It was a busy offseason for the Braves, the back-to-back National League East champions, but maybe not an ideal one. While the Braves signed nine players to major league contracts, they lost their top free agent, third baseman Josh Donaldson.
Major League Signings
- Will Smith, LHP: Three years, $40MM
- Marcell Ozuna, OF: One year, $18MM
- Cole Hamels, LHP: One year, $18MM
- Travis d’Arnaud, C: Two years, $16MM
- Chris Martin, RHP: Two years, $14MM
- Nick Markakis, OF: One year, $4MM
- Tyler Flowers, C: One year, $4MM
- Darren O’Day, RHP: One year, $2.25MM
- Adeiny Hechavarria, INF: One year, $1MM
- Total spend: $117.25MM
Trades And Claims
Notable Minor League Signings
- Felix Hernandez, Josh Tomlin, Charlie Culberson, Yonder Alonso, Chris Rusin, Yangervis Solarte, Peter O’Brien, Rafael Ortega
- Josh Donaldson, Dallas Keuchel, Julio Teheran, Matt Joyce, Jerry Blevins, Billy Hamilton, Francisco Cervelli, Anthony Swarzak, John Ryan Murphy
Led by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves made it no secret that they were interested in retaining Donaldson, who flourished in their uniform in 2019 after signing a one-year, $23MM contract. For his part, the 34-year-old Donaldson expressed a desire to remain in Atlanta. Ultimately, though, the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement, leading Donaldson to join the Twins on a four-year, $92MM contract. The Braves reportedly matched the Twins’ offer in years, but they weren’t willing to approach the $92MM mark.
Donaldson and Anthony Rendon, who was never a Braves target, were the best third basemen in free agency, though the market fell off after those two. There were rumors connecting the Braves to the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado and the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, but those players haven’t changed homes to this point. Atlanta could circle back to those two in future trade talks, but as of now, the club appears as if it’ll ride with in-house options to start the season (because of the coronavirus, no one knows when that will occur). Johan Camargo and Austin Riley have been competing for the No. 1 job in recent weeks, but it’s possible the Braves will end up platooning them.
While Camargo was a quality contributor for the Braves two years ago, his production cratered last season. Riley was a top-50 prospect in baseball when the Braves promoted him last May, and with the presence of Donaldson, most of his reps came in the outfield. Although Riley did fare well in the grass, his high-strikeout ways helped prevent him from making a significant impact at the plate as a rookie.
It’s obviously not yet clear who will garner the majority of time at third for the Braves this year. That player will have a hard time replacing Donaldson, and his loss should damage the Braves’ chances of winning the division again. That said, the Braves did work to fill his offensive void during the offseason with the signing of former Marlin and Cardinal outfielder Marcell Ozuna.
Even though he had a qualifying offer from St. Louis weighing him down, it was still a surprise that Ozuna settled for a one-year, $18MM offer, barely edging out the $17.8MM value of the QO. Ozuna’s no Donaldson, but as someone who can typically be counted on for somewhere in the vicinity of three wins above replacement, he looks like a nice short-term addition. With Ozuna in left, superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. in right, Ender Inciarte in center, the re-signed Nick Markakis as an affordable fourth outfielder and Adam Duvall as a No. 5, the Braves seem to be in better shape than most teams in the grass (and don’t forget that exciting prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters are looming).
Similarly, despite their uncertainty at third base, the Braves are doing well in the infield. Most clubs would sign up for a first base/second base/shortstop alignment of Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson, after all. They’ll have a bit of a different catching group looking out at them, though. Tyler Flowers, a Brave since 2016, is back for a reasonable salary. He had his worst offensive year as a Brave in 2019, but Flowers is at least a pitch-framing darling on the defensive side. He was joined last year by Brian McCann as the Braves’ duo behind the dish, but McCann retired. The Braves went the free-agency route to replace him, signing former Met and Ray Travis d’Arnaud after the 31-year-old’s solid showing in Tampa Bay last season. For $16MM over two years, it’s a bit of a risky deal for Atlanta – not only has the former top prospect had an up-and-down career in terms of production, but he has had difficulty staying healthy.
The Braves clearly experienced some position player turnover in the offseason, but a large portion of their attention went to their pitching staff. The team’s bullpen was something of a sore spot last season, and Anthopoulos acted early and often to address it over the winter. His biggest move was to strike a three-year, $40MM guarantee with southpaw Will Smith, who’s coming off a pair of great seasons with the Giants. Smith, 30, thrived as San Francisco’s closer a season ago, but the plan for now is for him to set up ex-Giants teammate Mark Melancon in Atlanta. He’ll have company there in, among others, Chris Martin and Darren O’Day – two righties the Braves re-signed for fair value in the offseason. With Smith, Melancon, Martin, O’Day and the righty duo of Shane Greene and Luke Jackson as the Braves’ most prominent relievers, they look to be in pretty good shape for late-game situations.
Meanwhile, there is some uncertainty in the Braves’ rotation, a group that waved goodbye to Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran in the offseason. There is no shortage of confidence in Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz (who rebounded after a terrible start in 2019). However, it’s anyone’s guess what the Braves will get from the other two spots in their rotation. They signed longtime stalwart Cole Hamels to a one-year, $18MM pact with the hope that the lefty would provide a stabilizing veteran force this season. It’s entirely possible he will, especially with the delayed start to the season, but shoulder troubles have weighed him down over the past month or so. As of about two weeks ago, Hamels didn’t even have a timeline to return. That’s the risk you run when you pin your hopes on a 36-year-old coming off an injury-shortened campaign; in fairness to the Braves, though, it’s tough to bash them for signing an accomplished, still-effective hurler (when healthy) to a one-year deal.
Assuming the season starts sometime fairly soon, Hamels is all but guaranteed to miss a portion of it. That should leave the Braves with Sean Newcomb and Felix Hernandez as the last two starters in their rotation. The 26-year-old Newcomb is a former well-regarded prospect who – despite a high number of walks – held his own as a starter in 2018. Newcomb then spent most of last season as a reliever, and he also did fine in that role. Meantime, as one of the most successful starters of the past couple decades, Hernandez needs no introduction. The problem is that the longtime Mariner and former Cy Young winner, 33, has floundered over the past few years. Hernandez impressed this spring before the league shut down, and he seems likely to make the Braves’ roster, but you’d be right to be skeptical about a bounce-back effort.
If Newcomb and/or Hernandez don’t provide the answer for the Braves, they do have some other interesting in-house possibilities. To name a few examples, righties Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Touki Toussaint – all still in their lower 20s – were each recent top 100-prospects. No one from that trio has lived up to the billing in the majors yet, but perhaps one, two or even all three of them will emerge this season. If not, the rotation may be an area the Braves look to bolster when the trade deadline comes.
2020 Season Outlook
The Liberty Media-owned Braves are projected to start 2020 with a franchise-record Opening Day payroll of $157MM. It’s money well spent overall, as – despite questions at third and in the rotation – this continues to look like a team capable of challenging just about anyone in the National League. However, it’ll be tougher for the Braves to continue their reign atop the NL East with the defending World Series champion Nationals, the Mets and the Phillies all set to field strong rosters that could push for the top spot in the division.
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