After undergoing a fairly extensive tear-down last winter, the Braves will look to begin rebuilding toward a return to contention in 2017, when they are set to open a new park.
- Freddie Freeman, 1B: $118.5MM through 2021
- Andrelton Simmons, SS: $53MM through 2020
- Nick Markakis, OF: $33MM through 2018
- Julio Teheran, SP: $29.6MM through 2019 (includes buyout of 2020 club option)
- Hector Olivera, 3B: $32.5MM through 2020
- Nick Swisher, OF: $15MM through 2016*
- Michael Bourn, OF: $14MM through 2016*
- Cameron Maybin, OF: $9MM through 2016 (includes buyout of 2017 club option)
- Dian Toscano, OF: $4MM through 2018 (includes buyout of 2019 club option)
- Jason Grilli, RP: $3.75MM through 2016 (includes buyout of 2017 club option)
*Indians will pay $10MM of the collective obligations to Swisher and Bourn in 2016
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections by MLB Trade Rumors)
- Mike Minor (4.138) – $5.6M
- Pedro Ciriaco (3.049) – $800K
- Shelby Miller (3.030) – $4.9MM
- Arodys Vizcaino (2.168) – $1.1MM
- Chris Withrow (2.132) – $600K
- Non-tender candidates: Ciriaco
Things got ugly in the second half for the club, which all but collapsed down the stretch. In addition to the sales of a few last short-term veterans, the Braves’ summer featured a bad contract swap of Chris Johnson for Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn and — more importantly — the acquisition of Hector Olivera in a deal that sent lefty Alex Wood and prospect Jose Peraza to the Dodgers (among other pieces changing hands). That made for a less-than-ideal 2015 product, but that wasn’t really the point.
We may have been given a hint at the Braves’ endgame when the club parted with the controllable Wood for an unproven, somewhat older player in Olivera. Having spent the winter accumulating as many upper-level young arms as it could via trade, Atlanta gave one up for the chance at five fairly cheap years of Olivera. That move suggests that Atlanta already sees a light at the end of the tunnel of its quick rebuild. After all, Wood certainly could’ve brought back youthful prospects instead.
With a newly resurgent farm system and at least the nucleus of a core in place, the Braves are probably ready to begin adding at the major league level. But having parted with so much MLB-level talent in the last year or so, it’s unlikely that the organization really expects contention in 2016. Instead, the focus will be on 2017 and beyond.
So, what might the club look to do this winter under the leadership of newly-promoted GM John Coppolella and president of baseball operations John Hart? Let’s start with the possibility of further swaps, as it’s hard to rule anything out after Atlanta was willing to part with its long-term control over Evan Gattis and Craig Kimbrel last offseason.
It would take something awfully compelling for the Braves to consider moving Freddie Freeman or Andrelton Simmons, the pair of young infielders who figure to bridge the team’s most recent contender to its (hopeful) future outfit. Frankly, the possibility seems too remote to seriously consider as something that’s on the table.
Righty Julio Teheran, though, has generated more chatter. He’s taken a value hit after an uninspiring 2015, but he’s cheap, young (still 24), and durable (607 1/3 innings since the start of 2013). It’s hard to know how interested Atlanta is in parting with him, but the ask would surely be high in spite of his difficulties.
After all, while the Braves have compiled an impressive volume of young arms, few have established themselves in the big leagues. It would be risky to move on from Teheran, especially after having already sent out Wood. Shelby Miller had a strong season and looks like a great get from the Jason Heyward/Jordan Walden deal. (An extension with Miller could be pursued, at least to buy up his arb-eligible seasons.) The other key piece in that swap, Tyrell Jenkins, is one of several younger arms who’ll look to crack (or stay in) the big league staff in the coming years. Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz, and Manny Banuelos are also recent trade additions in that general mold, and top prospect Lucas Sims is coming up behind that group. Further off are interesting names like Touki Toussaint, Kolby Allard, and Max Fried, among others.
Rounding out the 2016 rotation will involve a mix of depth pieces like Williams Perez and Ryan Weber and, perhaps, a veteran acquisition or two. The club has indicated it will tender a contract to lefty Mike Minor in hopes that he can reestablish himself after a tough run of injuries, but he’ll be hard to count on.
It’s possible to imagine Atlanta adding a mid or long-term arm on the free agent market, though it seems more likely that the club will look to bail out an undervalued asset than to beat the market for a top-end hurler. It wouldn’t be too hard to imagine this opportunistic front office pouncing if someone like Jeff Samardzija or Ian Kennedy find demand lacking, though I’d expect they will value the loss of a draft pick quite highly in weighing such decisions. While Atlanta’s #3 overall selection is protected, the team will probably like the idea of preserving an additional early draft slot (and the pool money that comes with it). Otherwise, there’s certainly some merit to the idea of utilizing the team’s unclaimed rotation spots to draw a pitcher (Doug Fister being the popular, but potentially too pricey, example) who could be looking for a one-year bounce-back deal. And Atlanta should be a popular destination for minor league free agents seeking a chance to prove themselves in the spring.
There’s even more uncertainty in the bullpen, where Arodys Vizcaino reemerged to have a nice year and take over as the closer. After him, though, the team’s most-used and most effective pen arms were traded (Jim Johnson, Luis Avilan) or hurt (Jason Grilli). The team still controls Grilli for two more years (the second via option) and could put him back in the ninth when he returns from injury, both to boost his trade stock and to tamp down Vizcaino’s arb platform. Rule 5 pick Daniel Winkler will need a roster spot to open the year in order for the team to earn his permanent rights, while another Rule 5 selection — Andrew McKirahan — could provide a left-handed option. Unfortunately, southpaw Paco Rodriguez — who was acquired from the Dodgers — is going to be out for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but Chris Withrow — another Los Angeles import (separate trade) — could be ready and provides some interest. Veteran Peter Moylan could be brought back, and the club can also get some frames out of Brandon Cunniff, who logged the most relief innings last year of any returning pitcher in the organization.
There are a number of other names that could be in the mix, but none seem particularly worth mentioning. Atlanta took advantage of the fact that it had late-inning opportunities to offer last year when it signed Grilli and Johnson, and it could do so again. The club will also just be looking to get innings wherever it can. Last year’s roster ultimately included a veritable who’s who of once-quality pitchers who were looking for big league chances. But there’s also quite a realistic scenario where the Braves make a real investment in a reliever or two via free agency, as the team’s front office has hinted in recent weeks.
Moving back to the position player side of the equation, the infield seems largely set — potentially. Simmons, Freeman, and Olivera will take three spots. Third base prospect Rio Ruiz, who didn’t exactly master Double-A but spent the year there at 21 years of age, could eventually push Olivera off of the hot corner. That would open new questions and new possibilities, but there are some more immediate issues to be addressed.
Jace Peterson probably warrants another audition at second, though he’ll need to improve on a .239/.314/.335 batting effort. It’s possible — perhaps likely — that the team will look to supplement him with a veteran. The team signed Alberto Callaspo and Kelly Johnson as role-playing depth pieces last year, and figures to do something similar this winter. Top prospect Ozhaino Albies may ultimately be an appealing option up the middle, but he’s just 18 and is further off away than was the traded-away Jose Peraza.
Its certainly possible that the organization will consider adding a more significant infield piece this winter. That’s all the more true given reports that Olivera will spend some time in Puerto Rico playing the corner outfield. There are several free agents who might function as bridge players — Howie Kendrick and Daniel Murphy among them — and a variety of hypothetical trade candidates.
The club faces more questions behind the dish, where Christian Bethancourt remains an intriguing but frustrating player. He played only sporadically in the majors, endured a mid-season demotion (though he hit well at Triple-A), and drew questions about his mental approach. In a mid-season interview, Hart explained that he liked the young backstop’s tools, but felt that he was failing to grasp what it took to be a big league catcher. The issue was “not dedication,” said Hart. Instead: “It’s a level of preparedness you need for what [pitching coach] Roger [McDowell] expects and a championship organization expects, especially when dealing with young pitchers.” It’s possible that Atlanta will entertain change-of-scenery offers, though he seems more likely to get another chance. Last year’s primary backstop ended up being veteran A.J. Pierzynski. He remains a candidate to return, particularly after the club resisted the urge to trade him at the deadline, though he’ll test the market first. Otherwise, another elder statesman might be found. The Braves have been mentioned as a hypothetical suitor for Matt Wieters, who attended Georgia Tech, and he certainly could be the sort of (relative) buy-low that the organization would find intriguing. But it’s not yet clear whether Atlanta will be a leading contender for his services, especially since he’ll likely require a signing team to sacrifice a draft pick.
In the outfield, Nick Markakis — last year’s surprise free agent splurge — will handle right. Cameron Maybin figures to see the bulk of the action in center — barring a trade, at least. He was a nice comeback surprise after being included as part of the salary balancing in the Craig Kimbrel deal. Though his production tailed off late, he ended up with a .267/.327/.370 batting line to go with 23 steals and ten home runs. On the other hand, defensive metrics hated his glovework despite historical success.
While there would have to be interest if an appealing offer came in, the club is probably best off sticking with Maybin for the time being. He isn’t too expensive, his option conveys a bit of upside, and he could turn into an even more valuable mid-season trade chip. Maybin is likely just keeping the seat warm for Mallex Smith, who earned a mid-season promotion to Triple-A in his age-22 campaign. He still needs to conquer that level, and is far from a surefire prospect, but a summer promotion could be in order if he does and if there’s a need at the major league level.
Of course, the Braves do have another option in center: the veteran Bourn, who came over in the aforementioned trade along with Swisher. Bourn could help bridge the gap as well. Neither of those players produced last year, and may not last the year if they falter. (Both have options for 2017 that vest at 550 plate appearances, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where that is allowed to take place.) But they’ll do for the meanwhile, and the organization has another fourth outfield type on hand in Adonis Garcia (though he’s not a good bet to repeat his production).
Given that array of outfield options, it’s easy to dream on the team wading into the free agent market. It would be foolish to rule out such an effort, though it’d also be rather shocking to see any nine-figure deals handed out. As with the rotation, it’s possible to imagine the Braves seeing what the market will yield. That could come in the form of a one-year, bounceback signing or a multi-year pact with a mid-level free agent who falls through the cracks.
Entering the winter, there’s an argument to be made that Atlanta should be increasingly aggressive in free agency (after having already shown just that trait on the trade market). After all, if the team hopes to be prepared for legitimate contention in 2017, this robust free agent market might present the right moment to strike.
Having demonstrated a willingness to spend on the mid-tier market last year, in signing Markakis, players his price range certainly seem in play. Costlier additions, though, may not be forthcoming. There’s some open current and future payroll, but not a lot: the club has just under $75MM in commitments for 2016 before accounting for arbitration, and that number drops into the $50MM to $60MM range over the four seasons to follow. Even with the promise of new stadium and TV revenue, it would be dangerous to tie up too much future payroll for an organization that has started a season with a payroll over $100MM only once (2014).
All told, the offseason promises more of the same creativity out of Atlanta, albeit with a nearer-term focus. And we can’t discount the possibility of a big surprise out of this creative front office duo.