What will left field look like in 2024?
This season, the Braves’ offense tied and set records. You might be able to argue it was the best lineup in MLB history.
The Braves return everyone, except Eddie Rosario, who has a $9 million club option for 2024. And if they pick that up, they could run out that same historic, record-breaking batting order.
“It’s hard to argue (that) this is the best offensive club we’ve ever had,” president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos said on a video conference call with reporters Friday. “Historically, one of the best – that’s up for debate. … Because we have the option on Rosario, we have the opportunity, for the most part, to run this exact group back. Now again, like anything else, we’re gonna try to get it all to fit, from a payroll standpoint and so on, and decide how to deploy our dollars. But he was great for us. He was a really good complement, he had a really good year. The other point to this, too, is having depth was important, too.”
It seemed like Rosario was too inconsistent – at the plate and in the field – to be a lock for next season’s roster.
But 21 homers and a .755 OPS might be a steal for $9 million. Plus, Rosario’s bat-to-ball skills are a nice quality in this power-hitting lineup.
“Rosario had a very good year for us, he brings balance with the left-handed bat,” Anthopoulos said. “It was just nice to have that balance. We had real balance up and down the lineup.”
If the Braves had a right-handed hitting left fielder, Michael Harris II and Matt Olson would be the only lefties. Add Ozzie Albies, a switch-hitter, to that group. It’s easy to see why Rosario’s left-handed bat is enticing.
The Braves’ core is set. There won’t be a lot of change in their lineup, which means that balance coming out of left field – a spot that could have fluidity in the coming seasons – is important.
And could Vaughn Grissom fit into the left-field picture? He’s a right-handed bat, but one that probably is too good to spend more time at Triple-A Gwinnett, where the Braves kept him so he could get consistent reps.
The Braves might want to get that bat in the lineup.
“I think with Vaughn, we view him as an infielder,” Anthopoulos said. “It’s hard to find guys that can hit like that and play on the dirt. The fact that he’s played all three – short, third, second – has real value for us. But he’s athletic enough that he could play anywhere on the diamond.”
Earlier in the call, Anthopoulos said this about Grissom: “He had an unbelievable year offensively, the numbers speak for themselves. He’s getting much better defensively as well. But look, he’s a great athlete. That’ll be something that we’ll talk about as well. The bat plays, the makeup, the aptitude, the energy. He’s an amazing teammate. You want him a part of this team in some capacity. But I think the thing we’re going to have to balance is making sure that we can get him playing time and at-bats.”
Kevin Pillar, the right-handed complement to Rosario this season, is a free agent.
If the Braves don’t pick up Rosario’s option, it’ll be intriguing to see whether they fill his void through free agency, the trade market or internally.
How will Anthopoulos build the rotation?
In 2024, Max Fried will be in his free-agent season. Kyle Wright won’t pitch after undergoing a procedure to repair a torn capsule in his right shoulder. Charlie Morton, who suffered a right index finger sprain that kept him out of the National League Division Series, has a club option worth $20 million.
The Braves’ rotation might look different, which means Anthopoulos might need to do a lot of work to strengthen it this offseason.
Of Morton, Anthopoulos said: “I know Charlie obviously had the injury at the end, but if you look at just the body of work, you look at the number of starts he’s made, all the years he’s been here, beyond always being an incredible teammate of so on. He logged a ton of innings, had an ERA in the 3s, great example for all the guys.”
Morton, who turns 40 in November, still can pitch, evidenced by his 3.64 ERA this season. In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in September, he talked about how he decides whether to pitch or retire.
Starting pitching isn’t cheap, but perhaps the Braves won’t feel Morton is worth $20 million. There’s a five-day window at the conclusion of the World Series in which teams make these decisions. It seems Morton would return if the Braves exercised the option – who turns down $20 million?
AJ Smith-Shawver could be a rotation piece next season, as could Bryce Elder, who was a pleasant surprise this year. A name to watch next spring: Hurston Waldrep, whom the Braves drafted in the first round this summer.
Another question: Will the Braves tender a contract to Michael Soroka? Between time on the major-league roster and on the major-league injured list, he reached five years of service time, which means the Braves wouldn’t be able to option him without his consent next season. So they essentially would need to put him on the roster out of spring training or would lose him.
The Braves displayed terrific depth this season by using 16 different pitchers to start games. But because of the fluidity in the 2024 rotation situation, with Wright and Morton’s cases, they might need to target a proven arm or two.
Will Fried receive an extension?
We are approaching Fried’s walk year.
If you’ve covered Anthopoulos, you know his policy is not to reveal anything about contract negotiations, trade talks or other rumors. He feels it does the organization no favors, and that actually is true. The unnecessary noise could complicate matters.
But the question must be asked.
Could the Braves and Fried engage in discussions on an extension this offseason?
“I know you gotta ask. I’m trying to find a way to give you a new quote,” Anthopoulos said. “Same thing. Great players, like Max Fried and others, we want to keep those guys, everybody in the league would wanna keep those guys. That goes without saying. When it comes to contracts, extensions, this and that, we work real hard that no one even knows we’ve had a conversation. I’m not trying to misdirect or foreshadow, but I would never assume that we have had or have not had a conversation with anybody. Because I would think, by and large, our extensions haven’t been discussed beforehand. Maybe a few.
He soon added: “Anybody going into their free-agent year, it’s going to be a topic, it’s going to be asked about. Of course, I expect that. I think it’s just the same thing: We love the great players, who doesn’t? And any contract talks, we work really hard to keep those extremely quiet.”
In 2023, Fried dealt with a hamstring strain, a forearm strain and a blister. Around that, he pitched well. He had a 2.55 ERA over 77-2/3 innings in the regular season. In his one postseason start, his rust showed, as he needed 95 pitches to get 12 outs – though it could’ve been a lot worse than the three runs he allowed.
Could the bullpen look completely different?
During the regular season, the Braves’ bullpen ranked 11th in baseball with a 3.81 ERA. This was a good bullpen, but perhaps it can get better.
In the regular season, the Braves’ relievers ranked 28th in the sport in pitches that registered at 96 mph or above. They threw 543 of them – most were hurled by Raisel Iglesias, A.J. Minter, Joe Jiménez and Pierce Johnson. You need to account for Iglesias’ injury and Johnson not joining the team until the trade deadline, but it looks like the Braves might benefit from adding more velocity.
The Phillies ranked first in this category, with 2,702 pitches at 96 mph or harder. Baltimore was second. Houston and the Dodgers were ninth and 10th, respectively. This is only velocity. There’s more to building a bullpen, but a pitcher’s stuff plays.
Here’s how the situation looks: Jiménez and Johnson are free agents, as is Jesse Chavez. Kirby Yates has a team option worth $5.75 million, and Collin McHugh has a $6 million team option. Brad Hand has a $7 million mutual option.
There could be a lot of change. The situation allows the Braves to rebuild their bullpen, if they want.
Perhaps Daysbel Hernandez is part of next season’s bullpen. (He would make the minimum, which would give the Braves added flexibility.) Nick Anderson likely will be in the picture again. There could be free-agent signings or trades, like when the Braves acquired Jiménez last offseason. Johnson’s price certainly rose with a good second half, but he’s probably worth bringing back.
Proven relievers aren’t cheap, but teams can certainly find value in unproven ones. We’ll see what the Braves decide to do.
Will there be any splashy surprises?
Last offseason, the Braves felt great about their catching situation, which included Travis d’Arnaud, William Contreras and Manny Piña.
But Sean Murphy was available. And he undoubtedly made the club better, which is why Anthopoulos pursued it.
Anthopoulos is the master of surprise, so we should leave the door open for at least one jaw-dropping move.