Attentive Braves fans will know not to get their hopes up too much based upon the team’s first early moves. The club got out ahead of the market last year as well, but mostly sat out after making its primary moves. In Alex Anthopoulos’s second year as GM, he has done even more volume right off the bat but hasn’t matched last year’s Josh Donaldson signing in terms of dramatic impact.
- Will Smith: three years, $40MM (includes buyout of $13MM club option)
- Chris Martin: two years, $14MM
- Tyler Flowers: one year, $4MM
- Nick Markakis: one year, $4MM
- Darren O’Day: one year, $2.25MM (includes buyout of $3.5MM club option)
That’s exactly $30MM in 2020 salary — possibly enough to preclude a more significant payroll addition. The Braves are now over $100MM in commitments for the season to come, which is approaching the limits for an organization that has never topped $122MM in Opening Day payroll and started shy of that figure in each of the past two seasons.
So does this mean that the Braves won’t end up adding a new star to the roster? Maybe! But they’re actually still well positioned to do just that, in one of several ways. The Braves can still play near the upper reaches of the free agent market if they shed some salary. In particular, it wouldn’t be much trouble to move the contracts of Ender Inciarte and Shane Greene (the latter could also be non-tendered if it came to it) if the team prefers to spend elsewhere. That could free something like $14MM in cash. And there’s still also the trade market, through which the Braves can convert prospect capital into lower-salaried talent.
What’s notable about this early run of spending and roster decisions, then, isn’t so much that it means the Braves boosted their relief corps over other moves. Rather, it’s that the Braves — of all teams — have now compiled a rather strong, not especially cheap collection of old guy relievers.
That’s part-joke, part god’s honest truth. The move toward grizzled hurlers began at the 2019 deadline, when Martin, Greene, and Mark Melancon came aboard. Here’s the Opening Day 2020 age and salary of the Braves pen as presently constituted:
- Mark Melancon, 35, $14MM
- Will Smith, 30, $13MM
- Chris Martin, 33, $7MM
- Shane Greene, 31, $6.5MM (projected)
- Darren O’Day, 37, $2MM
- Luke Jackson, 28, $1.9MM (projected)
- Grant Dayton, 32, $800K (projected)
Conspicuously absent from that list: homegrown young hurlers. Sean Newcomb may yet end up in the pen if he isn’t needed or deemed capable of handling a rotation spot. Regardless, it’s certainly not the bullpen look that would’ve been anticipated this time last year. It’s really an interesting shift in approach; even a few weeks ago, it still seemed safe to presume the Braves were still planning on utilizing a rotating cast of younger pitchers to fill out the rotation. Indeed, I wrote that the Braves could “consider their bullpen fully accounted for” after inking O’Day. Wrong!
That is a strong pen on paper. That’s welcome after a messy 2019. Smith has blossomed into one of the game’s better overall relievers. It still feels surprising the Braves took on Melancon’s full remaining salary, but he was very strong overall in 2019. Martin obliterated the rest of the sport with a 13.0 K/BB ratio last year. The peripherals were also excellent for Jackson, even if he faltered at times. O’Day and Dayton have been good before and showed signs of recapturing their form. Though Greene’s late-season run with the Braves wasn’t quite what might’ve been hoped for, it was hardly a disaster and he ended the season with a cumulative 2.30 ERA.
That said, it must be a bit disappointing for the Braves that they’ve ended up needing to commit this kind of cash to get where they feel comfortable in the relief unit. The waves of young arms have thus far largely disappointed outside of a few notable exceptions. The idea had been that the club’s best starting pitching prospects would not only form up an imposing rotation but spill over into the bullpen, linking up with the team’s short-inning pitching prospects to create an overwhelming overall staff.
But this may just set the stage for the next big moves from Anthopoulos. Quite a few young Braves pitchers still hold promise. Not all will get their chance to chase their ceilings in Atlanta. This year’s slate of players requiring Rule 5 protection has pushed the Braves roster nearly to full capacity with other players still to be added. There’s still plenty of talent pressure coming from lower down the farm system, reducing the available opportunities.
I think you see where I’m heading with this. Without bullpen slots available to run out young pitchers, and without ample payroll capacity remaining, the Braves now seem clearly positioned to swap out talented but not-yet-established hurlers for veterans that can make a near-term impact on the MLB roster. When the dust settles, the Braves will still have plenty of pitching depth — some of which will surely end up carrying a significant portion of the relief load this year even after the recent signings — and a good bit of high-end talent still rising. But some of the arms will end up elsewhere. Which? That’s hard to guess. In theory, dozens of Atlanta hurlers — especially those already taking up space on the club’s 40-man roster — could be talked about in trades.