As part of the team’s “Opener At Home” special on Friday evening, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos spent nearly 20 minutes chatting with broadcaster Chip Caray about the current state of baseball, the Braves’ roster and some of his offseason dealings (YouTube link).
First and foremost, the GM made clear that southpaw Cole Hamels, signed to a one-year, $18MM contract this winter but slowed by shoulder troubles, is now pain-free. “Under normal circumstances, he would’ve been going right now to get ready to start to prepare,” Anthopoulos said of the 36-year-old, implying that Hamels could’ve been embarking on a rehab assignment. Given that update, it seems reasonable to expect that Hamels will be a full strength if play is indeed able to resume this season.
Of course, that also have a domino effect on the rest of the pitching staff. Per Anthopoulos, two of Kyle Wright, Sean Newcomb and Felix Hernandez would’ve opened the season in the rotation. All three were throwing well in Spring Training, and a decision on those rotation spots was coming “down to the wire,” with the final couple of weeks set to prove pivotal in making that decision. Prior to the spring shutdown, here’s how each of the three had fared:
- Hernandez: 13 2/3 IP, 13 H, 3 ER, 5 BB, 14 K (1.98 ERA)
- Wright: 13 1/3 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 3 BB, 15 K (2.03 ERA)
- Newcomb: 9 IP, 8 H, 2 ER, 2BB, 11 K (2.00 ERA)
A healthy Hamels would likely take one of the rotation spots for which that trio is vying, although depending on how a new schedule is constructed — frequent doubleheaders and fewer off-days have been oft-speculated upon — it’s possible that a sixth starter could be needed. At the very least, one would imagine that with expanded rosters early in the season, it’s possible there could be a place for all three.
Also discussed was the Braves’ third base battle: a competition known to be comprised of slugger Austin Riley and the versatile Johan Camargo. Neither player was going to fill the Josh Donaldson-sized void in the lineup, but both had their share of promise. Riley was a consensus top 100 prospect entering the 2019 season and had a strong debut before tailing off over the final few months. Camargo enjoyed an excellent season in 2018 before a step back last year. But while the debate had long centered around which of the two would make the Opening Day roster, Anthopoulos indicated that it was no longer an either-or-scenario:
Camargo and Riley were playing unbelievably well. We hadn’t made a decision yet. We had started to talk — the fact that with the minor league season scheduled to start on April 9, and we were going to start the 26th of March — we had started to talk about just carrying both. There was no reason, really, to leave them down in Florida. They both had been playing well enough to make the team. If it got to a point where we thought one of them needed to play each day, that would’ve been a conversation we could’ve had right when Gwinnett was going to open the season around [April 9], we could’ve sent a player down at that point.
It still seems likely that one of the two would’ve been tabbed for the lion’s share of playing time, but the fact that both were possibly in line for an Opening Day gig is of note. That’s particularly true given not only the likelihood of expanded rosters but also because it’s not yet certain just how (or if) the minor league season will be able to come together. With minor league play even more uncertain than big league play, it’s all the likelier that the Braves would carry both players on the roster to ensure they could get both could get in-game reps — even if it’s on less than an everyday basis.
Asked about his aggressive bullpen makeover — the Braves acquired Shane Greene, Chris Martin and Mark Melancon last July before re-signing Martin and Darren O’Day and signing Will Smith — Anthopoulos was candid about how his moves were shaped by his relievers’ struggles early in 2019.
I think a lot of it was just not having to live through the experience that we had in 2019. Obviously we had a great year — we won more games than we did in 2018, we had a great team — but our bullpen was up and down the entire year. … Having to give up a ton of young assets at the trade deadline is not something we want to have to go through again.
The Braves, Anthopoulos explained, had sought to make upgrades in the previous offseason but didn’t find deals to their liking either in free agency or on the trade market. But the poor first half and the postseason struggles — the GM pointed out that the Braves blew late leads in two of their first four NLDS losses prior to the Game 5 blowout — pushed the Braves to take an “aggressive” approach to the bullpen. Atlanta indeed spent a combined $56.25MM on Smith, Martin and O’Day this winter — plus the $14MM of the Melancon deal they took on at the deadline and a $6.25MM arbitration salary for Greene — in hopes of creating a deeper bullpen that could be called on to hold leads late in games but also in the middle innings.
Assuming the season is able to resume, the Braves will be considered clear postseason favorites, and the depth to which Anthopoulos makes frequent reference in his chat with Caray will be all the more vital if a condensed schedule is to be played. If nothing else, it’s a welcome distraction to hear a top-ranking executive talk about roster construction, offseason maneuverings and challenges/advantages that’ll be relevant the next time his team takes the field.