If the Braves are to repeat their 2018 division title, they’ll likely require significant contributions from some talented young players. Gabriel Burns of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution examines the status of still-youthful lefty Luiz Gohara, who has shown immense ability but is now looking to reestablish himself after a difficult 2018 both on and off the field. Gohara is said not only to be in much-improved physical condition, carrying less weight and with a healthy shoulder, but also to possess a newfound focus on his craft.
- When Atlanta was pursuing catcher J.T. Realmuto, whom Miami has since traded to Philadelphia, Braves infielder Johan Camargo drew the Marlins’ interest, Heyman reports. The Braves continue to view Camargo as a key piece, however, despite the one-year, $23MM deal they struck with third baseman Josh Donaldson earlier this offseason. Camargo is coming off a terrific 2018, which he spent at third and posted 3.3 fWAR with a .272/.349/.457 line and 19 home runs in 524 plate appearances. Though Camargo doesn’t have a set position heading into the new season, the 25-year-old should see plenty of action nonetheless. Adding to his appeal, Camargo’s controllable for the next half-decade, including one more pre-arbitration season.
Braves fans have been none too pleased to see a surprising NL East title and NLDS appearance followed up by a relatively quiet offseason. While Atlanta made a big splash early by signing Josh Donaldson to a one-year deal and followed that with the nostalgic addition of Brian McCann, there’s been little activity since. Atlanta re-upped with Nick Markakis on an affordable one-year deal which, while reasonable from a financial perspective, did little to satiate those who’d been hoping for a higher-profile splash. The Braves remain a clear contender in a densely packed NL East, but have arguably bypassed some worthwhile chances to boost their odds of a repeat division title.
At the time of the Markakis re-signing, Atlanta GM Alex Anthopoulos preached that the pickup created unexpected financial flexibility and suggested that further additions could be made as a result. (“Nick coming back on these terms allow[s] us to pursue other things, have financial flexibility to improve the club in other ways.”) Since then, however, the club has remained quiet, and Anthopoulos has publicly cast doubt on the possibility of a reunion with Craig Kimbrel, suggesting that allocating “big, elite dollars” to a reliever may not be feasible for the organization.
With fan frustration building, Anthopoulos and Braves chairman Terry McGuirk told their side of the story to Jeff Schultz and David O’Brien of The Athletic (subscription link). It’s obviously well worth a read in its entirety, for Braves fans in particular, though the broader takeaways largely reflect prior statements from Anthopoulos. We’ll run through some of the most salient points here.
McGuirk emphasized throughout the interview that the team’s 40-man payroll is higher now than it was a year ago. He drew a distinction to the 2018 version of the club, which was paying a variety of expensive players who were no longer with the organization. The organization is “being very careful” to avoid the “mistake” of taking on a deal that turns into “dead money,” he emphasized. Anthopoulos also stressed the importance of managing contract length. A player “might fit the 2019 club,” he noted, “[b]ut what if you’re signing the guy to a long-term deal?”
Those talking points dovetail with the club’s stance that its available payroll is in fact rising. Per the execs, it’s just that the team has not elected to deploy it all and is being cautious not to over-commit its future resources. Anthopoulos sought to explain the seeming disconnect between the organization’s longstanding assertion that it’d have plenty of spending capacity this winter and the general lack of activity. There was and is “a lot of room” to spend, he said, “but that doesn’t mean we’re going to [spend the available payroll] just for the sake of doing it.”
The issue, per Anthopoulos, isn’t that the club can’t afford some of the players who have gone off the board. It’s that the front office does not “believe in some of the deals right now.” Both executives also emphasized a need to budget for possible mid-season acquisitions. While the offseason is “certainly relevant … the psychological value when you add to your team at the trade deadline is appreciable,” says McGuirk.
So, how does the club view its payroll position in comparison to the rest of the league? Both interviewees emphasized the upward trajectory more than the present commitments. “Our budgeted number absolutely is trending toward the middle” of spending league-wide, says Anthopoulos. By McGuirk’s reckoning: “We’ve been a bottom-10 payroll team for a couple of years. We’ve messaged that we want to get to the middle, and I think this year begins to get us to that neighborhood. I expect that we push beyond that in the coming five years.”
There are certainly those who’d say the pace ought to increase, particularly given the strides made last season. McGuirk says he has the authority to authorize spending as he sees fit, without interference from the club’s corporate ownership group. “We’ve never ever checked with Liberty on a salary decision, a free-agent signing, nothing,” he says. But what of the earnings from the new ballpark and last year’s postseason run? Paying down debt and principal on the club’s ballpark project will “produce profitability” in the future, he says, and that will help the organization move “from that small middle-market team to high middle-market team to even potentially something bigger.”
Is the organization cheap or a budding financial behemoth? Has it missed opportunities or averted risks? Is the front office blowing chances or wisely propping open windows? Fans will have to reach their own conclusions as to the validity of the explanations proffered.
So far as near-term roster considerations are concerned, the outlook remains murky. “We still have an appreciable amount of dry powder ready to go,” says McGuirk. Meanwhile, Anthopoulos says it’s a “coin flip” as to whether he’ll make another notable addition between now and Opening Day (which Schultz defined as a top two starter, an everyday player or a high-end reliever). At the same time, many of the above-cited comments seem to cast doubt on the likelihood of additional spending. The team “explored” but passed on adding Charlie Morton, Anibal Sanchez, Sonny Gray, Edwin Diaz, and J.T. Realmuto this winter, Anthopoulos acknowledged, so the organization has knocked on doors. At the same time, as Anthopoulos puts it, “we’re just not going to force it.”
- Although the Braves have been quiet in terms of roster additions since signing Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann early in the offseason, David O’Brien of The Athletic tweets that the team expects payroll to increase over its year-end mark of $126MM, be it via spring additions or in-season player acquisition. Atlanta currently has a projected payroll of about $118MM, which would suggest there’s room for at least another $8-9MM to be added, though O’Brien notes that the organization is (unsurprisingly) not divulging a target number for the 2019 payroll. At the time of Nick Markakis’ return to the organization last month, general manager Alex Anthopoulos spoke about how the relatively low guarantee on that contract could provide some additional flexibility down the line, though that has yet to manifest in the form of a roster move.
- Outfielder Michael Brantley accepted Houston’s two-year, $32MM back in December, but the Braves came “very close” to matching the Astros’ offer, Mark Bowman of MLB.com reports. A month after losing out on Brantley, the Braves brought back the less exciting Nick Markakis on a one-year, $6MM deal to fill their vacancy in the corner outfield. For the second straight year, Markakis, Ender Inciarte and young superstar Ronald Acuna are in line to accrue the lion’s share of playing time among Braves outfielders.
Following a merciful coda to the offseason’s most protracted soap opera – a fine Philly offer, agreed upon Thursday, that finally plucked former Marlin catcher J.T. Realmuto from the clutches of South Beach – each of the oft-snubbed clubs offered their final say.
We’ll start in Atlanta, in whose court the Realmuto ball seemed to linger longest – indeed, per Jon Heyman of MLB Network, the team needed only to surrender two from the group of Austin Riley, Cristian Pache, and one top pitching prospect (of which Atlanta has several: each of Mike Soroka, Ian Anderson, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright, and Joey Wentz are top 100 prospects in at least one major outlet). Ozzie Albies, said to be an essential part of any Realmuto deal with Atlanta, was never a demanded centerpiece, per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. Though certainly a substantial return, it’s a package that can’t be said, by any reasonable analysis, to be one that would have stripped the farm of the suddenly-conservative Braves to the bone.
The ask of the Dodgers, ever-cautious themselves, was two from a group of Dustin May, Keibert Ruiz, Gavin Lux, and Will Smith, per Heyman, in the same tweet. Ruiz and Smith, both catchers, likely won’t ever be on the field together at Chavez Ravine, and some outlets ranked neither May nor Lux inside the top 100. Both Heyman and Rosenthal concede that Cody Bellinger was the prize on which Miami initially laid its eyes, but it appears the team quickly swiveled to less-established names in the weeks to follow.
Rosenthal confirms earlier reports that the Fish first coveted outfielder Michael Conforto or Amed Rosario from the Mets, and adds that the team also needed a “top shortstop prospect,” presumably Andres Gimenez, to be added to the deal. It doesn’t appear the club pivoted to other names after the Mets balked, likely owing to the thinned-out version of the late-offseason Mets farm.
From the Yankees, the club did seek Gary Sanchez and Miguel Andujar, per Rosenthal, but only part of a “larger deal” that would obviously have included additional pieces. The Bombers were understandably reluctant to trade either, and the wheat of the Yankee farm – stocked mostly with high-upside, low-level types – wouldn’t have been enough to secure Realmuto’s services. The reported three-team with the Mets that would have sent Noah Syndergaard to New York was bandied about, but a copacetic swap was “never close.”
Cincinnati was both late to the fore and hesitant to move any of its top three prospects, per Rosenthal, and it doesn’t appear a deal was close there, either. Perhaps surprisingly, given the intense scrutiny of the talks, both the Twins and White Sox were “in the mix,” though prospective returns and/or offers are still in the dark.
In the end, Miami seems more than content with its return. The Fish regarded Will Stewart, the trade’s third piece, as Philadelphia’s second-best pitching prospect, per Rosenthal, ahead of near-unanimous top-100 hurler Adonis Medina, righty Spencer Howard, who placed 52nd on Keith Law’s list, and lefty JoJo Romero (66th overall, per Law). Sixto Sanchez, of course, has a decent shot to be an ace, and it’s certainly true that the club could reap more value in Jorge Alfaro alone than it would in the next two seasons with Realmuto behind the dish. The oft-pilloried asks, long said to far outstrip the two-year value of the game’s premier offseason trade target, were, in most respects, perfectly reasonable, and may have quickly been met in eras bygone. This, though, is the time for prospect hoarding, an age in which the control is treasured above all else, and those with even the slightest chance to be stars are stashed deep away, brought out only for the most earnest of window shoppers.
In an offseason that will be remembered for teams’ reluctance to shell out big money for the Hot Stove season’s biggest names, the NL East has been an outlier. Three of its teams–the Mets, Nationals, and Phillies–have gone against the grain, employing aggressive strategies and eyeing a 2019 division title in what appears to be an open field. Certainly, the division projects to be one of baseball’s most competitive in the upcoming season, featuring four teams that have at least a fighter’s chance at seizing the NL East crown. After the Nationals’ dominating run atop the division in recent years, the club took a step back in 2018, all while the Braves and Phillies enjoyed seemingly premature success. And with the Nationals preparing to bid goodbye to their franchise player, there is no clear favorite to win the division as spring training draws near. Which team’s slate of offseason moves will lead to a postseason appearance?
The Mets turned heads with their blockbuster December trade to acquire Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano from the rebuilding Mariners, loudly marking the arrival a new front office regime headed by general manager Brodie Van Wagenen. Van Wagenen has placed his club firmly in “win-now” territory, supplementing the Diaz deal with signings of solid regulars Wilson Ramos and Jed Lowrie, to say nothing of his efforts to shore up a lackluster bullpen with the additions of Jeurys Familia, Justin Wilson, and Luis Avilan. Van Wagenen has not been shy about making trades, swinging three separate deals that brought Keon Broxton and J.D. Davis to New York and shipped backstop Kevin Plawecki to Cleveland. The club was also rumored to have offered $64MM to Yasmani Grandal–who ultimately declined and signed with the Brewers–and has been linked to Gio Gonzalez to round out an already-stellar starting rotation. The Mets will also count on a contribution from first baseman Peter Alonso, who made a name for himself with his display of power in 2018, slugging 36 total home runs across two levels of the minors. It remains to be seen whether the revamped roster will be enough to carry the Mets into October, but the team’s aggressiveness this winter has certainly put them in position to compete.
Though it’s entirely possible that Bryce Harper has played his last game in a Nationals uniform, the team still appears well-equipped for another run at the postseason in 2019. Owner Ted Lerner, for his part, has exhibited a willingness to invest heavily in the current iteration of the Nationals: the team has already doled out the offseason’s single largest contract of the offseason, adding standout lefty Patrick Corbin to a pitching staff that already features Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Furthermore, the club was reported to have offered Bryce Harper at least $300MM to remain in the nation’s capital for the next decade. All that not to mention the additions of Brian Dozier, Kurt Suzuki, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Matt Adams, and Anibal Sanchez. Dozier, who was hamstrung by injuries in 2018, will look to return to form as a right-handed power bat who can play up the middle. Suzuki will work in tandem with trade acquisition Yan Gomes to stabilize the catcher position, where the Nationals sorely lacked for production in 2018. Sanchez, who enjoyed a career renaissance last season, will slot in behind the big names as the fourth starter. Even if Harper decides to play out his prime elsewhere, the Nats still feel comfortable with their outfield mix moving forward. Standout rookie Juan Soto will be joined by highly-touted prospect Victor Robles and veteran Adam Eaton, who has posted an impressive .816 OPS in his injury-shortened Nationals career.
With today’s acquisition of catcher J.T. Realmuto, one of the offseason’s most sought-after prizes, the Phillies have vaulted themselves into the conversation atop the NL East. Entering the offseason, the circumstances were clear: Phillies ownership was sitting on heaps of money, fully preparing to invest it into one, if not both, of the top available players. While Phillies fans have thus far had to settle for the likes of Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, David Robertson, and now Realmuto, both Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned, and Philadelphia remains in play for the two megastars. Even without one of Harper or Machado, the Phillies can’t be discounted in the race to the top of the NL East. Though the team finished with an unimpressive 80 wins in 2018, Philadelphia kept pace with the Nationals and Braves for much of the season, until a late-season collapse took them out of the race. Gabe Kapler and his staff will lean on leadership from veterans Realmuto, McCutchen, and Robertson in an effort to prevent the club from running out of gas again in 2019. Considering the possibility that Philly’s biggest moves have yet to come, Phillies leadership must feel optimistic about their team’s chances moving forward.
The 2018 division winners, the Braves, have largely remained quiet in the winter. With their rebuild taking off seemingly a year ahead of schedule, team leadership, sitting on a farm system brimming with potential impact players, may be hesitant to commit fully to a win-now mentality. After inking 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson to a one-year deal early in the offseason, the team’s biggest move has been to bring back 2018 All-Star Nick Markakis on a one-year contract. Many onlookers have expressed frustration at the team’s hesitance to pursue big names, but Atlanta evidently feels content to bank on steps forward from its young core, including Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, and Dansby Swanson, as well as contributions from its gaggle of young pitchers–Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint, and Kyle Wright, among others. Meanwhile, in Miami, expectations are low. The trade of J.T. Realmuto is the latest in a series of trades that have gutted the major-league roster over the last two years. Other casualties of the offseason include Derek Dietrich, Nick Wittgren, and the aforementioned Barraclough. And while the club has made canny signings of Curtis Granderson and Neil Walker, the focus in Miami is firmly on the future. Although a growing crop of farmhands may make the Marlins a real threat in the 2020s, fans should prepare for another season in the cellar of the NL East.
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Rounding up the latest in minor moves from around the game . . .
- The Braves have reportedly agreed to a minor league deal with veteran reliever Ben Rowen. Rowen, an extreme submariner, is the owner of a rare high-grounder, low-walk profile, and has turned in a number of impressive seasons at the AAA level. The 30-year-old’s last big-league appearance came in 2016 with Milwaukee, for whom he made three late-season appearances. The Virginia Tech-product debut also threw 8 innings for the 2014 Rangers, but has mostly made his way around the International and Pacific Coast Leagues over the last six seasons. In 245 career innings at the Triple-A level, the 6’4 righty has pitched to a stellar 3.08 ERA, allowing just 0.44 homers per nine. He figures to be a candidate for the Peter Moylan role at the front end of the Atlanta bullpen, and should make a nifty righty specialist if the club can spare the roster space.
The Marlins’ trade talks centering around J.T. Realmuto have reached “advanced stages,” reports Joe Frisaro of MLB.com, who lists four possible suitors still in the mix: the Padres, Reds, Dodgers and Braves.
While the report seems to advance things from previous levels, it should be pointed out that this isn’t the first time talks have reportedly gained momentum. In fact, that exact terminology (“gaining momentum”) was used last Friday with no deal yet coming to fruition. Earlier this week, the Reds were said to have “made progress” on a Realmuto swap before those reports were walked back, and it’s now been three weeks to the day since the Marlins were first reported to be in “substantive” trade talks regarding Realmuto.
Whatever is going on behind the scenes, it seems clear that there has at times been a concerted effort to convey the idea that talks have been more productive than is the case in actuality. Perhaps that’s the Miami organization trying to pressure other clubs to inch their offers toward the reported sky-high asking price, but with all due respect to those involved, it’s become difficult to determine just how close a deal is to reality. For instance, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweets that the Dodgers aren’t even active in their pursuit at the moment but adds the Rays to the list of current pursuers; Frisaro’s report, in contradictory fashion, says the Rays and Astros look to have largely bowed out of the race while listing the Dodgers as a factor. MLB.com’s Jon Morosi tweeted last night that the Padres are more involved than the Dodgers.
The greatest cause for optimism regarding a terminus in this exhausting saga could be the latest column from The Athletic’s Dennis Lin (subscription required), wherein he writes that there are “signs that [the asking price] has come down in recent days.” The Padres have reportedly sought an extension with Realmuto as a contingency in any trade, though Lin now writes that the organization remains confident it could sell the catcher on its promising future even though the Marlins have denied interested teams a window to negotiate a long-term deal.
Over the past week, the Padres and Reds have been the two teams most strongly linked to Realmuto, with Atlanta, Los Angeles and Tampa Bay oft rumored to be involved to varying extents. The continually conflicting depiction of the extent to which each is (or isn’t) interested makes individual updates perhaps worth taking with a grain of salt. However, the pronounced increase of rumors surrounding Realmuto does seem to lend credence to the notion that the Marlins have upped their efforts to find a palatable deal.
4:30pm: While the Reds’ interest in Realmuto is genuine, tweets C. Trent Rosecrans of The Athletic, the organization also doesn’t view him as a necessity and isn’t willing to overpay in order to acquire the All-Star.
Jan. 29, 9:13am: Whatever progress was made has clearly not yet resulted in a deal. It’s not just that the Marlins want to wait to see if other clubs will increase their offers. Rather, per Heyman (via Twitter), the Fish and the Reds are “still apart on prospects,” with other clubs also still engaged with the Miami organization.
Jan. 28, 3:59pm: MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro tweets that there are “substantive” talks ongoing between Cincinnati and Miami, adding that India is indeed a player being discussed as part of the return.
The Marlins, though, are still talking with the Dodgers and Padres, at the very least, and are seeking the best package of two to four players they can obtain.
3:03pm: Third base prospect Jonathan India, whom the Reds selected with the No. 5 overall pick in this past summer’s draft, is also of interest to the Marlins, Heyman tweets. The former Florida Gators star hit a combined .240/.380/.433 in 184 plate appearances this past season in his pro debut — though he struggled in the Class-A Midwest League a bit after tearing through the Rookie-level Appalachian League with a .995 OPS in 14 games (the type of production one would expect from a fairly polished college bat in Rookie ball).
2:37pm: The Reds are “making progress” in their effort to pry catcher J.T. Realmuto away from the Marlins, reports Fancred’s Jon Heyman (Twitter links). Prospects Nick Senzel, Taylor Trammell and Hunter Greene are all of interest to Miami, Heyman notes, which isn’t exactly a surprise given that they’re the organization’s consensus top three farmhands. Cincinnati is reluctant to part with any of that trio, but the two sides still appear to be gaining steam. Tucker Barnhart could be part of the package going back to Miami if a deal is reached, Heyman adds.
Whether it’s with the Reds or another club, it does seem as though the Marlins are at long last moving toward a deal. SiriusXM’s Craig Mish tweets that the Padres have been making a “late charge” for Realmuto and suggests that the “final chapter of the saga is upon us.” Heyman tweets that the Padres and Dodgers have been among the most aggressive teams in pursuit of Realmuto in recent days, prior to Cincinnati’s increased efforts. The Braves, according to Mish, are also in the mix though perhaps not to the same extent as the other three.
If the Reds are to ultimately strike a deal, it’ll be the latest move in an aggressive offseason of trades that has dramatically altered the complexion of the club. Cincinnati has already acquired (and extended) Sonny Gray in a deal with the Yankees, and the Reds have also picked up Alex Wood, Tanner Roark, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp in another pair of deals.
While catcher isn’t a clear-cut area of need given that Barnhart is a solid option behind the dish himself, Realmuto has emerged as arguably the game’s best all-around catcher over the past couple of seasons, meaning he’d still be an upgrade for the Reds if Barnhart is indeed shipped to Miami as part of the trade. It should be noted, too, that Barnhart took a step back in several key areas last year; the 28-year-old had a career-high strikeout rate (18.4%) and saw his OBP and average dip as his batting average on balls in play regressed closer to his career norm.
Even defensively, the well-regarded Barnhart saw his caught-stealing rate plummet from a league-leading 44 percent in 2017 to a below-average 24 percent in 2018. In spite of his 2017 Gold Glove Award and strong reputation, Barnhart has never graded out as a plus pitch-framer, but he posted the worst marks of his career in that regard in 2018 as well (per Baseball Prospectus).
All of that said, Barnhart is still a .257/.331/.374 hitter across the past four seasons, and while the resulting 88 OPS+ is below average relative to the rest of the league, it checks in a bit better than that of the average catcher over that same span. He’d be a better replacement for Realmuto than the majority of the free-agent options remaining on the market, and with $10.25MM guaranteed to him over the next three seasons (plus a 2022 option), he’d be plenty affordable even for the low-spending Marlins. He’d also give Miami another potential trade piece should the team look to flip him quickly this offseason or perhaps this summer at the deadline.