The rebuilding Braves didn’t show much improvement in the standings, ending up with a 68-93 record that landed them the fifth overall pick in the 2017 draft. But Atlanta ended the year on a 12-and-2 tear that represented a high note on which to finish. With a much-anticipated new ballpark on the horizon and an expectation of significant financial outlays at the major league level, hopes are high … but just how high should they be?
- Freddie Freeman, 1B: $106.5MM through 2021
- Matt Kemp, OF: $54.5MM through 2019 (Dodgers, via Padres, paying $10.5MM of remaining obligations)
- Julio Teheran, SP: $26.3MM through 2019 ($12MM club option for 2020; $1MM buyout)
- Nick Markakis, OF: $21MM through 2018
- Tyler Flowers, C: $3.3MM through 2017 ($4MM club option for 2018; $300K buyout)
- Jim Johnson, RP: Unreported guarantee through 2018
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; link to MLBTR projections)
- Ender Inciarte, OF (2.157): $2.8MM
- Josh Collmenter, SP/RP (5.110): $2.2MM
- Arodys Vizcaino, RP (3.168): $1.6MM
- Chris Withrow, RP (3.111): $1.2MM
- Ian Krol, RP (2.147): $1.0MM
- Anthony Recker, C (4.000): $1.0MM
- Paco Rodriguez, RP (3.120): $900K
- Non-tender candidates: Collmenter, Withrow, Recker, Rodriguez
In some ways, the task to date has been straightforward for Atlanta GM John Coppolella and president of baseball operations John Hart: with a prioritization of value over need, and talent over results, he set out to add as much controllable talent as possible. That has resulted in a highly-regarded farm system that is increasingly pushing players onto the major league roster. But now, the balance begins to get a bit trickier.
The Braves spoke of improving at the major league level in 2016, and that didn’t really occur. But Coppolella and company nevertheless intend to take a step toward focusing on major league results in the coming campaign. The first order of business was choosing a manager, with interim skipper Brian Snitker receiving the permanent nod after delivering solid results down the stretch.
The shifting mindset is most evident in regard to the starting rotation, where Coppolella says at least two additions are planned. Much of the rebuild has focused on adding pre-MLB arms, a fair number of them at the upper levels of the minors, but to date that hasn’t led to much productivity at the major league level. Atlanta’s rotation was one of the worst in all of baseball last year, with only Julio Teheran posting a full season’s worth of quality starts.
Whether or not Teheran and his appealing contract reach the trading block has long been the source of intrigue, but it may be that the Braves will no longer seriously pursue such a path — unless, at least, there’s a truly overwhelming offer to be had that includes major league-ready talent. Otherwise, Mike Foltynewicz seemingly showed enough (4.31 ERA, 8.1 K/9 vs. 2.6 BB/9 in 123 1/3 innings) to warrant a spot in next year’s rotation, but the rest of the staff seems to be up for grabs.
If Atlanta does add two established pitchers to its stable — no small feat on a barren market for starters — then that would appear to leave a single job available for the remaining internal options. Josh Collmenter, who was added late in the year, could take a starter’s role or end up as a swingman. Less-established hurlers such as Matt Wisler, John Gant, Aaron Blair, Williams Perez, and Tyrell Jenkins may also battle for jobs, but will need to impress in camp to avoid a trip back to Triple-A Gwinnett. Some pitchers who have yet to make their major league debuts could ultimately enter the mix as the season progresses, including Chris Ellis, Sean Newcomb, Lucas Sims, and breakout talent Patrick Weigel.
Looking at the market for the pair of arms that Atlanta desires, there are a variety of possible approaches for the team to consider. Following the Phillies’ plan a winter ago — targeting bounceback veterans on short-term, reasonably expensive contracts — could lead the Braves to pursue a pitcher such as Jason Hammel or Jaime Garcia via trade. There are bigger fish that could be available from other organizations, though indications from the team are that it won’t part with the top prospects that would be needed to land a true top-of-the-rotation arm. The free agent market does contain some options, of course. It would be surprising to see the Braves chase Rich Hill, the highest-upside arm available, but they could conceivably look into Jeremy Hellickson or Ivan Nova while also chasing value further down the market — where pitchers like Clay Buchholz, Charlie Morton, Edinson Volquez, and Doug Fister.
The bullpen could be a landing spot for a few of those pitchers, but seems likely to be anchored by Arodys Vizcaino — who’ll look to bounce back after a very rough second half that was impacted by shoulder problems — and veteran Jim Johnson, who just re-upped for two more years. Young fireballer Mauricio Cabrera has also likely locked up a spot, though his peripherals (7.5 K/9, 4.5 BB/9, 49.1% groundball rate) didn’t quite mach his ERA (2.82) and outrageous average velocity (an even 100 mph). Jose Ramirez showed well in his first extensive taste in the majors, Chris Withrow may have the track on a job if he can return to health, and Ian Krol will likely be the top lefty after a nice bounceback season. With other names in the mix as well, the pen doesn’t figure to be an area of focus this winter, though certainly a veteran arm could end up being added here as well.
Much the same holds true of the outfield, which received a boost from Matt Kemp after his mid-season acquisition. The veteran showed signs of a resurgence after coming over in a swap that allowed the Braves to jettison Hector Olivera. When the dust settled, Atlanta was left on the hook for $8.5MM annually over the next three years over and above Olivera’s own $28.5MM in remaining obligations. (They’ll still actually pay Kemp the $54.5MM reflected above.) The 32-year-old swatted a dozen long balls in 241 plate appearances, and more importantly raised his overall batting line to .280/.336/.519. He’d still be a better fit in the American League, but that’s reasonably-priced pop even given his defensive limitations.
The club will have some potential decisions to make in the outfield, though. Ender Inciarte remains the obvious choice in center after putting up another season of average hitting combined with stellar defense and baserunning. Nick Markakis remains entrenched in right. Though he returned to hitting low-double-digit home runs (13 this year), he’s still only an average producer on offense. His glove does continue to boost his value, but Markakis probably doesn’t profile as a first-division regular at this stage of his career. Whether the Braves can find a taker for a big portion of his remaining salary may be the difference in determining the near-term fate of Mallex Smith, who could end up opening the year at Triple-A after a solid but hardly commanding rookie-year performance.
It’s also not clear whether Atlanta will push hard to make changes in the infield — at least in the traditional sense of signing a free agent to plug a hole — though certainly creative possibilities can’t be discounted. Freddie Freeman is obviously a lock at first base, where he’ll aim to repeat a stellar 2016. And Dansby Swanson is nearly as good a bet to take the everyday job at short that he handled well upon his late-season call-up.
At second and third, the Braves have relatively little need to act, but certainly could if the right opportunity arose. The former is being held open for Ozzie Albies, who’ll compete for a job out of camp but may spend a bit more time in the upper minors before making his ascent — particularly since he won’t be able to play in the Arizona Fall League after suffering a late-season olecranon fracture. Though he struggled at Triple-A, Albies posted a monster .321/.391/.467 batting line with 21 stolen bases in 371 plate appearances at Double-A last year, playing at just 19 years of age. With Jace Peterson available at second and Daniel Castro on hand as a utility option, expectations are that Atlanta will keep relatively quiet in this area while waiting for Albies.
At the hot corner, Adonis Garcia probably showed enough down the stretch to obviate the need for a short-term signing. After a rough start, the 31-year-old posted a .293/.333/.456 batting line with nine home runs over his 301 plate appearances and drew more promising reviews of his glovework down the stretch. He could be pushed in camp, though, by youngster Rio Ruiz, who had a solid .271/.355/.400 campaign at Triple-A in his age-22 season. Though there’s not a need here, strictly speaking, it is an area where the team could look to upgrade if there’s a chance to add a high-quality player.
If there’s a spot other than the rotation that will almost certainly see some change, it’s behind the plate. Tyler Flowers will be back after a strong season in which he ran up a 109 OPS+ while appearing in 83 games. Journeyman Anthony Recker is controllable as well, and was even more impressive (.278/.394/.433) in his 112 plate appearances. But with Opening Day starter A.J. Pierzynski set to depart, and a mandate to improve, there has been plenty of chatter about the possibilities for an upgrade.
The free agent catching market took a huge hit with the recent ACL tear of Wilson Ramos, and it had already lost Francisco Cervelli when he agreed to an extension with the Pirates earlier in the season. But there are still at least a few near-everyday players set to reach the open market — chiefly, Matt Wieters (who has ties to the Atlanta area) and Jason Castro — and the trade market could provide some avenues as well. Atlanta has been connected, in particular, with long-time star Brian McCann, though it doesn’t seem as if the Yankees will part with him for quite as low a price as the Braves would prefer to pay. A bounceback candidate such as Derek Norris could also be pursued if the team’s preferred options aren’t achievable.
All told, there are a number of places on this roster that a clear contending team would deem in need of an upgrade. For Atlanta, though, there needs to be greater balance, lest future commitments again tie the organization’s hands. Coppolella has said that the club will have much more to spend than usual, but a truly all-in approach would be a major surprise. What investments the team does make figure to play a fairly significant role in dictating the team’s timeline to return to true contention.