The Braves were among baseball’s absolute worst teams in each of the previous two seasons, finishing near the bottom of the majors in both wins and run differential. While they’re still below average in those categories (22nd in winning percentage, 19th in run differential), there has been progress this season. At 67-80, the Braves should surpass the 70-victory mark for the first time since 2014. That would obviously be a baby step, but moving forward with a healthy Freddie Freeman and the game’s No. 1-ranked farm system give the Braves legitimate reasons for hope heading into 2018. A productive offseason from general manager John Coppolella probably wouldn’t transform Atlanta into a playoff contender overnight, though pushing toward the .500 mark next year wouldn’t be an unreasonable goal. Here’s how Coppolella could make that happen…
1.) Acquire a front-line starter:
This is certainly a lot easier said than done, but the Braves’ actions indicate that they’re motivated to add a top-caliber starter. They’ve attempted to trade for Chris Sale, Chris Archer, Sonny Gray, Jose Quintana and Michael Fulmer, to name some high-profile hurlers, dating back to last season. Sale, Gray and Quintana have since switched teams, taking them off the table for Atlanta, but Coppolella could still try for Archer and Fulmer, among others.
Fulmer, the Braves’ primary target at this year’s non-waiver trade deadline, seems more likely than Archer to end up on the move in the offseason. The Tigers are at the very beginning of what should be a long rebuild, after all, so it would behoove them to listen to offers Fulmer. Considering how strong their pipeline is, the Braves may be in better position than anyone else to land Fulmer, who will enter his age-25 season and final pre-arbitration campaign in 2018.
There are a couple potential free agents to keep an eye on, too, with two-way superstar Shohei Otani reportedly set to emigrate from Japan and fellow countryman Masahiro Tanaka a possibility to opt out of his contract with the Yankees. As a 23-year-old ace who won’t significantly cash in because of the new collective bargaining agreement, most teams will kick the tires on the flamethrowing Otani during the offseason. The Braves could be among those clubs, though they’re in an especially disadvantageous position from an international spending standpoint. Where Otani will sign is extremely difficult to forecast, especially when factoring in his offensive prowess. For instance, will he strongly consider heading to the National League, where his only at-bats are likely to come on days he pitches and in pinch-hitting situations? That’s not a concern with Tanaka – who, unlike ace-caliber free agents-to-be in Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta, is on the right side of 30. Set to turn 29 in November, Tanaka won’t come cheap, as vacating his pact with the Yankees would mean leaving $67MM on the table.
Whether it’s one of the above starters or another high-end type, the front of the rotation is certainly an area worth addressing for the Braves. The club’s starters rank 22nd in the majors in fWAR (6.7) – a good portion of that (1.5) came from now-Yankee Jaime Garcia, whose final Braves start was back on July 21 – and 23rd in ERA (4.89).
2.) Upgrade at third base:
The performance of Johan Camargo has prevented third base from being a complete disaster this year for Atlanta, but continuing to count on him would be a gamble. While the 23-year-old rookie has given the Braves respectable production (.303/.336/.474 in 225 plate appearances), it’s smoke and mirrors to a large degree. Camargo’s .373 batting average on balls in play isn’t going to last, and his success has come in spite of a K/BB ratio (.23) that’s well below the league average (.40). Further, as Statcast shows (via Baseball Savant), Camargo’s expected weighted on-base average (.299) pales in comparison to his actual wOBA (.347).
Fortunately for the Braves, there will be more proven options available in free agency. The length of a potential commitment they make at the hot corner could depend in part on how far away the Braves think prospects Kevin Maitan and Austin Riley are. For example, if they’re counting on either to come up in the next couple years, that could rule out Royals slugger Mike Moustakas, who will easily score the largest contract among impending free agent third basemen. Less expensive choices will include Todd Frazier, Eduardo Nunez and, if he’s willing to move from shortstop to third, Zack Cozart. Frazier or Cozart would provide some punch to a Braves lineup that ranks 27th in ISO (.152), while Nunez would give a team in need of a baserunning boost a notable jolt in that area. Nunez also happens to be an above-average hitter, and the Braves don’t have enough of those.
The trade route could also be a viable avenue, with Chase Headley (Yankees), Jed Lowrie (Athletics) and Asdrubal Cabrera (Mets) standing out as Band-Aid types who might end up on the block in the offseason.
3.) Improve the corner outfield:
Center fielder Ender Inciarte has been terrific during his two years as a Brave, but they haven’t given him adept complements in either season. That’s going to change sometime soon when all-world prospect Ronald Acuna comes to the majors, but the Braves could still use at least one better corner outfielder in the meantime.
While Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis would’ve made for an appealing duo several years ago, their days as decent starters appear long gone. Those two have combined for just 0.4 fWAR this year, making them the main culprits behind the Atlanta outfield’s 29th-place ranking in that category (2.1). The Braves’ nine non-Inciarte outfielders have combined for minus-0.6 fWAR. Even including Inciarte’s production, 26 individual major league outfielders have matched or bettered the output of the Braves’ group of 10.
All of the above is to say that the Braves need to stop living in the past with at least one of the Kemp-Markakis tandem. The problem is that they may be stuck with the pair. Kemp, who will turn 33 next Saturday, is owed $21.5MM per year through 2019. The Braves would likely have to swallow nearly that entire sum to have any hope of moving him. It would be easier (but still difficult) to deal the soon-to-be 34-year-old Markakis, who’s the better and cheaper of the two (he’s due $10.5MM in 2018, the final season of his contract). Continuing with Markakis as a regular until Acuna debuts at some point in 2018 wouldn’t be catastrophic – at least he still gets on base – but adding another corner man should still be a priority.
Among impending free agents, Jarrod Dyson stands out as a clear upgrade who wouldn’t require the Braves to break the bank. Dyson will turn 34 next summer and doesn’t offer much as a hitter, which are concerns, but the current Mariners center fielder is outstanding on the bases and with the glove. It just so happens that the Braves need help in those areas.
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