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On the heels of their second straight NL East-winning campaign, the Braves have gotten off to an aggressive start this offseason. General manager Alex Anthopoulos, who’s trying to build an Atlanta team capable of winning a playoff series for the first time since 2001, has doled out an array of guaranteed contracts in the early stages of the winter. But the club’s still in danger of losing one of its top performers from 2019, free-agent third baseman Josh Donaldson.
- Ronald Acuna Jr. OF: $99MM through 2026 (includes buyout of 2027 club option; contract also contains 2028 option)
- Freddie Freeman, 1B: $44MM through 2021
- Will Smith, LHP: $40MM through 2022 (includes buyout of 2023 club option)
- Ozzie Albies, 2B: $34MM through 2025 (includes buyout of 2026 club option; contract also contains 2027 option)
- Ender Inciarte, OF: $16.025MM through 2021 (includes buyout of 2022 club option)
- Travis d’Arnaud, C: $16MM through 2021
- Mark Melancon, RHP: $14MM through 2020
- Chris Martin, RHP: $14MM through 2021
- Tyler Flowers, C: $4MM through 2020
- Nick Markakis, OF: $4MM through 2020
- Darren O’Day, $2.75MM through 2020 (includes buyout of 2021 option)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (salary projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Shane Greene – $6.5MM
- Mike Foltynewicz – $7.5MM
- Charlie Culberson – $1.8MM
- Adam Duvall – $3.8MM
- John Ryan Murphy – $1.2MM
- Dansby Swanson – $3.3MM
- Luke Jackson – $1.9MM
- Grant Dayton – $800K
- Johan Camargo – $1.6MM
- Non-tender candidates: Culberson, Murphy
- Josh Donaldson, Dallas Keuchel, Julio Teheran, Billy Hamilton, Josh Tomlin, Francisco Cervelli, Brian McCann (announced retirement), Adeiny Hechavarria, Matt Joyce
The Braves’ bullpen was unreliable during the season, which is why Anthopoulos started making over the unit in the summer. He swung pre-deadline trades for Shane Greene, Mark Melancon and setup man Chris Martin, who will return as key members of the group in 2020. Martin had been in line to leave, but the Braves instead brought back the nomadic 33-year-old right-hander on a two-year, $14MM contract a couple weeks ago. Likewise, they re-signed righty Darren O’Day this month, preventing his exit with a $2.75MM guarantee. Originally acquired from the Orioles before the 2018 deadline, hamstring and forearm injuries stopped the 37-year-old O’Day from pitching for the Braves until this September. But when O’Day finally retook the mound, he looked like the steady reliever he has been throughout his long career.
While the Martin and O’Day re-signings are hard to argue with, no move the Braves have made thus far should help more than the splashy addition of Will Smith. Once Aroldis Chapman stuck with the Yankees, the left-handed Smith, 30, became the undisputed premier reliever in this class. Previously with the Giants, Smith earned his first All-Star nod in 2019, during which he fired 65 1/3 innings of 2.76 ERA ball, posted 13.22 K/9 against 2.89 BB/9 and racked up 34 saves in 38 attempts.
As a result of his brilliant final season in San Francisco, MLBTR forecast a three-year, $42MM at the outset of free agency. The Braves, to their credit, paid a little less than that. They reeled in the Georgia-born Smith for $40MM over three years, though it seems they plan is to use him as a setup man to his former Giants teammate Melancon. Regardless, with the two of them, Greene, Martin and O’Day among its best late-game choices, Atlanta has remade its relief corps dating back to the summer. The Braves’ bullpen, although not particularly young, now looks like a strength.
While the bullpen has been Anthopoulos’ primary focus to this point, he has also overseen several moves on the position player side. First of all, outfielder Nick Markakis and catcher Tyler Flowers are back. The Braves bought out both players’ options for $2MM after the season, only to re-up them for guarantees of $4MM. The club still has to pay the pair $6MM apiece, but they’ll only count for $4MM in salary toward next year’s payroll. Whether that will actually matter remains to be seen, as the Braves aren’t typically a team that has to fear the luxury tax.
The lefty-swinging Markakis seems likely to platoon with the righty-hitting Adam Duvall in one of the outfield corners in 2020, continuing to bridge the gap toward promotions for high-end prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters. In the meantime, Markakis, Duvall, potential starter Ender Inciarte (if he’s not traded) and Austin Riley don’t make for the most confidence-inspiring quartet, though superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. is obviously well-equipped to keep serving as the rising tide that lifts all boats in the outfield.
Behind the plate, Flowers remained a decent option last season, once again combining adequate offense (relative to his position) with elite pitch-framing skills. He teamed with Brian McCann and Francisco Cervelli then, but the former retired after a stellar career and the latter is a free agent. With that in mind, the Braves needed a new partner for Flowers. They got one in Travis d’Arnaud, whom they signed to a two-year, $16MM deal last week.
A former Blue Jay, d’Arnaud is now reunited with Anthopoulos, Toronto’s ex-GM. It was Anthopoulos who traded d’Arnaud out of Canada, landing then-star knuckleballer R.A. Dickey in a 2012 blockbuster with the Mets. D’Arnaud was an elite prospect at that point, but he wound up enduring a somewhat disappointing Mets tenure that was consistently marred by injuries. The Mets finally had enough of d’Arnaud early last season, designating him for assignment, but he has enjoyed a career renaissance since. The 30-year-old rebuilt his stock as a Ray over the past several months, thus turning himself into either the second- or third-best catcher on the open market. MLBTR projected a two-year, $14MM deal, so his Braves payday hardly came as a surprise.
Every pact Atlanta has handed out so far looks reasonable, but it’s still worth wondering how much more ownership is willing to spend. Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei has said the team still plans to “spend some money,” but it’s just about anyone’s guess what that means. The Braves began last season with a payroll in the $115MM range and have never spent more than $122MM-plus on a season-opening roster, per Cot’s. Now, according to the math of Jason Martinez of Roster Resource and FanGraphs, they already have about $127MM in commitments for next year. There’s room to cut some of that out via non-tenders and trades (Inciarte?), but those moves wouldn’t free up a windfall of cash.
While it’s unclear how much more money Atlanta’s willing to put into its roster, it’s inarguable the club remains in need of upgrades. Third base, such a strength a season ago, is now a massive question mark with Donaldson unsigned. The Braves and Donaldson have expressed a desire to stay together on multiple occasions. Problem is that his next contract could be fairly exorbitant (MLBTR projects $75MM over three years), and several other teams have been eyeing him since free agency commenced. No doubt, Donaldson’s the No. 2 third baseman on the market, trailing only Anthony Rendon. But if the Braves don’t want to pay Donaldson, they can probably forget about splurging on Rendon for $200-some mill. That could point them to Mike Moustakas, whom they’ve showed interest in and whose next deal should come in around $20MM. Moustakas is no Donaldson or Rendon, but he’d make for a nice stopgap and allow Riley to either continue in the outfield or head to Triple-A for further seasoning. Moose would also be an easy upgrade over Johan Camargo, who’s coming off a season in which he recorded disastrous numbers.
Aside from third, the Braves’ rotation sticks out as a sore spot, especially after the club bought out innings eater Julio Teheran and saw Dallas Keuchel hit free agency. Supreme young building block Mike Soroka’s back, as are Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz. The rest of the group is decidedly less proven, with Sean Newcomb potentially returning to a starting role after a year spent mostly as a reliever. Kyle Wright’s a former top 40 prospect who could also factor in, but his MLB experience is limited (and his brief action in the majors hasn’t gone well). Meanwhile, promising prospects Ian Anderson, Kyle Muller and Bryse Wilson have logged few to no innings above the minors.
So now what? Well, there are several avenues the Braves could explore. Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg look like pipe dreams, but the rest of this starting class appears far more realistic. Former Giant Madison Bumgarner is reportedly high atop the Braves’ wish list, though he won’t come cheap. Meanwhile, Zack Wheeler, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Cole Hamels and Keuchel are all poised to cash in to varying extents.
If the Braves don’t win the bidding for any starters near the head of the class, they could turn to the trade market, where they’d perhaps be able to take advantage of their impressive farm system to acquire proven, affordable, controllable talent. The Braves had interest in Tigers lefty Matthew Boyd during the summer. Boyd wound up staying put, but he once again sticks out as one of the most obvious trade candidates in the game. Aside from Boyd, the D-backs’ Robbie Ray, the Pirates’ Chris Archer, the Orioles’ Dylan Bundy, the Indians’ Corey Kluber and the Marlins’ Caleb Smith represent starters who made it to the Top 25 Offseason Trade Candidates list MLBTR’s Jeff Todd and Steve Adams just put together.
In terms of ideas that are of the pie-in-the-sky variety, would the Braves dare try to assemble a package for Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor or the Rockies’ Trevor Story? Picking up either could mean parting with stud prospects and incumbent shortstop Dansby Swanson, but either would be the type of acquisition who would place the Braves near the top of the league’s list of World Series contenders entering 2020. Of course, both players are only under control for two more years – the same amount of time as Braves franchise first baseman and extension candidate Freddie Freeman. Would the team be able to extend both? That’s one of several reasons it’s worth wondering whether the Braves would be interested in this sort of trade. Nevertheless, it’s at least worth bringing up as a possibility.
The offseason’s only a few weeks old, but Anthopoulos has already crammed an entire winter’s worth of action into the month of November. With third base seemingly open and at least one rotation spot potentially up for grabs, you can bet the GM isn’t done yet.