Unsurprisingly, the Braves have moved ahead of the market. They’ve already added two veterans, Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, to their rotation before Thanksgiving. That likely means their heavy lifting in the rotation is finished.
Assuming starting pitching is mostly settled, focus shifts to the team’s offense. On that front, the Braves generally are in great shape — with one exception. It’s fair to be skeptical that they’ll retain Marcell Ozuna, regardless of the designated hitter in the National League (I do believe there will be a DH in 2021, which increases Ozuna’s odds to return).
Here’s the thing: We’ve seen Ozuna-level players pass through Atlanta over the years, and they rarely re-sign — such as Gary Sheffield, J.D. Drew and Josh Donaldson. It hasn’t been this organization’s nature to give out those huge deals, and when they have, it’s usually produced underwhelming results.
More important, we also know that general manager Alex Anthopoulos isn’t going to overpay on a long-term deal. While I think Ozuna is a wonderful fit, it’s also easy to understand why the Braves may ultimately opt against winning a bidding war.
The Braves struck gold in replacing Donaldson with an even more productive player on a one-year deal. Donaldson was older with an injury history, so the decision to let him go was logical. They also had Austin Riley (and Johan Camargo) as an in-house replacement at third base.
There isn’t such an obvious Plan B for Ozuna. It’s a risk to try replacing that level of production for the third consecutive season. The front office deserves enormous credit for acquiring Donaldson and Ozuna, but there also was a luck element. Donaldson stayed healthy and Ozuna assembled the best season of his career after admitting he used the hiatus to get himself into better shape.
So the question is, if not Ozuna, then who? Vegas oddsmakers previously linked Astros free-agent outfielder George Springer to the Braves. Would Springer sign a short-term deal? Because otherwise it’s difficult to envision the Braves going that route with a 31-year-old.
MLB Trade Rumors pegged Springer for $125 million over five years (to the White Sox). That doesn’t sound like an offer the Braves would make, especially in this climate, but they could surprise us. I doubt many expected them to pour $26 million into their rotation within the first month of free agency.
For the record, MLBTR projected Ozuna at four years, $72 million to the rival Nationals. It predicted Michael Brantley, 33, to the Braves on a two-year, $28 million contract. Take that as you will.
As for other alternatives, perhaps Anthopoulos, formerly of the Dodgers’ front office, brings in Los Angeles slugger Joc Pederson to pair with Adam Duvall. Like Brantley, that could be a more financially prudent option, though if a team likes Pederson enough it’s easy to see him receiving a healthy payday. MLBTR had Pederson at two years, $18 million.
I endorsed pursuing Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor last winter. This time, it isn’t as appealing with Lindor approaching free agency and Dansby Swanson having a nice season. Cubs slugger Kris Bryant could fit as a rental, with the Braves possibly moving Riley to left field. It doesn’t feel like as exciting as it would’ve been a couple of seasons ago, but it’s an option assuming the Cubs again entertain offers.
Bryant would fit the mold of Donaldson and Ozuna. He’s coming off a down season and sits one year from free agency. If the Braves want to continue their one-year slugger plans, Bryant checks the boxes. Either way, he plays a role in this whole thing: Bryant reportedly has been linked to the Nationals, which could affect them as an Ozuna suitor. Bryant to Washington obviously would impact the National League East race, too.
One final point on the offense: The Braves need to extend NL MVP Freddie Freeman, whose free agency is approaching next winter. I’d consider this the No. 1 priority. Aside from keeping their best player, it would be beneficial to have Freeman’s contract numbers concretely on the books when exploring other moves. Whether the Braves can afford Freeman’s long-term deal and one for Ozuna, on top of other eventual extensions, is another reasonable question.
Beyond the lineup, the bullpen has three free agents: Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Darren O’Day. My guess is one of Melancon or Greene returns. The Braves should be thrilled with how relievers emerged in 2020, including lefties Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter, so there isn’t too much concern here.
As for the rotation, we’re looking at these five when healthy: Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Ian Anderson, Charlie Morton, Drew Smyly. That should be considered a top-five rotation, though it isn’t without questions.
How will Soroka look coming off an Achilles tear? Can Fried replicate his 2020 performance? What does Anderson look like across his first full season? Can Morton, 37, continue to push back Father Time? Can Smyly stay healthy and build on the good he showed in 2020?
Every rotation has questions, but you should feel comfortable betting on this group. Throw in youngsters Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson and Huascar Ynoa as the next men up, and few teams can match this rotation’s top-level ability and depth.
My question to you: What’s a successful offseason look like for this organization? Last winter, everybody seemed to think they nailed it in acquiring a veteran starter, catcher, slugger and bullpen help. It wasn’t perfect, but that was proved true. They nearly made the World Series.
We know what they need. We do not know their restraints or options. We can assume, given what they’ve spent on their roster, they have room with which to work.
To me, a “Grade-A offseason” would be re-signing Ozuna — ideally around MLBTR’s projection — and keeping Melancon. If Ozuna departs, you’d have to trust their track record for finding a replacement (which I assume would be a short-term alternative). I’d also like to see the team add to its bench. While they’re in a reunion mood, Tommy La Stella is available (or someone of that ilk). Behind catcher Travis d’Arnaud, they could either re-sign Tyler Flowers or turn the job over to prospect William Contreras. Either choice is justifiable.
What say you? What qualifies as a successful offseason that turns the Braves from NL runner-up to NL champ?