You’ve already heard at length how much the team exceeded expectations this year. They improved their win total by a whopping 18 games to go from 72-90 to 90-72. They needed several rookies and young players to hit all at once, and in some ways, that’s exactly what happened. From the 2017 roster, more players than I can list contributed seasons the 2017 roster didn’t experience. But it didn’t take but 4 games into the playoffs to see that this team is still a long ways off from accomplishing the goal that necessitated The Great Rebuild, to build a roster that can compete with teams like the Dodgers, Astros, Yankees, Red Sox, Brewers, Cubs, Indians, etc. The Braves realistically need to add another 10 wins to their roster between now and Opening Day.
That’s the bad news. The good news is the Braves have lots of resources and lots of routes to take to do it. From the second half 2018 roster, the only expiring contracts are Nick Markakis, Anibal Sanchez, and Brad Brach. It’s good and bad in some ways; we will lose very few players from the roster, but it also means several positions leave an incumbent player that they would need to oust to improve that position. While I know there’s the temptation to leave the core of a successful team in place after a strong season, should the Braves not land Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, some pruning of the cost-controlled players may be necessary.
But let’s talk about what the Braves have to work with before they traded an active roster player. Should the payroll stay constant, the Braves could have as much as $50M to spend on free agents and extensions. After years of dead money tied up in Dan Uggla, Melvin Upton, Chris Johnson, Matt Kemp, and a series of salary swaps, the Braves currently have no dead money on their books. And the Braves have significantly more monetary value in the stash of prospects they have that could factor into trades. Without getting too detailed, one could take a 60-70% likelihood of a player reaching their peak amongst the high minors prospects that don’t currently appear to have a defined spot on the team: Max Fried, Kolby Allard, Luiz Gohara, Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright, Patrick Weigel, Austin Riley, and even Cristian Pache. For the sake of simplicity, say that each player has an average peak of 18 WAR for the years of control the team could have. Then take 50% of that total, and that leaves you with 63 WAR. Adjusting for arbitration raises, you could make an argument that each WAR has a monetary value of $3-4M. Once again, for the sake of simplicity, there’s at least $180-200M in surplus value in the players that the Braves could easily choose to trade to build the roster further.
The Braves may also try to deal off Julio Teheran. With Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Kevin Gausman, Mike Soroka, and Touki Toussaint having the talent and cost-control to command spots in the rotation, there’s the possibility the Braves may feel that the $11.1M in 2019 and $12M in 2020 owed to Teheran might be better spent elsewhere. And while Teheran has been frustratingly inconsistent from year-to-year and has never reached the top of the rotation status he appeared to project in his early 20’s, he will be tradeable as, at worst, a salary dump and may even have some surplus value. Without spending too much time on this topic, Sean Newcomb is another name from the 2018 rotation that the Braves may look at cashing in on.
So the Braves have a lot to work with, and as was mentioned, there are still holes in the roster to fill. They need at least two middle of the order threats, at least one shutdown bullpen piece, and at least one top of the rotation starter. Their bench is also rather anemic, though that can be easily filled in free agency should they so choose. So where do they get all of that?
Middle of the Order Threats
I stop short of saying that there are specific positions where the Braves need to upgrade. An easy answer is right field, which will most likely be vacated by Nick Markakis, and considering how seemingly easy it is to find middle of the order power in the corner spots, this would seem like a logical spot. And there’s a particular fella Bryce Harper who is high on many, many teams’ lists to provide some big offensive firepower. It would really seem like the Braves are a perfect fit for Harper, but that fit is largely based on the fact that he’s a terrific player and we have lots of money to spend. But there are a lot of teams in need of a terrific player, and there are many teams with lots of money to spend. In fact, betting site Bovada didn’t even list the Braves in the top 8 of their odds to land him:
So if the Braves are unsuccessful adding Harper, then the route to upgrading the roster significantly in one move becomes increasingly less clear. And the same would go for not acquiring Manny Machado. Who might the Braves go after?
Really, regardless of whether the Braves land one of the big FAs, Realmuto will undoubtedly be on their radar. He ranks, by far, as the most valuable catcher in baseball, outpacing Yasmani Grandal in fWAR 4.8 to 3.6. While his .277/.340/.484 is not exactly the middle of the order threat you would hope for, he would be a big improvement over Kurt Suzki and the PAs he would take from Tyler Flowers. He would also most likely make his presence felt with how much an upgrade his throwing arm is over both catchers and his framing abilities over Suzuki. His years of control has reduced from 3 to 2 since the last time he was talked about in earnest, but a 3-for-1 for him with at least one top 100 prospect would be the cost for him.
Think similar offense to Realmuto with less defense, and that’s Grandal. Grandal is a free agent, and should the Braves strike out on the big guys, a 3YR, $54-60M deal for Grandal would help the roster.
Until he’s traded somewhere, he’ll probably be attractive to Atlanta. He lacks Bryce Harper’s ceiling, but he finished this year with an OPS just 35 points lower than Bryce’s. He’s also been doing his hitting in a home park that favors pitchers, so as he enters his age-27 season and at a more neutral park, he’ll probably be a guy you see even better offense from. He’s down to one more year of team control, so I wouldn’t be willing to give up nearly as much for him as I would have last offseason.
Pollock hasn’t played more than 120 games since 2015, so he’s pretty low on my list. He would give you similar defense to what Harper would, but his injury history makes him less attractive. He owns a career .805 OPS, and he could seemingly have an excellent second half to his career that would match the .865 OPS that he showed in 2015. I don’t see teams, though, trying to grab him up as a first option this offseason.
He’s another interesting option with injury concerns. He had a strong bounce-back season this year, hitting .309/.364/.468 in 631 PAs, but he wouldn’t solve the lack of home run power the Braves currently struggle with (17 HRs in those 631 PAs).
You didn’t think we’d get to the end of this without mentioning him, did you? It’s been discussed frequently his connection to our GM and his solution to the lack of right-handed power in our lineup. He’d also provide some Dansby Swanson insurance by putting Johan Camargo in a super utility role ready to take over SS if the FO didn’t like Dansby’s development. You could even ask Camargo to learn some corner outfield in the offseason, and this acquisition could strengthen the team in more ways than one by upgrading the bench all over the field.
Bottom line is that Bryce Harper or Manny Machado would be every team’s dream for making the big move to improve the roster. But the Braves will probably make one big trade and one “big” free agent acquisition, so regardless of what happens with those two, some of these players may also find their way to Atlanta.
Next we’ll talk about what they might do on the pitching side.