What's on the Braves' radar headed into 2019?
ATLANTA -- With 2019 upon us, let's take another look at what the Braves must do to increase the probability this new year might prove to be every bit as memorable as the last.
Finalize rotation plans
As the Braves continue to look for a front-line starter without any recent sense that they could land Corey Kluber, they must ask whether it would be worth taking a gamble on Sonny Gray or Madison Bumgarner, who may not be available before next summer. They may also be willing to react to the slim possibility Dallas Keuchel's market will crash.
But the most likely alternative to filling this need via trade would be to take a chance on the possibility Mike Foltynewicz can repeat his 2018 success and that Sean Newcomb is capable of matching the encouraging rise Foltynewicz experienced this past season. Kevin Gausman provides the rotation quality depth, and a healthy Mike Soroka stands as one of the many attractive options within a strong crop of starting pitching prospects.
Adding a starter might not be a necessity. But three months removed from sending Anibal Sanchez to the mound for Game 2 of the National League Division Series, the Braves certainly have reason to attempt to upgrade a rotation that currently does not stack up to the one the Mets and Nationals will employ.
Find an outfielder
As the Mets and Nationals have upgraded their pitching staffs, Braves executives have questioned whether it's more important to react by prioritizing a valuable arm or another big bat. They weren't willing to pay what it cost to land Andrew McCutchen (Phillies) or Michael Brantley (Astros), and the fact Nicholas Castellanos ranks as one of the game's worst defensive outfielder dampers hopes of grouping him with Freddie Freeman and Josh Donaldson in the middle of the lineup.
Signing Nick Markakis or Carlos Gonzalez to a one-year deal seems more attractive than taking a chance on Adam Duvall bouncing back in 2019. But for now, the Braves are weighing all their options and getting a sense of whether it would be better to prioritize an arm or a bat.
Determine if a reliever is necessary
If Craig Kimbrel's market drops to the point where he is willing to accept a three-year deal, the Braves may entertain a reunion if they still have the funds necessary to pay the closer who will likely receive a yearly salary of at least $18 million. Concerns about Arodys Vizcaino's durability and questions about A.J. Minter's readiness leave the Braves approaching the upcoming season with doubt surrounding the closer's role.
But with Vizcaino, Minter, Darren O'Day and Chad Sobotka, Atlanta has a relief corps that will prove even stronger if Dan Winkler, Shane Carle and Jesse Biddle build on this past season's experience. Throw in the fact that Luiz Gohara or Max Fried may be a valuable bullpen asset, and there's less of a rationale in spending just to spend in an expensive relief market.
Braves manager Brian Snitker says he'll likely wait until the end of Spring Training to determine the structure of his lineup. But there's definitely something appealing about starting the lineup with Ronald Acuna Jr., Donaldson and Freeman. The current void in the cleanup spot could be filled with the addition of the right outfielder. Snitker has also toyed with the possibility of dropping Acuna to the fourth spot and filling the leadoff spot with switch-hitting Ozzie Albies, who would have to prove more consistent from the left side, or Ender Inciarte, who would need to avoid last year's first-half struggles against left-handed pitchers.
While it's nice to project lineups, we're well past the era where stubbornness often led managers to stick with one set lineup. Switch-hitting Johan Camargo's new status as a super-utility player will provide Snitker a chance to rest his regulars more frequently and quite possibly more comfortably mix and match his lineup structure based on matchups.
Just because the Braves won a division title earlier than almost everyone expected doesn't mean they should wreck the path created during what proved to be a three-year rebuild. Yes, the goal should be to defend the 2019 NL East title, but not at the expense of the potential value that already exists for '20 and beyond. History has proven there's a risk to holding on to too many prospects for an extended period, but it can be even more detrimental to bid adieu to excess long-term assets for a short-term gain.
In some ways, it feels like the time is right for the Braves to use their prospect and financial resources to strike a big deal. But if that big deal is not the right deal, you run the risk of looking at it 14 years later and wondering if winning that one additional division title with J.D. Drew was worth sacrificing possibly a decade-plus worth of Adam Wainwright's value.