The Braves are coming off a World Series title, but they didn’t merely attempt to run it back with last year’s roster. Instead, they allowed one of the faces of the franchise to depart in free agency. In his place, they acquired a hometown star whom they quickly signed to an extension. They also fortified the late innings by adding a few of the best relievers on the open market as they attempt to repeat.
Major League Signings
- Eddie Rosario, OF: Two years, $18MM (includes $9MM club option for 2024 season with no buyout)
- Kenley Jansen, RHP: One year, $16MM
- Collin McHugh, RHP: Two years, $10MM (includes $6MM club option for 2024 season with $1MM buyout)
- Kirby Yates, RHP: Two years, $8.25MM (includes $5.75MM club option for 2024 season with $1.25MM buyout)
- Manny Piña, C: Two years, $8MM (includes $4MM club option for 2024 season with no buyout)
- Alex Dickerson, OF: One year, $1MM
- Tyler Thornburg, RHP: One year, $900K
Total spend: $62.15MM
Trades and Claims
- Acquired 1B Matt Olson from the A’s for OF Cristian Pache, C Shea Langeliers, RHP Ryan Cusick, and RHP Joey Estes
- Acquired cash considerations from the Giants for RHP Tanner Andrews
- Acquired RHP Jay Jackson from the Giants for cash considerations or a player to be named later
Notable Minor League Signings
- Delino DeShields, Preston Tucker, Brock Holt, Phil Gosselin, Pat Valaika, Seth Elledge, R.J. Alaniz, Brandon Brennan, Brad Brach, Nick Vincent, Brandyn Sittinger, Michael Tonkin, Ryan Goins, Jackson Stephens, Darren O’Day
Freddie Freeman, Jorge Soler, Joc Pederson, Drew Smyly, Jesse Chavez, Chris Martin, Ehire Adrianza, Johan Camargo, Abraham Almonte, Stephen Vogt, Richard Rodriguez, Edgar Santana, Josh Tomlin, Terrance Gore, Grant Dayton
Coming off the club’s first World Series title since 1995, the Braves figured prominently in the hot stove season, if not quite as predicted. Despite a widespread (if dwindling) industry consensus that franchise cornerstone Freddie Freeman – the lone holdover from the period preceding the rebuild that followed its 2014 second-half collapse – would ultimately return to Atlanta, GM Alex Anthopoulos acted quickly when the lockout lifted, sending four prospects to the A’s for Matt Olson and signing him to a club-record eight-year, $168MM contract less than a day later.
Upsetting as the move may have been for Braves fans used to Freeman smiling and hugging his way through the Atlanta summer, Olson is one of a very small handful of first basemen capable of replacing the new Dodger’s ample production. From 2019 to 2021 (a period that includes Freeman’s monster 60-game MVP run in 2020), the Braves’ erstwhile face of the franchise compiled an elite .304/.402/.544 batting line, while his replacement put together a strong (if less eye-popping) .257/.354/.522 triple-slash. A closer look at the pair’s respective batted ball numbers suggest that Olson likely possesses a bit more power (he homered in 6.1% of his plate appearances over the same period, compared to Freeman’s 5%) if a bit less command of the strike zone (striking out 22.4% and walking 11.8% of the time compared to 16.4% and 13.2% for Freeman).
While the loss of a franchise stalwart could have downstream effects beyond questions of on-field performance, a closer look suggests Olson’s deal might actually offer the Braves more per-dollar value than Freeman likely would have had the club accepted either of the proposals reportedly put forward by his agent (per Buster Olney of ESPN): $175MM over six years or $165MM over five – or, for that matter, the six-year, $162MM pact he ultimately signed with the Dodgers. OPS+ (a park-adjusted metric that accounts for the fact that Freeman played his home games at roughly neutral Truist Park while Olson toiled in the pitcher-friendly confines of the Oakland Coliseum) gives Freeman only a slight edge (143 to 139) over the 2019-2021 period, with Olson’s 153 2021 mark solidly outpacing Freeman’s 134. Adding to the mix Olson’s superior defense – the 2021 Fielding Bible Awards ranked Olson second (to Paul Goldschmidt) and Freeman eighth – and the fact that he’s four years younger than Freeman makes the case for the long-term superiority of the former Athletic perfectly sound.
And though the question of Freeman’s future has clearly loomed largest in Anthopoulos’ mind since November, first base was hardly the only position at which the Braves began the offseason in flux. Indeed, of the four outfielders the Atlanta GM acquired ahead of the 2021 trade deadline (Joc Pederson, Adam Duvall, Jorge Soler, and Eddie Rosario), only Duvall (whom the Braves had non-tendered only a few months prior) came with any control beyond the season’s final two months. Both Soler (who got a three-year, $36MM deal with the Marlins) and Pederson (one-year, $6MM with the Giants) ultimately signed elsewhere, but the defending champs brought back Rosario –something of a folk hero in Atlanta after his MVP performance in the 2021 NLCS felled the Dodgers almost single-handedly – on a two-year, $18MM commitment, with a buyout-free $9MM option for 2024.
Anthopoulos reportedly maintained interest in Soler (the 2021 World Series MVP) even after re-signing Rosario, but the presence of Marcell Ozuna – who signed a four-year, $65MM deal ahead of the 2021 campaign but spent most of the season on administrative leave following a May domestic violence arrest – always suggested that Soler, who has a similar profile on both sides of the ball, was unlikely to be more than a rental. Ozuna has spent the early portion of 2022 alongside Duvall and Rosario in the outfield, but he’ll likely return to the DH role that he occupied for most of his dominant 2020 campaign following the return of Ronald Acuña Jr. from knee surgery, which is expected in late April or early May.
Whether Acuña plays right or center field upon his return remains to be seen. Duvall, who played center through the Braves’ 2021 playoff run but often gave way to Guillermo Heredia late in games, opens the season in center, but he’s a career corner outfielder (if a very good one). Heredia remains on the roster as the club’s fourth outfielder, but the departure of Cristian Pache (possibly a perennial Gold Glover if he can hit enough to stick in the bigs) in the Olson deal leaves Acuña – whom the Braves had previously seemed intent on penciling into right field for years to come – as the most plausible center fielder on the roster. This could change, of course, should either of the Braves’ top outfield prospects – Michael Harris and Drew Waters – force his way to the bigs at some point in 2022.
Beyond Olson and Rosario, though, the Braves didn’t do much to bolster an offense that ranked 13th in wRC+ in 2021, reportedly kicking the tires on Carlos Correa but ultimately adding only backstop Manny Piña (on a two-year, $8MM deal) to be Travis d’Arnaud’s deputy and outfielder Alex Dickerson (1-year, $1MM) to DH until Acuña’s return and offer some punch off the bench thereafter. (Dickerson’s deal was initially non-guaranteed, but he has since made the team.) Even so, they’ll hope for improvement in production from Ozuna’s return to action (and return to form after a disappointing start in 2021) and roughly 120 games from a healthy Acuña, as well as a deeper catching unit that won’t require manager Brian Snitker to give significant at-bats to Kevan Smith, Jonathan Lucroy, and Jeff Mathis should d’Arnaud suffer another injury like the torn thumb ligament that sidelined him for the bulk of 2021.
The Braves will also hope for continued production from what’s arguably one of the game’s best infields. Third baseman Austin Riley, who rebounded spectacularly from a mediocre showing in 2020 and an ice-cold start to 2021 to the point that he garnered a number of down-ballot MVP votes, could emerge as a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the Braves’ order. The double-play combination of Dansby Swanson (an impending free agent) and Ozzie Albies (under club control through 2027 for far less than market rate) provides substantial up-the-middle power potential (Swanson slugged at a .449 clip in 2021, Albies .488) if a bit less in the way of on-base rate (Swanson notched a .311 OBP in 2021, Albies .310) than might be desired.
On the pitching staff, Anthopoulos opted to stand pat in the rotation – Max Fried, Charlie Morton, and Ian Anderson anchor a group that opens the season with Huascar Ynoa and Kyle Wright in the fourth and fifth slots – but added substantial talent to a bullpen that had already proven itself capable of October dominance. He added Kirby Yates (expected to return around the All-Star break after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March 2021) on a two-year, $8.25MM pact ahead of the lockout and the versatile Collin McHugh for two years and $10MM shortly after it was lifted, as well as Tyler Thornburg on a non-guaranteed one-year deal and Darren O’Day on a minor-league deal (both have since made the team).
But the most surprising development came shortly after the open of Spring Training when longtime Dodger Kenley Jansen signed a one-year, $16MM deal to displace lefty Will Smith in the closer role. News of Luke Jackson’s season-ending arm injury (he’s since undergone Tommy John surgery) dampens expectations, but only minimally. Alongside the incumbent ‘Night Shift’ (a coinage of lefty Tyler Matzek to describe himself and fellow high-leverage arms Jackson, Smith, and A.J. Minter during the 2021 playoffs), Yates, McHugh, and Jansen give the Braves a strong case for the game’s best ’pen, even without Jackson in the fold.
As deep as the Atlanta bullpen looks on paper, though, the rotation appears comparatively thin. After losing Drew Smyly (who received a one-year, $5.25MM guarantee from the Cubs), Anthopoulos likely looked for a veteran innings-eater but evidently came up empty. Fried, Morton, and Anderson form a solid core, while either or both of Ynoa (who looked like the Braves’ best starter early in 2021 before breaking his hand punching the dugout in Milwaukee) and Wright (who’s lost much of his high-end prospect luster but dominated Triple-A in 2021 and turned in a crucial performance in long relief in Game 4 of the World Series) could settle into a spot in rotation.
Should any of this bunch succumb to injury or ineffectiveness, though, the Braves would be forced to turn to a stable of high-upside but unproven arms that includes Kyle Muller, Tucker Davidson, Bryce Elder, Touki Toussaint, and Spencer Strider. They’ll also hope for the return of Mike Soroka (who ruptured his Achilles tendon in his second start of the 2020 season before re-tearing the ligament while walking in the Braves’ clubhouse) at some point, but no one will be quite sure what to expect from the onetime ace-in-waiting after such a long layoff and a pair of career-threatening surgeries.
There’s a reason no team has repeated as World Series champs since the Yankees’ three-peat from 1998 to 2000, and the 2021 Braves – who didn’t spend a day over .500 until early August – were almost certainly not the ‘best’ team in baseball before they captured a virulent strain of October magic that will live in Atlanta sports lore for generations to come. And even after finishing second in attendance in 2021 and reporting a substantial revenue increase in October, corporate ownership group Liberty Media appears to have signed off on only a relatively modest payroll increase, pushing the Braves into the upper third of payrolls but well shy of the luxury tax threshold. Still, there’s a solid argument that the 2022 Braves could be a stronger overall club than their 2021 counterparts – particularly if they can stay healthy. The NL East should be much improved, but this year’s Braves team looks just as equipped as last season’s to make a deep run.