It’s weird. I was here for the entirety of the Braves’ careers of the Cooperstown Three — Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz — and I’m sure I didn’t write as many words about any of them as I have Julio Teheran. Those three were great pitchers, duh, but there wasn’t much variance in their careers. They mostly got great and stayed great. (Smoltz did switch to closing, so that provided a bit of novelty.) As for Teheran … well, where do we begin?
He was the best young pitcher the Atlanta Braves had developed since the advent of Steve Avery. He has twice been an All-Star. He started every Opening Day from 2013 through 2019, a period spanning one massive rebuild, two managers and three general managers. If we go by Baseball-Reference WAR, he’s coming off his best season since 2016. And yet: He needed a mulligan — Chris Martin’s odd Game 1 injury — to make the NLDS roster. The year before, he’d made it only as a long reliever.
Teheran might be the most puzzling Brave since Bob Horner, which covers a lot of ground. He was never quite as bad as some fans believed, and he wasn’t as good as the organization kept hoping. And we pause to note the use of the past tense — “was” — while emphasizing that Teheran’s time as a Brave mightn’t be at its end.
On Monday, the club declined his option for 2020 at $12 million. That means Teheran is now a free agent, albeit one who’s due a $1 million buyout. But GM Alex Anthopoulos said in a conference call: “We have not closed the door. Obviously we’ve declined (the option), and he’ll have a chance now to test the market. But we’ve had talks with his management, and there’s an openness on both sides. We’ll see where that leads.”
The Braves could still have use for Teheran. They just didn’t want to pay $12 million, which makes sense. He’s a serviceable No. 4 or 5 starter, and every rotation needs innings-eaters. That he hasn’t been a top-of-the-rotation guy since 2016 means the market for his services won’t be overheated. The Braves could wind up saving money while retaining the pitcher they just showed the door. Creative, no?
Monday was a day for odd dealings. The Braves declined the options on Nick Markakis and Tyler Flowers – and then signed both to one-year contracts for $4 million each. Mostly this was a balancing-the-books thing. Flowers is near the end; keeping him won’t prevent the Braves from pursuing an upgrade in Yasmani Grandal. An All-Star in 2018 at age 34, Markakis wasn’t half as good in 2019. Said Anthopoulos: “The plan would be to have him in a platoon role … He’s fully willing to be that in left field.”
Beyond Ronald Acuna, the Braves have no full-time outfielder. Adam Duvall spent most of the season at Gwinnett. Ender Inciarte hasn’t hit much since 2017. Austin Riley might be needed elsewhere, about which more in a moment. Cristian Pache and Drew Waters aren’t apt to make the big-league roster out of spring training. Watch this space.
The Braves also extended a qualifying offer of $17.8 million to Josh Donaldson. He’ll decline it, but the Q.O. means the Braves will gain a draft pick should he leave as a free agent. They hope/pray he does not. They’re willing to let him get a measure of his value — “He’s earned the right to test the market and talk to clubs,” Anthopoulos said – and they believe Donaldson liked being a Brave enough to allow them a chance to meet his new price, which stands to be more than the $23 million he made last year.
Should that number go way north, and should he be offered a contract for more than three years, the Braves will have to think hard as to what’s right. He’ll turn 34 next month. A four-year deal would mean they’d be paying him when he’s 37, which is exactly the sort of contract teams are trying to avoid. (See the cautionary tales of Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera.) There’s no question that Anthopoulos and the Braves love Donaldson – this GM has acquired him twice — but sometimes money trumps love
Said Anthopoulos: “We want to be in position to bring him back … But it’s not salary arbitration – it’s free agency.”
Should Donaldson exit, the Braves would also have a hole at third base. They’d try to tag-team it with Riley and Johan Camargo, but that’s a definite Plan B. The biggest Braves news of this offseason will be Donaldson’s choice. If he stays, the everyday eight won’t look much different in 2020 — unless a Grandal is added, in which case it should look even better. If he doesn’t, the offense could suffer some regression.
Keep an eye, though, on Teheran. As weird as it sounds, this career Brave could be a savvy free-agent buy. (Sort of like Anibal Sanchez two years ago.) As Anthopoulos said: “He was signed and developed by the Braves. He’s been a long-time Opening Day starter. He has been a big part of the organization.”
And he just might stay that way, though not the Opening Day part. Pretty sure Mike Soroka has dibs on that.
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