Braves: Did Alex Anthopoulos jump the gun with his early signings?

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Most people expected this offseason to be painfully slow because of the financial impact from COVID-19. And it has been. Just look at the number of high-quality major-league players that are still free agents. The Braves, however, were the most active team in the early part of free agency, signing Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly before Thanksgiving. Given that both of them settled for one-year deals (Alex Anthopoulos’ speciality), I don’t imagine the front office will ever lose too much sleep over it. But judging by the contracts high-quality pitchers have agreed to since, is it possible Anthopoulos jumped the gun with these two early signings?

When I first thought of this article idea, my gut was telling me the answer would be an obvious “yes”. I’ve watched high-quality relievers like Mark Melancon sign for pennies, but that wasn’t Anthopoulos’ focus this offseason. He wanted to ensure the Braves rotation didn’t suffer from the same issues that plagued the team in 2020, so he wasted no time in signing two of the most proven arms on the market. Judging by the rest of the names available and the salaries they received, he did a pretty damn good job.

Charlie Morton

I’ve already gone into depth on why Morton will turn out to be the signing of the offseason. He’s aged better than just about any pitcher in the history of baseball. There’s no reason to think that will change in Atlanta. From the piece:

For whatever reason — perhaps it’s because the signing happened so early in the offseason, or maybe it is because Braves fans are still suffering from buyer’s remorse after the Cole Hamels fiasco last year — the Charlie Morton signing isn’t getting as much love as it should. The former Braves farmhand has experienced one of the most incredible upticks in production in his mid-30s, beginning in 2017 when he signed with the Houston Astros.

That year, Morton went 14-7 with a 3.62 ERA, and he was critical in Houston’s playoff run, even recording the final out of the World Series in Game 7 against the Dodgers. He then proved that it was no fluke over the next two seasons, making back-to-back All-Star appearances and going a combined 31-9 with a 3.09 ERA and 441 strikeouts in 361.2 innings. In his last full season (2019), Morton set career-bests in ERA, innings pitched, and K/9 while also leading the majors in homers allowed per nine innings (0.7).

Out of all the free-agent starting pitchers, FanGraphs projects Morton to earn the second-most WAR in 2021 (3.0) behind only Trevor Bauer, who they project will tally 3.5 WAR in 2021. Considering Bauer just signed a contract that will pay him $80MM over the next two years, FanGraphs believes the Braves are getting a much more bang for their buck.

It’s also extremely difficult to find better deals behind Morton. Kevin Gausman and Marcus Stroman each accepted qualifying offers that will pay them significantly more than Morton next season. Corey Kluber inked a one-year deal with the Yankees, but he comes with severe injury concerns and only cost a few million less. After that it’s just a bunch of upside with some rocky track records. Morton was one of the surest starting arms on the market. The Braves got him at a more than affordable price.

Drew Smyly

Smyly is a bit of a different story. He was once looked at as one of the bright young arms in the game with the Tigers and Rays, but injuries derailed his career. The lefty missed all of the 2017 and 2018 seasons. When he returned in 2019, it wasn’t pretty, as he posted a 6.24 ERA in 25 appearances (21 starts) between Texas and Philadelphia. However, 2020 was a resurgent year for the Arkansas native.

Last year, Smyly showed a lot of the swing-and-miss stuff that made him so highly regarded early in his career. He boasted a 14.4 K/9 to go along with a more than respectable 3.42 ERA and excellent 2.01 FIP. According to Baseball Savant, he finished in the top 3 percent for K% and top 11 percent for whiff%.

Sure, the sample size was small, but Smyly showed ample upside last season to garner a one-year contract in the $10MM range. FanGraphs projects him to accrue 1.5 WAR — right in the middle of the pack when it comes to free-agent starting pitchers. Perhaps Anthopoulos could have found slightly better value elsewhere. Judging by how quickly he made his decision, I commend him for going after his guy. He clearly believes Smyly is heading towards the form he had before his arm injuries.

So yes, some of these offseason deals that have come in over the last few weeks look like bargains, but as far as the starting-pitching market goes, Anthopoulos couldn’t have done much better. Both Smyly and Morton could easily outperform their contracts. If they don’t, the Braves aren’t on the hook for any money past 2021.


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