No Frazier for Braves, likely no Moustakas; here’s why

Johan Camargo appears to be the leading candidate for the Braves third-base job as spring training nears. (AP Photo)

Credit: Michael Cunningham

Combined ShapeCaption
Johan Camargo appears to be the leading candidate for the Braves third-base job as spring training nears. (AP Photo)

Credit: Michael Cunningham

Credit: Michael Cunningham

Since news broke of Todd Frazier’s signing with the Mets on Monday night, I’ve received many variations of essentially the same two questions: Were you surprised that the Braves didn’t sign Todd Frazier, considering he went to Mets for a modest two years and $17 million? And with Frazier off the board, do you think the Braves will make a strong push for Mike Moustakas?

So I thought I’d answer here.

Let’s address the Frazier question first: Initially, yes, I was surprised that Frazier signed a two-year deal for less than $9 million average annual value, and thought he’d be a good fit for the Braves in that sort of price range and for only two years instead of three or more. But after talking to some people about the situation, it became more clear to me why that wasn’t the case.

Frazier, a New Jersey native who played for the Yankees in the second half of last season, would probably have demanded more money and/or years to sign with the Braves, a team that’s not considered as close to being a contender as are the Mets. The Mets were a good fit for Frazier, who’ll play third base presumably even if David Wright returns (which is questionable to say the least; but if he does return Wright can move to first base).

The Braves, I’ve come to realize, had even less money available this offseason than most of us expected after they traded Matt Kemp to the Dodgers and took on some $30 million in 2018 payroll in that complicated deal, a swap they were willing to make to clear Kemp’s salary off the books for 2019, when the Braves anticipate being a contender and will have plenty of other payroll flexibility – enough to go after a big-name third baseman if they need one. The operative word in that sentence is “if” and give me a minute and I’ll explain. Before we get to that, just one more word about the Frazier contract.

Another significant part of the thinking involved Johan Camargo. The Braves want to give him a chance, see what he can do playing on a regular basis, and as long as Dansby Swanson is at short and Ozzie Albies at second, the only chance Camargo has to play on a regular basis is at third base. And as much as Braves fans want to contend in 2018, how some understandably want to see the rebuild finally turn a sharp corner upward, the fact is, new Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos has made it clear that he wants to get a good grasp of exactly what the Braves have before determining what major moves need to be made to move the Braves into serious-contender mode.

That means, for all intents and purposes, the 2018 season is more like another, and perhaps final, step in the rebuild, an evaluation step if you will. And the Braves and their first-year GM want and need to see how Swanson bounces back from a rough first full season in the majors, how Albies does in his first full season after quite-promising two months in the big leagues in 2018, and how Camargo handles everyday duties (presuming he’s the guy at third base).

Does that mean they’ve absolutely ruled out adding a third baseman before opening day? No, but I’d be surprised if they do.

The Braves checked in with Frazier’s agent earlier this winter and were at least interested, but were never confident his price would drop into a range suitable for them. Even though he signed for less than anyone expected entering the offseason, as I said, the Braves were confident it would’ve taken more than that to get the New Jersey native to come South and join a Braves team not expected to contend for a division title in 2018.

For the Braves to sign him, they probably would’ve had to backload perhaps a two-year, $20 million contract, which probably wouldn’t have worked for them for two reasons: I don’t get the impression they had even $8 million or so to spend on one player right now, and if they backloaded it they’d potentially be stuck with a $12 million (or more) salary in 2019, when Frazier might not be easily tradeable if his performance fell off in 2018. That might handcuff the Braves a year from now when they think that power-hitting prospect Austin Riley could be ready. Or, if for some reason they decide Riley’s not the guy, then having Frazier on the roster and nowhere else to play him – he can’t play first base for the Braves for obvious reasons – would make it more difficult for the Braves to pursue a big-name, big-salary 3B next winter.

As most of you know, next year’s deep, star-studded free-agent class will include a couple of game-changing third basemen, Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson. The latter is quite familiar to Anthopoulos, who was the Blue Jays GM who brought Donaldson to Toronto from Oakland via a trade in November 2014.

Again, the Braves want to see Riley continue the strides he made last season at Double-A, in which case they think he could be ready at some point in 2019 to move into the third-base job and become a power-hitting fixture, allowing the Braves to spend significant available funds a year from now on other needs. However, that’s not a given. If Riley were to take a step back for any reason, or the Braves were less than convinced nine months from now that he’s the long-term answer at third base, then they could afford to make a hard push for one of those big free-agent third baseman or trade for another proven, impactful third baseman. The point being, if they had signed Frazier to a two-year deal and were on the hook for an eight-digit salary with him a year from now, it would complicate that potential pursuit of a third baseman and, in effect, negate a lot of the reason for the Kemp trade -- which was to clear from the books the more than $18 million they would’ve owed Kemp in 2019. (By the way, I’ve since been led to believe that figure also was higher than what previous management had told us, that the Braves owed Kemp closer to $20 million annually than $18 million, but that’s water under the ol’ bridge, right?)

Now, as for Moustakas, I’d first say that many of the same reasons listed above as to why they didn’t go harder for Frazier also apply to Moustakas, who is younger but hasn’t been a consistent home-run threat like Frazier – Moustakas had 38 homers last season but never more than 22 before that – and isn’t as good a defender as Frazier still is. (Check out Moustakas’ Defensive Runs Saved and other advanced statistics.)

In other words, the Braves almost certainly aren’t going to sign Moustakas, even if he would take a one-year deal (which I don’t think he will), because they probably don’t have that money in the budget for 2018 and would eliminate Camargo’s chances of playing on any regular basis, unless they were to option Swanson to Triple-A. And keep in mind what I said earlier about the Braves wanted to use 2018 to get a real feel for what they have in these young players and where they are going to need to make moves a year from now when they plan to really move into contention mode.

Maybe Camargo or Swanson or even Albies isn’t a long-term answer. But the Braves want to find out and need to see them play to do that. A year from now, it wouldn’t be a bad scenario at all to have Camargo available as a super-utility player, or playing third base or another infield position to start the season if necessary, and to have either Austin Riley ready to move into third base at some point in the 2019 season or have a big-time free-agent third base newly signed or acquired in a trade. But the Braves want to see them all play more before making such decisions.

* It's the late Bob Marley's birthday, and his worldwide importance and impact can't be overstated. Here's a cut from his remarkable catalog of sublime tuneage.

“RAT RACE” by Bob Marley

Uh! Ya too rude!
Uh! Eh! Oh what a rat race!
Oh, what a rat race! 
Oh, what a rat race! 
This is the rat race! Rat race! 
(Rat race!) (Rat race!)

Some a lawful, some a bastard, some a jacket
Oh, what a rat race, yeah! 
Rat race!
Some a gorgon-a, some a hooligan-a, some a guine-gog-a
In this 'ere rat race, yeah!
Rat race!

I'm singin' that
When the cat's away
The mice will play
Political violence fill ya city, ye-ah!
Don't involve rasta in your say say
Rasta don't work for no CIA

Rat race
Rat race, rat race yeah! 
Rat race, I'm sayin'
When you think is peace and safety
A sudden destruction
Collective security for surety, ye-ah!

Don't forget your history
Know your destiny
In the abundance of water
The fool is thirsty
Rat race
Rat race
Rat race

Rat race!
Oh, it's a disgrace
To see the human race
In a rat race, yeah

Rat race!
You got the horse race
You got the dog race
You got the human-race
But this is a rat race
Rat race!

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