After returning to the top of the NL East for the first time since their remarkable string of division titles ended in 2006, can the Braves defend their crown in 2014?
- B.J. Upton, OF: $59.8MM through 2017
- Justin Upton, OF: $28.75MM through 2015
- Dan Uggla, 2B: $26MM through 2015
- Gerald Laird, C: $1.5MM through 2014
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses)
- Craig Kimbrel, RP (3.066): $7.25MM projected salary
- Kris Medlen, SP (4.137): $5.9MM
- Freddie Freeman, 1B (3.033): $4.9MM
- Jason Heyward, OF (4.000): $4.5MM
- Chris Johnson, 3B (3.144): $4.2MM
- Mike Minor, SP (2.138): $3.5MM
- Jonny Venters, RP (4.000): $2.3MM
- Jordan Walden, RP (3.043): $1.5MM
- Jordan Schafer, OF (3.121): $1MM
- Elliot Johnson, IF/OF (3.028): $900k
- Brandon Beachy, SP (3.014): $900k
- Cristhian Martinez, RP (3.158): $800k
- Paul Janish, IF (4.145): $725k
- Ramiro Pena, IF (3.089): $600k
- Reed Johnson, OF: $1.6MM club option ($150k buyout)
- Luis Ayala, Scott Downs, Freddy Garcia, Tim Hudson, Kameron Loe, Paul Maholm, Brian McCann, Eric O'Flaherty
Boosting the Braves' hopes to repeat in 2014 — and, perhaps, enjoy a lengthier post-season experience — is quite an impressive slate of arbitration-eligible players. Of course, none of the club's outstanding, homegrown youngsters has yet to be locked up beyond the standard six years of control. Getting a conversation going with some of those talents could well stand high among Atlanta GM Frank Wren's winter priorities, though the Braves have failed to hand a new deal to any of their own players with less than five years of service time in Wren's six seasons at the helm. (Sifting through the many extension candidates, MLBTR's readers voted in favor of long-term deals for Kimbrel, Freeman, Minor, and Julio Teheran).
As things stand, tendering contracts to all eligible players is projected to cost north of $35MM for 2014. And only Venters is a non-tender candidate among the players projected to be worth over $1MM. For a team whose opening day payroll has tended to land right around $90MM over the last several seasons, that represents a lot of cash. Though the team is committed to just four players (and one minimal buyout) for next season, that tacks on just over $42MM more. Filling out the rest of the roster with league minimum contracts could push the tab into the $80MM range. Unless the club is able to clear salary through trade or expand its budget, then, there will be relatively little excess available in the coming off-season.
Fortunately for the Braves, while Wren has a less-than-perfect track record on big dollar contracts, his front office has proven adept at extracting value from "free-talent" players. Among them, Jordan Schafer, Anthony Varvaro, and David Carpenter combined to add over 2 WAR last year, and figure to challenge for important bench and pen roles in 2014. And ESPN's Keith Law notes (Insider link) that more such players are in the pipeline, explaining that bargain bin pickups Juan Jaime, James Hoyt, and Ian Thomas could all appear soon in the Atlanta pen or (in the case of Thomas) even the rotation.
That group of players (Schafer excepted, of course) could have a major role in filling out the Atlanta bullpen next season. Kimbrel, Walden, and Luis Avilan seem sure bets to hold down their spots, while Varvaro and Carpenter should have every opportunity to do the same. Otherwise, last year's league-best pen (by ERA and FIP) is in flux, though that doesn't mean it lacks options. David Hale or Alex Wood could work in relief if they fail to earn a starting role (or remain stretched out in Triple-A). The club could bring back the excellent-but-injured Venters or O'Flaherty on a cheap deal. Or the above-noted free talent, perhaps joined by a new waiver wire claim or two, could battle with the club's other minor league pitching (such as Shae Simmons) to round out the corps. In any event, a substantial free agent guarantee seems relatively unlikely.
Likewise, as MLBTR's Steve Adams explained in his profile of Hudson, the rotation could be made up solely from in-house options. Minor, Teheran, and Medlen are all locks for a spot, and Beachy probably would be if his health were not at issue. As just noted, Wood and Hale could compete to start, and top prospects J.R. Graham and Sean Gilmartin could be ready to contribute in 2014. Beachy will presumably join the party at some point, depending upon his rehab progress.
On the other hand, with veterans Hudson and Maholm hitting free agency, Wren has indicated that he is interested in adding some experience to the rotation. After all, the club considered making a move for Jake Peavy at the trade deadline and claimed Kyle Lohse off of revocable waivers, meaning that the organization was willing to take on significant future salary for a veteran arm. Looking ahead, a reunion with Hudson remains a distinct possibility, particularly since his ankle injury could limit his market. Maholm seems less likely to be brought back, while Freddy Garcia could return as a long man in the pen or as minor league starting depth. Another veteran such as Bronson Arroyo could also be a possibility, but given the options on hand, it seems unlikely that the Braves will stretch the budget for multiple years of such a low-upside option. While many fans have called for the team to add a pitcher at the top of the rotation — with David Price, Max Scherzer, Homer Bailey, and Chris Sale among the hypothetical possibiilities — it seems unlikely that the Braves could pull off such a deal without giving up arms that are already in the bigs. And that would probably be an inefficient tradeoff given the team's budget constraints.
The Braves' everyday lineup has some question marks in terms of outlook, but relatively few of composition. Feel free to use your pen in filling out an Opening Day lineup card at first (Freeman), short (Simmons), and the corner outfield (J. Upton, Heyward). Likewise, third (Johnson), catcher (Evan Gattis, Christian Bethancourt, Laird), and center (B. Upton, Schafer) are highly likely to be filled from within. Though none of these options is a sure thing, they have probably each either done enough in 2013 or (in the case of the elder Upton) received too great a commitment to warrant an upgrade at this point.
Of course, the preceding paragraph assumes that incumbent backstop McCann will depart via free agency. There remains some slight possibility that he finds his way back to the only organization he has ever known. But if McCann commands the $80MM commitment that MLBTR's TIm Dierkes predicts, there is virtually no chance that Atlanta can come close enough to convince him to return.
That leaves second base, which is the most glaring weakness on the Atlanta roster and perhaps the single position most likely to be acted upon aggressively. Uggla was expected to to hold things down well enough on the back end of his large contract, but he declined precipitously last year, especially after undergoing Lasik surgery mid-season. If any other team is willing to eat a substantial portion of the $26MM still owed to Uggla, Wren would have to consider pulling the trigger.
But it isn't as if the organization has an obvious replacement on hand. It would be tough for a contender to hand the full-time job to Tyler Pastornicky, Johnson, or Pena, though they might combine in a platoon. Increasingly, it seems, 24-year-old Tommy La Stella could have a legitimate shot at taking the reigns after a strong showing in Double-A and big start to his AFL campaign. But MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo lists him just 14th among Braves prospects, calling him a "grinder" rather than a budding star. Likewise, in a recent evaluation, ESPN's Keith Law said (paywall) that La Stella flashed only one plus tool (hit) that left him with a relatively low ceiling.
Looking outside of the organization, the free agent pickings are slim after Robinson Cano and Omar Infante. While Infante might be of interest, he will likely be too rich for Atlanta. Otherwise, the Braves would likely be looking at some well-traveled players, with Kelly Johnson and Mark Ellis (assuming the Dodgers decline his option) among the most attractive options. (There is some history behind a couple of these options: Infante was dealt from Atlanta to pick up Uggla, while Johnson was once non-tendered by the club in 2009.)
While the rumor of Atlanta's interest in acquiring Brandon Phillips in exchange for Uggla and a prospect could make sense from the home team's perspective, it is far from clear that the feeling would be shared in Cincinnati. Howie Kendrick of the Angels might be a target, as he is only owed $18.85MM over the next two seasons, and the Braves could stand to part with some of the young pitching desired in Anaheim. Otherwise, a series of lesser keystone possibilities might be had via trade.
On the bench, with more attractive middle infield options likely available (see above), Janish's time may be up. Likewise, a poor 2012 and cheap buyout make Reed Johnson seem a decent bet to leave town, especially since the club has several other players capable of manning center. A more substantial catching role would take Gattis out of the reserve outfield mix, leaving room for an addition. Of course, Atlanta has some other internal bench hopefuls like Joey Terdoslavich, and will no doubt be loath to spend much for part-time contributors.
Some teams are fun to watch in the offseason because they spend big; others, because their constraints make every move a complicated, seemingly momentous endeavor. At least assuming the club maintains its payroll at approximately the same level, the Braves seem clearly to fall in the latter category this year. Strong seasons from several prominent younger players have increased payroll pressure via arbitration, while disappointments from some of the team's few major commitments have reduced the possibility of shedding salary. And the clock is ticking on locking up some of the Braves' top-end young talent before free agency beckons. While Atlanta will undoubtedly return a very good team regardless, it will be fascinating to see how Wren maneuvers to set the club up for the future and fill its few areas of immediate need.