With the offensive core from the 2020 campaign mostly still intact, the Braves enter the new year with a very familiar position-player group (at least on the starting front). However, whether 2021 is a full 162-game season or one that more resembles last year’s shortened one, the Braves bench will no doubt play a crucial role in the team’s quest for four-straight division titles and a much-needed World Series bid.
It’s still early in the current offseason, and there are plenty of unknowns as to what kind of hot stove lies ahead, but with a pair of big trades by the Padres over the last 24 hours (two deals that netted San Diego starting pitchers Yu Darvish and Blake Snell), it appears things are beginning to heat up. Hopefully, the latest action will inspire Braves’ GM Alex Anthopoulos and motivate him to shore up the team’s bench. There’s still plenty of talent available. Here are a few players the Braves should consider…
Tyler Flowers, C
With Travis d’Arnaud becoming an instant success in year one of his two-year, $16 million deal signed last offseason, the less-productive Flowers was forced to take a backseat in 2020, only getting in on 22 games with the Braves while finishing the year with a .217 AVG overall (his worst end-of-season mark since 2013). Versus southpaw pitching, the soon-to-be 35-year-old Flowers isn’t much help with the bat (.118 AVG vs. LHP in ’20), but against righties, he’s known to occasionally run into a few. Also, with his well-known framing skills behind the plate and the fact the d’Arnaud/Flowers duo collectively tallied the major’s fourth-most catcher WAR last season, handing Flowers another one-year deal as a veteran backup may be a solid add for the Braves’ catching depth, especially as youngster William Contreras continues his development in the minors.
Danny Santana, OF/INF
Remember Santana from 2017-18? At that time, he was an agile fourth outfielder for the Braves, a player in his mid-20s with a mediocre bat. However, the former Twins star rookie latched on with the Rangers in 2019 and put up huge numbers, coming out of nowhere and hitting .283 with 28 homers and 81 RBI two seasons ago. Last year wasn’t as memorable for Santana. He played in just 15 games and wound up non-tendered earlier this month. However, still just 30-years-old and able to play essentially anywhere on the field, the Braves could add quite a versatile player to their bench in Santana.
Eric Thames, 1B/DH
The DH in the National League looks improbable for 2021, given earlier this month MLB advised club officials to proceed under the assumption that the DH “will not” be used in the NL this year. However, talks between the league and MLBPA are still ongoing, meaning the Braves may be in the market for a true designated hitter. Thames is no Marcell Ozuna, and no season showed that more than 2020 when the former finished the year below replacement-level (-0.7 WAR), while the latter slugged 18 homers and put up a 2.5-WAR campaign for the Braves. Obviously, Ozuna would be the guy to sign for a DH role in 2021, but if power off the bench at a discount price is a route the Braves choose to take as well, Thames could be the guy. He is definitely susceptible to the strikeout (career 29.2% K rate), but the 34-year-old Thames averaged 24 home runs and a respectable .241 AVG while with the Brewers from 2017-19. He could be a cheap lefty power-bat off the bench as well as a viable fill-in for those days when Freddie Freeman needs a breather at first base.
Tommy La Stella, INF/DH
Like Santana above, La Stella is a former Brave (2014) that has evolved into a much different player now into his 30s. Set to turn 32 in late January, the former 8th round pick is coming off back-to-back strong seasons, including his first All-Star bid in 2019 with the Angels when he posted a .295 AVG with 16 homers (good for 2 WAR). His 2020 season wasn’t as impressive, but La Stella still managed a 1.2-WAR season, featuring more walks than strikeouts and a. 281 AVG in 55 games with the Halos and A’s. The seven-year veteran can play all over the infield and could provide the Braves with a high-contact, lefty-bat off the bench.
Enrique Hernandez, INF/OF
Perhaps my favorite player on this list, Hernandez played on a one-year, $5.9 million deal last season with the World Series-winning Dodgers, avoiding arbitration in the offseason. It was certainly a down year for the 29-year-old in 2020 (83 wRC+, -0.1 WAR), but this guy can be an ultra-valuable utility-man able to man essentially any position on the field. Hernandez has some pop at the plate (21 HR in 2018), and his glove plays just fine in both the infield and outfield. This could be a solid buy-low opportunity for the Braves as Hernandez could fill a Charlie Culberson-like role with way more upside.
Eric Sogard, INF
Sogard was part of a nearly-$20 million payroll slash back in October when the Brewers declined options for several veteran players, making him a 34-year-old free agent this winter. Like Hernandez above, Sogard could be a strong buy-low candidate for the Braves, though his glove is regulated to the infield only. This could be a nice lefty-hitting backup for Austin Riley at third base.
Joc Pederson, OF
Both Pederson and Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner are free agents this offseason, though at 36-years-old and coming off a 2020 season in which he earned a hefty $19 million salary (pre-COVID), Turner seems like quite an unnecessary risk for the Braves. This brings us to the left-handed-hitting Pederson, a player Atlanta has reportedly been interested in for a few years now. The former 11th round pick is still just 28, and he’ll undoubtedly command a much more palatable contract, considering he played on a one-year, $7.75 million deal last season. Even better, Pederson’s yet another buy-low candidate, thanks to a .190 AVG and 88 wRC+ in 2020 (both marks were his worst since 2014). With Adam Duvall non-tendered earlier this month and Ender Inciarte in the midst of a decline, the Braves need another formidable outfielder to add to their depth chart.
Yasiel Puig, OF
Amazingly, no one signed Puig last offseason, a winter after a 2019 campaign in which he hit .267 with 24 homers and knocked in 84 runs in 149 games. We were right here talking about him this time last year, and for me, the desire for Puig to be in a Braves uniform hasn’t changed. Sure, there are concerns when it comes to the 30-year-old Cuban, but this is a career .277 hitter who has managed double-digit home run totals in each of his seven big league seasons. Considering he played on a one-year, $9.7 million pact two seasons ago and then was unemployed all last year, the Braves could add Puig at a very affordable price.
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