The Atlanta Braves have been quite active in the early stages of the Major League Baseball offseason, re-signing outfielder Nick Markakis, catcher Tyler Flowers, and right-handed Darren O’Day, while also bringing in left-handed reliever Will Smith on a three-year, $39 million deal.
The Braves have always had a knack for bringing in and developing players who grew up around Atlanta. This list is headlined by Brian McCann, who hails from Athens, GA, and Chipper Jones, who is from Jacksonville, FL, which is located just under an hour from the Georgia border. The trend has continued into this offseason, as all four of the players they’ve signed are from areas that likely have rather high Braves’ fandom.
The first player to sign was Flowers, who’s from Roswell, GA (22 minutes from SunTrust Park). Flowers has been with the Braves since the 2016 season, after being non-tendered by the Chicago White Sox. He initially signed a two-year deal worth $5.3 million guaranteed with a $4 million option, and it turned out to be a very sturdy investment, as he hit .261/.360/.441 (.771 OPS) with 28 home runs and stapled excellent pitch framing.
Flowers received an extension in August of 2018, which included a club option for 2020 worth $6 million with a $2 million buyout. The Braves declined Flowers’ option and re-signed him to a one-year contract worth $4 million. While it may seem as though he’s taking a pay cut, this move was simple restructuring, as Flowers ended up with the same amount of money as his club option would’ve paid him. He’ll make $4 million in salary and $2 million from the club option buyout. The whole point of the contract was to reallocate some funds to free up spending room to avoid the luxury tax, as buyouts don’t count towards the limit.
The Braves did the same with Markakis ($4 million in salary and $2 million in his buyout). Markakis, who went to high school in Young Harris, GA (roughly 1 hour and 50 minutes away from Atlanta), signed a highly criticized four-year, $44 million deal with the Braves prior to the 2015 season. He managed to prove the skeptics wrong, batting .284/.359/.400 (.759 OPS) over 2,745 plate appearances over the life of the contract, which included a 2018 season in which he slashed .297/.366/.440 (.806 OPS), earning a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger, and an All-Star Game appearance. The Braves brought him back into the fold for the 2019 season on a $4 million deal with a club option.
Both of these guys are shrewd signings for the Braves, as neither costs a significant amount of money but provide a considerable amount of value in their clubhouse presence, familiarity, a desire to play for the Braves’ organization, and plausible production. While neither player was necessarily great in 2019, they were underestimated, from a WAR standpoint.
Flowers fWAR dropped by 0.4 points last season, despite the fact that his dWAR increased from 17.3 to 19, his OPS increased from 700 to 732, and he hit three more home runs (eight to 11). Markakis lost 2.2 full fWAR points, as it dropped from 2.6 to just 0.4, presumably based on defensive struggles in 2019, as he was still productive offensively, albeit in a more limited role.
While the home run total dropped, his 705 plate appearance projection would’ve brought him up to 13.5, which is only 0.5 fewer than he hit in the same amount of plate appearances in 2018. Furthermore, his batting line only saw marginal declines. The Braves did well in getting both of these players signed for just $8 million total against the official luxury tax payroll for 2020.
The right-handed O’Day, from Jacksonville, FL (one hour flight), already elected free agency by the time his extension with the Braves was completed. The veteran signed a contract that will pay him $2.25 million in 2020 and includes a club option worth $3.5 million with a $500k buyout. While O’Day has only pitched 5.1 innings since coming to Atlanta from the Baltimore Orioles, he has made every pitch count, posting a 1.69 ERA and a 2.09 FIP while walking just one batter.
It was smart for O’Day to jump on this deal, as his age and recent injury history might have made it difficult for him to even secure guaranteed money later in the offseason. It’s also a very good buy-low deal for Atlanta. O’Day’s upside is well worth the risk of a $2.75 million guarantee.
The biggest name on this list, however, is the left-handed Smith, who’s from Newnan, GA (47 minutes from SunTrust Park). Prior to it even being reported that he had declined his $17.8 million qualifying offer from the San Francisco Giants, it was announced that Smith signed with the Braves. The contract will pay Smith $13 million annually, while also including a club option worth $13 million, which includes a $1 million buyout. The Braves will also lose their third-highest pick in the 2020 MLB Draft, while San Francisco gets a pick right before round three. The expectation is for Smith to serve as a set-up man for Mark Melancon, who was one of Smith’s teammates on the Giants, as recently as July of last season.
In most cases, I don’t consider paying a lot of money for relievers a great investment, as relievers, in general, are simply pitchers who weren’t necessarily good enough to start. In this case, however, I can understand why it was done. While Smith comes with risk considering his injury history, he has been consistently good when healthy, has always controlled the ball well, and throws from the left-side, which the Braves desperately needed.
Considering how the Braves are playing in, what could be, one of the most competitive divisions in the game next season, that being the National League East, it’s a rational investment, and while the cost was high ($40 million guaranteed and a draft pick), Smith brings a considerable amount of upside and could make the deal worthwhile.