Nov. 24: Signed catcher Travis d'Arnaud for $16 million over two seasons.
That’s a flurry of pre-Thanksgiving action — it’s as if the local club decided to stoke the Hot Stove League by itself — and it’s also a considerable amount of money ($38.25 million) on the 2020 books. That’s more than the Angels will pay Mike Trout, the best player since Bonds if not Ruth, next season. Then again, Trout can’t pitch the eighth inning, nor can he frame the deliveries of the men who do.
The Braves entered the offseason with three crying needs. Two have been addressed. The bullpen is so loaded — those are words rarely written re: Braves — that Shane Greene, the All-Star closer acquired at the trade deadline who’s eligible for arbitration, might be superfluous. The Braves didn’t land the best catcher on the open market — the White Sox lavished $73 million over four years on Yasmani Grandal — but they hooked the second-best.
The move for d’Arnaud mirrored last November’s purchase of Josh Donaldson. Alex Anthopoulos, now the Braves’ general manager, again moved to acquire a slightly devalued player he’d known as Toronto’s GM. Indeed, d’Arnaud was part of a trade that lives in Blue Jays infamy — a promising catcher plus the young god of thunder (Noah Syndergaard) to the Mets for the knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who to be fair was coming off a Cy Young season. Within three years, Thor was throwing to d’Arnaud in the World Series.
(Also to be fair: Anthopoulos, in his second month on the job, acquired d’Arnaud and the heralded Kyle Drabek from Philadelphia for Roy Halladay, Hall of Fame Class of 2019.)
The Mets didn’t give up on d’Arnaud because he was awful. They gave up because he couldn’t stay healthy. He hasn’t worked more than 112 games in a big-league season. Having signed Wilson Ramos last winter, the Mets cut d’Arnaud in May. He signed with the Dodgers, for whom he took one apparently unimpressive at-bat. He was then shipped to the Rays, having gone from a New York to L.A. to Tampa in seven days. He did well with the Rays, who made the playoffs. His OPS of .782 was his best since 2015. (Brian McCann’s OPS last season was .734.)
As with Donaldson, the Braves have made a not-cheap short-term bet. The catch, ahem, with d’Arnaud is that he’s a catcher who’ll turn 31 in February. Catchers age fast. McCann just retired at 35. With Shea Langeliers, their Round 1 pick in June, beginning to move up the chain, the Braves hope they won’t need d’Arnaud beyond 2021. They absolutely needed a catcher now. Flowers, who’ll turn 34 in January, hasn’t done much since 2017.
These November moves have been clever. They should fill holes. That said, this offseason will rise/fall on Donaldson’s decision. If he stays, the Braves should be no worse than they were last season, when they won 97 games. If he doesn’t … well, that opens a hole at third base, which could open a hole in the outfield that, apart from Ronald Acuna, isn’t a strength. Donaldson at third means Austin Riley can remain a platoon left fielder with Markakis. Donaldson gone would mean Riley heads to North Port as a presumptive infielder again.
(For teams that miss on Donaldson and Anthony Rendon, Mike Moustakas is the obvious fallback, just as d’Arnaud was Plan B after Grandal. Moustakas is a good player. Donaldson and Rendon are great players.)
The Braves have done much of their winter’s work while it’s still autumn — the Winter Meetings convene Dec. 8 in San Diego — but they figure to have at least one more major signing in them. If it comes, we won’t have to guess at the numbers involved. The team that was pilloried for not spending a year ago is taking pains to let everyone know how invested it is, as it were, in winning.
The $16 million for d’Arnaud was mentioned in the first sentence of the official announcement. So was the $14 million for Martin. Privately, the Braves were distressed that the $23 million for Donaldson last November was all but forgotten come January. Said one front-office type: “Do people not realize that’s the highest AAV (average annual value) this team has ever had?”
Maybe not enough people did then. If the Braves have anything do with it, we won’t miss the point this time. They’re putting money where their corporate mouth is. They’re spenders again.