go in a different direction.

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