The Braves’ offseason began with a bang, signing both Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann early on, but there’s been little activity out of Atlanta since that time. The club did strike up a surprisingly affordable deal to bring Nick Markakis back for at least a fifth season (and possibly a sixth) earlier this week, filling an obvious hole in right field.
Many fans, however, were hoping to see a bigger splash to fill that vacancy — or at least some type of splash following the aggressive November deal that brought Donaldson into the fold. General manager Alex Anthopoulos’ comments about the financial flexibility that Markakis’ contract affords the club only fueled the fire for the Braves’ fanbase and their hopes for another marquee pickup, with many pining for a Craig Kimbrel reunion. However, Anthopoulos’ comments in a recent appearance on MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM at the very least downplay that possibility — if not almost entirely rule it out (Twitter links, with audio):
“He makes everybody a lot better,” said Anthopoulos of Kimbrel. “He’s one of the best closers of all time. I did come out early in the offseason and, not speaking specifically about him, but [said] our payroll, our model, I don’t know that us spending big, elite dollars on a reliever — length, the term and all that — I don’t know that that model works for us.”
Kimbrel entered the offseason reportedly seeking a massive payday north of $100MM, and while reports since that time have indicated that goal has dropped a bit, the latest update on his asking price suggested the $86MM and $80MM contracts of Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen as targets (although that was a month ago). A closer with Kimbrel’s track record, understandably, is aiming exceptionally high, and even if his price drops a bit further, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his camp eye a deal that tops Wade Davis’ $17.33MM average annual value record for a reliever.
Wherever Kimbrel’s contract eventually lands, it seems reasonable to think that he’ll command the “big, elite dollars” to which Anthopoulos expressed an aversion. If that proves to be the case, Anthopoulos suggested that he’s happy with the end-game options the Braves already have in house while acknowledging that he’s still considering veteran additions.
“From a bullpen standpoint, A.J. Minter, Arodys Vizcaino did a nice, solid job for us,” said Anthopoulos. “…Hopefully, a young guy like Minter can take one more step. I think having a healthy Darren O’Day is going to be big, and then some of the other young kids that really took a step and had a nice year have a chance to continue to contribute. But, there’s no doubt if we can get more talent, more experience — especially at the end of the game — it’s going to slot everybody down. That’s definitely something we’ve explored, both in trade and free agency.”
The trade market — specifically, Atlanta’s lack of activity on that front — has been another potential source of consternation among fans. The Braves organization has famously built up a wealth of premium prospects and a deep reserve of secondary (but still high-quality) minor leaguers that has made their farm system one of baseball’s best. Clearly, there isn’t room for all of the stockpiled talent to claim regular roles with the big league club, and many would like to see the team cash in some of those farmhands for proven MLB talent. That, said Anthopoulos, is something the team has explored at length, though there’s been no common ground reached with teams shopping intriguing talent.
The GM plainly stated that his club was “definitely engaged” with the Mariners with regard to James Paxton, though the lefty eventually went to the Yankees in a package headlined by MLB-ready top prospect Justus Sheffield and another high-quality, near-MLB arm in Erik Swanson. Atlanta also spoke to the Mariners about closer Edwin Diaz before Seattle sent him and half of Robinson Cano’s remaining contract to the Mets in exchange for a package led by this past draft’s No. 6 overall pick, Jarred Kelenic.
“At the end of the day, we had the ability to say ’yes,'” said Anthopoulos of those talks. “We got a price on players like that. We’re definitely going to be ’in’ on those guys. … I think, at the end of the day, we really feel strongly about the talent that we have. We put some good young players on the table in deals. I think maybe where we hit a bit of a snag in some of these things is just the volume — and that’s where we do pause, and we kind of pump the brakes a little bit.”
Though the inability to reach an agreement is surely frustrating for the Braves’ front office as well, Anthopoulos indicated that it’s often a relief to look back on some deals that ultimately weren’t made. He noted that he was most frequently asked about both Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies last offseason and is thankful not to have budged on either player and also “pretty happy” to have passed on some trade-deadline offers with which they were presented. (Of course, there are undoubtedly prospects whose stock has dropped that the Braves may, with the benefit of hindsight, been able to have let go without significant consequence.)
Ultimately, it sounds as though the Braves will continue to explore the trade market — they’re still oft-connected to J.T. Realmuto, for instance, and there are teams with relief pitchers available — but at the very least, it seems Atlanta fans should temper their expectations with regard to a Kimbrel reunion, which is a disheartening reality not only for them but also for Kimbrel’s camp. Kimbrel still seems destined for a sizable payday, but Anthopoulos is the second baseball ops leader in the past two weeks to suggest that paying Kimbrel at a premium rate likely isn’t in the cards; Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski made similar comments recently, all of which only further clouds the market for the offseason’s top free-agent reliever.