The Braves left San Diego Thursday without any new additions to the 2020 major league roster, though this week certainly provided it’s fair share of rumors, giving us all a bit more clarity as to what the team’s next move could be, as well as what it should be.
In terms of the league as a whole, this year’s version of the Winter Meetings didn’t disappoint as three of the “Big 4” were taken off the board, leaving third baseman Josh Donaldson as the only top-tier free agent left unsigned. All that’s left to do is wait.
Although, now that the event has concluded and all 30 teams have returned to their respective headquarters, let’s quickly review what we learned this week as we head into the final 10-day stretch leading up to the Christmas holidays.
The market has reset
If there’s any one big thing to take away from this week’s Winter Meetings, it’s that the free-agent market has completely reset this year, making this offseason an outlier compared to the last 2-3 seasons. The fact that the top-3 free agents are already signed, and it’s not even Christmas shows that GMs are back to the old way of doing business and are aggressively trying to make their teams better. That might sound like an oversimplified description, but it was just last year that such a straightforward approach ceased to exist.
I think baseball owners and executives had gotten a little caught up in running their respective organizations like some kind of equity fund, making decisions based solely on the financial bottom line, competition be damned. At least, for now, it appears that decision-makers are interested in fielding a competitive team.
Anthopoulos is standing his ground
Despite our plea for the Braves to re-sign Donaldson, GM Alex Anthopoulos hasn’t seemed to budge a muscle. Donaldson’s stock has risen substantially since the beginning of the current offseason — as he was initially projected to command a 3-year, $75 million contract — though at this present juncture the 2019 National League Comeback Player of the Year is expected to surpass $100 million in total value and at least four years in length.
The Athletic‘s David O’Brien (subscription required) has been relentless in his reporting that Anthopoulos does not plan to go that high in length, insisting that the chances of Donaldson returning are slim. O’Brien stated as much in the opening paragraph of his write-up Wednesday night:
“Like most others at the Winter Meetings, Braves manager Brian Snitker said he has no idea where Josh Donaldson will end up. But he knows there’s a pretty good chance it won’t be back with Atlanta, as much as Snitker and plenty of others connected with the Braves wish that wasn’t the case.”
It’s a frustrating situation that Anthopoulos was so deliberate in his approach at the onset of the offseason, spending over $40 million reinforcing the Braves’ bullpen for the coming season. It seems rather counterintuitive to hit the ground running as he did only to become complacent at such a crucial time.
The concerns regarding a four-year commitment for Donaldson are understandable and very real, but given the Braves’ current window of contention, this seems like a necessary premium to pay to maintain one of the best lineups in the NL. Donaldson has shown no signs of slowing as he has aged, providing above-average defense at third base during his age-33 season in 2019 (he turned 34 this past Sunday). As a corner-power type player, there’s a solid chance his elite production continues into his late-30s; and if there’s any team in the majors that should understand a productive aging third baseman, it’s the Braves, who benefited greatly from Hall of Famer Chipper Jones in the latter portion of his career.
The race to sign JD isn’t over yet as he’s still currently unemployed. However, the window is quickly closing, and reports on Thursday night didn’t make things better as it was relayed that the Nationals are currently “frontrunners” to sign the former MVP.
The Nationals are keying on Donaldson, according to multiple people with knowledge of their plans, and the Atlanta Braves, Texas Rangers, Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Dodgers have also been in the mix. https://t.co/Tejpzx1GrD
— Post Sports (@PostSports) December 12, 2019
If Anthopoulos has been bluffing this whole time… it’s time to quit playing around and re-sign the man. If there’s any consolation — as Harrison reported here on Thursday — it is Donaldson’s “preference to return to the Braves.“
The Braves have options
Yesterday Harrison also shared a new report, relaying that the Braves are currently interested in former Dodgers starting pitcher, 32-year-old Hyun-Jin Ryu. Harrison mentioned that it’s probably unlikely the Braves drop another substantial pile of cash on a starting pitcher while the team is still in need of a cleanup hitter, but the point is there are still plenty of options, depending on which route Anthopoulos is wanting to go.
All through the Winter Meetings, several different players surfaced as potential guys the Braves could be interested in. Here are some of the more notable ones:
OF, Marcell Ozuna (STL)
Ozuna has been on the Braves’ radar for a while now, as the 29-year-old and two-time All-Star could provide the Braves with some much-needed power at the No. 4 spot in the lineup. In his last four seasons, Ozuna has averaged 28 home runs and 94 RBIs, all while providing adequate defense in left field (-1.95 Def / 2.65 UZR). He also should come at a fairly reasonable price, projected to command a contract around four years and $70 million.
3B, Kris Bryant (CHC)
A pending service-time manipulation grievance and declining defense lessens the excitement for Bryant, but for the Braves, the potential for him to become a free agent after the 2020 season may actually work better for them. If Anthopoulos could work a trade that doesn’t involve sending Cristian Pache or Ian Anderson to the Cubs, the 27-year-old Bryant could be a big-time bat for the Braves in 2020, while becoming a free agent just in time for Austin Riley to take his place. If the third baseman loses the grievance… well, then how about two years of a big-time bat? Bryant is expected to earn $18.5 million in arbitration salary this coming season, a cheaper salary relative to what Donaldson will potentially earn. If Anthopoulos doesn’t open the coffers and give JD his four years, perhaps he’ll pivot and go after Bryant.
SP, Madison Bumgarner (SFG)
Despite seeing the Braves listed as interested in some reports, I think it’s pretty well known that Anthopoulos is no longer targeting MadBum. It’s truly amazing just how much Bumgarner’s stock has risen over the past 3-4 weeks, and after Strasburg and Cole’s gargantuan deals, it wouldn’t surprise me if the former Giants pitcher received a 5-year, $100 million+ contract this offseason. Maybe Zack Wheeler should’ve waited a while before signing?
SS, Francisco Lindor (CLEV)
Like Bumgarner above, I believe this rumor has subsided, as it looks like the Dodgers are the No. 1 team interested in Lindor, potentially setting up for a blockbuster trade that could feature Corey Kluber from the Indians and Gavin Lux and Dustin May from the Dodgers. I think it was far fetched from the beginning to expect the Braves to seriously consider going after Lindor, considering the Indians would’ve certainly asked for more prospects than Anthopoulos would be comfortable giving up. Still, it was fun while it lasted.
3B, Nolan Arenado (COL)
Another far fetched one here — Arenado is one of, if not the best, defensive third baseman in the majors, while also carrying a big bat to boot. David O’Brien has already rejected the idea of the Braves going after Arenado, mentioning that such a deal would all but kill a future extension for Freddie Freeman (which is something we need to start talking about). O’Brien’s tweet from Thursday:
No way can I see them doing that. No way. Not with Freddie coming up for long-term extension in next year or two. Can't pay Arenado $10M more than Freeman. Also, Arenada contract has opt-out after 2021. Just so many reasons I can't see it happening. https://t.co/rKV80s21VV
— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) December 11, 2019
There are probably several more that I’ve missed (it has been a crazy week!). The fact remains that the Braves aren’t limited to only going after Donaldson. There’s plenty of options available, though most of these players require trades to be made, which can create a much more difficult dynamic, as no one really wants to move their top prospects.
Currently still at around $132 million for the 2020 payroll, there’s enough of a margin for the Braves to essentially sign (or pay an acquired player through trade) anyone that’s left on the market, as the team is still quite a ways away from the $208 million luxury tax threshold.
Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft results
The Winter Meetings concluded with the yearly Rule 5 Draft on Thursday. The draft was kicked off by the Detroit Tigers picking first, as they selected right-hander Ruben Garcia from the Orioles’ organization.
The Braves didn’t participate in the major-league portion of the draft, but they did make a pick in the Minor League Phase, picking 21st and grabbing 24-year-old second baseman Wendell Rijo from the Yankees system.
The 5-foot-11 Rijo was signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Red Sox in 2013, then was later traded to the Brewers in 2016. The Yankees acquired Rijo on June 16, 2018, and he got his first taste of Triple-A this past season.
The kid is a bit of a veteran in the minors, having completed seven seasons and played 647 games. Overall, Rijo has a career .240/.319/.362 slash-line with 37 home runs and 69 stolen bases.
His 2019 season featured 103 games between three different levels of the Yankees system (High-A, Double-A, Triple-A), as he hit .258 with 13 homers, 24 doubles, and 44 RBI. With 94 games between Double and Triple-A this past season, I would expect Rijo — who can also play shortstop and third — to begin the 2020 season in Triple-A Gwinnett.
Things may drag on as we get closer to the holidays, though, with the way this offseason has gone thus far, you never know what could happen. Regardless, this year’s Winter Meetings was an exciting event and hopefully is a reoccurring theme in the future.