Braves’ power pursuit likely to extend beyond winter meetings

Braves manager Brian Snitker publicly echoed his general manager during his media briefing at the winter meetings in San Diego: The Braves want to add a clean-up hitter.

Snitker spoke with reporters Wednesday and expressed a desire to re-sign third baseman Josh Donaldson, who became a force in the middle of the team's order with 37 homers and 94 RBIs. Snitker acknowledged the business side of the equation may prevent that, but be it Donaldson or another slugger, he'd like to see the team add power behind Freddie Freeman.

“We used to talk about that with Chipper (Jones),” Snitker said. “We always tried to get someone behind him. I think it’s big. It’s important. Will it happen? I don’t know. I’d sure like for it to. I think it’ll definitely make us a better team if we can do it. It just remains to be seen.”

With Donaldson behind him, Freeman had arguably his best offensive season. The first baseman hit .295 with 38 homers and 121 RBIs, second most in the National League. Donaldson thrived hitting fourth, assembling a bounce-back season that will be rewarded with a significant free-agent contract.

The Braves lack an internal option to fill that spot. The team hasn’t considered moving Ronald Acuna from the leadoff, GM Alex Anthopoulos said Wednesday. Young third baseman Austin Riley supplies power, but the club doesn’t consider him ready to assume such a large role.

“We love Austin Riley,” Snitker said. “I love Austin Riley. I think his upside is huge. We saw what he can do. But he's a young player, and we know in this league you don't surprise anybody for very long in the game anymore, and he's going to have to make adjustments, as they all do. Everybody has to at some point in time. He's very capable of that. ... We look at him to be a special player for us at some point in time.”

Many would opine the Braves need to add a power hitter. Letting Donaldson walk and not replacing him could set a 97-win team back. Investing hope into Johan Camargo or Riley at third base is another risk.

Yet Anthopoulos didn’t exude a sense of urgency in addressing his team’s only evident weakness.

“You don’t ever want to go into the ‘we have to.’ That’s where you can get into trouble in terms of doing deals,” Anthopoulos said. “You want to make your rotation, your offense, your defense as good as it can be. I don’t know with the lineup. With what we have today, Snit will sit down and – obviously the roster’s not complete. I don’t know, from an offensive standpoint, what it’s going to look like, if we’re adding or not. We’re just looking to get good players.”

The Braves would feel more comfortable using Camargo or Riley at third if the team added power in the outfield. Reported interest in free-agent outfielder Marcell Ozuna has been overstated, but the Braves do feel there are ample options, both in the trade and free agency markets, to plug behind Freeman.

Chicago slugger Kris Bryant has been popularly linked to the Braves throughout the meetings, and while he’s on the team’s radar, there’s no evidence of any trade talks. It would cost a healthy package of prospects, namely young pitchers, if the Braves go that direction.

One fact: Until Donaldson signs, he’ll be at the forefront of conversation. He’s commanded interest from the Phillies, Nationals, Dodgers, Angels and Rangers. Donaldson, 34, is positioned for a nice payday. It’ll likely come on a three-or-four-year contract, which is where negotiations with the Braves get more complex.

While the franchise is pursuing multiple players who could fill that void, Anthopoulos did cast doubt any move would be completed before the winter meetings conclude Thursday. He did, however, find the meetings more productive than past years and even called this edition his “most enjoyable one.” He’s hoping important groundwork was set.

“I’ve been very transparent we’d like to add another bat if we can,” Anthopoulos said. “I said this a couple days ago, but I don’t know that we’ll be able to get it done. You never go into these things – we wanted to add bullpen, rotation help and so on – you have to believe in the deal, whether that’s signing or trading. We’d like to add a bat. We’re hopeful that we can do it. We can’t guarantee that we will.”

These meetings were busier than recent years, with starters Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole signing historic deals. The Braves were quiet, having done much of their work before. They filled needs at catcher, in the bullpen and the rotation before arriving in San Diego.

Anthopoulos, under his recent policy of declining to speak on specific free agents, didn’t address potential reunions with outfielder Matt Joyce or infielder Adeiny Hechavarria, but the Braves plan to address their bench before the season. They’re seeking a back-up defensive-minded shortstop.

But the search for power overshadows all. The Braves’ pursuit of Donaldson and the like will extend further into December, if not the new year.

“There are players available that we just have to be able to line up on, whether it’s a signing or trade,” Anthopoulos said. “Obviously we haven’t been able to. We’re not close to doing anything, and I can’t tell you we’ll be able to do it.

“Obviously we have the ability to say ‘yes’ at any time, but we’ll only do that when we believe in the deal. I can’t tell you that we’ll get to a deal that we feel comfortable doing. I can’t ensure that but I hope so.”

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