After winning their third straight NL East title and falling one victory shy of a World Series berth in 2020, the Braves made a few notable moves in free agency.
Major League Signings
- Marcell Ozuna, OF: Four years, $65MM (includes $16MM option or $1MM buyout for 2025)
- Charlie Morton, RHP: One year, $15MM
- Drew Smyly, LHP: One year, $11MM
- Josh Tomlin, RHP: One year, $1.25MMM
- Jake Lamb, 3B: One year, $1MM (non-guaranteed MLB deal; Lamb was later released)
- Total spend: $92.25MM
Trades And Claims
- Acquired RHP Edgar Santana from the Pirates for cash considerations
- Acquired INF Orlando Arcia from the Brewers for RHPs Chad Sobotka and Patrick Weigel
- Acquired cash considerations from the Angels for INF Jack Mayfield
- Claimed OF Guillermo Heredia from the Mets
- Claimed OF Phil Ervin from the Cubs
- Claimed INF/OF Travis Demeritte from the Tigers
- Claimed RHP Victor Arano from the Phillies
- Claimed OF Kyle Garlick from the Phillies (later lost on waivers to the Twins)
- Claimed INF Jack Mayfield from the Astros (later traded)
Notable Minor League Signings
- Pablo Sandoval, Jason Kipnis, Nate Jones, Jeff Mathis, Carl Edwards Jr., Yolmer Sanchez, Jesse Biddle, Chasen Bradford, Ryan Goins, Terrance Gore, Travis Snider, Ehire Adrianza, Abraham Almonte
- Shane Greene, Darren O’Day, Mark Melancon, Adam Duvall, Cole Hamels, Nick Markakis, Tyler Flowers, Adeiny Hechavarria, Tommy Milone
One of the main questions the Braves faced entering the offseason was whether they would re-sign outfielder Marcell Ozuna – who had a monster year in 2020 – or replace him with another big bat via free agency or the trade market. Liberty Media, the publicly traded company that owns the Braves, experienced a significant drop in revenue during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. The Braves could have used that as an excuse (albeit not a very sympathetic one for fans) to avoid going big-game hunting in the winter. Nevertheless, rumors connected the Braves to a slew of noteworthy offensive pieces, including J.T. Realmuto, DJ LeMahieu and Justin Turner on the open market and Nolan Arenado in a potential trade.
Ultimately, even though it hasn’t been general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ M.O. to hand out long-term paydays in free agency, Ozuna stuck around on a four-year, $65MM guarantee. Ozuna wasn’t eligible for a qualifying offer, so he would have walked for no compensation had the Braves let him go. And though Ozuna spent most of last season at designated hitter, the Braves knew they’d have to send him back to left field on a full-time basis this year had the majors done away with the universal DH. As it turned out, the league did just that, though the DH could return to the NL in 2022 if MLB and the union sign off on it in collective bargaining agreement negotiations next winter.
Ozuna was the lone major addition the Braves made on offense, but they didn’t need much with a Ronald Acuna Jr.-, Freddie Freeman– and Ozuna-led lineup that finished second in the NL in runs and third in wRC+ last year. That said, third base was a liability for the Braves, which explains why they at least had some interest in LeMahieu, Turner and Arenado. Having struck out with that group, the Braves took an inexpensive shot at Jake Lamb – a former All-Star who enjoyed a strong stretch run – only to release him before the season.
Failure to bring in a clear solution left the Braves with last year’s starter, Austin Riley, as their No. 1 option at the hot corner. Riley was a high-end prospect in his minor league days, and he’s still just 24 years old, but the results simply haven’t been there since he debuted in 2019. He’s off to another poor start this season, and if he doesn’t make significant improvements, it would behoove the Braves to pursue an in-season upgrade; that is, if they’re in contention.
While the Braves’ offense was marvelous last season, the same wasn’t true of their rotation. Mike Soroka and Cole Hamels were supposed to play integral roles, but those plans went up in smoke because of injuries. Soroka made just three starts before suffering a torn right Achilles tendon, while Hamels totaled only one appearance because of shoulder troubles. Fortunately for Atlanta, Max Fried and Ian Anderson more than pulled their weight across a combined 17 starts. Unfortunately, no one else provided much.
Fried and Anderson exited last season as shoo-ins to start for the Braves at the outset this year, while the hope was that Soroka would be back for the opener or at least shortly after that. Still, despite those three and the presences of other young starters such as Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright, the Braves needed to add to their rotation in the offseason. There were rumored possibilities in Blake Snell and Adam Wainwright, but the Braves ended up signing righty Charlie Morton and lefty Drew Smyly instead. Anthopoulos brought in the pair on one-year deals, which has been fairly typical of how he has handled free agency.
Even though they didn’t require long-term commitments, there was certainly some risk in inking Morton ($15MM) and Smyly ($11MM). Morton, who began his career with the Braves in 2008, finally broke out in 2017 with Houston and was superb with the Astros and then the Rays through 2019. His numbers took some steps backward in Tampa Bay last year, though, and he’s now in his age-37 season. Morton’s 4.76 ERA early this season just about matches the 4.74 mark he recorded a year ago, but to be fair, his strong peripherals suggest a turnaround is coming in the run prevention department.
Although Smyly, 31, is younger and cheaper than Morton, he was an even riskier pick. After a promising start to his career, Smyly missed all of 2017 and ’18 because of Tommy John surgery, and he returned in 2019 to post unsightly numbers. Smyly, however, enjoyed a highly encouraging rebound in seven appearances (five starts) with the Giants last season. That convinced Anthopoulos to take a somewhat costly chance on Smyly, and though he has allowed nine earned runs in just 11 innings as a Brave, he has struck out 11 while issuing just one walk.
Of course, the fact that Morton and Smyly haven’t kept runs off the board at a solid clip isn’t the only problem the Braves’ rotation has faced. Like last year, they’re again battling multiple important injuries. As mentioned before, Soroka looked on track to return by early April. However, the Braves had to shut him down April 7 because of a new issue – shoulder inflammation – and there isn’t a timeline for his return at the moment. Meanwhile, Fried – a Cy Young contender in 2020 – got off to a brutal start this year in allowing 14 earned runs on 23 hits and five walks in 11 innings before landing on the IL this week with a strained hamstring. The hope is that he won’t be out for too long, but it’s certainly a discouraging development for the Braves that they’re facing attrition in their rotation for the second consecutive season.
The Braves’ bullpen helped pick up the slack last year, when Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Darren O’Day each played key roles. All three are now gone, though Greene is oddly still available in free agency. Melancon took a more-than-reasonable $3MM guarantee with the Padres and has been his usual effective self this year. It was surprising to see the Braves decline an affordable $3.5MM option for O’Day in favor of a $500K buyout when the offseason began, and he’s off to a nice start as a Yankee this year.
The Braves didn’t do much to replace Melancon, Greene and O’Day. They did show interest in the No. 1 available reliever, Liam Hendriks, but he chose the White Sox’s four-year, $54MM offer. In the end, the Braves’ “big” bullpen move was to re-sign Josh Tomlin for $1.25MM, and they also took minor league flyers on some veteran relievers. One of those minors pickups, Nate Jones, is now in their bullpen. He hasn’t pitched all that well in the early going, though the bullpen as a whole actually has held up despite the lack of offseason upgrades. It’s currently top 10 in the majors in FIP, ERA and K-BB percentage.
Atlanta went into the offseason as a final four team looking to get over the hump and build a World Series-winning squad for the first time since 1996. The results haven’t been great thus far, as the Braves have lost eight of their first 13 games. Nevertheless, the talent is there for the Braves to at least push for another NL East title, if not more.
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