The Manfred Mistake

Rob Manfred was the right man for the job he was hired to do, but not for the job he finds himself doing.

Rob Manfred was hired to do a job, one that the owners felt he was uniquely suited for: negotiate the best deal possible for the owners in the CBA talks following the 2016 season. Ask any player what they think about the current CBA that is ready to expire in 2021 and they will likely tell you that the league took advantage of them in that deal. In fact, most of the vitriol and anger directed towards Manfred today stems from the CBA that was agreed upon that ultimately benefited the owners more than the players. Revenues for baseball are up, but the players are convinced that their share of that revenue is not keeping pace. Most impartial observers would consider the 2016 CBA to be a huge win for owners, and make no mistake, Rob Manfred works for the owners.

In the intervening 3 seasons, however, Manfred has discovered this job is not just about negotiating CBA’s. Since he does work at the pleasure of the 30 MLB ownership groups, he also has to be concerned with making them as much money as possible, protecting the game from itself at times, and unfortunately, player discipline. He has taken criticism for exploring options to speed up the game, a seemingly feeble attempt to make it more marketable to a fanbase that has a dwindling attention span as well as a much larger variety of competition for their interest. He has come under fire repeatedly for his innovations as well as his failure to address concerns about safety and wellness of players and fans. It’s player discipline, however, that Manfred seems to struggle with the most. The very skill set that got him the job of Commissioner of Baseball is the same that works against him in player discipline.

Take, for instance, this most recent scandal for baseball revolving around the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox. Ever since 2016 when the current CBA was finalized, Manfred and his team have been laying the groundwork for the negotiation of the 2021 CBA. Every decision is debated internally with that in mind, and the impact of those decisions is weighed against their impact on the CBA talks. Proposals are made with no other motivation than leverage in negotiations. The union is opposed to roster limits? Ok, maybe we can talk about taking that off the table, but the MLBPA will have to relent on their request for early free agency. Want to talk about a salary floor? Sure, but that’s going to cost you in your revenue share. Everything is viewed through the lens of the CBA, and the sign stealing scandal is no different.

Punishment is collectively bargained. It’s basic labor law. You can’t punish union members without providing notice of what actions are punishable and by what method of punishment. Commissioner Manfred gave notice to team officials of actions that the league would take if illicit sign stealing methods were being used, but notice wasn’t given to the MLBPA. Manfred has stated that this was due to his office’s belief that electronic methods were controlled by the team, not the players, so they were the parties that would be put on notice. What he didn’t say, of course, is that in order to warn the players, he would have to detail exactly what would be punishable and how players would be punished. In doing so, he would have to enter into negotiations with the MLBPA over those punishments, but without some specific cause he would have zero leverage in those negotiations. So he tabled it, no doubt believing that this was all something that could be hammered out in the CBA talks. In fact, he probably felt the issue was settled after the punishments his office handed down to teams in 2017.

We know now that the issue was far worse than anyone could have believed initially. Faced with that knowledge, Manfred had to admit to himself and his staff that he was wrong. He should have acted back in 2017 more deliberately, pushing for a deal of any kind with the union for punishment instead of trying to wait for the time when he would have the most leverage. His experience in CBA negotiations led him to make a poor decision, and he found himself faced with a huge scandal and no idea of how far it went. Even worse, he couldn’t punish the individuals involved because of labor laws. In the end, he reverted to his comfort zone, and rather than risk punishing players for their roles and risk grievance hearings and, ultimately, poisoning the CBA negotiations, he traded his principles for leverage.

He provided immunity to players involved so that they would tell their story. This accomplished two things that were very important to Manfred and the league: he discovered the scope of the scandal, and he received the necessary leverage to force the MLBPA to deal with him on the punishments for future instances of sign stealing. With every angry interview, every explosive Tweet storm, and every barbed article, Manfred gains more and more leverage to get exactly the punishment schedule that he would have liked to use on Houston but couldn’t. In the end, future instances of sign stealing will be punished more harshly than they would have had Manfred tried to get an agreement after the 2017 season. While it appears that Houston and, possibly, Boston, will skate on their part in this scandal, having a more robust punishment option moving forward might be the best anyone can hope for.

Players across the league are lining up in front of any microphone they can find, begging for the chance to throw the Astros and Manfred under the bus. Anger towards the players is warranted, but the irony of the players’ frustration with Manfred must be noted. The very organization that represents their interests on CBA talks is the same organization that would have fought to the bitter end to protect those guilty players from any kind of punishment from the league. The same people complaining about Manfred not punishing the Astros players for their role in the scandal are the same who would have collectively argued that any punishment would have been in violation of the CBA. Make no mistake, the players, too, know that CBA talks are on the horizon, and they are doing their dead-level best to vilify the league office in advance of those talks. Their best leverage is the fan, and as a group we are all taking their bait. Reserve your anger for the guilty players, and let Manfred do his job. The one he was hired for.

October Madness?

Manfred has an idea to fix the post season, is immediately branded a traitor and shot into the sun.

I have a theory. If Rob Manfred suggested that MLB teams offer free admission to the ballpark and complimentary hot dogs and drinks to all fans in attendance, no fewer than 90% of the general public would rise up in unison to call him out for trying to ruin the great game of baseball. The man can’t win with fans or players, but he at least has the support of the owners who sign his paycheck. The truest (Truist?) test of that loyalty is coming with CBA negotiations with the MLBPA on the horizon, but for now there is a more pressing negotiation that has Manfred looking for innovative ideas: an expiring TV contract.

According to Joel Sherman in his article in the NY Post on Monday, contracts with ESPN and Turner are set to expire at the end of the 2021 season. In a effort to drum up competition for bids on those contracts, Manfred and his team are exploring changes to the current post season format. These changes were apparently discussed with members of the MLBPA, who would have to approve any eventual changes, and those plans were leaked to the media this week. From Sherman’s article, here are the highlights of the proposal:

  • Each league will expand their playoffs to include 7 teams – 3 division winners and 4 Wild Card teams
  • Teams with the best record in each league will receive a bye for the first round of playoffs
  • The remaining division winners and the top seeded Wild Card team will all play the other three Wild Card winners in a best of 3 series at their home park
  • The two division winners not receiving a bye in the first round would have the option to pick their opponent from the lower three Wild Card teams, with the division winner with the best record getting the first pick.

These are pretty radical changes for sure, but aside from the part where teams “pick their poison” on their Wild Card opponent, there is nothing here that hasn’t been discussed at length in bars and chat rooms across the country. The reaction to this idea coming from the league office, however, was not well received:

This all seems a very reasonable reaction to a proposal being crafted to encourage interest in a post season TV deal that is expiring in 2 years. Obviously the man who has the favor of the 30 team owners is actively trying to destroy the game that those businessmen have sunk billions of dollars into. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s not as nefarious as Trevor Bauer would have us believe. Before we judge this idea, let’s look at how this would have played out in this most recent post season.

The Bracket

Dismissing the “choose your opponent” option as something that was floated out there with no real chance of being seriously considered, I seeded the bracket based on record. The best record in each league got the bye, and the bottom two Wild Card teams play each other to advance to play the #1 seed. Here is what the American League side looks like:

American League Manfred Bracket

The Indians and Red Sox become part of the post season equation, and that’s good for baseball. The Astros were 4-2 against Boston in the regular season, 4-3 against Cleveland, so it’s not like that’s a cake-walk of a series in Houston. Overall this is a pretty decent playoff slate coming out of the AL, and getting Boston and NY playing games in October is always good for the league’s viewership.

In the National League, here’s what the bracket would have looked like:

As a National League guy myself, I love this bracket. We get the eventual NLCS matchup from last year as a 3 game slug fest between St. Louis and Washington with Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin lined up to knock off the hated Cards at home. As a side note, we also might have avoided an offseason of ranting about The Chop under this format, which automatically makes it worth discussion. A first round matchup of Braves/Brewers has a nostalgic feel to it, and the prospect of the Mets getting through Arizona and matching their vaunted rotation of deGrom, Syndergaard and Wheeler against the extremely potent offense of the Dodgers would definitely have been appealing to the TV networks.

So what’s all the fuss about?

The best I can tell, there are 4 main arguments against expanding the playoffs under the proposed format:

  • The selection option is stupid
  • Why reward teams for not winning their division?
  • Bad teams equal bad baseball
  • Manfred is an idiot

The first objection is probably the easiest to overcome. A selection show is a marketing device that is becoming common in the sports arena, and while exploring ways to make baseball attractive to their TV partners, someone tried to figure out a way to use that device to their advantage. I think we can all agree this is, in fact, stupid, and unlikely to be part of any final draft of a proposal to the MLBPA

Why reward teams for not winning their division? The goal here is to incentivize teams to remain competitive instead of selling all their sort term assets that aren’t nailed down at the trade deadline. A smart man once said, and I believe this was attributed to Bobby Cox, that as the season opens every team is faced with the knowledge that they are going to win 50 games and lose 50 games that season. Whether you reach the post season is determined by how you perform in the 62 games in between. Increasing the number of eligible teams and making the Wild Card round a 3 game series instead of a 1 game play-in game should provide more incentive to stay competitive further into the season. With more competitive teams, there will be more GM’s looking to improve their team’s chances of success in those 62 games. Also, more teams building their rosters for post season play means more action during the Winter Hot Stove season. Fewer assets being made available will drive the bidding up for those who are made available, leading to better contracts for the players. Everybody wins.

As for the objection that we will see bad teams in the playoffs, I would dispute that by saying even the worst teams in baseball were capable of winning a 3 game series. Putting in teams that just barely missed the playoffs, and matching two of those up against each other in the first round, might actually lead to some shocking results and some extremely entertaining baseball. Also, more teams finding themselves with a chance at the playoffs late in the season leads to more compelling games and series down the stretch, which might actually lead to better records for those Wild Card teams.

Now we come to the crux of the issue – Rob Manfred. Many see this guy through the eyes of the players they root for, and as a result they distrust everything that comes out of his mouth. His job is to be the foil of the MLBPA in negotiations, so naturally the players will view him as an adversary. Manfred is also tasked with growing the game, increasing the revenue for the owners, which in turn increases the money in the pockets of the players. He takes that very seriously, and he has proven to be open to a myriad of possibilities and innovations to the game. This expansion has the potential to do all of that, and it’s definitely something that deserves at the very least some serious consideration. Dismissing it out of hand as a plan to ruin the game of baseball is just not accurate.

I would expect that there will be ample discussion about this proposal as the timeline moves forward and TV contracts begin to be negotiated in earnest. Ultimately the MLBPA would have to approve the change, and in the current climate it’s doubtful any changes would be coming to the CBA before it is completely renegotiated at the end of the 2021 season. In effect, this proposal will most likely have to be presented to the TV partners as merely a possible change and nothing definite, but the league will obviously have to have a pretty good idea of how likely the MLBPA would agree to it before pitching it. For now it’s merely a way for us to talk about baseball at a time when pitchers and catchers are doing calisthenics and players are still in the best shape of their lives, so lighten up!

How the East is Won

The Braves appear to have put the finishing touch on their starting 8, how do they stack up in the N.L. East?

Buried within the news cycle that was the Baseball Hall of Fame Induction announcement was the announcement that the Braves had come to terms with their new clean-up hitter, Marcell Ozuna. The former Cardinals and Marlins slugger inked a 1 year, $18MM deal and essentially brought the offseason to a close for Alex Anthopoulos. While it’s always possible that a trade conversation from earlier in the winter suddenly bears fruit as teams prepare for Spring Training, for the most part the Braves have addressed their most pressing needs this offseason: clean-up hitter, bullpen, veteran starter in rotation. With those items checked off, it’s time to see how the Braves stack up against their divisional counterparts.

For Starters

The Braves project to roll out a rotation of Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Cole Hamels, Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb. Added to the mix in the last week was Seattle Mariners legend Felix Hernandez, however, and with the recent success of Anibal Sanchez fresh in the minds of Braves brass there is always the chance that King Felix shows some life and gains a roster spot. Assuming Newcomb comes out and wins the 5th spot, however, how does the Braves rotation compare to:

The Nationals – Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, Joe Ross

You don’t get any better than the top two of Scherzer and Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin had a solid 2019 for the Nationals as well. Will this be the year that Anibal Sanchez turns back into a pumpkin and shows his age? And what will the Nationals do about their 5th spot in the rotation? Surely the World Series Champs can do better than Joe Ross, right? Well, the Nats are hoping Austin Voth can prove that the 2-1 3.30 ERA with 1.05 WHIP in 43 innings will prove to be sustainable and he can lock down that 5th spot. Edge – Nationals, and it’s not close

The Mets – Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, Michael Wacha, Rick Porcello

The Mets would like to debate my earlier claim that you don’t get any better than the top two of Scherzer and Strasburg. DeGrom and Syndergaard do indeed create a formidable duo at the top of their rotation, but the inconsistency of Syndergaard makes it difficult to rank them in the same class as the Nats headliners. Recently acquired from Toronto, Marcus Stroman had a decent start to his career in NY, going 4-2 in his 11 starts with a 3.77 ERA. As he gets acclimated to his new surroundings, he might either get more comfortable or wilt under the bright lights of the NY media. The back half of the Mets rotation is a mess without Zack Wheeler, however, so while DeGrom and Syndergaard might on their own be better than what the Braves have to offer in Soroka and Fried, the rotation 1-5 seems to favor Atlanta.

The Phillies – Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrietta, Zach Efflin, Vince Velasquez

Aaron Nola headlines this group for Philadelphia, and the addition of Zack Wheeler bolsters what was a rather weak rotation in 2019. Arrietta has failed to live up to the expectations he generated after his success in Chicago, and the back end of the rotation is going to be a dog-fight between Efflin, Velasquez and Nick Pivetta. Those three pitchers all pitched to a high 4 ERA last season and are causing the Phillies to open up the competition to include Cole Irvin and prospect Spencer Howard. Wheeler is as good as any pitcher in the East when he is at his best, but the problem has been finding consistency. The edge here goes to Atlanta on both top half production and back end depth.

The Lineups

The Braves entered the offseason with a big hole in their lineup with Josh Donaldson entering free agency. They filled that hole with the enigmatic Marcell Ozuna when Donaldson spurned the Braves offer and exiled himself to Minnesota. Braves fans will have mixed emotions about Ozuna with the memory of his 9-21 performance in the NLDS against the Braves still fresh in their minds, but in a rapidly thinning market he was no doubt the best option remaining to Anthopoulos. With Johan Camargo and Austin Riley battling over the 3rd base position, there is still room for changes in the starting eight, but the fact that Riley still has options and a gigantic hole in his swing, it might be prudent to plug in Camargo and let Austin start his season off in Gwinnett. With that as the more likely option, here is a possible regular season lineup –

Ozzie Albies (2B), Ronald Acuña, Jr (RF), Freddie Freeman (1B), Marcell Ozuna (LF), Johan Camargo (3B), Dansby Swanson (SS), Travis d’Arnaud (C), Ender Inciarte (CF)

Obviously Braves manager Brian Snitker will have his own take on the lineup, and it’s most likely that Acuña will once again bat leadoff for the Braves as the season starts. However, to maximize the impact of his speed and to try to generate more runs by having baserunners on when he goes deep, Acuña should be better served batting 2nd behind Albies. The back half of the lineup will change based on personnel as well as matchups, of course, and it’s anyone’s guess how Snitker will line them up initially.

The Nationals – In some order Turner (SS), Eaton (RF), Soto (LF), Thames (1B), Kendrick (2B), Suzuki (C), Cabrera (3B), Robles (CF)

The Nationals, like the Braves, suffered a big loss in the middle of their lineup when Anthony Rendon hit the free agent market and left for Los Angeles. They, like the Braves, made an attempt to sign Donaldson but similarly failed in the attempt. Unlike the Braves, however, Washington saw that they were unlikely to win the Donaldson sweepstakes and made a flurry of moves to try to shore up their infield situation with 3 of 4 positions being wide open after free agency defections. Signings of Starlin Castro, Eric Thames, and Asdrubal Cabrera helped ease the loss of Rendon, and bringing back Ryan Zimmerman and Howie Kendrick maintained some of the continuity from their World Series Championship team. All things being equal, however, the Braves have the advantage in the starting lineup, though their recent additions do give Washington some intriguing matchup and depth options.

The Mets – In some order McNeil (3B), Cano (2B), Alonso (1B), Conforto (RF), Ramos (C), Nimmo (CF), Rosario (SS), Davis (LF)

McNeil and Nimmo are two very pesky hitters, and no one doubts the power potential of Alonso and Conforto. Robinson Cano, however, has fallen off a cliff, and there is concern whether Davis and Rosario can provide enough offense to compensate for the huge hole that has become 2B for the Mets. The Braves have more depth and better overall production from 1-8, though Cespedes’ return from injury is a wild card that will bear watching.

The Phillies – In some order McCutcheon (LF), Segura (2B), Harper (RF), Hoskins (1B), Realmuto (C), Gregorius (SS), Kingery (3B), Haseley (CF)

On the surface the Phillies have a really potent offense. Harper, McCutcheon, Segura and Gregorius are all capable of propelling an offense, and Realmuto is a consistent weapon at a premium position. This group might hinge on Hoskin’s ability to bounce back from a disappointing 2019. He still managed 29 HR, but for a team that was counting on him to anchor the middle of their order he struggled to produce consistently, posting a .226/.364/.454 slash line and striking out 173 times in his 570 AB. This Phillies lineup is really the only one that should scare the Braves in 2020, and while I give Atlanta the slight edge it would not surprise me at all to see the Phillies be explosive from top to bottom and put some pressure on the N.L East vaunted pitching rotations.

The Bullpen

This is such an obvious strength for Atlanta that I won’t spend too much time on it. Anthopoulos pushed all his chips to the center of the table and finally did what most of us were begging him to do last offseason by shoring up the bullpen. The Braves enter 2020 with four closers on their roster: Will Smith, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Luke Jackson. They also bring back Chris Martin to help set up that four-headed monster and Darren O’Day to play the role of right-handed ground ball specialist. With 8 possible spots in the pen, that leaves the Braves choosing between a litany of quality arms to fill the remaining 2 spots. Conventional wisdom suggests lefty Grant Dayton will get one of those, but with the new rules pertaining to bullpen usage the role of a lefty handed specialist will be severely reduced. Felix Hernandez might be an option in a Josh Tomlin-esque long relief role, and consideration will be given to Jacob Webb, Touki Toussaint, Huascar Ynoa, Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, and A.J. Minter. The Braves may have the best bullpen in baseball, so why waste time comparing them to their division rivals? You say your team doesn’t have four closers in their bullpen? Can’t relate.

The Bench

This is the one part of the roster that every team (except possibly the Nationals) is still trying to augment. It was about this time last season that Matt Joyce was added to the Braves bench, and that was one of the biggest offseason additions Anthopoulos made outside of Josh Donaldson. Who will be this year’s Matt Joyce? The Braves have enough players to fill out their bench currently with Camargo, Culberson, Hechavarria, Flowers, Markakis and Duvall already in the mix. What the Braves lack, however, is a left handed slugger to come in late in games and put pressure on the opposing pitcher to keep baseballs out of the Chop House. Joyce was great in that role last year before ending up in the starting lineup due to injury, and Atlanta will need to find someone to fill that role for 2020. Personally I’d give the Dodgers a call and see if we can finally liberate Joc Pederson from their roster, but Derek Dietrich could be a free agent option to consider to give the Braves some needed left handed pop. This category will be too tough to call until the 26 man rosters are announced heading into the season, but right now I’d say the edge goes to the Nationals who have 3 or 4 legitimate starters on their bench right now.

Let’s head south!

With the addition of Marcell Ozuna and the loss of Rendon in Washington with no obvious replacement for his production I believe the Braves have positioned themselves well to repeat as champions in the N.L. East. The effort to overhaul the bullpen and the addition of Cole Hamels to the rotation might be just enough to get Atlanta over the hump and into the NLCS. There’s also the possibility that Alex Anthopoulos isn’t done tweaking the roster, so stay tuned!

Please Approach the Bench

After a solid performance last season, the Braves bench is once again an area of need.

For years it seemed like the bench for the Atlanta Braves was an afterthought. Seemingly focused on defense rather than offense, time after time in crucial situations late in games hinged on players named Bonifacio, Tucker, Flaherty, and Adams. A constant, of course, has been Charlie Culberson, who has provided some clutch performances at the plate since arriving from Los Angeles in the Matt Kemp deal. In 2019, however, Alex Anthopoulos made a concerted effort to improve the offensive output of the 4 man bench. As a group the pinch hitters for the Braves batted .247 with 9 HR, 14 doubles, 37 RBI and ranked 2nd in the National League in OPS with a .767 mark and 3rd in WRC+ with 98.

Leading the charge last season was Charlie Culberson, who carried an .843 OPS in 58 plate appearances as a pinch hitter. Matt Joyce, the Braves leader in pinch hit AB’s at 85, had a relatively solid run in 2019 after being limited by injury in 2018 with Oakland. While sporting an overall impressive .295/.408/.450 line in his bounce-back season, Joyce was not nearly as effective in the pinch hitting role as he was in the starting lineup. As a PH he posted a meager .655 OPS, accounting for only 2 of the 9 total HR hit by the Braves. By comparison, Johan Camargo had 4 HR and a .940 OPS in only 39 plate appearances as a pinch hitter.

There has been a lot of discussion about bringing Matt Joyce back for 2020 but it would seem that he is better suited for a platoon role than a true bench bat, and with the left handed Nick Markakis already slated to fill the strong side in any LF platoon, it makes little sense to pursue Joyce at this time. So who could the Braves be looking at to fill out the bench in 2020?

Old Friends Returning

So much of how the bench shakes out could depend on whether or not Josh Donaldson returns to man the hot corner for the Braves. Nothing is guaranteed in free agency, but it’s generally assumed that the Braves will have the last chance to bid on Donaldson, and barring a purely desperate move by the Nationals a reunion in Atlanta seems likely. For now, let’s proceed under the assumption that Donaldson will be back with Atlanta, which will allow a familiar face to return to the bench: Johan Camargo.

Camargo had a rough season, generally speaking. After a very solid 2018 campaign it seemed that he had done everything he needed to do to secure the starting job at 3B. Anthopoulos even stated early in the offseason that they did not look at 3B as a position of need. Not soon after this “vote of confidence” in Camargo it was announced that the Braves had signed Josh Donaldson to a record 1 year deal of $23M to play third. As shocking as it was for the fanbase, it must have been a huge blow to Camargo. He had a rather pedestrian Spring Training, and the end of April saw him batting a cool .246 with a sub-.400 slugging %. By the end of May, his batting average had dropped to .213. He rebounded briefly in June before struggling again in July and being optioned to Gwinnett halfway through August. He returned to Atlanta with a vengeance, however, just in time to help the team stave off the Nationals in a last ditch effort to win the division, batting .455 in the month of September and slugging 1.182. Unfortunately for the Camargo and the Braves, he suffered a shin fracture after fouling a ball off his leg and ended his season on the injured list.

Along with Camargo, the Braves will have Tyler Flowers back in a bench role for 2019. Last season was an utterly forgettable one at the plate for Flowers, who split time with Brian McCann and saw his offensive production decline for the second consecutive season. In a season where home runs were leaving the park at record rates, Flowers managed only 11 in 2019, slugged a paltry .413, and managed to strike out 105 times in 271 AB’s. He was being counted on to continue his recent trend of lighting up left handed pitchers, but he actually managed reverse splits in 2019, batting over 100 points higher against right handed pitching than left, and 8 of his 11 HR were hit against RHP. It will be interesting to see if the 50/50 split of the catching duties that manager Brian Snitker has employed over the last two seasons will continue with the addition of Travis d’Arnaud.

Adam Duvall looks to be more of a platoon option with Nick Markakis rather than a true bench bat, but his right handed power swing coming off the bench late in games proved to be a formidable weapon late in the 2019 season. He spent most of the season terrorizing AAA pitchers in Gwinnett, and when finally given an opportunity to come up and contribute at the big league level, he slashed .267/.315/.567 with 10 HR in 120 AB’s.

Finally, after nearly creating a fan revolt by not tendering Charlie Culberson a contract by the deadline, allowing Charlie the chance to explore free agency, Anthopoulos pulled a coup and brought him back on a minor league contract with an invite to spring training. This will allow the fan-favorite the opportunity to show he has rebounded from being drilled in the face by a high and tight Fernando Rodney fastball and claim one of the last two remaining roster spots. As mentioned, Culberson was the Braves best overall pinch hitter last season, and while his defensive versatility appears to have declined a bit, he still brings an aggressive approach to the plate with a penchant for clutch hits. Assuming he has no ill-effects from the facial fractures that ended his season, he appears to be a good bet to return to the bench.

Others who were in a bench role last season that may be considered for a return would be the aforementioned Matt Joyce, Adeiny Hechavarria, who was acquired after Johan Camargo was sent to Gwinnett and Dansby Swanson went down with an injury, and Billy Hamilton, who was brought in once it was determined Ender Inciarte would be a long time returning from his injury. The Braves GM has mentioned the need to have a back-up shortstop on the roster, seemingly acknowledging that Camargo and Culberson are not being considered in that role, which hints to a possible return of Hechavarria to Atlanta. Hamilton has become a defense first 4th outfielder as his offense has evaporated over time, making him a less-desirable return candidate with the already offensively suspect Nick Markakis and Ender Inciarte on the current projected roster.

Options on the Market

Alex Anthopoulos went off the board last season when he signed Matt Joyce to a 1 year deal. He was a guy that struggled a bit due to some low back issues and was being forced into a part-time role after some really productive seasons as a full time player. There is reason to believe that strategy might once again be in play, and with the addition of a 26th man to the roster for 2020 that gives him the flexibility to look for an impact hitter that may not be as versatile defensively. We also know he is checking on the backup shortstop options as well, and the overall construction of the team seems to cry out for a left handed option with some pop. With these ideas in mind, let’s look at some intriguing options on the free agent market.

Eric Thames, 1B/OF – Eric Thames played primarily 1B for the Milwaukee Brewers last season, though in 2018 he started 31 games in the outfield and generally rates as an average defender at both LF and RF. A thumb surgery in 2018 limited him to 278 AB’s and limited his offensive output, but he returned to his pre-surgery form in 2019 posting a .851 OPS with 25 HR. He was due a hefty $7.5M option for 2020, and the Brewers decided to buy him out for $1M rather than exercise it. At 33 years old, his days as a regular in the outfield are numbered, but the Braves really aren’t needing outfielders at the moment anyway. What they need is a left handed power threat, and one that can adequately spell Freddie Freeman as well. Thames would be a top end of the salary range target, and there are a couple of teams who may swoop in and take him as their primary 1B, such as the Washington Nationals. If he falls to the Braves, however, he could be a solid power threat late in games and provide Freddie with regular rest throughout the season.

Danny Espinosa – SS/2B – It’s been a minute since Danny Espinosa last played regular innings at the big league level, but he’s a short stop that has some pop from both sides of the plate. He spent last season in the Mets organization, playing at AAA Syracuse, and batted .256/.337/.414 with 20 HR and 27 doubles. His days as an everyday player are obviously coming to an end, but having a switch-hitting option on the bench in the event that Dansby Swanson struggles against RHP in 2020 could be highly beneficial.

Jordy Mercer – SS – Jordy Mercer finds himself in a similar situation to where Matt Joyce was at the end of the 2018. A starter for most of his career, nagging injuries limited him to a part time role last season with the Tigers, playing only 74 games total and finishing with a .270/.310/.438 slash line. Mercer is not a typical power threat, and being right handed he would basically only fill the need of a backup SS and wouldn’t help balance out the right-handed heavy bench. With that said, however, he brings a legitimate threat off the bench when facing left-handed pitching. Last season his OPS was almost 200 points higher v/s LHP than RHP, and he carries a career .297/.357/.462 line against righties overall. The extra bench spot could make it possible to add Mercer and still get the left handed pop you need to balance the bench.

Corey Dickerson – LF – Like Mercer, Corey Dickerson struggled with injuries last season. A week into the season he suffered a shoulder strain that landed him on the 60-day Injured List until he was eventually traded to the Phillies, who activated him on August 2nd. 6 weeks later he was back on the 60 day IL, this time with a fractured left foot. Dickerson may be holding out for a starting position somewhere in the league, but in the event he is unable to secure one, his left handed bat off the bench could be a solid addition.

Assorted Left Handed sluggers – If all Anthopoulos is looking for is a left handed power threat, there is always the option of seeking a return of Matt Adams or trying to bringing in former Marlins designated Braves Killer Justin Bour. Mitch Moreland carried an .887 OPS v/s right handed pitching last season and can spell Freeman on occasion to get more AB’s. Any one of those three players could be a target for the 26th man on the roster and 5th man on the bench, assuming that a back-up short stop is found among the league’s cast offs.

99 problems, and the Bench is one

No matter how you look at it, the bench is going to figure prominently in the Braves attempt to repeat as the National League East champions. Whether they ultimately decide to seek out versatility as in years past, provide a chance for a veteran to re-establish his value, or go big and sign or trade for a major name and move one of their current starters to the bench, ultimately something will have to be done to address the holes on the bench. Don’t see your favorite bench target mentioned? Feel free to comment below with who you think the Braves might be looking at to round out their roster.

That’s a Wrap!

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.

Bullpen

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.

Rotation

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.

Starting 8

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.

Bench

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!