The Braves made their first wave of offseason moves Monday, deciding several club options and tendering their best free agent a qualifying offer.
Catcher Tyler Flowers and outfielder Nick Markakis were retained. The team declined their options and re-signed them at a similar rate, allowing the players to collect their expected earnings and the team to save $4 million on payroll.
They declined starter Julio Teheran’s option, paying him a $1 million buyout instead of keeping him for $12 million. The Braves also declined their $7.5 million mutual option on Billy Hamilton. Teheran and Hamilton will be free agents.
Third baseman Josh Donaldson, who played such an important role in the club’s 97-win season, was tendered a qualifying offer valued at $17.8 million. Donaldson is expected to command a multi-year deal, be it from the Braves or elsewhere.
“We want to be in position to bring him back … But it’s not salary arbitration – it’s free agency,” Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos said in a conference call Monday.
Retaining Flowers and Markakis, while neither had commendable seasons, were decisions made easier by circumstance. If the Braves let Flowers go, they’d need to fill two catcher vacancies rather than one. Flowers can split backstop duties or play sparingly as a backup should the Braves acquire a more traditional starting catcher.
If Markakis departs, outfield depth and – more importantly – clubhouse leadership becomes more of a concern. They already lost leader Brian McCann to retirement and could see Josh Donaldson exit in free agency. Markakis at $4 million is a no-brainer for the franchise from a depth and intangibles standpoint.
The pair is veteran depth at a fair cost. But uncertainties around catcher, the outfield and the clubhouse made keeping them pivotal. The Braves boast two premier outfield prospects, Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, and first-round catcher Shane Langeliers, but none will be ready to start the season. Markakis and Flowers are easy bridge options.
Anthopoulos confirmed Markakis would be used in a platoon role, perhaps with slugger Adam Duvall, whose disappointing Braves tenure flipped with a productive NLDS. The team and Markakis agreed on his new role before announcing his return.
The Braves had little reason to lock in Teheran at $12 million. Both parties can explore their alternatives, and if they circle back to each other, so be it.
Said Anthopoulos, “We’ve had talks with his management, and there’s an openness on both sides. We’ll see where that leads.”
The Braves have Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz locked into their rotation, but the final two spots are up for grabs. While the aforementioned trio possesses immense upside, each comes with his question marks.
Perhaps that leads to Teheran’s return, which Anthopoulos said the team will consider. The Braves will need innings eaters – one aspect Teheran has excelled in – and likely a veteran in the backend of their rotation. Their younger arms haven’t illustrated any reasons for confidence, and while Teheran has his flaws, his greatest ability is availability, an especially valuable commodity given pitchers’ volatility.
For Teheran, it’s his first time hitting the open market. He should generate interest as a 28-year-old with a defined skillset. Teheran has made at least 30 starts in each of his seven full seasons.
The Royals dumped Hamilton in August, when he found a home with the Braves. The speedster appeared in 26 games, going 11 for 41 (.268) with nine runs scored and three RBIs. He was one of many timely pickups across the stretch run, adding defense and pinch-running.
Hamilton stole four bases in a Braves uniform. The team was always expected to decline his option.
All eyes will center on Donaldson, who received a qualifying offer that he’ll assuredly decline (he has 10 days to decide). Donaldson is the star of the Braves’ offseason, with his decision looming over every move. With or without their middle-of-the-order slugger, the Braves have needs in the outfield, rotation and bullpen. Should Donaldson leave, third base is a question mark and the offense would be without its clean-up hitter.
Donaldson will have a healthier market than last season, when he signed a one-year $23 million deal to re-establish value. CBS Sports and Fangraphs ranked the slugger as the No. 4 free agent available, trailing only Anthony Rendon, Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. Sports Illustrated and MLB.com graded Donaldson the ninth-best player on the market.
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