MLB’s Winter Meetings: 3 Braves predictions

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For all the grumblings of collusion and the growing assumption that most of Major League Baseball is comprised of stingy owners with little to no desire to compete, the current offseason has been quite entertaining. Contrary to last year, teams seem to be extremely eager to shore up their weaknesses, and so far, there hasn’t been a more aggressive organization than the Atlanta Braves when it comes to making such additions.

But with such a flurry of deals already filed away during the first month of this hot stove period, this year’s Winter Meetings may serve more as a winding-down rather than a big climax to the offseason (which hasn’t been the case in the last two years). Although, with so much anticipation regarding the market’s Big 4 — pitchers Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg and third basemen Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson — this annual meeting of MLB’s exec’s could perhaps function as the perfect storm for getting those marquee deals done, as throwing a bunch of anxious decision-makers in the same room could force a few exorbitant arrangements.

This is an incredibly fun time of the year. College football is wrapping up, and conference championships have concluded, providing the yearly College Football Playoff debate that has concluded with a final four of LSU, Ohio State, Clemson, and Oklahoma. Between the college football madness and daily MLB transactions, each 24-hour period produces a rich assortment of dramatic storylines, satisfying our itch for more sports. It’s almost too much.

But starting yesterday — the official kickoff to the winter meetings — things could get even crazier, as all 30 MLB general managers will meet face-to-face in a week-long convention of non-stop hot stove action. For the next several days, literally anything can happen, meaning ultimately… absolutely nothing could happen. But to keep things exciting, let’s assume the MLB puts on a show in San Diego this week, and everything we’ve been anticipating for comes to fruition in the coming days; meaning, the Braves could do the following…

 

 1. Land a power bat

I originally wanted to name this “Sign Josh Donaldson”, but technically the Braves don’t have to re-sign JD to land a power bat (though I think he’s the best option). Without illustrating to much bias, the market currently includes several different players that could provide the needed power for the Braves’ 2020 lineup, but when you limit those options to only players that play positions of need, the pickings get a bit slim. 

Free-agent outfielders Marcell Ozuna, Nicholas Castellanos, Kole Calhoun, and Avisail Garcia are all respectable choices that could fit the Braves’ needs, as all four together averaged a smidge over 27 home runs and 77 RBI in 2019. However, of those four, only Ozuna provided even average defense this past season (0.0 Def) — Castellanos (-12.6), Calhoun (-1.1), Garcia (-4.2). I’m not so sure any of these four are what the Braves are looking for, especially considering most of these guys are eying a multi-year pact, basically a deal-breaker considering Cristian Pache could be in the outfield grass by mid-2020.

The Braves have made it known that they’re prepared to platoon Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall this coming season, a combo I don’t love but also one that I see as the Braves only real option at this point (though I have a suggestion I’ll get to in a minute).

Potential trade options have been sporadic, but the three that have been the most prevalent have included Kris Bryant, Francisco Lindor, and Starling Marte. All three of these guys are great, including Marte’s .295 AVG and 23 HR in 2019 (3.0 WAR), but they each come with their issues.

  • Bryant is in the middle of a dispute with the Chicago Cubs, relating to service-time manipulation, even filing a grievance that could possibly allow him to become a free agent a year early, meaning 2020 could be his final arbitration season. I’m not sure it would be wise to give up the necessary haul in prospects to acquire a one-year rental of Bryant, especially when Donaldson is sitting there and costing just money.
  • Lindor is a generational player, one that will most likely go down as one of the best, as he has tallied 27.2 WAR in just five seasons in the majors. But in case you’re unaware, Lindor plays shortstop and has never played another position at the big league level. Because he’s so good on defense (11.0 UZR/150), Lindor could possibly shift to third base and not even miss a step (or Dansby could move over), but like Bryant above, he’s going to cost a haul to acquire. Also, Lindor’s team-control is running out, as he’ll be a free agent after the 2021 season. 
  • Marte is a one-year deal as well, becoming a free agent after 2020, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing since he plays the outfield. Marte’s expected arbitration salary for 2020 is just $12.5 million, meaning the Braves wouldn’t be straddled by a high salary. The 31-year-old offers 20-25 home run power and a high average, plus (usually) strong defense. Marte’s more of a two-hole hitter, but perhaps the Braves could teach him to launch in 2020. I like Marte a lot, but not for this specific need (more on him in a minute).

Then there’s that guy Josh Donaldson, who hit 37 home runs, knocked in 97 runs and got on base at a .379 clip for the Braves in 2019. Oh, and all he costs is money, commanding an AAV of around $25 million. Though, the question is contract length. The Athletic’s David O’Brien believes strongly that Donaldson’s decision will come down to who can offer that extra year, and I agree. Whether it’s a fourth or fifth option year that entices Donaldson this week, the Braves need to give it to him.

My prediction: The Braves sign Josh Donaldson to a 3-year, $80 million contract with an option for a fourth year, making me happy and satisfied with this offseason.

 

2. Trade for a left fielder 

Remember Starling Marte above, here’s where he comes in: Following the signing of Donaldson (well, it doesn’t have to be after), Anthopoulos perhaps could turn his attention towards the platoon situation in left field, by offering the Pittsburgh Pirates one top-20 prospect of their choice (other than Pache or Ian Anderson) and one major-league ready player. The specifics of the trade could vary, but the gist of this is to acquire a full-time player in left field, ridding the Braves of a platoon that won’t work (remember how Duvall in his 2018 platoon with Ender Inciarte?).

Marte makes perfect sense in left field, allowing the Braves to feature a dang good outfield without being forced to block Pache. Additionally, Marte’s bat gives the lineup consistency versus both right-handed and left-handed pitchers (.304 AVG vs. RHP, .269 AVG vs. LHP in 2019). Consider this lineup for 2020:

 

  1. Ronald Acuna (RF)
  2. Starling Marte (LF)
  3. Freddie Freeman (1B)
  4. Josh Donaldson (3B)
  5. Ozzie Albies (2B)
  6. Dansby Swanson (SS)
  7. Ender Inciarte (CF)
  8. Travis d’Arnaud / Tyler Flowers (C)
  9. Pitcher

 

You could swap the lineup around a bit if you care about the righty-lefty thing, but overall that’s a loaded batting order from top to bottom.

My prediction: The Braves, unfortunately, do not trade for Marte, leaving the Markakis/Duvall platoon in place. I don’t think Anthopoulos is willing to cash-in on the prospect surplus currently available to him. To me, it seems he has a decent amount of confidence in Markakis and Duvall being able to hold down the position. Maybe he’s right, but I would prefer Marte.

 

3. Sign (or trade for) another starting pitcher

To me, I’m content with the current four ‘locks’ for the Braves 2020 rotation, but this is the Winter Meetings… anything can happen, right? 

What if Anthopoulos decides he’d rather leave lefty Sean Newcomb in the bullpen, you know, since he was so good there in 2019? Also, the Braves’ GM may look at Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson and Touki Toussaint as not-quite-ready yet, meaning there’s cause for acquiring one more starter. Now realistically, it appears that given the current 2020 budget constraints — the 2020 payroll sits at near $130 million — the Braves won’t be able to re-sign Donaldson and sign another starter, though there are a few lower-grade pitchers that Anthopoulos could perhaps possibly afford.

The top-10 starting pitchers left on the free agent market, going by Baseball Reference WAR in 2019, includes:

  • Gerrit Cole (7.4) *not gonna happen
  • Stephen Strasburg (5.7) *doubtful
  • Hyun-Jin Ryu (4.8) *meh, maybe?
  • Madison Bumgarner (3.2) *possible
  • Homer Bailey (2.9)
  • Tanner Roark (2.0)
  • Wade Miley (2.0)
  • Brett Anderson (2.0)
  • Ivan Nova (2.0)
  • Martin Perez (1.9)

 

If Anthopoulos does indeed pass on Donaldson, there’s a strong case to be made for going after 33-year-old Hyun-Jin Ryu (projected to command a 2-year, $32 million contract) or 30-year-old Madison Bumgarner (was projected at four years, $64 million), though there’s speculation that the latter could command a deal closer to the $100 million mark, which I don’t think the Braves should even consider.

Homer Bailey (1 year, $7MM), Tanner Roark (1 year, $10MM) and Wade Miley (1 year, $9MM) sort of feel like guys that belong in the same tier as that of lefty Dallas Keuchel (3 years, $45MM). However, as you can see, their projected contracts come in quite a bit cheaper both in length and AAV.

The last three on that list (Anderson, Nova, and Perez) are no better than Newcomb: Anderson’s 4.60 K/9 in 2019 isn’t ideal; Nova has surrendered home run totals of 29, 26 and 30, respectively since the 2017 season (yeesh); and Perez has a middling 4.72 ERA during his major league career.

What about a few possible trade candidates (these are ordered by FanGraphs WAR in 2019 and are guys that have been included in trade talks recently):

  • TEX, Mike Minor (4.2)
  • DET, Matthew Boyd (3.3)
  • PIT, Joe Musgrove (3.3)
  • ARI, Robbie Ray (2.4)
  • BAL, Andrew Cashner (1.8)
  • SF, Jeff Samardzija (1.5)
  • SEA, Mike Leake (1.3)
  • CLEV, Corey Kluber (0.6)

 

The trade market looks more attractive than I thought, though more variables go into these guys as each of them have their strengths and weaknesses regarding controllability.

  • I’ve already written about lefty Robbie Ray, and since that article my interest in him as certainly wavered. His projected $10.8 million arbitration salary in 2020 looks nice, but him being a free agent next offseason sort of kills the buzz, considering the Diamondbacks will probably be asking for one of Pache, Anderson or Waters — I’ll pass.
  • It feels like Boyd has been on the trade block for five years now, as the Tigers have been back-and-forth with the 28-year-old every season. Counting 2020, Boyd has three more arbitration seasons — projected to receive $6.4 million this coming season — and has averaged 2.5 WAR over his last 3 seasons (going by FanGraphs WAR). He’s a rather durable starter, making 25, 31 and 32 starts since 2017, although his ERA during that span sits at an unsightly 4.74.
  • I don’t think the Rangers are interested in shopping Minor, as they look inspired to at least attempt to contend in 2020. They want to come out with a bang in their new stadium.
  • Like Boyd above, the Pirates’ Musgrove has run-prevention issues and hasn’t posted an ERA under 4.00 in his entire major-league career. He’ll be a free agent in 2022 and is expected a $3.4 million salary this coming season. The Braves could see his drastic improvements to his slider — his Pitch Value went from 1.1 to 10.4 from 2018-19 — as a sign that perhaps there’s something valuable there, but his career 8.07 K/9 isn’t anything to get too excited about.
  • Cashner, Samardzija, and Leake are all on terrible teams (Orioles, Giants and Mariners), so realistically they could be moved. Although at the same time, they’re really all that’s left for those teams, and I’m not sure either of them move the needle for the Braves’ rotation.
  • Kluber would be a great addition, and the Indians are always on the lookout for ways to cut its payroll. The 33-year-old still has another option-year for the 2021 season ($1 million buyout), but will for-sure be a free agent in 2022 (when he’s 36). His 5-year, $38.5 million contract is up, but the Indians exercised his first option this offseason for $17.5 million, a worthwhile cost if he’s healthy. Cleveland is looking for an infielder to play second or third base, as well as cheaper and more controllable starting pitchers. Perhaps the Braves could build an offer around Austin Riley or Johan Camargo, including one or two of the team’s pitching prospects. However, even though a healthy Kluber can post Cy Young like numbers, is the cost really worth it for just a season or two? 

 

My prediction: I predicted that the Braves would re-sign Donaldson, so I’m going to predict they sign Wade Miley — a pitch-to-contact veteran that made 33 starts in 2019 and held a 3.98 ERA. You could rightfully argue that Newcomb makes more sense — or maybe even former Brave Julio Teheran — as the Braves’ No. 5 starter, but as I said above, this prediction is in the event Anthopoulos decides Newk is better served to remain in the bullpen; that’s the only way signing another starter makes any sense, in my opinion, as signing a power bat and sharp defender like Donaldson should be the main priority this week (which would essentially max out the 2020 payroll). Bringing back Teheran may ultimately make sense if it’s decided that a mid-tier starter isn’t in the cards, though there’s such thing as a change-of-scenary candidate, and to me, Teheran fits that description. 

The Braves have been busy so far this offseason, which could really put a damper on just how much Anthopoulos does this week. There’s only so much the man can do, considering roughly 85% of his budget for this season has been allocated. Given this situation, movement could be limited in terms of spending, which opens up the possibilities for trades. 

Despite my three little predictions above, I think the Braves will participate in a few trades this week, though they may be rather minor in nature. Sure, the bullpen looks to be stout for this coming season, and in terms of the lineup, the mentioned power bat and primary left fielder seems to be the only real needs. While I wound up deciding the Braves probably won’t trade for Marte during the Winter Meetings (though I think they should), I do, however, expect them to make some moves and acquire perhaps a bench bat and maybe a relief arm — two roster spots that are both small in cost yet just as important as the more pressing needs.

However, none of this could happen, and this week could turn out to be several days of just boring speculation, as the big moves may be destined to take place later. In that case, I apologize for this 2,300-word preview that only served as a mere source of false excitement. But given how this offseason has played out thus far, I would be more surprised if that were the case.

 

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