The Atlanta Braves have undergone a number of changes over the past two years, dating back their initial “rebuilding” trade of outfielder Jason Heyward in 2014. Since that time, the organization has implemented a process to fully rebuild from the ground up, and a less-than-stellar showing in 2016 was simply a culmination of a number of factors, chief among them a lack of major-league talent. The Braves have gone to great lengths to get younger, cheaper, and more flexible, but those characteristics did little to aid this season’s middling roster that included a number of aging veterans.
The Braves do, however, have one of baseball’s richest farm systems, and they enter the offseason with a multitude of reasons for optimism in the coming years. With payroll flexibility, a new ballpark waiting in Cobb County, and a fan base eager to support the next wave of talent to reach the major leagues, the Braves could be on the cusp of contention once again. The timetable for Atlanta’s return to prominence could be greatly altered during this year’s hot stove season, as the team could opt to push for immediate upgrades to the major-league roster, or continue the process of seeking out low-risk deals with free agents. With this in mind, let’s take a look at what a 2017 Atlanta Braves offseason wish list could look like.
1. Add starting pitching. (Check)
The Braves struggled mightily on the mound in 2016, as no starter aside from Julio Teheran posted an ERA under 4.30. Even Teheran, whose 3.21 ERA earned him an All-Star selection, had a 3.69 FIP, which suggests that he may have been outpitching his natural tendencies for much of the season. The mighty struggles of younger starters such as Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair, and Tyrell Jenkins made for a trying season in Atlanta.
With many of the Braves’ top pitching prospects still a year or two away from joining the big club, it may be wise for the Braves to invest in some short-term options to bridge that gap. The Braves have already acted early on the free-agent market to fill multiple rotation spots for the upcoming season, adding veterans R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon. Neither of these pitchers will light up the radar gun (especially Dickey), but the Braves should be able to count on upwards of 350 innings from this duo in 2017. Having reliable innings-eaters to slot into a rotation can be advantageous for a team that needs to buy time for younger starters, and the Braves nailed this aspect of the offseason.
Despite adding these two arms to the rotation, the Braves could still look to acquire a front-line starter along the lines of a Sonny Gray, Chris Archer, or Chris Sale if they deem the price to be feasible. However, these two signings are low-risk and should allow the team to continue in its ways of limiting future payroll commitments.
2. Find a catcher.
One of the Braves’ greatest needs with regards to position players is most certainly behind the plate, as this season’s carousel of A.J. Pierzynski, Tyler Flowers, and Anthony Recker provided little reason for optimism in the future. Atlanta ranked near the bottom in every offensive category for the catcher position, and their defense was even worse as the team threw out just 16 percent of attempted base-stealers. Flowers is under contract for the 2017 season, and if he can build upon a career year last season, then he may be a viable backup, but his five percent caught stealing rate is not encouraging if he is counted upon to fill the starter’s role on Opening Day.
The free agent market for catchers has a number of intriguing options, though there are red flags associated with each member of this year’s class. NL Silver Slugger Wilson Ramos posted a monster year in 2016, but a torn ACL in September raises questions about his durabilty moving forward and could scare away a number of teams from offering him a long-term deal. Matt Wieters has dealt with his share of injuries, as well, but will likely command a lucrative deal despite his ailments and offensive inconsistency. Lesser-known options like Jason Castro, Chris Iannetta, and Dioner Navarro could be of interest as well, though the Braves’ desire for more than just a marginal upgrade may lead them to explore the trade market more heavily. One name that continues to surface for Atlanta is former Brave Brian McCann, whom the Yankees are said to be aggressively shopping with the emergence of Gary Sanchez. This could be a possibility for the Braves, though the current asking price is said to be prohibitive.
This position will be one to keep an eye on this winter, as it may be Atlanta’s most glaring weakness at the moment. Adding a veteran backstop could go a long way toward not only aiding the offense, but also developing the pipeline of young arms that will soon be ushered into the major leagues.
3. Move a corner outfielder.
This is one move that the Braves could do without, though it would seem to be a prudent plan given the abundance of options the Braves have outside of current corner outfielders Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis. The issues with both of these players are not necessarily physical, but financial, as Kemp is under contract for just over $65 million thru 2019 (though the Braves owe around $47 million of that total) and Markakis will earn $22 million thru 2018. If the Braves are able to find a suitor for either of these players, it would allow for increased financial flexibility as well as an opportunity to upgrade on two aging players with distinct flaws.
Kemp is a dangerous power hitter, averaging a 120 OPS+ in the past three seasons, but his poor defense in left field mitigates much of his value, which is noteworthy for a National League player who is owed close to $50 million by Atlanta. Markakis is less of a burden contractually (and defensively), but his poor power output greatly reduces his value as a corner outfielder. He is still a good hitter, reaching base at a .346 clip in 2016, but it could be wise for Atlanta to clear his contract if possible due to the limited upside for a player who posted just a 1.1 fWAR in his most productive season since 2012.
There are options on the free agent market who could replace either of these players in the event of a trade, or Atlanta could look to fill the void with an internal option like Mallex Smith or Double-A outfielder Dustin Peterson. Regardless of the replacement, the Braves are likely to explore all possibilities with regards to moving either Kemp or Markakis.
4. Find a bat to pair with Freddie Freeman.
This aspect of the wish list is not likely to occur (at least not this offseason), but it is fun to think about the possibilities that exist if Atlanta decides to make a run at a legitimate offensive star. The Braves offense took off in the second half of 2016, with much of the heavy lifting being done by first baseman Freddie Freeman, but the offense as a whole improved greatly from a putrid first half. The addition of a healthy Matt Kemp and a young phenom in Dansby Swanson helped make the Braves a legitimate offensive threat in the season’s final weeks, but imagine the capabilities of this offense if Freeman could be paired with a star in the mold of Andrew McCutchen, Wil Myers, or even Nolan Arenado. The Braves have one of baseball’s deepest farm systems, and with it they could assemble a package to entice a team in need of pitching or just general prospect depth. Pittsburgh has reportedly made McCutchen available, and though he is coming off a career-worst season, he would fit nicely into a lineup in need of offensive firepower. Myers and Arenado are both very young still and are unlikely to be moved, but if Atlanta truly wanted to build a core for the future, adding one of these two young bats could prove to be a wise move. The prospect cost for any one of these players is likely to be sky-high, but the Braves have an opportunity to re-emerge as a legitimate contender if they choose to build with a controllable bat that can become a mainstay alongside Freeman and Swanson in the future.
I would not necessarily advocate that the Braves sell off such a significant portion of the farm system they have worked so hard to assemble, but dealing from an area of strength to fill an area of need can be a prudent means of ascending into contention, as the Blue Jays’ trade for Josh Donaldson would suggest. By trading from an area of strength, the Blue Jays acquired a franchise-altering player who has helped lead them to the postseason the past two seasons. The Braves could be in a similar situation if they manage their personnel correctly, though there are still a number of holes to fill before looking too far ahead. Still, it is fun to think about the possibilities that exist on the trade market if Atlanta does decide that now is the time to “go for it” and push for established major-league stars. McCutchen, Myers, and Arenado would all be costly, but any one of them would look great in Atlanta.
This offseason is somewhat of a crossroads for the Atlanta Braves, as they are faced with the decision of whether to extend the rebuild at least one more season. On one hand, the Braves could stick to the process and continue their pattern of signing low-risk free agents (like Dickey and Colon) while allowing their prospects to continue their ascension toward Atlanta, or they could abbreviate the rebuilding process and attempt to build a winner for 2017. It still seems somewhat early for this Braves team to push for October, given their glaring holes in the rotation, behind the plate, and at third base. If the Braves decide to build for a playoff run in 2017 it will no doubt be exciting to see them actively trying to win, but it will be somewhat concerning given the amount of wins that still need to be accounted for if they are to be in contention. Luckily I can just sit behind a computer and speculate rather than make these decisions, but regardless of the direction that general manager John Coppolella chooses, let’s hope the Braves can find a sensible balance between buying and selling.