I tried to do it. I spent most of the night attempting to write up a few decent low-cost options for the Braves in case Liberty Media and GM Alex Anthopoulos decide it’s not worth it to spend big on what’s left of an almost barren free-agent market (outfielders like Nick Castellanos or Marcell Ozuna), nor for them to trade for a star player like Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant or Starling Marte. Maybe the team has spent enough? Perhaps the Braves’ $135 million payroll (its highest ever) is a sign they should be content, hold on to the organization’s prospects and compete in 2020 with what they have, other than perhaps a few more depth pieces.
But there’s no way around it. The Braves have no choice now but to make a splash. Other than that small group of three players still left unsigned or the handful of well-known stars that haven’t been traded just yet, there’s nothing currently available for the Braves that makes sense. The current free-agent market is both too dull in talent and too inflated price-wise to reasonably acquire anything that could potentially be a low-risk bargain worth paying for. Low-to-mid-grade trade options are requiring multiple top-tier prospects, making it hard to exchange the future for the present in a way that doesn’t somehow hurt both. There just aren’t any good deals to be had right now. Plain and simple.
The discount bin is lacking
I looked closely last night at free-agent outfielder Yasiel Puig, a player that has been quite popular on the rumor mill recently and not long ago looked like a lock to become elite, and he practically was during his first few seasons with the LA Dodgers. Puig, a career. 277 hitter, offers, at times, strong contact and a decent amount of power, plus an ultra-aggressive style of defense, that sometimes isn’t necessarily all that useful, making him both an attractive and hard to predict potential mid-range add for the Braves. The 29-year-old Puig is just now coming off the seven-year, $42 million contract he originally signed with the Dodgers and is reportedly looking for another multi-year deal this offseason, as several teams are pursuing the outfielder.
Sure, the Braves could comfortably afford a guy like Puig, and perhaps even give him the multi-year contract he’s after without much detriment to the team’s future; but let’s say the Braves sign Puig for two years and $20 million (substantially lower than the 3-year, $39 million contract FanGraphs projects him to earn), is it worth it to give him $10 million per season when the Braves could pay — again, going by FanGraphs’ projections — $4 million or perhaps $7.5 million more per year for a player like Nick Castellanos or Marcell Ozuna — two guys with more power in their bats, not to mention they both lack the off-the-field issues that come with Puig (whatever that’s worth). I’m not necessarily higher on either one, but it just seems more worthwhile to spend a little extra cash to acquire more overall production.
No better time for a trade
Up until recently, I had this roughly put together list of prospects in my head the Braves shouldn’t trade. I’m talking about no matter what — the untouchables, which I had quickly added to since writing about it here back in November: guys like Cristian Pache, Drew Waters, Ian Anderson, Shea Langeliers and even Tucker Davidson, who after last season, looks like the next potential future ace for the Braves. But now I’m not so sure this is the right way of thinking. The logic behind declaring certain prospects untouchable seems quite counterintuitive for a team right on the cusp of reaching its full potential, especially when those very prospects are the players that can bring back the pieces the team needs to breakthrough.
I mean, I know especially for a mid-market team like the Braves, that prospects make up the foundation of the organization (nice rhyme!), the building blocks that keep contention windows open and allow teams to maintain their high level of play for much more extended periods. To achieve this, and perhaps my favorite effect of this entire process as a fan of a team that hates to spend cash is that developing elite prospects saves teams bundles of money, as they don’t have to depend on other inflated and expensive avenues such as the free-agent market or the sometimes lopsided trade market. All of this makes sense and is why prospects are so important, and explains why the Braves are where they are right now in terms of talent.
But prospects won’t win a team the World Series (at least not directly) and there is definitely such a thing as having too much of a surplus down on the farm, which is what I think may be currently developing within the Braves’ organization, especially with its pitching. It’s time to cash in on that surplus and exchange future talent for the present. The key here, though, is finding the right player(s) to acquire that will benefit the Braves not only right now, but one(s) that will also contribute well in the future. And this offseason’s trade market couldn’t get much better when looking for both of those characteristics in a player.
Players like Nolan Arenado (28 years-old), Kris Bryant (28) and Starling Marte (31) are right in the middle of their primes, and all three are capable of producing anywhere from 3-6 WAR per season (via FanGraphs), easily making up for the 4.9 WAR the Braves lost when third baseman Josh Donaldson signed with the Twins. Yes, they’re going to cost one of the Braves’ best prospects (and then some), and sure Arenado’s opt-out makes for a scary thought, being that he could hit free agency in just two seasons; but regarding the latter, Arenado’s opt-out really shouldn’t cause much concern, considering it’s a player-option that he will most definitely use if he’s playing well and believes he can earn a larger contract on the market. If anything, we should be worried about him not opting out, as that suggests his performance has declined substantially, meaning the Braves are on the hook for $35 million per season for the next five years (although his salary dips to $32 and $27 million in his final two years of his current contract, in 2025 and 2026, respectively). The opt-out isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if someone like Austin Riley has figured out major league sliders by then.
However, if the prospect cost is just too steep for Liberty Media and Anthopoulos to bite, there’s always Bryant and Marte, or even third baseman Kyle Seager with the Mariners – all of whom are available. And other than perhaps Bryant, they shouldn’t require quite the same prospect package as Arenado. Furthermore, none of these guys cost near as much in terms of salary. So considering the variety of trade options and an overflowing mixture of highly sought-after prospects currently in the system, this seems like the perfect year for the Braves to make a blockbuster trade.
They’ve come this far…
After four years of rebuilding the major league team and restocking the minor league system, from 2014-17, the Braves are now going into Year 3 of its window of contention. These first several years are critical in setting the tone for future success, as the organization can somewhat self sustain from the significant development it went through in those dark days, but usually, they need an occasional outside addition to reach their full potential. Though unfortunately, there’s only so many years of winning before it’s time to yet again tear it all down and build it back up, and until some other team invents a new way for teams to reset their rosters, this vicious cycle in sports will continue.
The Braves may never get this chance again to choose between such a variety of superstar players, while already rostering such a talented young core. Before long, Freddie Freeman will enter his decline years, the Braves’ extremely controllable and cheap starting rotation will start graduating into arbitration and free agency, and this almost perfectly put together cast will begin to separate more and more each year, while the ones that remain will undoubtedly increase in cost. There shouldn’t be any panic, and this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. They obviously can’t keep them all forever. But what the Braves’ ownership and Anthopoulos decide to do in the next month or so, could either tremendously boost the team’s ascent towards an even higher peak, or start the inevitable descent down. As we have now reached the fourth quarter of this current offseason. With needs still unmet… now certainly isn’t the time to get cheap.