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How Will The Braves Build Off Their World Series Title This Offseason?

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In their fourth consecutive season at the top of the National League East, the Braves finally put away their postseason demons to win the World Series. If it weren’t for the ring, however, this would be the most uncertain offseason the Braves have faced in some time. This year’s team had the lowest winning percentage of any of their four East title squads, and it’s hard not to suggest that these Braves benefited from a weak division in 2021. They capitalized, they partied, and they paraded, but now it’s time to pack up the balloons and streamers and look ahead to some difficult offseason decisions.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Charlie Morton, SP: $20MM in 2022 (includes $20MM club option for 2023 with no buyout)
  • Marcell Ozuna OF: $53MM through 2024 (includes $1MM buyout on $16MM club option for 2025)
  • Will Smith, RP: $14MM in 2022 (includes $1MM buyout on $13MM club option for 2023)
  • Ronald Acuna Jr., OF: $93MM through 2026 (includes $10MM buyout on $17MM club option for 2027, team also holds a $17MM option for 2028)
  • Travis d’Arnaud, C: $16MM through 2023 (includes $8MM club option for 2024 with no buyout)
  • Ozzie Albies, 2B: $26MM through 2025 (includes $4MM buyout on $7MM club option in 2026, team also holds $7MM club option for 2027)

Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections from MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Option Decisions

  • Joc Pederson, OF: $10MM mutual option for 2022 (player declined in favor of a $2.5MM buyout)
  • Adam Duvall, OF: $7MM mutual option for 2022 (player declined in favor of a $3MM buyout, remains arbitration-eligible)
  • Josh Tomlin, RP: $1.25MM team option for 2022 (declined for a $250K buyout)

Free Agents

The Braves are the champions of the 2021 Major League Baseball season. Bully for you, Atlanta.  Given that fact, their offseason outlook is pretty good. Frankly, whatever happens over the next six months won’t really matter to the Braves. They’re the champs, and that’s the ultimate winter gavel drop.

The one thing that could slow the effervescent feel-goodery of their championship run is the pending contract negotiation with longtime face-of-the-franchise Freddie Freeman. If by some odd twist of fate Freeman does not sign a long-term deal to stay with the Braves, that’s when the lights turn on, the music stops, and everyone goes home.

The 2022 season is already shaping up to be a weird one: the Giants will be without Buster Posey, the Nationals will probably be without Ryan Zimmerman, Bryzzo no longer exists except in the memory of Cubs’ fans, a fanbase other than Houston is likely going to embrace Carlos Correa, and the agreement between the owners and Players’ Union that defines the conditions of the 2022 season…well…there is no agreement. Point being, there’s only so much change a sport can take in a single winter, so let’s assume for the sake of sanity that Freeman will remain with the only organization he has ever known. If north ends up being south and pigs fly, we can cross that bridge then.

After all, from a baseball perspective, there’s little reason not to bring back Freeman. He’s one year removed from an MVP season and coming off a .300/.393/.503 campaign, in which he led the NL with 120 runs. He’s been one of the most consistent players in baseball, both from a character and production standpoint. He’s posted 4.0 rWAR or better in each of the last six seasons (except for 2020, when he put up 3.2 rWAR in 60 games). He’s been the heartbeat of the club for years, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

Yes, he plays first base, and that means he’s not a particularly versatile asset. His next contract will take him into his late thirties, and it’s going to be costly. But so long as they have Acuna and Albies locked into ridiculously team-friendly deals, and so long as their largest contract belongs to Charlie Morton on a minimal-risk, short-term contract, these Braves should have the money to overpay a little to keep “new Chipper” in his locker spot.

From a narrative perspective, the engines stalled during the postseason while Joe Buck and John Smoltz repeatedly tried to breathe life into the story of Soler, Rosario, Duvall, and Pederson being brought to Atlanta at the deadline. For sure, give President of Baseball Operations Alex Anthopoulos all the credit he deserves. He absolutely raised the floor for what had been an under-performing Atlanta team, and he hit pay dirt when each of the four showed up huge in the postseason. It’s pretty remarkable, in fact, that each of those four guys was able to make a distinct imprint on this postseason.

And yet, there’s a world in which none of them return to Atlanta for 2022. Soler and Rosario were the NLCS and World Series MVPs, respectively, but they are both straight-up free agents – free to sign wherever they please. For both of those guys, they could be in for an extended stay at reception unless the Braves want to honor their contribution with a hero’s offer.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see either one of these guys returning to Atlanta. When guys become postseason starts like Rosario and Soler, they instantly become more valuable to their incumbent franchise than they are anywhere else. For the players, they certainly should have positive associations from their time in Atlanta, and their popularity meters will be less sensitive in Atlanta than with a fresh fanbase. And yet, Soler and Rosario are corner outfielders at best, and most teams may want to see what happens with the CBA before signing a potential designated hitter.

While Soler and Rosario are the decorated heroes of this outfield foursome, Pederson and Duvall have been the active pair thus far. Pederson declined his $10MM mutual option, choosing instead to take a $2.5MM buyout and head to free agency. The move makes sense for both sides, as Pederson will want to find a situation with more guaranteed playing time. Coming off a 94 wRC+ season that saw him post just 0.6 fWAR between the Cubs and Braves, the Braves weren’t likely to exercise their half of the option if the decision had made it that far.

The Duvall decision is a touch more complex. Their postseason centerfielder declined his half of a $7MM mutual option, pocketing the $3MM buyout. But he remains under team control through arbitration. Duvall has been a 109 wRC+ hitter over the past three seasons, mostly with Atlanta, and he’s coming off probably his best year, posting 2.4 fWAR between the Marlins and Braves. Besides, unlocking at least a passing ability to play centerfield makes Duvall all the more valuable. He’s a flawed player because of subpar on-base skills, but he can also carry a team when he’s hot. Still, the Braves have designated him for assignment in the past when the financials were similar, and if they learned anything this past season, it’s that outfielders can be had at the deadline for cheap. If they keep him, MLBTR’s Matt Swartz projects a salary in the $9.1MM range.

Not to mention, the Braves outfield quandary goes deeper than those four. With Acuna coming back, they’re already overcrowded (even if Acuna isn’t ready by opening day). Plus, with Marcell Ozuna’s contract hanging over this team, there’s a lot more uncertainty heading into next season. As of now, there’s no telling if Ozuna will play again or if the Braves would have any recourse to getting out of his contract, should they want to.

They also have heralded prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters to work into the equation. Pache already has a Major League glove, and he should have a roster spot on the 2022 Braves. Even if he’s not strictly an everyday regular, if he’s on the roster, he’s likely to get a lot of the playing time.

The shape and depth of the Braves ’22 outfield is unclear, but the truth is, it’s a largely cosmetic problem. There are plenty of options available to Anthopoulos, and it’s more a question of sentimentality and narrative than it is efficacy. The bones of a solid outfield are already there, especially if they choose to bring back Duvall, and even if none of Soler, Duvall, Rosario and Pederson return, there ought to be plenty of low-cost alternatives available to bring aboard.

The rest of the offense is fairly well set. Swanson has one more year of arbitration at short, Albies is locked in long-term at second, Riley established himself at the hot corner, and d’Arnaud signed a two-year extension to return as the starting backstop. One wayward thought: given the shortstops that are available this winter, the Braves could be bold and look now for a long-term replacement for Swanson at short, but that’s probably a little too cute for Anthopoulos. Swanson is Georgia born, he has great hair, solid memes, and the former number one overall pick has been a steady if unspectacular presence on both sides of the ball. Entering his age-28 season, there may yet be a career year lurking as well.

Behind those starters, William Contreras shows promise and can serve as the backup behind the plate. If they want to give him more regular playing time in Triple-A, Chadwick Tromp was picked up from the Giants and 24-year-old Shea Langeliers isn’t far from elbowing his way into the room. If retained, Johan Camargo and Orlando Arcia can backup most spots around the diamond, though either one could be a non-tender candidate given their light outputs at the dish. Travis Demeritte was added to the 40-man roster to compete for a backup role as well. There’s a spot to fill on the bench, but it largely depends on whether or not they retain any of the “trade deadline four.”

For the rest of the roster, they’re actually in a much better place than you might assume for a team coming off its fourth consecutive division title. Because despite their longstanding success, there’s definitely an up-and-coming quality to this roster, especially on the pitching side. Morton, Ian Anderson, and Max Fried make for a stellar top of the rotation, and there’s some serious upside to untap if Mike Soroka can return healthy and either Huascar Ynoa, Kyle Wright, Kyle Muller, or Touki Toussaint can establish themselves in the bigs. Of course, we’ve been saying this of Atlanta’s rotation for years. They’ve also managed to keep it together for years.

They may look to add another Drew Smyly type, a back-end rotation piece who gave them 126 2/3 innings of 4.48 ERA/5.11 FIP baseball during the regular season. Those innings are no joke, and Atlanta will have to fill them again next year. Smyly was little better than replacement level, so they should have no trouble replacing him.

The bullpen remains mostly intact as well, with the southpaw triumvirate of Will Smith, Tyler Matzek, and A.J. Minter returning. Richard Rodriguez, Luke Jackson, and Jacob Webb make up a solid trio of righties as well. There’s certainly room for an addition here or there, but it’s more likely the Braves will tinker around the edges of the roster

All in all, it’s likely to be a relatively quiet winter for the champs outside of a potential Freeman extension. With arbitration projections, their projected payroll is right around the $140MM mark they carried in 2021. Of course, that’s without a new contract for Freeman, but winning the World Series ought to help make the extra room in the payroll to keep the player who waited the longest in Atlanta to win.

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