The Atlanta Braves celebrate after clinching their division against the Philadelphia Phillies at SunTrust Park Saturday September 22, 2018. Photo by Brant Sanderlin/AJC

Braves winter meetings mailbag: Day 1

Over the next few days, we’ll be answering fan questions submitted on Twitter relative to the Braves’ plans. They aren’t expected to be overly active this week, but they’re pursuing a number of starters, outfielders and relievers.

Let’s get the questions started:

@Strictly4Sport: Which free agent signing with the Braves would be completely out of left field (pun intended)?

The only outcome that’d surprise me is Adam Duvall starting. They’ve considered about every free agent and explored every rumored trade target (many of whom we aren’t even aware). That’s the boring answer, but the Braves are still sorting out their options.

Andrew McCutchen remains a possibility if the Braves haven’t reeled in an outfielder by mid-January. Re-signing Nick Markakis is an alternative in a similar circumstance. Carlos Gonzalez expressed interest in joining the team, though that may not be mutual at this time.

Michael Brantley and AJ Pollock are expensive, but there’s a world in which the Braves sign Brantley after no one meets his early demands. The issue, less so than average annual value, is the years. They aren’t enthusiastic about providing three-or-more seasons to any of the realistic free agents.

The answer may lie in the trade market, even if they’ve unsuccessfully tried on a few coveted outfielders already. Eventually, prices might line up or a team which insisted it wouldn’t move a player changes its mind. 

I know it’s irritating because most of what you read is “Here’s why the Braves aren’t interested in so-and-so.” They’re betting that the right fit, the right terms, will unveil themselves through the lengthy winter negotiations – or even in July or next offseason. The ‘worst case,’ I’d opine, is signing a veteran stopgap in January, which they rightfully feel is better than overpaying a player they don’t love.

throughmylens_atl: Which east team do you see as the biggest threat to the Braves at this current time(?) I realize it’s early and more moves will be made

A: Yes, it’s too early to properly paint the National League East’s picture, but it’s clear the Mets will be more formidable after finishing as the division’s best team across the season’s final two months. New York added Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz in a package trade with Seattle, with potentially more to come.

There are some who not only view the Mets as a competitor, but perhaps a bigger threat than the Nationals and Phillies, the division’s second and third-place finishers. Health will always be a question with the Mets, but if they’ve even moderately improved their offense, there’s certainly a case.

The Phillies and Nationals are difficult to judge until Bryce Harper’s “bazaar” concludes. It appears unlikely he returns to Washington, though not impossible. The Phillies have long been linked with him and infielder Manny Machado. Philadelphia probably ends up with one or the other while the Nationals will continue re-investing that money after signing lefty Patrick Corbin (and former Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki, an invaluable clubhouse presence).

@trevoravery: If the Braves miss out on top of rotation guys (Kuechel, Kluber) Do they still try to add a SP? Or do they just move more young guys into the rotation? I wouldn't mind seeing a rotation with Soroka and Touki.

A: As of today, they’re penciling a rotation of Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Kevin Gausman, Julio Teheran and a youngster. They spoke with agents Monday and continue to explore the starters’ market, even more so than relievers.  

The Braves are interested in Corey Kluber, though to this point their talks with Cleveland haven’t advanced. The Indians may also favor trading Trevor Bauer, who isn’t as coveted as his teammate. Kluber remains the clear best option for a frontline arm, in my opinion.

Despite reports, the Braves haven’t pursued Dallas Kuechel. His price and years requirement would have to dip for the Braves to truly engage. Similar can be said of J.A. Happ, who the Braves like but seem reluctant to issue a three-year contract.

If they were to acquire a top starter, it’d be interesting to see how the rotation develops. They’ve yet to talk trade on Julio Teheran, and there’s value in having a reliable innings eater in front of a plethora of relatively unknowns. Teheran holds slightly positive value on the market, some have indicated, but the Braves simply aren’t pressed to move him. Maybe that changes with an additional arm.

@chattanoogarage: Are you getting the sense from the front office that we are not seeing teams value our prospects as highly as they should in trade discussions? Is it possible that the quantity of pitching prospects has diluted their individual value on the market in trade scenarios?

A: I’d say the prospects are being properly valued, but the Braves are exhibiting admirable patience. Look, they could acquire any of the available players. If they want Kluber and Cleveland is willing to dance, they couldn’t be outbid. That doesn’t make it wise to do so.

There are prospects valued highly in, say, Baseball America’s rankings that the Braves don’t view the same way. Those are the players the Braves are probably more inclined to deal, hoping another organization views that piece in a better light, thus making that asset more valuable to team X than the Braves.

To this point, that mentality hasn’t consummated into a trade. There’s a balance between being aggressive or foolish; the Braves are the former, but playing it carefully enough to avoid the latter. 

Teams want to do business with the Braves. That in itself is leverage, so their players certainly don’t have diluted value, rather their abundance of talent has opened more options, equating to further patience.

@efdrag: Why is AA mostly focused on players with shorter term contracts in trades? Acquisition cost? Is that just something given the state of farm system and or case by case basis?

Anthopoulos was actually asked about this Monday. Here was his response:

“The biggest mistake we can make is to force a deal and sign someone for three, four, five years that we like, we don’t love. The dollars – we’re not really enamored with the deal. Short-term it’s great, but year two, three or four, you want an upgrade. … I think everyone would prefer short-term because most free agents are older. You’re getting guys in their 30s.”

Let’s add context: Anthopoulos acknowledged it’s indeed a case-by-case basis; Harper and Machado are exceptions to his above quote. But the Braves are well-aware of who’s available, who will be available and how each contract could influence future decisions. 

Anthopoulos noted players usually don’t out-perform their long-term contracts. The Braves, being a mid-market team, can’t afford substantial sunk cost. So there is an element of caution that eludes the Dodgers and Yankees of the world.

You can’t just live off one-and-two-year deals, true. The Braves are willing to give longer contracts, but one Anthopoulos sentence defines why they haven’t: “We can’t expand the market beyond what it is.” 

If the right player isn’t there, the Braves won’t act in desperation. They’ll play the waiting game to acquire the best fit, even if that boils fan frustration. Eventually they’ll need to make a significant play, but their mindset regarding free agency makes the trade market a more likely path not just today, but as they try to sustain their winning.

Have a question? Ask it at @GabeBurnsAJC

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