The Braves have been far and away the most active team in free agency. They’ve taken care of their own by re-signing Nick Markakis, Tyler Flowers, Chris Martin, and Darren O’Day. Anthopoulos also began the period with a bang by acquiring Will Smith, the best reliever on the open market. And in his latest move, he addressed the catcher vacancy by inking Travis d’Arnaud to a two-year deal. But even with all that, Anthopoulos still hasn’t addressed the Braves’ two biggest needs – third base and starting pitching – and he’s already nearing what was the 2019 payroll.
After the signing of d’Arnaud, the Braves are looking at about $115 million committed to their 2020 roster. Last year’s payroll sat over $143 million at the end of the season. But remember, Anthopoulos likes to leave a little bit of cash available for mid-season acquisitions, typically around $5-10 million. That would mean – based off last year’s payroll – Anthopoulos has about $20-25 million to spend before the start of next season. The issue is that just isn’t enough money to address all of their needs appropriately, which suggests Liberty Media may finally be opening their pockets a bit.
Josh Donaldson remains the Braves’ top priority. Nothing has changed since the beginning of the offseason. He alone is going to cost around $25 million AAV, which would put Atlanta near their 2019 payroll just by re-signing him, and they would still need to address their starting rotation in some capacity. I have a difficult time believing – scratch that – there is no way the Braves went out and made all of those signings without leaving a large chunk of change available for Donaldson and at least one starting pitcher.
In a piece written earlier this month by Tim Tucker of the AJC, Braves executive Mike Plant was quoted, “We’re set up to win, and we’re going after it.” He continued by talking about how The Battery and its increased revenue will help them spend more money on the Braves, and thus, bring another World Series to Atlanta.
Those words, along with Anthopoulos’ early signings, point to something being different this time around. I’m not expecting the Braves to turn into the Yankees and start offering $300 million contracts to Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon. However, it does look like payroll will be up significantly this year.
If I had to go out a limb, I’d say there is at least enough cash for the Braves to spend big money addressing either third base or their starting rotation. The ideal scenario would be bringing back Josh Donaldson, but if they cannot work out a deal with him, they will probably be in the conversation for the likes of Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, and others to lead their rotation. If they went in that direction, you would have to think Mike Moustakas is the perfect backup plan.
As optimistic as I am, I do feel it is highly unlikely the Braves sign both Donaldson and a high-priced starting pitcher. If they did that, their Opening Day payroll would be somewhere around $160 million – almost $17 million more than their payroll to end 2019.
The more realistic scenario is that Atlanta settles for one – let’s say Donaldson – and then surveys the trade market for a starting pitcher. The Braves still have an elite farm system with plenty of prospects they can part ways with. Given they are smack dab in the middle of their window to win, it’s about time they start flipping their prospects for some more proven commodities.
With all of that in mind, I do expect the Braves payroll to receive a pretty substantial bump. Will the Opening Day payroll be $160 million? Probably not; however, Anthopoulos is not going to stop being aggressive. I’d guess the Braves still have at least $30 million to spend this offseason, which would put their payroll to begin the season at about $145 million, close to where it ended last year. It could be even more, but regardless, look for Atlanta to continue to make splashes as we get deeper into the free agency period.