Inbox: How to protect Freeman in lineup?

January 7th, 2021

Who is a realistic trade target or free agent to fill the need of another offensive weapon to protect Freddie Freeman in the lineup?
-- @Steve_Mac_NS

Freeman batted ahead of Nick Markakis when he finished fourth in balloting for the 2018 National League MVP Award. He actually saw more pitches in the strike zone that year than he did while Josh Donaldson batted behind him for most of the final four months of 2019.

But Donaldson and Marcell Ozuna certainly seemed to enhance Freeman’s potential while batting behind him the past two seasons.

Let's take a look at some Freeman numbers from 2019.

Before Donaldson was moved behind him: 38 games, .299/.401/.510, 7 HRs, 21 AB/HR, .911 OPS

After Donaldson was moved behind him: 120 games, .293/.385/.562, 31 HRs, 14.5 AB/HR, .947 OPS

NOTE: Freeman hit .309/.396/.599 with 31 HRs, 13.4 AB/HR and a .995 OPS between May 10 (when Donaldson was moved to the cleanup spot) and Sept. 11 (the last game Freeman played before his sore elbow caused significant problems.

Freeman was even more impressive in 2020, hitting .341/.462/.640 with 13 HRs, 16.5 AB/HR and a 1.102 OPS. When he won the NL MVP Award, he credited the opportunity to bat between leadoff hitter Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozuna. He also pointed out how the three-batter minimum rule enhances the value of having a top right-handed power hitter positioned behind him. The presence of Ozuna gave opposing managers reason to pause before bringing a lefty specialist in to face Freeman.

This was a long way of saying there is no doubt the Braves would significantly benefit from landing another right-handed slugger to place behind Freeman. It would make sense to re-sign Ozuna if NL teams will be permitted to use the designated hitter again this year.

Of course, the presence of the universal DH would also create reason to add Nelson Cruz or lefty-hitting Michael Brantley to the wish list. Brantley could spend some time as an outfielder. But the 33-year-old veteran was primarily used as a DH in Houston last year.

Sticking with the free-agent market, George Springer would be a good fit. The Blue Jays and Mets have been considered the favorites, but Springer would fit nicely in Atlanta’s lineup and within an outfield trio that will include Acuña and Cristian Pache.

As noted in the past, the Braves have no interest in acquiring Kris Bryant from the Cubs. But that doesn’t mean they won’t attempt to acquire a big right-handed bat via trade. If they don’t land an outfielder, they could pursue a third baseman and move Austin Riley to left field.

Will the Braves give a contract extension to Freddie Freeman before the start of the season?
-- @CW4Truth

When the time is right, the two parties will begin discussing the extension. The world’s current uncertainties have likely delayed this process. But there remains mutual interest and plenty of time to discuss a deal that could keep Freeman in Atlanta for at least 5-6 more years.

Who will be the Braves closer in 2021?
-- @The_Klassens

When Braves manager Brian Snitker recently said he believes he has at least three options in his bullpen, my assumption was he was referring to Will Smith, Chris Martin and Tyler Matzek. Or maybe he was including former closer A.J. Minter, who bounced back in 2020 and was absolutely filthy when he struck out seven over just three innings while serving as an opener in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series.

Assuming Smith’s homer woes were just a 2020 fluke, he is more than capable of returning to the closer’s role, which he had with the Giants in 2018-19. Martin provides another strong option if it makes more sense to match Smith up against a left-hander or two before the ninth. Whatever the case, whoever gets the role is most likely already on the roster.

What are the odds of sending a package including Ender Inciarte to the Cubs for Kris Bryant?
-- @eli2asu

As soon as the Braves opted to keep Inciarte off their roster for each of the three postseason rounds last year, they created reason to wonder how this relationship might end. The three-time Gold Glove Award winner was a bargain during the early portion of the five-year, $30.25 million deal he signed before the 2017 season. But now at the age of 30, he’s lost a step in the outfield and continued to provide below-average offensive production.

So, the only way to move his $8 million salary would be to likely include him in a deal within which the Braves acquire a significant contract. But as noted above, they don’t have interest in renting Bryant’s salary for one year.

If the Braves don’t sign Ozuna or sign Springer, do you think Alex Anthopoulos ignores the service time manipulation and puts Drew Waters on the Opening Day roster?
-- @AtlEnthusiast

The Braves remain very high on Waters, who spent this past summer working out at the team’s alternate training site. But the fact Atlanta's No. 2 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, wasn’t even part of the traveling party the Braves carried throughout the postseason was a further reminder that he needs at least a few more months of seasoning at the Triple-A level.

What is going to happen to Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz?
-- @james7sumner

Foltynewicz became a Minor League free agent when the season concluded. As for Newcomb, he will come to Spring Training attempting to regain a spot on Atlanta’s pitching staff.

Though the experiment was halted after just four starts, it made sense to give Newcomb another chance to prove himself as a starter last year. But with the rotation depth replenished, the Braves can hope the lefty proves as effective as he was while primarily serving as a reliever in 2019.