Braves have plenty more moves to make this winter

In a normal year, MLB executives, agents and journalists would be gathered at a venue — this time it would’ve been in Dallas — for the winter meetings. But this isn’t a normal year. The coronavirus pandemic forced MLB to cancel in-person meetings, though activity has ramped up in the past 24 hours with a couple of trades.

It remains to be seen whether the Braves make a move during the virtual meetings this week. General manager Alex Anthopoulos hasn’t struck a deal at the winter meetings while running the Braves. Perhaps the digital meetings are a preference.

“I just think the winter meetings aren’t the best environment to work in,” Anthopoulos said in 2018. “You’re in a hotel suite, you don’t have — obviously you have more of what you normally work with in the office. But you’re still active and engaged. In the past, if we were close on something, I’d try to push and get it across the end zone just before the meetings.

“Otherwise I don’t think I’ve been very active at the meetings in the past. A lot of times you come out of the meetings and you think you’re getting close, and you try to finalize something a week or two after the fact.”

To be fair, the Braves often do the bulk of their work before the meetings. They already had signed Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann before Anthopoulos made his above remarks. Last year, they signed Travis d’Arnaud, Cole Hamels, Will Smith and Chris Martin before the meetings. They didn’t sign Marcell Ozuna until January.

This time, Anthopoulos signed starters Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton well ahead of the digital meetings. The Braves’ rotation — one of their offseason priorities — is set. Attention has shifted to the offense, where Ozuna is this winter’s key figure.

Uncertainty surrounding the universal designated hitter affects Ozuna, who’s best served as a DH rather than left fielder. It greatly impacts his market with National League teams: If there isn’t an agreement between the MLB and MLBPA to keep the universal DH, the Braves would have to play Ozuna in the outfield for a full season. The uncertainty also influenced their decision to non-tender Adam Duvall (he could be re-signed).

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

The expectation is the universal DH will be implemented in 2022, so would the Braves be willing to bite the bullet and play Ozuna in the outfield for the first year of a multi-year deal? We’ll see. There are plenty of alternatives if the Braves go in a different direction. Given how short-term pacts with Donaldson and Ozuna played out, it’s hard to doubt their player evaluation.

Anthopoulos appeared Monday on MLB Network’s “High Heat” with Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo and confirmed teams are operating with the expectation that the coming season will include traditional rules.

“The rules that were in place for 2020, our understanding was those were rules for 2020 only,” he said. “So for 2021 … we’re planning on not having a DH, we’re planning on no changes to the extra-innings rules, all those kinds of things. If things change down the road, we’ll obviously have to adjust.

“For now, I think that’s why adding to the rotation was so important for us. Getting through the grind of the year; 60 games is easier to get through. Now, a full slate of games, making sure you have enough depth was really important for us.”

Beyond a middle-of-the-order bat, which for the third consecutive winter is a primary need, the Braves need to address their bullpen. Relievers Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Darren O’Day are free agents. The market is cluttered with relievers right now, so there should be value. That means it could be a while until the Braves make a notable move there, but with their noted propensity for moving quickly, they could act ahead of the pack.

The Braves also would like to strengthen their bench, which could be another late-winter acquisition. And important to note, first baseman Freddie Freeman — the reigning NL MVP — is entering a contract year. Both sides would like to keep him in a Braves uniform the remainder of his career.

Anthopoulos has made it clear he won’t comment on potential negotiations with Freeman’s camp. When Russo asked about a Freeman extension Monday, Anthopoulos gave him a similar response as he did with local reporters earlier this offseason.

“He’s made it very clear he wants to remain a Brave the rest of his career,” Anthopoulos said. “We’ve said the same thing back. When, if, those conversations take place, those are things we’re going to work hard to keep quiet. The first time, hopefully, anybody hears a thing is when we have a deal to announce.

“Beyond that, he’s amazing. Won the MVP. I’ve gotten to know him and appreciate him more the three years I’ve been here. And being a Brave is important to him, being part of his organization is important. There are a lot of things he does behind the scenes as well that creates a lot of value beyond the MVP play he has. He’s someone we hope ends his career as a Brave, and we know he wants the same thing.”

Whatever the order and timing, it seems the Braves still have a couple of headline-grabbing moves to make this winter.

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