Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves’ general manager, just made another of those moves that should bear the stamp “AA.” Such moves — conservative in return and cost — seldom stir the masses, which is OK. Sometimes a small move can have outsize impact. Of greater interest is that this GM has developed a pattern. We now know what, and what not, to expect.
Maybe, probably, you want Craig Kimbrel, holder of 333 career saves. Anthopoulos gives you Anthony Swarzak, holder of nine career saves. You say, “What the ...?” Perhaps you add a colloquialism. But like it or not — if you’re a fan, you surely hate it — that’s how AA operates.
He was different when in Toronto, where he was backed by hometown Rogers Communications, but this is Atlanta, where the baseball club is owned by a conglomerate based in the Mountain time zone. Last summer Anthopoulos averred that he could “shop on any aisle,” but his actions since have been those of a coupon-clipper. This is not a criticism. He works for Liberty Media. It is what it is.
In landing Swarzak, who blew three of six saves for Seattle, which started 13-2 but now props up the rest of the American League West, the Braves shed two relievers who weren’t going to pitch here again. One was Arodys Vizcaino, the closer who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery and whose contract lapses this fall. The other was Jesse Biddle, who was out of options — the Braves run through relievers’ options, to paraphrase Nick Saban, like olive oil through a tin horn — and had been designated for assignment.
Jon Heyman of MLB Network reported that the Mariners also were gifting $2 million, making the trade a financial wash. The Braves had earlier bought Jerry Blevins from Oakland for the princely sum of $1. You can almost hear the in-store announcement: “Cleanup on Aisle 1 — some guy with a beard keeps rummaging through the bullpen bargain bin.”
From such tiny moves, we can extrapolate the following:
1. The Braves are desperate for relievers. This you knew.
2. They’re unwilling to pay much of anything just yet, which makes sense because …
3. Nobody’s apt to sell a significant arm before Memorial Day.
4. Come June, the market for relievers will start to form, and Anthopoulos is on record as saying he puts aside money for deadline dealing as a matter of course.
5. Which isn’t to say he’ll splurge even then, and here we return to patterns.
The Braves, you’ll recall, needed pitching help last summer. In separate trades with Baltimore, they landed Brad Brach, Darren O’Day and Kevin Gausman. The latter is a starter, and he helped the Braves win the National League East; he remains in the rotation. Brach was due to become a free agent; he signed with the Cubs in February. The Braves knew O’Day, who had a bad hamstring, was done for the 2018 season; neither has he pitched this season, the cause being a tender elbow.
For three pitchers, Anthopoulos swapped four marginal prospects and two international signing slots. In sum, he gave up next to nothing. He did absorb $18.35 million in 2019 salary for Gausman/O’Day, but the Braves had roughly $45 million coming off the books after the dual salary dump that sent Matt Kemp to the Dodgers and brought Brandon McCarthy, Adrian Gonzalez and Scott Kazmir here. (Though the latter two never played for the Braves.) Add $23 million for Josh Donaldson plus $18.35 for the two ex-O’s and you get $41.35 mil. So: another wash, give or take.
For all the Braves’ talk of financial flexibility, we’re seeing from Anthopoulos the moves made by an executive facing a fixed bottom line. He might never admit as much — no fan wants to hear the GM whine, “Whaddya want? I’m tapped out” — but the Braves’ actions tell us so. That said, this club isn’t like other clubs: Anthopoulos sits atop a mountain of young talent. When you have Ronald Acuna, why spend $330 million for Bryce Harper?
As much as we’re caught up in the daily fluctuations of this team and especially this bullpen, there’s a longer game afoot, and there’s a right way to play it. A cautionary tale: Last winter the Mets made the win-now move to acquire Robinson Cano, who’s 36 and scheduled to earn $24 million every year through 2023, when he’ll be 40. Reality check: The Mets are 21-25; Cano is neither hitting or hustling, and the club announced Monday it was not – repeat, was not – firing manager Mickey Callaway.
All seasons matter, but the Braves finishing second wouldn’t be, given the talent under contract, an abject calamity. (Here we note the long-term extensions signed by Acuna and Ozzie Albies.) Donaldson at $23 million was a one-year bridge to Austin Riley, though the more we see of the latter, the more we wonder if a bridge was needed. That’s $23 million that the Braves might have spent on arms, but the good news is that it goes away once the season’s done.
The Braves’ reluctance to sign Kimbrel can be traced to the possibility of sacrificing tomorrow for today. Would he improve this bullpen? Yes. Would he, at a presumed $45 million over the three seasons he apparently desires plus the cost of a draft pick if he signs before June 4, leave a dent in the Braves’ future? Yes again. Anthopoulos isn’t averse to doing something. It’s just that, with Liberty Media as boss, he must careful what he does.
That’s why you’re seeing one reliever bought for $1 and another imported for no change on the balance sheet. Maybe Blevins, whom the Braves have designated for assignment once, will pan out. Maybe Swarzak will provide 30 good innings. Maybe the June/July market will offer up a reliever at a price to Anthopoulos’ liking, even as we recall that, in 19 months on the job, he hasn’t parted with a single viable prospect.
The Braves watch the same games you do. They know their weakness. They’re trying to address it — last week they shuffled the bullpen three times in five days — while knowing there’s probably not one move they can make, at least as we speak, that will do the deed. Anthopoulos is dancing as fast as he can, hoping for the best but surely expecting rather less. But he is dancing.
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