Holiday season musings: The Braves’ offseason thus far

Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos gives left-handed pitcher Will Smith his new jersey.   Curtis Compton/
Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos gives left-handed pitcher Will Smith his new jersey. Curtis Compton/

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Happy holidays, everyone. Hope you’ve enjoyed this time with friends and family. And thank you for following the AJC and my work throughout the year. Our audience on all platforms is what keeps us going as a business. I’m thankful to provide you regular baseball updates and interact with such passionate fans. It isn’t always glamorous, but covering sports is a pretty fun way to make a living!

Now, let’s get on with the reason you’re here:

From a sports perspective, we’re all entrenched in football right now (with a side of hoops). You might be mad the Falcons kept their decision-makers intact. Unless you support one of the four College Football Playoff participants, there aren’t any stakes left in your season. And if you’re a Hawks fan, your season is long over. There’s college basketball, too, but there isn’t much to be excited about around here outside the Anthony Edwards show.

So the Braves, a few months distanced from their latest postseason disappointment, will have ample opportunity to recapture the area’s interest come February, when players report to spring training. The Braves, alongside Atlanta United, are the city’s beacon of hope right now.

They’ve had a busy offseason that can’t truly be evaluated until they address their power void. That might come in re-signing Josh Donaldson. That might come via the awaited blockbuster trade. It might not come at all, in which case the positive vibes surrounding the winter would take a hit.

In between the egg nog and pumpkin pie, I jotted down some takes about the offseason so far. Let’s dive in:

The Braves decided to bank on an (on-paper) awesome bullpen:

It’s hard not to appreciate general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ aggressive revamping of the bullpen. They’re tired of watching the strenuous late innings. It was clear in the playoffs the team didn’t fully trust its options. (Shane Greene felt more like a fallback plan than a “Let’s bring in our All-Star reliever to get us out of this pinch.”)

It had its ups and downs – and improved after the trade deadline – but it seemed every time the bullpen doors popped open, so did the bottles of Braves fans across the country.

The team's first move was signing Will Smith. I don't love paying a reliever $13 million per year, especially with a mid-market payroll. But I can acknowledge that the Braves paid market value for a high-end reliever, and Will Smith is pretty good. The Braves are an improved team with him available in the seventh, eighth or ninth. That Smith is a lefty is a bonus.

Veteran Chris Martin will make $14 million over the next two seasons for his reliability. He induces grounders. He's a command savant. He hasn't exhibited the random implosions that plagued past relievers. (Knocks on wood) Darren O'Day is back, too. That's fine. He's a great clubhouse guy and showed enough in his time back to make you feel like there's something left in the tank.

So the Braves will head to spring training without investing their hopes in Dan Winkler, Sam Freeman, Jesse Biddle or Shane Carle. They have All-Star resumes in Mark Melancon, Greene, O’Day and Smith. Martin brings that needed consistency. Luke Jackson, who wasn’t receiving many Christmas cards from Braves fans a year ago, is a solid pitcher. Perhaps Sean Newcomb continues his long-relief role, if he isn’t starting every fifth day.

That’s a much, much, much better group than the Braves have had in recent years. It has the upside to be regarded in the same air as unit headed by the Craig Kimbrel, Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters trio. At least, it could wind up in that same realm. The Braves are paying over $40 million just for Melancon, Smith, Martin and Greene; that’s a bet your relief core will be not only strong, but the backbone of your team.

If they make the difference in October, as many illustrious bullpens have in years past, they’re worth every dime. I’ve campaigned for the Braves to tailor their roster with the postseason in mind, and spending this amount of resources on relievers is exactly that. They also aren’t tied to any of the relievers beyond two seasons, aside from Smith. If the highly compensated bullpen is a failure, it won’t have long-term damage. Given where the franchise is payroll-wise, I don’t mind spending so much on the ’pen. In fact, I kind of like it.

I see the value in bolstering the bullpen over the rotation:

Here’s the bottom-line: The Braves would’ve liked to add a stud starter (who wouldn’t?). They weren’t splurging on Gerrit Cole. Corey Kluber’s medicals were clearly a concern. They aren’t taking on David Price’s contract. They passed on Julio Teheran and Dallas Keuchel, who were among the better starters available.

There wasn’t a logical avenue (at least not yet) to drastically upgrade the rotation. Cole Hamels was a good add. He brings similar pluses as Keuchel, but without requiring a major financial commitment. It’s fair to consider Mike Foltynewicz a risk – he’s the human embodiment of Forrest Gump’s box-of-chocolates analogy – but if he’s more second half than first, the rotation looks quite different. Mike Soroka and Max Fried had encouraging seasons, but both carry risks of their own that don’t relate to on-field performance (health). If both stay relatively healthy for another full season, you can probably bury any worries remaining.

But a rotation including Soroka, Fried, Foltynewicz and Hamels? That’s better than most in the National League. It has an extremely high ceiling and a middling floor. Health will be a major factor.

I’m not going to tell you to feel great about the rotation. It’s very much a wait-and-see. But overall, I think it should at least be on par with last year’s group. I am slightly concerned about losing Teheran’s and Keuchel’s innings, but the Braves seem comfortable filling those frames with their abundance of starter depth. They could also add another starter before opening day.

Oh, and by the way, I liked the Travis d’Arnaud addition. You can’t totally replace Brian McCann from an intangibles standpoint, but d’Arnaud will fit in nicely.

The offense is yet to be determined:

Donaldson presents quite the quandary, and I'm not sure what they should do. What I do know: We can't judge the offense because Donaldson is such a looming unknown. If he's back, they retained their potent group from last season. If he's gone, the clean-up hole is enormous. To play deep in the postseason, they'll need a force in that 4-spot. You can praise Nick Markakis' production there two seasons ago, but I'm aiming higher.

Again, however, the market might not dictate that move. This could be a scenario in which you willingly overpay (to an extent) for a hitter because it stands alone as the glaring need on the team. I’d heard multiple times that Donaldson hoped to sign before Christmas; obviously that didn’t come to fruition. If he’s holding out for a four-year offer from the Braves, that might not be coming. Perhaps that sways him toward Washington, Minnesota or another place.

There are alternatives on the trade market. Naysayers will point to Kris Bryant’s defense (the Braves aren’t in love with him in part for that reason, from what I understand). Trade target Nolan Arenado is due serious cash, and while ESPN’s Jeff Passan said the Braves were sniffing around, there’s little reason to believe the Braves and Rockies would actually reach a deal. Interest in free-agent outfielder Marcell Ozuna has been overstated, but maybe the Braves pivot more in his direction if Donaldson does leave.

Sometimes the search for roster upgrades parallels dating. If you keep finding negatives and reasons to say “no,” you’ll end up alone. At some point, you accept a person’s imperfections.

I’m not accusing the Braves of being picky, but they – and they’re fully aware of this! – have to make exceptions at some point. Bryant’s defense, Arenado’s contract, Donaldson’s fourth year. It comes down to how much the positives outweigh the negatives. If you have to pay a little more than you’d like, I think the team can afford to at this juncture. That’s strictly a personal opinion.

The Braves aren’t a franchise who’ll recklessly overpay, nor should they, and you can trust that if the opportunity exceeds “overpay” and enters more the world of “unrealistic,” the Braves will walk away (hello, J.T. Realmuto – the Marlins weren’t getting Ozzie Albies). But they’re in their contention window now, with their two young stars signed to long-term undervalued deals.

They need to make the most of it, Donaldson or not. He’s an individual who holds significant power in the future of the franchise. I’m as fascinated as you to see what happens.

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