The Braves exit in the NLDS can be looked at as nothing more than unsatisfying. Last year, it was a win just to get there. This season, they lost to a team they were substantially better than. But there is no need to panic. Atlanta is coming off a 97-win campaign and has a young core that is still budding, with more reinforcements on the way. Most everyone that was crucial to the 2019 team can be brought back in 2020, and Atlanta should have a few dollars to spend elsewhere. When looking at it now, the Braves have five areas that need to be polished up before the start of next season. Here they are – from the least to most important.
5. The bullpen
This was the Braves’ most pressing need last offseason, and for some reason, Alex Anthopoulos blatantly ignored it, which almost cost Atlanta had Luke Jackson and Anthony Swarzak not turned into the late Venters/Kimbrel duo for a couple of months until Anthopoulos could acquire reinforcements at the trade deadline.
The Braves were able to pick up Shane Greene, Mark Melancon, and Chris Martin before August, and their bullpen went from their biggest weakness to a strength down the stretch, allowing them to hold off the Nationals. The best part about it is Greene and Melancon will both be in Atlanta for next year too. Martin could as well, but he is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. I’d imagine the Braves would like to hold onto him if the price is right.
With Green and Melancon in the fold, along with arms like Sean Newcomb and Luke Jackson, Atlanta’s pen is already in miles better shape for 2020 than it was entering 2019, so I would not expect Anthopoulos to break the bank adding relievers this offseason. He will most likely patch up some holes in the middle and see how this group does at the beginning of the season. Anthopoulos knows he can always add relievers at the deadline for cheap.
4. Third base
Josh Donaldson is set to test the open market after outperforming the one-year, $23 million deal the Braves gave him last offseason. In my heart, I believe a contract gets done between Donaldson and the Braves. He fits perfectly behind Freddie Freeman in Atlanta, has a relationship with Alex Anthopoulos and the training staff, and just proved he is well worth the money. However, there is a chance a desperate team jumps into the mix and offers him a deal he cannot refuse. In that case, the Braves would be wise to walk away.
As much as it would hurt to let Donaldson walk, it will hurt a lot more if the Braves offer a 34-year-old three years, $80 million, and he starts experiencing injury issues as well as declining play. This isn’t New York or Los Angeles; Atlanta has to be wise with their money if they want to be successful. Missing on a deal like this could set the Braves back for years.
The problem is there aren’t many other options. Rendon would be fantastic, but there’s no way Atlanta wins a bidding war for him. Todd Frazier? That’s probably the next best third baseman on the market behind Rendon and Donaldson, and he’s the furthest thing from a sexy choice. The reason I put third base fourth on this list is because the Braves do have Austin Riley. If push comes to shove, and Donaldson receives a gaudy offer that can’t be matched from another team, Atlanta could make do with a one-year stopgap that is not as talented until Riley is ready. Johan Camargo could also platoon with him, or Anthopoulos could explore the trade market.
This is a position that will have to be addressed this offseason. Brian McCann is officially retired, Tyler Flowers has a $6 million club option that could or could not be exercised, and Francisco Cervelli is an unrestricted free agent. The Braves will most likely hold onto Flowers or Cervelli and let the other walk, then find another platoon option until either William Contreras or Shea Langiliers is ready.
Yasmani Grandal is the name every Braves’ fan will likely be chirping for this offseason. He’s fresh off a 28 home run campaign with a .848 OPS, proving to be one of the rare catchers that can hit these days. However, this past season likely earned him a multi-year deal. I’m not so sure that is what the Braves are looking to invest their money in with a few of their catching prospects progressing towards the majors.
2. The outfield
This cannot be stressed enough. The Braves have two gargantuan question marks and a bevy of good but not great options to fill them. Outside of Ronald Acuña, Atlanta needs to revamp their outfield completely. Nick Markakis, while a pro’s pro, just doesn’t get it done come the postseason, and the Braves would benefit tremendously by adding more pop in the lineup. Ender Inciarte, while a fantastic defensive outfielder, has many of the same flaws as Markakis, and we could see Atlanta attempt to trade him this offseason, considering Drew Waters and Cristian Pache are on the horizon. Matt Joyce and Adam Duvall are bench pieces – nothing more. They should not be counted on to start, especially come the playoffs as they had to this year.
Right now, I’m looking at Austin Riley as the favorite to take over in leftfield. If he can turn things around, this offense is an entirely different beast, especially if Josh Donaldson is re-signed. Inciarte is an option in center if the Braves don’t trade him, with Acuña moving to right field. However, I’d like to see Acuña stay in center, and Anthopoulos attempt to find another bat with some power in right field until Waters or Pache is deemed ready. This ideal outfield isn’t far-fetched by any means and would make the Braves offense so much more formidable come next October. This is vital to Atlanta becoming legitimate World Series contenders once again.
1. Starting Rotation
The single most pivotal piece to any team that wins the World Series – the starting rotation. We are seeing it first-hand with the Washington Nationals, as they are cruising to the Fall Classic behind their stable of thoroughbreds. The Braves rotation proved to be effective against the Cardinals, but that’s more because St. Louis’ lineup wasn’t playoff caliber – just look at what Washington is doing to them. Had the Braves played the Nationals in the next round or made it to the World Series, things would have been a lot different.
On top of that, Dallas Keuchel is a free agent. I’d like to hold onto him, but only at the right price. He proved this October he’s not a #1 starter in the postseason. There are some other names out there like Gerrit Cole and Madison Bumgarner, but both could be out of the Braves’ price range. Regardless, Atlanta needs to add at least one veteran, top-of-the-rotation arm to the mix this offseason, or they are going to continue to have a challenging time in the playoffs.
Now you know the five areas the Braves need to be focused on this offseason. Over the next week or so, I’ll be doing some early free agency previews for each of these groups, breaking down what is realistic and what is not, as the Braves attempt to take the next step in 2020.