The Braves won the National League East for the third straight year in 2020, but they fell to the eventual World Series champion Dodgers in the LCS. Atlanta is now at risk of losing some important contributors to free agency.
- Ronald Acuna Jr., OF: $98MM through 2026 (including $10MM buyout for 2027)
- Ozzie Albies, 2B: $33MM through 2025 (including $4MM buyout for 2026)
- Will Smith, RP: $27MM through 2022 (including $1MM buyout for 2023)
- Freddie Freeman, 1B: $22MM through 2021
- Ender Inciarte, OF: $9.025MM through 2021 (including $1.025MM buyout for 2022)
- Travis d’Arnaud, C: $8MM through 2021
- Chris Martin, RP: $7MM through 2021
Note on arb-eligible players: this year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.
- Johan Camargo – $1.9MM
- Grant Dayton – $800K
- Adam Duvall – $4.7MM
- Max Fried – $2.4MM
- Luke Jackson – $1.9MM
- A.J. Minter – $1.1MM
- Mike Soroka – $1.8MM
- Dansby Swanson – $5.0MM
- Non-tender candidates: Camargo, Jackson
- O’Day, Marcell Ozuna, Cole Hamels, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Nick Markakis, Tyler Flowers, Adeiny Hechavarria, Pablo Sandoval, Josh Tomlin, Tommy Milone
The Braves have managed to pull off highly successful position players signings in each of the previous two offseasons. Heading into 2019, they added third baseman Josh Donaldson on a one-year, $23MM contract. The former MVP proceeded to rebound as a Brave, but they let him go last winter in lieu of giving him a longer deal. To replace Donaldson’s punch in their lineup, the Braves took the one-year route again when they inked outfielder Marcell Ozuna for $18MM. Like the Donaldson signing, the Ozuna pact couldn’t have gone much better for Atlanta. An above-average hitter throughout his career, the 29-year-old Ozuna found another gear in 2020 with an all-world .338/.431/.636 line and an NL-leading 18 home runs in 267 plate appearances.
While the Braves have benefited greatly from Ozuna, it’s possible his time in their uniform is up. The club has to decide in the coming weeks how far they’re willing to go to re-sign Ozuna, who MLBTR predicts will land a four-year, $72MM payday in free agency. General manager Alex Anthopoulos couldn’t issue Ozuna a qualifying offer after the Cardinals gave him one last year, so he may end up walking for nothing. Naturally, Anthopoulos has said he’d like to retain Ozuna. However, he didn’t make it sound like a slam dunk, and Anthopoulos also pointed out that it would be nice to have clarity on a potential 2021 DH. Ozuna spent most of his season there, lining up in the outfield 21 times.
In the event Ozuna leaves, the Braves will have several possible paths they could take to try to replace him. George Springer is the best outfielder in free agency, but the Braves could instead opt for another short-term play with someone like Michael Brantley or Joc Pederson if they want a proven hitter capable of playing left field to replace Ozuna.
Alternatively, the Braves could re-sign Nick Markakis — though that seems doubtful after his rough year — and/or simply stick with their in-house options as they wait for prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters to take on major league roles. They do have several options with Ronald Acuna Jr., Adam Duvall, Austin Riley, Ender Inciarte, Abraham Almonte and Johan Camargo on hand. The problem is that Acuna is the only player there who’s truly capable of striking fear into teams. In an ideal world, the Braves will be able to shed Inciarte’s $9.025MM in a trade, but that will be a challenge . Inciarte endured a terrible 2020, which will make teams even less likely to take on his money in today’s economic climate. The Braves would likely need to pay down a notable portion of the deal or take another bad contract back in return.
Moving elsewhere in the Braves’ lineup, the team has serious questions at third base. Riley is their main option there, but he had a disappointing year. So did Camargo, who now looks like a potential non-tender candidate. If the Braves are dissatisfied with them, they won’t be able to find much on the market after Justin Turner. He could make sense as another of Anthopoulos’ one- or two-year signings, though it remains to be seen whether he’d leave Los Angeles.
Another name to watch could be Cubs third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant, a prime trade candidate in whom the Braves have shown interest in the past. Bryant had a poor year in 2020 and will come with a salary in the $19MM range, meaning his value is depressed. That could give the Braves an opportunity to strike for a reasonable cost and hope the former MVP can regain his usual form in his final year of team control. He’d fit the Anthopoulos mold of a high-upside, one-year commitment to a star-caliber player.
The Braves are also going to have to address their pitching staff to some extent. They received brutal injury blows this year with Mike Soroka blowing out his Achilles tendon and Cole Hamels dealing with persistent arm issues. Hamels, whom the Braves signed to a one-year, $18MM contract last offseason, was a bust due to those injuries and should be expected to land elsewhere in free agency. Soroka will be back to join Max Fried and Ian Anderson, though, which will give the Braves an elite-looking trio at the helm of their rotation. That means they don’t necessarily have to shop at the absolute top of the market for Trevor Bauer, but it’s worth noting they don’t have any established hurlers behind Soroka, Fried and Anderson.
With the Braves likely to add at least one starter, Anthopoulos could look to reunite with one of the other top names available, Marcus Stroman. There’s a clear connection between the two, as Anthopoulos was the Blue Jays’ GM when they drafted Stroman in 2012. Less expensive possibilities in free agency could include ex-Brave Charlie Morton (who wants to stay on the East Coast), Adam Wainwright (whom the Braves have already contacted), Masahiro Tanaka, Jake Odorizzi, J.A. Happ, Jose Quintana, James Paxton, Corey Kluber, Taijuan Walker and Atlanta resident Jon Lester, among others. The Rangers’ Lance Lynn should be popular in trade talks, as he’s due an ultra-affordable $8MM in 2021 and may appeal to Atlanta as another one-year fit.
As is the case with their rotation, the Braves’ bullpen will undergo changes in the coming months. There has already been one significant development with the team’s choice to decline its $3.5MM option over Darren O’Day. The move saved the Braves $3MM, but it still came as a surprise to see them part with O’Day in the wake of an outstanding season. He’s now a free agent along with Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Josh Tomlin, who joined O’Day in providing effective production in 2020.
While Will Smith, Tyler Matzek, Chris Martin and A.J. Minter will again be in the fold next season, the Braves will have to replace at least some of their departing relievers. There won’t be any shortage of options on the market, which is led by Liam Hendriks, Brad Hand, Trevor May, Trevor Rosenthal and Blake Treinen. Alex Colome, Greg Holland, Kirby Yates and Jake McGee are also among those looking for work.
Along with handling outside business, it’s possible the Braves will attempt to extend superstar first baseman Freddie Freeman before next season. The franchise icon and career-long Brave is coming off his best season yet, one that should earn him NL MVP honors, and will enter a contract year in 2021. Freeman has said he’d like to remain a Brave (the feeling is surely mutual), though it’ll be costly for the club to keep him. The 31-year-old wouldn’t be out of line asking for a comparable extension to the five-year, $130MM guarantee the Cardinals gave first baseman Paul Goldschmidt in 2019. Of course, that was before the pandemic hit and damaged the game’s economy.
Locking up Freeman could certainly be on the Braves’ to-do list. He’ll be back in 2021 regardless, though, and it’s clear Anthopoulos has other work to do this offseason if he’s going to build a fourth straight division winner and a World Series-caliber roster.