Braves offseason: How to maintain, improve on 2020 success

When Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers cranked Chris Martin’s pitch into the cool Texas night sky Sunday night, and the Braves' offense followed with six up and six down, it launched the Braves into another pivotal offseason.

The most important offseason is always the next one, but in this case, the Braves are trying to maintain and improve a club that produced its best run in 20 years.

“Our goal is to be in a position to do this every year,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. “The goal is to win every year, but also, you have to start with being in a position to do it every year to get back to the dance. Going forward, we found out a lot about these guys. We’ve learned more about them. As an organization, we’ll continue to get stronger. We’ve taken a step as an organization. All three years I’ve been here, we’ve continued to get better. That’s a good sign.”

While most of the Braves' core will return, there are two key spots that could see turnover: the middle of the lineup and the bullpen.

Outfielder Marcell Ozuna will generate the most conversation after leading the National League in homers and RBIs. The Braves' bullpen could see changes with Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Darren O’Day and Josh Tomlin slated for free agency. On top of that, veteran outfielder Nick Markakis and catcher Tyler Flowers possibly have played their last innings for the Braves.

Ozuna is the most crucial piece of the offseason. One winter after the Braves passed on signing Josh Donaldson for the long term, they’re facing a similar situation - pay the player after one successful season or seek an alternative - under far different circumstances with Ozuna. While Austin Riley was an in-house replacement for Donaldson, the Braves don’t have a clear internal option who can sufficiently replace Ozuna’s offense.

Another catch: The slugger, who turns 30 next month, is best served as a designated hitter. It’s unknown whether the DH will be permanent in the NL next season, though it’s expected to be implemented full-time by 2022. The DH could impact the Braves' decision with Ozuna, though they signed him initially with the intention of playing him in left field, so it’s not inconceivable they would roll the dice for a year with Ozuna in the outfield if necessary.

Payroll is a bigger mystery. It’s unclear how much flexibility the Braves will have, but teams across baseball are slashing spending as fallout from the pandemic lowering revenues.

“In terms of what we’re looking at for 2021, you guys know if I had a number I wouldn’t tell you just from a competitive standpoint, but we haven’t had that discussion,” Anthopoulos said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty. Will we have fans? What will revenues be? All those things. But that’s for the world and all of sports. Those are things we’ll have to work through. But the focus and goal remains the same. We want to put the best team on the field we can and get back into position where we have a chance to win a World Series.”

Then there’s the most important question of Ozuna’s asking price. He wanted a larger, long-term commitment last winter when he rejected the Cardinals' qualifying offer. Instead, he wound up settling for the Braves' one-year deal of nearly the same money.

Despite baseball’s murky outlook, Ozuna should get his payday this time. It takes only one team, such as the Red Sox, speculatively speaking, to offer him a massive deal. The Braves could find themselves in a bidding war, and history tells us that likely wouldn’t result in Ozuna’s return to the Braves.

The Braves were lucky to land Ozuna after Donaldson’s departure. He was a perfect fit and had the best year of his career, hitting .338 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs for a team that would’ve shattered franchise offensive records in a normal schedule. To replace Donaldson and Ozuna in back-to-back years wouldn’t be an easy ask. There’s plenty reason for the team and player to make this union to continue.

“Marcell was amazing for us,” Anthopoulos said. “He was awesome. We’d love to have him back. Certainly plan on having discussions. But right now, day after we got back (from Texas), there’s just uncertainty in so many areas. I’m not trying to be cryptic or foreshadow. We’re going to have to try to work to get as many answers as we can from a revenue standpoint, a DH standpoint, all those things.

"There’s no doubt he was tremendous for us. He did a great job. He fit in great. We’d love to have him as part of what we’re doing going forward.”

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves manager Brian Snitker discusses Atlanta’s season and the hope for 2021 team.

Anthopoulos said similar words about Donaldson last winter. Ultimately, the Braves were unwilling to match the Twins' offer. Ozuna’s free agency will dominate headlines this winter just as Donaldson’s did.

It’s worth noting that even if payroll dips, the Braves should have spending room with Ozuna, Melancon and starter Cole Hamels coming off the books. They’ll need to retain some of their relievers or acquire replacements. They’ll still want to add to the rotation, to some degree. They’ll want to strengthen their bench, which was a desire that didn’t come to fruition at the trade deadline this year.

Looming over the offseason is first baseman Freddie Freeman’s free agency a year from now. It would make sense to get an extension done this winter, though Anthopoulos declined to speak about any negotiations. Whether the Braves get that deal done sooner or later, when considering future payrolls, they’ll have to factor in Freeman’s next contract.

“He’s someone we plan on and expect to have as a Brave for a long time,” Anthopoulos said, stressing the team will stay quiet publicly about any contract talks. “He plans on that as well. Both sides want that to occur. … He’s a key part of this organization. The hope and the plan is that he’ll be part of it going forward.”

The sooner the Braves could complete a Freeman extension, the sooner the team would have a concrete number on their books rather than an estimation. Even with Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies on below-market deals, it could be tough (though not unrealistic) to have Freeman and Ozuna each on roughly $25 million-per-year contracts over the next several seasons, if Ozuna’s market drives him into that range.

It’s hard to sustain a winner, regardless of payroll. The Braves have won – and gotten better – for three consecutive seasons. They were on the cusp of a surprise World Series berth a few days ago, pushing the Dodgers, baseball’s ultimate measuring stick, to the limit in the NL Championship Series.

The Braves weren’t quite there yet. Now, the challenge gets tougher than years past. They’re trying to maintain one of baseball’s four league finalists while improving it to the point it can get over the final hump. Sports sometimes show us that it can be more difficult getting over that final hurdle than it is to be positioned for it in the first place. This franchise knows that almost better than anyone.

“We can rehash the series all we want, but we were right there,” Anthopoulos said. "In 2018, Snit (manager Brian Snitker) and I have talked about this, we weren’t talented enough (against the Dodgers in the NL Division Series). In 2019, in the DS against the Cardinals, that one, it was a different feeling. You respect the Cardinals and everything they’ve done, but that one, we felt strongly we should’ve been able to advance, and things didn’t break right for us. Here, we were right there playing a great club. Playoff series, the little things matter. All these guys were a huge part of our success. We saw some plays where some things didn’t go our way, but we were right there with those guys the whole way.

“Now, it’s about maintaining it. To maintain the performance. We got some great years out of guys and so on. You need a good bullpen. You need a good offense. You need a good rotation. You need all of it to advance deep. I think we continue to get better and closer. I don’t think I’m out of line to say we’re a World Series-caliber team this year. Only one of those teams is going to win the World Series, but we were every bit capable and close to being there.

"Who knows who’s going to win at the end of the day, but I feel like the roster and what we had to deal with in 2020, we had what it took, but obviously things need to break right.”