Braves might have appetite, payroll flexibility for significant addition this winter

Marco Gonzales of the Seattle Mariners delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning at Target Field on Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Minneapolis. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Marco Gonzales of the Seattle Mariners delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning at Target Field on Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Minneapolis. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images/TNS)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – At one point on Sunday, Alex Anthopoulos said a baseball fan’s favorite five words:

“Our payroll is going up.”

The extent of that increase?

“In terms of getting into room (in the payroll) and what we have and all that, I’m never gonna get specific on that kind of stuff,” the Braves’ president of baseball operations said ahead of this week’s Winter Meetings in Nashville.

Anthopoulos said this before acquiring Jarred Kelenic, Marco Gonzales and Evan White (and cash) from Seattle on Sunday night.

Could the Braves have the ability – the payroll flexibility – to make another significant addition this winter, even after that trade?

Well, let’s start with what Anthopoulos said on Sunday morning, when he hadn’t yet added Kelenic and the others.

“I mean, we explored a significant addition,” Anthopoulos said. “That speculation that we explored a significant addition is absolutely true. The details of that, I have not seen anything accurate. But in terms of us exploring a significant addition, we did that already. Obviously we didn’t get it done, but we did do that.”

Anthopoulos could be talking about Aaron Nola, who was one of the top starting pitchers on the market. The Braves had a lot of interest in Nola and were one of the finalists to sign him. Eventually, the Phillies re-signed Nola to a seven-year, $172 million deal. The details of Atlanta’s offers to Nola are unclear.

But the Braves’ willingness to pursue Nola could be an encouraging sign for their offseason. The Braves won’t throw their money at anyone – they don’t force deals – but their openness to signing Nola might signal their appetite for a big addition.

In a payroll discussion, we should first note this: After the trade with Seattle, Atlanta’s 2024 payroll commitments are already higher than 2023. FanGraphs projects the Braves’ 2024 payroll, at this moment, to be $224 million – and this figure includes projected salaries for arbitration-eligible players. The Braves ended this year at around $205 million. But the Mariners also gave the Braves $4.5 million in the trade, according to The Associated Press.

The Braves could flip Gonzales or White – or both – to get them off the books. But as it stands, Gonzales is due $12.25 million in 2024 and has a $15 million club option for 2025. White will make $7 million next season, $8 million in 2025 and has a $10 million team option for 2026.

Perhaps this payroll increase is as high as the Braves want to go.

But maybe this trade isn’t the extent of their activity this winter. They still need a proven rotation arm. Their offseason moves have seemed to point to an aggressive mindset.

Anthopoulos has been known to consider all avenues, even the free agents he won’t sign. He does his due diligence. He has been and will be active. If he sees a fit, you can get creative to accomplish anything.

The Braves might have interest in White Sox right-hander Dylan Cease, but the trade market for him should be competitive. A potential package might need to include AJ Smith-Shawver, who is Atlanta’s top prospect. Cease has two years of control remaining.

But the cash payroll and the luxury-tax payroll are different. The latter is based on the average annual value of the contracts on the roster.

The Braves’ luxury-tax figure is around $260 million, according to FanGraphs – far past the $237 million threshold for 2024. If the Braves ended the season at this payroll number, they’d need to pay 30% on the overages for crossing the threshold for a second straight year, plus a 12% surcharge for passing it by at least $20 million.

On Sunday morning, hours before he acquired Kelenic and the others, Anthopoulos said this: “We still have room to do some things. How much and all that, there’s just no upside in us getting into the specifics.”

Keep this in mind: The Braves have also talked about reserving room in their budget for the trade deadline. They’re expected to be contenders, and if that’s the case, they’ll look to add before over the summer.

When deals are discussed, Anthopoulos will walk into Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk’s office to clear the added payroll.

“It’s normally a really quick ‘yes,’” Anthopoulos said. “I’m normally walking him through what the trade is. It’s never about the dollars. It’s more of, ‘OK, what are we giving up? Who are we getting?’ Filling him in there. I’ve never seen him bat an eyelash when it comes to adding.”

For now, clubs are charging forward in Nashville. Some are more aggressive than others.

The Braves have one of baseball’s top rosters, and a major signing or trade acquisition could put it over the top.

Coaching search

At the general managers meetings in November, the Braves learned they would need new third base and first base coaches as Ron Washington and Eric Young Sr. departed for the Angels.

Recently, they found out they would also be filling another role: Bullpen coach.

The Orioles hired Drew French to be their pitching coach, which is a promotion for French.

“Drew, he’s deserving. And we thought we’d lose him potentially last offseason,” Anthopoulos said Sunday. “So we had talked about that internally. We were really high on him and he did a tremendous job. I think he’s an amazing hire for them, and like I told him, I think that’s one of the great jobs available: Good young team, (and) that front office, they’re great human beings. They’re really well-run. I don’t know (manager) Brandon Hyde, but I’ve heard great things. (Manager Brian Snitker) speaks very highly of him. So, it sounds like a great opportunity for him.”

Considering their success, the Braves have had impressive stability on Snitker’s staff. But these coaching searches aren’t impeding the Braves’ work on building the best roster possible.

“It’s something that we’ve been through,” Anthopoulos said of having to replace coaches. “We’ve never been through three in one offseason. But we definitely have begun the process, have been going through it. It’s going at a good pace. It’s just part of the offseason.”

When do the Braves expect to finalize and announce their decisions?

“I don’t know,” Anthopoulos said. “We’re in the middle of it now. Obviously, we’re ahead in the process in terms of third base and first base, because that started sooner.”

One name to think about: Matt Tuiasosopo, who managed the Triple-A Gwinnett Stripers this year. Tuiasosopo filled in for Washington when Washington this summer when Washington missed a day for his induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.

Braves fans: Anthopoulos understands you

In the baseball world, Anthopoulos is a mystery man. He moves in silence. It can be difficult to pin down what he did – or did not do – because he doesn’t leak information.

This time of year, rumors fly – about who the Braves are interested in, about who they offered, about trades, etc.

On Sunday, Anthopoulos said almost every rumor about offers the Braves have made has been false.

“They’ve been totally wrong,” Anthopoulos said.

It can be tough for fans to understand that many offseason rumors aren’t completely true – if they’re even true at all.

But Anthopoulos understands his secrecy can be, well, a bummer for fans.

“I’ve said this many times: I am a big sports fan,” he said. “Obviously, I’ve lost my ability to be a baseball fan the way I was growing up, knowing it’s my job. But the Falcons and Hawks, for example, are two teams I follow closely. I love seeing rumors. Even if they’re wrong. I love seeing rumors. Because it creates conversation, excitement – all those kinds of things. Part of me is, like, well, if fans are enjoying it and that’s fun for them, I get it. Anything I see, it’s exciting.

“Look, that’s what everyone wants and it’s information and we’re trying to connect to the fans. And I’ve said this: You would love to be able to just pull back the curtain and say, ‘All right everyone, here’s what we got going. We’re working on this, working on this, here’s why.’ Obviously, it doesn’t work that way.”

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