Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos: My biggest concern is our depth

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos wears a mask as he enters the field at Truist Park before the team plays the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday, July 30, 2020 in Atlanta.    Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos wears a mask as he enters the field at Truist Park before the team plays the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday, July 30, 2020 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

An underrated aspect of the Braves’ recent run of success – three consecutive National League East titles and an NL Championship Series appearance last season – has been the team’s depth. It’s understandable, then, why general manager Alex Anthopoulos is searching thoroughly for bench upgrades.

On paper, the Braves’ bench isn’t imposing. The backup catcher spot will be filled by a youngster in Alex Jackson or William Contreras, neither of whom has proved much at the highest level. Johan Camargo, who’s underwhelmed the past two seasons, is expected to have a utility role. Ender Inciarte is set to be the fourth outfielder and has struggled at the plate in recent seasons.

The rest of the bench is yet to be determined. The Braves’ in-camp options include veterans Jake Lamb, Ehire Adrianza, Pablo Sandoval, Jason Kipnis and Ryan Goins, among others. Many of those players provide positional versatility, but the Braves’ bench will lack punch at the plate. If Lamb can recover past form – he was an All-Star three seasons ago and showed a power surge late in 2020 – perhaps he can be the guy. But that, like the rest of the group, is a gamble.

“My biggest concern is our depth,” Anthopoulos told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview Friday. “I just know we’ve had a lot of things - as nice as it is to say we’ve won the division three years in a row - I look at the things we’ve overcome in those three years. When you really look at it, there’s no doubt that 2018 of the three was not as strong as 2019 and 2020. But for the most part, things were pretty smooth in 2018. We didn’t have a whole lot go wrong. But we had more talent on those other clubs. We had a lot more things go wrong, whether it’s rotation, injuries, bullpen, and we were able to overcome them. We had depth to overcome those things.”

The bench will look much different from a season ago. Outfielder Adam Duvall was non-tendered and signed with Miami. Duvall would’ve supplied desperately needed pop (without the designated hitter, he would’ve been back in a bench role). Outfielder Nick Markakis and catcher Tyler Flowers, two mainstays, are gone. Taking chances and hoping someone sticks is the Braves’ only path forward.

It’s likely the Braves will make another addition before opening day. They’ve done so in the past – Anthopoulos pointed out Matt Joyce, who was acquired just before the 2019 season and played an important bench role for a 97-win team. There were numerous other unheralded contributors over the past three seasons, including starter Anibal Sanchez, utilityman Charlie Culberson, infielders Ryan Flaherty and Adeiny Hechavarria, outfielders Preston Tucker and Billy Hamilton, relievers Anthony Swarzak and Luke Jackson, among others.

The Braves are in their current predicament because when they determined the best use of their offseason resources, they invested in their rotation and the middle of their lineup. They spent the bulk of their money on starters Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, along with re-signing slugger Marcell Ozuna. The realities of the pandemic forced the Braves to cut payroll, limiting their ability to improve.

“Look, our payroll is down from where it was in 2020. You have to make some tough calls,” Anthopoulos said. “That’s where I feel like our depth is going to be impacted, our bench is going to be impacted. We don’t have an Adam Duvall waiting in the wings. Maybe somebody emerges like a Matt Joyce, who we picked up at the end of 2019 spring training. Right now, we obviously didn’t pour a lot of resources into the bench because we allocated our dollars in other areas, whether that’s Morton, Smyly, Ozuna, and that was with an Ozuna backload (contract).

“So there’s certain areas, even in the bullpen as well, that we had to make some tough calls. We’re going to need to have some upside and hopefully some guys emerge and take a step. That’s just the reality of things. That’s not a complaint. It’s just part of the challenge. The likelihood that hopefully we’re contending at the trade deadline and we’re looking to add in some areas - or maybe we end up having a strong group and they have great years.”

Indeed, if the Braves are contending and are buyers at the trade deadline, Anthopoulos doesn’t anticipate money preventing them from reasonably upgrading their roster. He said ownership has assured him some flexibility.

“No doubt,” Anthopoulos said. “I have been told that. I don’t have any doubt about that. Come July, we’re in a position to do things - I think things are starting to look up in terms of (COVID-19) vaccines. You see every team now looks like they’ll have fans. Obviously Toronto is playing in Florida. But it’s a very different outlook than it was three months ago. It looks like things will continue to get better, more and more people are getting vaccinated. I think we’re very optimistic that come July, things will be a lot better.”

Perhaps the depth situation improves in the coming weeks. One of the Braves’ bench candidates might become a pleasant surprise. They might add somebody before April 1 who becomes an instrumental part of the club. Maybe Jackson, Contreras, Camargo or Inciarte makes the most of his opportunities. There are endless variables that would change the conversation.

But for now, the bench is a major question mark. It will be an ongoing story, good or bad, throughout the year.

“Again, having to make some tough calls, tough decisions, we felt we had to do the heavy lifting first,” Anthopoulos said. “You worry about our depth and the quality of our depth. That’s normal for any club. Health, like anything else. It’s a competitive advantage to stay healthy, both from a COVID standpoint and just a playing standpoint. That’s my No. 1 thing. What are the innings pitched and games played column, can we keep those high? That will give us the best chance to get back to the playoffs.”

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