Despite the Braves still being under the .500 threshold at 42-44 this season (as of Friday morning), the team is still well within reach of first-place in the NL East division, just 4 1/2 games back of the Mets. However, with how the 2021 campaign has played out so far, it’s also a possibility that Atlanta fails to reach the postseason; and honestly, the 12.8% odds given by FanGraphs doesn’t exactly project optimism. But regardless of what actually happens regarding the Braves’ playoff aspirations this season, there will be several important decisions to be made for next year. In fact, 10 Atlanta players will enter the free agent market next offseason — most notably of course, is first baseman Freddie Freeman.
2022 Free Agents
- Freddie Freeman, 1B
- Travis d’Arnaud, C
- Charlie Morton, RHP
- Drew Smyly, LHP
- Ehire Adrianza, SS
- Shane Greene, RHP
- Pablo Sandoval, 3B
- Abraham Almonte, OF
- Jesse Chavez, RHP
- Jonathan Lucroy, C
As you would probably guess, the quartet of Freeman, d’Arnaud, Morton and Smyly account for most of the money set to come off the books in 2022, with those four players alone combining for $50.875 million in salary against the luxury tax for 2021. And then of course, there’s also outfielder Marcell Ozuna, who’s still sort of a question mark right now.
Initially, once reports began to surface about his involvement in the domestic abuse charge, it appeared likely that the Braves would be able to escape his $65-million contract, which accounts for $16.250 million against the luxury tax both this season and next year. However, there have also been reports — most reputably by Ken Rosenthal — that claim it’s likely Atlanta will still be on the hook for Ozuna’s entire contract, given the union “has long viewed such guarantee language and other addendums as unenforceable because they are not collectively bargained.”
The Braves will also have to decide whether to exercise Ender Inciarte‘s $8-million club-option for the 2022 season (yeah… I think we know the answer to that). The same will go for veteran reliever Josh Tomlin, who has a $1.250-million club-option. I expect both will most likely be gone.
As of right now, the Braves’ 2021 payroll sits at roughly $141.1 million, which ranks ninth in the National League and 14th in MLB. Although with rumors — and even GM Alex Anthopoulos stating himself — that revenues from The Battery have been more profitable than originally expected this season, plus the return of fans in the stands, it’s fair to imagine that perhaps Atlanta will increase its spending next year.
According to Spotrac, the Braves currently have 24 players on the books for 2022, adding up to a present total of $59.250 million in overall payroll (ranking 18th in MLB). Even if the team’s spending is mostly unchanged this coming winter, that’s still almost $100 million in flexibility. Even if you deduct $20-30 million with hopes that Atlanta is able to extend Freeman to a long-term deal, there should be more than enough funds to replace any of the key players above, which basically boils down to a starting catcher and at least one frontline starting pitcher (in terms of regulars).
Although there’s also another important aspect to consider: the cost of the team’s arbitration players. Unlike the last two years, the Braves will have a lot of arbitration-eligible players next season; a total of 11 to be exact, compared to just six in 2020 and five in ’19.
2022 Arbitration Eligible Players
- Chris Martin, RHP (Arb 1)
- Tyler Matzek, LHP (Arb 1)
- Max Fried, LHP (Arb 2)
- A.J. Minter, LHP (Arb 2)
- Mike Soroka, RHP (Arb 2)
- Orlando Arcia, SS (Arb 3)
- Grant Dayton, LHP (Arb 3)
- Guillermo Heredia, OF (Arb 3)
- Luke Jackson, RHP (Arb 3)
- Kevan Smith, C (Arb 3)
- Dansby Swanson, SS (Arb 3)
Luckily both young stars Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies are locked up long-term as they would be entering their second year of arbitration next season and probably due a good bit of money. However, both players will cost a combined $17 million in 2022 luxury tax salary. Either way, the Braves should have room to extend one or two of the almost dozen players listed above if they wanted to. I’m not so sure the interest is still where it was in terms of possibly extending Soroka to a big deal, but someone like Fried could be an option, or maybe even Swanson.
In terms of pre-Arb guys or those making the league-minimum next year, the Braves will have six — most notably third baseman Austin Riley.
2022 Pre-Arb Players
- Austin Riley, 3B
- Ian Anderson, RHP
- Tucker Davidson, LHP
- Alex Jackson, C
- Touki Toussaint, RHP
- Huascar Ynoa, RHP
All-in-all, I believe the outlook for next season — whether the Braves reach the playoffs or not in 2021 — looks pretty good. What’s nice is that, while losing players like Morton or d’Arnaud isn’t necessarily ideal, Atlanta is pretty well covered in those two areas, with several up-and-coming pitching prospects and the ascent of Shea Langeliers in Double-A. In other words, the Braves have what it takes to fill any holes next season in-house, and even better, they should have plenty of payroll flexibility, given where they stand as of right now, to go out and get whatever’s not already developed in the org.
Other than perhaps Will Smith‘s three-year, $40 million deal signed back prior to the 2020 campaign, Atlanta doesn’t really have any bad contracts (and the ’22 season is Smith’s last guaranteed year). A big looming question, though, is what happens with Ozuna, and whether or not the Braves can get themselves off the hook for that contract. Obviously, adding some $60 million to the pot really makes a huge impact as to what the team can do next offseason.
In my opinion, I don’t see how Ozuna ever plays again if he is really guilty of what he’s been charged with. And if he’s unable to play, I don’t think Atlanta should be forced to pay him all of that money. Perhaps the two sides could work something out similar to what the the Mets and Yoenis Céspedes put together after he injured himself off the field.
No matter what, though, the Braves run of contention doesn’t have to end in 2021. This team is still very much built to continue going for it all. Let’s just hope Liberty Media allows them to. Because in terms of what’s on the books, the 2022 season should be a successful one for Atlanta. You know… just like this season was supposed to be.