Braves: With available impact hitters quickly dwindling, what’s next for Atlanta?

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Despite seeing a ton of criticism regarding the Braves inactivity this offseason (granted, the team did sign reliever Carl Edwards Jr. on Friday to yet another minor league deal), I’ve done my best to refrain from any such panic. However after Friday night, I must admit… frustration is beginning to build. 

In case you’ve been lulled to sleep by Atlanta’s quietness thus far this winter and didn’t catch the breaking news from Friday, the Rockies and Cardinals hooked up for a trade, sending perhaps the best third baseman in the game (Nolan Arenado) to St. Louis. Not only did the Cards acquire Arenado, but the now NL Central favorites also received $50 million in cash to offset Arenado’s underwater contract — a pact that currently has six years and $199 million remaining on it (when excluding the opt-out clause that many believe he’ll void as part of the trade). 

Surely St. Louis gave up a helluva prospect package for Arenado, right? Nope. According to ESPN, prospect pitcher Austin Gomber — the Cards’ no. 16 prospect — is said to be the headline player in the package, followed by a few low-level guys. 

This certainly hurts if you’re a Braves fan. Regardless of whether or not you believe Atlanta should’ve pursued Arenado or not, the fact that a fellow NL team (and a mid-market club at that) was able to acquire him by sending a package essentially amounting to Jeremy Walker and some filler material is admittedly very frustrating. With very little money committed to future payrolls, coupled with a whopping $50 million check from Colorado, it’s not like the Braves couldn’t have made this deal work. But once again — with several other players coming off the FA board recently — I guess it’s back to the drawing board. 


What’s left?

Friday wasn’t just about Arenado. Cleveland finally decided to upgrade its lacking outfield and signed Eddie Rosario — another player reportedly on the Braves radar — to a one-year, $8 million deal. Rosario coming off the FA board comes less than 24 hours after another viable player found a home as outfielder Joc Pederson was grabbed by the Cubs for a cheap one-year, $7 million contract. That’s two players that would have certainly improved Atlanta’s outlook in the outfield, but for whatever reason GM Alex Anthopoulos didn’t pull the trigger.

Here’s what’s left on the FA market, in terms of hitters that fit the Braves needs (excluding catchers and DH-only types), ordered by projected 2021 fWAR. I’ve kept the list to only players expected to post at least 0.5 fWAR this coming season, which gives Atlanta a relatively diverse list of 21 available free agents:

  • Justin Turner, 3B — 3.1 WAR
  • Marcell Ozuna, OF — 2.9 WAR
  • Kolton Wong, 2B — 1.9 WAR 
  • Jackie Bradley Jr., OF — 1.3 WAR
  • Brett Gardner, OF — 1.1 WAR
  • Maikel Franco, 3B — 1.1 WAR
  • Jonathan Schoop, 2B — 0.9 WAR
  • Kevin Pillar, OF — 0.9 WAR
  • Travis Shaw, 3B/1B — 0.8 WAR
  • Jonathan Villar, INF/OF — 0.7 WAR
  • Yasiel Puig, OF — 0.7 WAR
  • Brad Miller, INF — 0.7 WAR
  • Jake Lamb, 3B/1B — 0.7 WAR
  • Marwin Gonzalez, INF/OF — 0.6 WAR
  • Hanser Alberto, INF — 0.6 WAR
  • Todd Frazier, 3B/1B — 0.6 WAR
  • Asdrubal Cabrera, INF — 0.6 WAR
  • Adam Duvall, OF — 0.6 WAR
  • Nomar Mazara, OF — 0.5 WAR
  • Jedd Gyorko, 1B/3B — 0.5 WAR

As you can see, there’s still plenty left to choose from in terms of available bodies. And given the Braves collectively produced the majors’ lowest fWAR total last season at third base, any of the above third-base-capable players above would offer some sort of an improvement at the position relative to 2020. Although it’s not simply about acquiring a player that can post more WAR than Austin Riley or Johan Camargo, nor is it just finding someone better than Adam Duvall in the outfield. The real need here is a power-hitter that can hit behind Freddie Freeman in the lineup, regardless of his position or how much more WAR he’s capable of tallying. This is why JT Realmuto, despite him being a catcher, was such an attractive proposition (even if it was an option that requires the universal DH). 

But obviously the FA market isn’t the only route Anthopoulos has at his disposal. As difficult as it is to believe that he’d do so at this point, there are a few trades the Braves GM could make that would really set this team up for success in 2021. We’ve discussed a few of these players already, but here’s a list of potential trade candidates still available, again ordered according to their projected 2021 fWAR:

  • (OAK) Matt Chapman, 3B — 5 WAR
  • (CHC) Kris Bryant, 3B/OF — 2.6 WAR
  • (SEA) Kyle Seager, 3B — 2 WAR
  • (MIA) Starling Marte, OF — 1.7 WAR
  • (SD) Wil Myers, OF/1B — 1.6 WAR
  • (ARI) Eduardo Escobar, INF — 1.5 WAR
  • (BOS) Andrew Benintendi, OF — 1.5 WAR
  • (BOS) Hunter Renfroe, OF — 1.2 WAR
  • (BOS) J.D. Martinez, DH/OF — 1.2 WAR
  • (NYY) Clint Frazier, OF — 1.2 WAR
  • (NYY) Miguel Andujar, 3B/OF — 0.6 WAR

Clearly there’s more bang for your buck on the trade block, as there oftentimes is. Those 11 players above average nearly 2 WAR (1.82) altogether, and guys like Chapman and Bryant would look damn good in a Braves uni. But trades come with steep costs prospect-wise, and though Arenado would’ve impacted Atlanta’s payroll for many seasons to come, he probably presented the best trade opportunity out there when considering his talent alone and how much of a bind Colorado was in with that contract. Remember, the Cardinals gave the Rockies just a top-20 prospect and a few players still in the low minors. A proposal like that definitely isn’t going to cut it for Chapman, and though Bryant’s looming free agency in 2022 slashes some of his trade value, the Cubs would most likely expect at least one big league ready prospect in exchange for shipping off arguably the team’s best player.


The plan going forward 

After seeing the activity on Twitter regarding the Braves interest in Arenado recently, I wrongly started getting my hopes up, thinking this was it!… this is what has been taking so long! But I was crazy to actually believe a trade like that was in the cards, and now I’m wondering if Atlanta even has another move left in the tank, and if it does… do I even want to know what it is? (hello Nick Markakis). 

Realistically speaking, at this point I’d still prefer Marcell Ozuna. And with how the market has surprised us on several of these recent signings, I believe his price could’ve even dropped a tad after the Pederson and Rosario deals. Sure, George Springer got paid the big bucks even though he’s beginning to age as a toolsy outfielder; however, Springer is still considered a viable two-way player, which is something Ozuna is certainly not. Opinions may differ in Braves Country, but I wouldn’t complain if the Braves gave him a three or four-year deal worth $20 million per season. The universal DH is coming, folks (even if it won’t be here this season), so why not go ahead and lock up one of the best sluggers in the game?

In my opinion, if Ozuna doesn’t happen the best Plan B would be to go after one of those listed trade targets from above. My hope is that if Ozuna were to sign elsewhere that Anthopoulos would perhaps feel a bit of urgency to make a splashier move. With merely weeks until spring camp, would he seriously go after Bryant… or even Chapman? It’s probably doubtful.

If there is a Plan C to this unfortunate hypothetical disaster of missing out on both Ozuna AND any of the impactful pieces via trade, the next-best route should be signing a Yasiel Puig or a Justin Turner, as each have high enough ceilings power-wise to provide some protection in the lineup. Jackie Bradley Jr. doesn’t seem to have enough pop in his bat and Brett Gardner will turn 38 in August. Then the rest of the FA field that’s expected to move the needle at all in terms of projected WAR are all either strictly one-way players or lack enough power at the plate. I mean, if Anthopoulos can’t land a bat off the top-end of the FA market that’s prolific enough to insert behind Freddie, he might as well re-sign Duvall and let him play the outfield versus southpaws in a platoon rotation with Ender Inciarte. It’s not the flashiest of options but it’ll suffice while Drew Waters continues to inch closer to earning a starting gig. 

Either way a decision needs to be made soon. With a flurry of moves recently, the hot stove has been burning rather hot for awhile as signings/trades seem to be occurring on a daily basis. Another week or so of this and the free agent landscape could look very different, and if the Braves are still sitting in the same place it will be a huge disappointment. Ozuna or not, I still like this team, and I believe the pitching should be good enough to take some of the pressure off a lineup that, without another move, is far from ideal. However, something needs to be done if Atlanta wants to remain the leader of this division. Let’s just hope the team acts before it’s too late. 

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