The Braves end 2019 with a whisper, but don’t lose hope!
Our Braves have been awfully quiet the last few weeks. After a flurry of activity at the conclusion of the season, most notably the signings of Will Smith, Cole Hamels and Travis d’Arnaud, there really hasn’t been much to talk about on the transaction front. From mlb.com, here are the December transactions for your Atlanta Braves:
Non-tendering Charlie Culberson and allowing him to test the free agent market turned out to be a very polarizing move, sending much of Braves’ Twitter into hysterics. As usual, however, Alex Anthopoulos had a good feel for how his market would bear out, and less than 2 weeks later it was announced that Culberson was signed to a minor league contract with an invite to Spring Training.
Of course, with the rest of the league signing players named Cole, Rendon, Strasburg, Bumgarner, and Ryu, among others, it’s easy to look at what the Braves have done to this point as purely maintenance on their 2019 roster rather than outright improvements. As I mentioned, however, there is still hope, and more importantly, there’s time. But first, let’s look at how the roster has changed so far from the end of the season to now.
2019 – Melancon (closer), Greene, Martin, Jackson, Newcomb, O’Day, Blevins, Tomlin
Current – Melancon, Greene, Martin, Smith, Jackson, O’Day, Dayton, Toussaint
The Braves brought back O’Day and Martin and signed the best free agent closer on the market, Will Smith, to finish off what they started at the trade deadline. The early word on Smith is that he will not be assigned as the Braves closer but will rather function as a multi-pronged attack late in games with Greene and Melancon that will provide manager Brian Snitker the option to rest a closer and still have multiple tested closing options available to him at any given time. Will Smith definitely upgrades this unit, but the cost associated with the upgrade and the retention of Martin and O’Day feels a bit out of character for the spendthrift Braves. The team is projected to be committing over $45M of their team budget to just the relief corps, now one of the older yet more accomplished units in the league.
2019 – Teheran, Soroka, Keuchel, Fried, Foltynewicz
2020 – Soroka, Hamels, Fried, Foltynewicz, Newcomb
After the 2019 draft, when draft pick compensation drops from the price of signing a free agent that was offered a qualifying offer, the Braves jumped in and signed a pitcher that many, including myself, were clamoring for them to sign since the offseason: Dallas Keuchel. While the initial returns were promising, the lack of a Spring Training and regular work during the first half of the season appeared to affect Keuchel in a negative way, leading to a not-terrible but not-impressive 3.75 ERA and an 8-8 record. The Braves got him for his post season experience, however, and sadly he was not up to the task. In two games against St. Louis, Keuchel pitched 8 innings and gave up 4 runs , walking 4 and striking out 4.
On December 4th, the Braves essentially replaced the post season veteran presence of Dallas Keuchel with the post season veteran presence of Cole Hamels, who signed a 1 year, $18M contract. In his time with the Chicago Cubs he posted a 3.30 ERA over 39 starts averaging 9 strikeouts per 9 innings and only 3.3 walks, so he has been more than serviceable even though he has lost some velocity in recent years.
Sean Newcomb is expected to also return to the starting rotation, barring another pitching acquisition or his inability to hang on to the job coming out of Spring Training. He pitched with some promise out of the pen in 2019 after a horrible start to the season in rotation, so the hope is that he learned something about the importance of throwing strikes and staying ahead.
This rotation feels like a push when you consider the loss of Julio Teheran, the uncertainty if young pitchers like Fried and Newcomb, balanced against the emergence of Soroka and a full season of Hamels.
2019 – McCann, Freeman, Albies, Swanson, Donaldson, Duvall, Acuña, Markakis
2020 – d’Arnaud, Freeman, Albies, Swanson, Riley, Acuña, Inciarte, Markakis
Not much has changed here, on the whole, aside from the obvious hole that Donaldson leaves should he not return to the team in Free Agency. The venerable McCann has been replaced by a suddenly resurgent d’Arnaud, who flourished in Tampa Bay after being cut from the Mets mid-season and traded by the Dodgers before playing a game with them. Inciarte returns from the disabled list, pushing Acuña back into RF where he is more comfortable, and Markakis was re-signed on a 1 year deal to play in what can only be assumed as a platoon role with Adam Duvall. Riley is slated above as the 3B option in the even that Donaldson does leave to greener pastures, but it’s possible that Johan Camargo takes this spot to allow for Riley to get some swings in a more controlled environment in Gwinnett.
2019 – Flowers, Hechavarria, Hamilton, Joyce
2020 – Flowers, Duvall, Camargo, open, open
The bench in 2019 was a strength for most of the season, even after late season injuries to Johan Camargo and Charlie Culberson. Their replacements, Hechavarria and Hamilton, have both exited to free agency, and with them bench hero Matt Joyce. In 2020, the rosters expand to 26 players, allowing the managers the option of adding to their bench (the pitching staff is capped at 13 players). Culberson immediately becomes an option for one of the remaining 2 spots, but the Braves will have to find at least one more player to pair with him; two players if Riley is sent to AAA to learn how to hit, or lay off, the slider.
You said something about hope?
I did indeed! With two spots on the bench open, that leaves some flexibility for Alex Anthopoulos to work with. Obviously signing Donaldson moves Riley back to either a bench role or to the minors, since he has options remaining. If the Braves choose to go another direction, they could look at free agent sluggers Marcel Ozuna, Nick Castellanos, or Yasiel Puig and move Duvall the bench full time and relegating Markakis to a similar role. And, of course, there are the rumors surrounding Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Nolan Arenado of the Rockies. While both would be excellent additions to the roster, the prospect cost involved and the uncertainty about the team control of both players makes it difficult to believe the Braves have anything more than passing interest in these two.
What we do know is that there is no way the Braves are going to spend $130M on this team, completely buying in on the bullpen additions, and open the season with Nick Markakis batting behind Freeman. Rest assured that Anthopoulos has a plan B if Donaldson signs elsewhere, and probably has plans C-Z before he considers that possibility. We can reasonably expect the payroll to be north of $140M as we enter camp in February, and by all accounts we could be close to $150M. That is a respectable sum for a playoff contender, and one that might provide a team that can close the deal and get the Braves their first World Series title since 1995.
Merry Christmas, Braves Country, and Chop On!