MLB free agency is officially off and running as the first major domino fell over the weekend, with the Phillies inking Aaron Nola to a massive seven-year, $172 million deal. However, it was reported that the Braves “were a real threat” to sign the veteran starter.
It’s clear Alex Anthopoulos is in the market for a starting pitcher and is willing to spend the money to acquire a high-end arm, but who is left to target and avoid? ESPN’s list of available free agents that teams should target and avoid applies to the Braves search.
1. Blake Snell, LHP
This is one player who I did cover in some depth in my rankings. Snell could very well be the next Max Scherzer — a power-based starting pitcher who ages well when it comes to velocity and strikeouts, en route to a big ROI on what I predicted will be a $150 million deal.
After all, Snell just won the National League Cy Young — but on the other hand, he did so by outperforming his peripherals by about 1½ runs. He led the league in walks and has thrown 130-plus innings only twice in his career. That sounds an awful lot like Carlos Rodon, the worst free agent deal from last winter, and if that sounds like recency bias, the other two recent stuff-over-command lefty starters given nine-figure deals are Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray, also disastrous contracts for their clubs.
Blake Snell is considered one of the top arms on the market, in the same conversation as Aaron Nola and Yoshinobu Yamamoto; however, for several reasons, the Braves shouldn’t be interested in Snell as much as the other two.
The two-time Cy Young winner will likely garner around $200 million this offseason, and there’s not much value in that, which is what Alex Anthopoulos prioritizes. His 2023 campaign was excellent and very timely due to his impending free agency, but it’s the lack of consistency that should steer the Braves away.
Snell been just a tick above average outside of the 2018 and 2023 seasons, and the lack of durability is concerning. Even in his Cy Young campaign last season, he walked 5.0 batters per nine innings and has never pitched more than 180 innings in a season. Someone is going to fork over a fortune for Blake Snell, but it probably won’t be the Braves.
1. Sonny Gray, RHP
The commitment to land Gray is mostly muted by his age (he turned 34 this month), his size (listed at 5-foot-10 and under 200 lbs) and his fringe-average fastball velocity (92.8 mph this season). That said, I love Gray for the projected terms (three years, $69 million) because of what he can do. Despite his size, he’s been durable. Despite his velocity, his fastball plays above average by any metric and his slider is even better. His velocity actually ticked up almost one full mph in 2023, so the elements of age-related decline that scare me about Snell just don’t apply here. Gray probably won’t be a breakout star, but if you can merely get what you pay for from a second/third starter in free agency, you’re way ahead of the game.
It seems Sonny Gray is the top priority for the Braves now, and it’s easy to see why — production, durability, and value.
Gray is coming off the best season of his career, finishing second in the AL Cy Young race after recording a 2.79 ERA and a league-leading 2.83 FIP. Now, for the durability facet, Gray owns a 3.22 ERA and 138 ERA+ in 124 starts since 2019. That kind of availability is worth its weight in gold, especially for the Braves, who have dealt with rotation injuries constantly in recent seasons.
Though Gray’s numbers are better than Nola’s, he won’t get the same kind of contract because he’s 34 years old. He will likely demand half of the commitment that Nola did. For all of those reasons, Sonny Gray seems much more likely to be a Braves free agent target than Blake Snell.