Even though Austin Riley has come back to earth a little over the last week or so, his presence in the lineup has made all the difference for this Braves team. Atlanta is 16-8 since the 22-year-old received the call back on May 15th, and many of those wins are the result of an Austin Riley moonshot in the latter innings. His bat has come as advertised plus a little bit extra, but it has been his ability to man left field that gives the front office a lot of flexibility to work with next offseason.
Braves Country is overly familiar with the words financial flexibility. Well, Atlanta is going to have a lot of that this upcoming winter. Josh Donaldson comes off the books for $23 million, Kevin Gausman, who is making $9.35 million, is unlikely to return, Darren O’Day won’t be receiving $9 million worth of game checks for sitting on the couch. The Braves could also part ways with Julio Teheran to save another 10+ million, Nick Markakis, and a few others. Atlanta will have 50+ million to spend, and that’s if payroll does not rise at all. So where could all that money go?
Positionally, the Braves are fairly set. The only concern areas are behind the plate, third base, left field, and right field. It’s possible either Drew Waters, Christian Pache, or both are ready for the majors by 2020. That would make things pretty easy. Acuña, Pache, and Waters man the outfield, and Austin Riley takes over his natural third base position. But if one of Waters and Pache is not ready, or the Braves decide to include one of them in a trade, that’s where things get interesting.
Austin Riley has had very few issues in left field. He could play there for the rest of his career if he had to, and there aren’t many prominent outfield free agents available next offseason. The cream of the crop consists of Marcell Ozuna, Yasiel Puig, and Adam Eaton – I’ll pass. There are some more intriguing ones at third base, however.
It’s not a laundry list, but Anthony Rendon is set to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and he’s about to be PAID. The freshly turned 29-year-old has put up Freddie Freeman-like numbers for the Nationals the past three years, finishing in the top-eleven of the MVP race in 2017 and 2018. He’s well on his way to another high finish this season, as he’s slashing .316/.418/.626 with 12 homers and 43 RBIs. There are going to be several teams vying for his services, but the Braves have the money and the flexibility among their players to make it work. Imagine a top five in the order of – Acuña, Swanson, Freeman, Rendon, Riley. Good luck.
The Braves could also stick with an old friend in Josh Donaldson. Not too many fans are going to be thrilled about hearing that, but Donaldson’s mere presence has made the offense much more potent. I still expect him to come out of this slump and be a substantial contributor down the stretch. Plus, this year has hurt his value significantly. The Braves could probably get him at a bargain if they so choose.
Next year’s free agent class is abysmal. There aren’t many elite players to chose from, making it even more critical that the Braves have the ability to move guys around on the diamond. Riley being able to hold down left field gives the front office a multitude of extra scenarios for them to work with this offseason, including trades, as the Braves chase the World Series trophy that has alluded them since 1995.