Last year’s offseason was dedicated in large part to the future, with a series of extensions and key financial moves, but the Braves were well-stocked with talent at the major league level and looked promising to start the 2014 season. After weathering significant pitching injuries early on, however, Atlanta faded badly down the stretch and is now staring at front office changes, a tight budget, difficult decisions, and rising competition in the division.
- Freddie Freeman, 1B: $127MM through 2021
- Andrelton Simmons, SS: $56MM through 2020
- B.J. Upton, OF: $46.35MM through 2017
- Craig Kimbrel, RP: $34MM through 2017 (including buyout of 2018 option)
- Julio Teheran, SP: $30.6MM through 2019 (including buyout of 2020 option)
- Chris Johnson, 3B: $23.5MM through 2017 (including buyout of 2018 option)
- Justin Upton, OF: $14.5MM through 2015
- Jason Heyward, OF: $8.3MM through 2015
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- Kris Medlen, SP (5.137): $5.8MM projected salary
- Jonny Venters, RP (5.000): $1.63MM
- James Russell, RP (5.000): $2.4MM
- Ramiro Pena, UT (4.089): $900K
- Jordan Walden, RP (4.043): $3.0MM
- Brandon Beachy, SP (4.014):$1.45MM
- Mike Minor, SP (3.138): $5.1MM
- David Carpenter, RP (3.016): $1.1MM
- Non-tender candidates: Venters
- Dan Uggla: $13.2MM
Every organization responds differently when it feels that change is needed, and for the Braves, the sense seems to be that a restoration is in order. John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox are still the most powerful figures in the organization, and Frank Wren’s departure will apparently not be met with a broad search for fresh blood in the GM seat. Interim GM John Hart was offered the post full-time, but it still remains unclear whether that is in the cards. Otherwise, the Braves will seemingly look first (and possibly only) at familiar faces such as assistant GM John Coppolella and former assistant GM (and current Royals GM) Dayton Moore. (Recently-resigned Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd, Hart’s former AGM with the Indians, has also been mentioned as a possibility, though MLB.com’s Mark Bowman tweets that he does not see O’Dowd as a candidate.) The organization has already set out to get the band back together in the scouting arena, bringing back figures such as Roy Clark and Dave Trembley.
The bottom line: Atlanta’s leadership does not believe that its player intake and development system is producing, and that determination seems to be the chief driver at this point. But with the organization ramping up for a critical new ballpark opening in 2017, what does it all mean for the big league club?
The key issue at the MLB level is, as ever, resource constraints. While Atlanta’s talent level remains high, the team has needs. And while last year’s run of extensions look like good investments overall, the Chris Johnson deal aside, they do not leave a ton of payroll flexibility moving forward. (Of course, the alternative would have been to pay bigger arbitration dollars while possibly losing key pieces to free agency down the line.) Last year’s franchise-record $112MM Opening Day payroll, which resulted in the team’s first losing season since 2008, seems unlikely to be repeated. How much spending capacity will remain? The club already has just under $80MM on the books for 2015, and could dedicate as much as $21MM+ if it tenders arbitration contracts to all of its eligible players.
Non-tenders and trades could free some dollars, but that means difficult choices are fast approaching. Qualifying offers must be made within five days of the end of the World Series, while decisions on arb-eligible players are due December 2nd.
A new GM will surely have a key role in determining the path forward, but given the timeline, the organization may well largely know already what it will do with players in those contractual situations. Indeed, as Hart has indicated, the general strategy appears to be in place. “We don’t need an overhaul,” said Hart. “It’s not a disaster. But there are certainly some things we need to take a look [at].” Acknowledging the “economic challenges” facing the team in building out its roster, Hart added that larger moves are likelier to come via trade than signing.
Regardless of how the decisions are made, a key set of issues involves the rotation, where several important pieces require action. To begin, Ervin Santana, Aaron Harang, and Gavin Floyd will be free agents, subject to the qualifying offer process. The former seems a good bet to receive a $15.3MM QO, though that is hardly a clear case given the Braves’ financial limitations. It seems unlikely he would accept, since his downside scenario might be another one-year deal at that level of pay, and Atlanta will surely be tempted by the chance of obtaining draft compensation. The likeliest scenario appears to be that he will receive and reject an offer, and find a new club. Harang, meanwhile, could make sense, but barring a late effort at a new deal he’ll have a chance to test the market. And while another attempt at rehabbing Floyd could in theory take place again in Atlanta, he seems unlikely to open the year in any club’s starting five.
If those three arms move on, the rotation will have just three clear members: Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, and Mike Minor. (In spite of his struggles, Minor has too much ability and makes too much financial sense not to have a clear shot at a role.) David Hale is perhaps the likeliest younger player to be a promotion candidate, though Cody Martin may also get a shot after two solid runs at Triple-A.
Otherwise, the Braves will have to decide how to proceed with the two players whose season-ending injuries led to Santana’s signing last year: Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. Both are working back from their second Tommy John procedures, which generally come with longer rehab periods and a lower incidence of successful recovery. Given their 2014 arbitration salaries ($5.8MM and $1.45MM, respectively), a non-tender of the former must at least be considered, though Medlen’s established performance baseline is probably too good to pass up. The team could look to work out a less financially onerous arrangement, possibly including a future option in the manner of the D’backs’ deal with Daniel Hudson. (Note that Medlen would be set to reach free agency after the year.)
Even if Medlen and Beachy have successful rehabs, an Opening Day return seems highly unlikely given that the pair was operated on in mid-March. The team could look at the free agent market for further depth. A Floyd-like bid for Brett Anderson would deliver upside, but may not suit the team’s needs. The likelier outcome, perhaps, would be to bring back Harang (though that could well require a two-year deal) or someone in his mold to bridge the gap and provide depth. Innings-eaters on the market include names like Ryan Vogelsong, Colby Lewis, and Kyle Kendrick.
All said, targeting a starter via trade could make sense for the Braves, as Hart suggested. The club is not without options for dealing from its big league roster. I recently explored the possibility of dealing backstop Evan Gattis, with youngster Christian Bethancourt taking over the regular role. Moving the pre-arb Gattis, however, would not deliver any immediate cost savings – indeed, finding a new backup (or re-signing Gerald Laird) would probably add payroll. While Gattis is probably not enough of an asset to bring back a starter who is both cost-controlled and an established producer, the Braves might find enough of those attributes to make a deal attractive.
If Atlanta really wants to add an arm with significant current and future value, it will likely need to consider parting with one of its quality corner outfielders. Both Jason Heyward and Justin Upton are entering their final year of control, but are young enough that an acquiring team could place significant value on exclusive rights to negotiate an extension. Of course, that pair accounted for a significant piece of the club’s production last year, so the return would have to be substantial. As others have suggested, it could make sense to explore a long-term deal with one or both while also gauging trade interest in a bid to address other areas of need and possibly add a player with more control. Extending one while dealing the other makes some sense, though the ability to pull off that feat will depend upon other actors (the players and prospective trade partners). One interesting possibility noted by MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes would be a swap with the Reds involving Heyward and Johnny Cueto; if both clubs cannot find something else to their liking, such a move might better align with their respective needs in 2015.
Of course, unlike the catching situation, there is no obvious corner outfielder ready to step into a regular role. Among the team’s near-MLB prospects, the best of whom are mostly pitchers, Todd Cunningham is a possibility to take over a slot. But while the 25-year-old improved upon his first go at Triple-A, and is said to be a good defender capable of playing center, he managed only a .287/.347/.406 line with 8 home runs and 19 steals last year at Gwinnett. Other possibilities include a trade of a pitching prospect for an affordable, younger outfielder, a dip into a free agent market that includes names like Norichika Aoki and Alex Rios, or a combination of the above in search of a productive platoon.
Then, there is the fact that the team already has questions in center, where a struggling and expensive B.J. Upton looks nearly immovable. Last we heard, the Braves and Cubs intended to revisit the possibility of a bad-contract swap also involving Edwin Jackson. Otherwise, unless someone like Cunningham delivers a big spring, Atlanta could be forced to put Upton back in the lineup and hope for a turnaround.
The infield, at least, is much more settled. First baseman Freddie Freeman and shortstop Andrelton Simmons are perhaps the only names sure to be written into the Opening Day lineup card, though the rest of the diamond will almost certainly be filled internally as well. Third baseman Chris Johnson is likely to have a chance to return to his 2013 levels, given that his extension does not even kick in until this year, though he may soon be challenged by prospect Kyle Kubitza. And at second, the Braves will wait out the tail end of the disappointing Dan Uggla contract — since he was released, there is no longer any hope of saving any cash — while fielding second-year player Tommy La Stella. Of course, the much-hyped 20-year-old Jose Peraza could become a factor if he continues to impress, though he has taken only 195 plate appearances at the Double-A level.
The bullpen, likewise, seems destined to continue in much the same form as last year. Craig Kimbrel, David Carpenter, Jordan Walden, and James Russell make up a strong back end. And a series of other arms – Anthony Varvaro, Shae Simmons, Chasen Shreve, and Luis Avilan among them – deliver ample depth. Though none of these arms (Kimbrel excepted) will make a large mark on the balance sheet, it is possible to imagine Atlanta dealing from depth to sweeten the pot in a larger trade while potentially freeing up a little bit of extra spending capacity. The team will likely need to try to work something out to keep Jonny Venters; the outstanding 29-year-old lefty is attempting a rare return from a third Tommy John procedure, and his arb price tag looks steep given that he did not even receive his latest UCL replacement until the end of August.
In the end, the Braves continue to be a team with plenty of talent, and it would not be surprising to see a rebound year. But given the financial constraints, the front office’s own seemingly negative take on the talent pipeline, and the looming free agency of Heyward and Upton, Atlanta will need to balance carefully the present with the future. Though dealing away expiring contracts for prospects holds some facial appeal, and the 2017 ballpark opening looms large from a business perspective, Atlanta has not been known to take that tack in the past. Creativity, then, will be the key; but first the front office situation will need to be decided.