The Braves succeeded in their most important quest of the winter: finding a middle-of-the-order slugger. They re-signed Marcell Ozuna, who had one of the greatest offensive seasons in franchise history during the 60-game 2020 campaign, to a four-year deal last weekend.
It’s easy to overlook considering how long ago it happened, but the Braves also aggressively addressed their rotation, signing veterans Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton to one-year deals before Thanksgiving. Adding Ozuna, Smyly and Morton likely means the heavy lifting for this offseason is completed.
As the AJC’s Tim Tucker recently analyzed, the Braves’ current payroll projects around $128.5 million, which is well below last season’s $152 million non-prorated total. The Braves are decreasing payroll amid fallout from the pandemic, but they still have room for further additions.
“With no DH (designated hitter), our position players are pretty much set,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said after the Ozuna signing. “Marcell in left, center field is a competition, right field, (Ronald) Acuna. Obviously Acuna could play center field as well. If Acuna does slide to center, we could get another outfielder. In terms of the infield, that’s pretty much set. We could always add to the bullpen. We feel pretty good about the rotation.
“I think now it’s more just being opportunistic if we think there’s a player out there that makes sense, good value and so on, we’ll do it. But we’re not going to force a deal. There’s a very real scenario that you might just see some minor-league signings and things like that and this is the group we go into spring with.”
Anthopoulos has since reiterated the team could improve its bullpen and bench. A quick look that those situations:
If the Braves entered the season with their current bullpen, they likely would be OK. But the group could certainly improve, especially after seeing Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Darren O’Day hit free agency. O’Day signed with the Yankees, but Melancon and Greene are still available, and the Braves keeping at least one of them would make sense.
Could they end up re-signing both? It’s unlikely but not impossible. Perhaps either or both players could take short deals to stay with the Braves and choose to re-enter the market next winter when baseball is (presumably) in a better place financially. Realistically, it would be a win if the Braves kept one of them or added another solid experienced reliever.
The current bullpen includes Will Smith, Chris Martin and A.J. Minter as late-inning options. Josh Tomlin was retained as the long reliever. Breakout star Tyler Matzek is back and will try to build on his sudden emergence. Jacob Webb, Huascar Ynoa, Luke Jackson, Grant Dayton and others could factor in. The bullpen has more question marks than last season, but it’s not a bad group.
With the starting position players and rotation set, the Braves’ bench competition might be the most compelling story at spring training. Candidates on the 40-man roster include infielders Johan Camargo and Jack Mayfield, catchers William Contreras and Alex Jackson, and outfielders Abraham Almonte and Ender Inciarte (assuming rookie Cristian Pache starts in center field). Other options include infielders Pablo Sandoval and Ehire Adrianza.
Their bench for the National League Championship series had outfielder Nick Markakis (unsigned), catcher Tyler Flowers (unsigned), utilityman Charlie Culberson (now with the Rangers), Duvall and Sandoval. The Braves could eventually turn back to Flowers and/or Markakis, but their bench certainly will look different from how it ended last season.
The Braves would benefit from a more reliable utilityman. Another player with some pop wouldn’t hurt either. Expect the bench to be fluid throughout the season. This could be an area the Braves target at the trade deadline as well.
Gabriel Burns is a general assignment reporter and features writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. After four years on the Braves beat, he's expanded his horizons and covers all sports. You'll find him writing about MLB, NFL, NBA, college football and other Atlanta-centric happenings.