A little more than three weeks after ending their memorable 2020 season, the Braves are progressing through the early stages of the offseason, looking for ways to strengthen their roster. This week’s Inbox answers some of the top questions about the team’s options.
As teams wait to see how variables like schedule and attendance might affect next year’s revenue projections, we don’t know how much flexibility will truly exist. Accounting only for free agents, the Braves are taking $70 million off their books. They will also add approximately $10 million to account for the raises owed to Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall.
But since this year’s financial losses will likely reduce the 2021 payroll to some degree, this doesn’t equate to approximately $60 million worth of flexibility. So while it’s intriguing to think about re-signing Ozuna and adding Bryant as he enters a contract year, it’s also quite unlikely. It’s more likely that the Braves will end up with one of those guys and then use some of the remaining funds to upgrade the rotation.
Over the past two seasons, Pederson has homered once every 11.9 at-bats against right-handed pitchers and Duvall has homered once every 12.2 at-bats against left-handed pitchers. Maintaining those same rates while combining to total 600 at-bats would result in a 50-homer season.
Even if you deem that to be unrealistic, Pederson and Duvall would provide a good platoon from both an offensive and defensive perspective.
Given that Ozuna is likely to return only if the National League continues to use the designated hitter, whether or not he returns shouldn’t influence how the Braves plan to fill left field. But there’s always a chance they could pursue an everyday option like George Springer or Michael Brantley. Puig would likely be a secondary option.
What are some realistic starting pitching candidates the Braves will go after this offseason?
Last week, I predicted the Braves would end up signing Jon Lester, who lives in the Atlanta area during the offseason. The veteran lefty would provide a strong presence within what is now a very young rotation. But you also have to account for the fact he has a 4.06 ERA and a 4.45 FIP over the past three seasons.
So Lester might not be the best addition to a rotation that will be headed by Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Ian Anderson, a trio that has combined to make 93 career starts. The uncertainty within this rotation creates more reason to argue for Trevor Bauer, who is the one elite free agent starter available this winter.
Beyond Bauer, the most attractive option might be Charlie Morton, who posted a 4.74 ERA in nine starts for the Rays this year. If the 36-year-old right-hander doesn’t retire, he may opt to stay with Tampa Bay. But there’s always a chance he could be persuaded to return to the Braves.
Do you see the Darren O'Day declined option as something more reflective of payroll limitations or a read on the market?
Quite honestly, I think it’s both. As the options for Brad Hand, Kolten Wong, O’Day and others were declined, teams confirmed they will find ways to reduce costs. The next interesting decisions will come on Dec. 2, when teams decide which of their arbitration-eligible players might be non-tendered.
The Braves’ arbitration-eligible players this year are Swanson, Duvall, Fried, Soroka, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Johan Camargo and Grant Dayton. As Camargo’s salary nears the $2 million mark, he falls into the category of players who provide teams a cost-saving opportunity.
We may see at least a few everyday players from across the league non-tendered in a couple weeks. But those most affected could be utility players and middle relievers, who have seen their respective costs transform from “affordable” to “pricey” within this year.
Last week, I opined that the remaining quality depth within the bullpen would lead the Braves to spend bigger on their lineup and rotation. But if those potential targets are lost or deemed too expensive, then it might make sense to re-sign Melancon, who continued to routinely miss barrels while going through his just-completed age-36 season.
As for Smith's capability of being a reliable closer, that will be determined by his attempt to prove this year’s long-ball frustrations were a fluke. Eight of the 13 hits allowed (postseason included) by the left-hander were home runs and 33.3 percent of the fly balls he surrendered resulted in a homer.
You won’t see these same rates again. But there is reason for Smith and the Braves to look at what might have changed over the past two seasons.
When Smith surrendered just six homers over 93 1/3 innings from 2016-18, he had a 6.5 fly ball per home run rate. That number jumped to 20.4 when he allowed 10 homers over 65 1/3 innings for the Giants in '19. But he still limited opponents to a 6.4 percent barrel rate, as opposed to 15 percent this year.
To put that barrel rate in perspective, Robbie Erlin (13.6) and Touki Toussaint (13.0) produced the second- and third- worst barrel rates among Braves pitchers.
But there’s reason to think Smith’s results this year may have been influenced by missing all of Summer Camp after testing positive for COVID-19. His velocity has remained the same over the past three seasons and the 55 percent whiff rate produced with his slider trumped his numbers from 2018 and ’19. For now, I’d just chalk his season up to 2020 being 2020.