Pitching and power: Assessing Braves’ offseason priorities

Braves' Freddie Freeman celebrates a win with teammates after a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on July 8, 2017, in Washington, DC.

Credit: Mitchell Layton

Credit: Mitchell Layton

Braves' Freddie Freeman celebrates a win with teammates after a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on July 8, 2017, in Washington, DC.

Who said the Braves weren’t going to make noise in October?

Amid the sudden resignation of general manager John Coppolella, prompted by an MLB investigation, a once stable franchise appears desperately in need of a calming presence.

On the field, things haven’t been much better. The Braves produced four consecutive losing seasons for the first time in over two decades. While what’s bubbling below the surface may hold promise, the product at hand isn’t motivating fans to secure tickets for 2018.

Now comes the most pivotal offseason of the rebuild. The Braves are entering the period in which they’ll be judged on wins and losses. They must soon determine which prospects are expendable. That won’t change regardless of the chief decision maker.

There may not be a lot of breathing room, according to president of baseball operations John Hart, which will make matters more challenging.

"I think we've got a good feel for where we are with our club and what we're doing," he said. "There's not a great level of flexibility, but there's enough, as far as the personnel. We've seen a lot of the young guys that we wanted to get up here this year, we were able to actually do it. We've been force-feeding a lot of the other kids that are getting closer that you might see again next year. That's a good thing. But we kind of know where we're at here. I don't think whether we get a new general manager or not, he's not going to know us as well as we know ourselves.

“Not necessarily payroll,” Hart clarified. “Listen, there’s some things we can do. There’s going to be a lot of opportunities that are going to present itself.”

While the marketplace hasn’t yet formed, there are several areas the franchise has pinpointed as it attempts to balance present and future.

The bullpen. 

Coppolella was candid that adding a “viable reliever or two” topped the shopping list. The Braves’ bullpen was worth 1.1 wins above replacement (WAR). Only the Reds, Rangers, Padres and Tigers fielded a worse assembly.

There are makings of a quality bullpen. Jose Ramirez, A.J. Minter, Arodys Vizcaino, Sam Freeman and Dan Winkler should return. Lucas Sims, if not the fifth starter, could be a long-reliever. The team likes his bullpen potential.

Vizcaino impressed after supplanting Jim Johnson as closer, though Minter, expected to eventually take over the role, could be given a shot to win it in spring training. Manager Brian Snitker frequently praised Minter in the season’s closing weeks.

Johnson has another year remaining on his contract, and while Coppolella told the AJC he believed Johnson could bounce back, the organization may view it differently.

Regardless, they need to add to their back end. The team will pursue affordable arms, such as possibly Brandon Kintzler or Jake McGee.

Kintzler collected 29 saves with the Twins and Nationals after posting 16 a year ago. Aside from a late September thud, Kitzler proved he could succeed for an NL East team in a pennant race. The lefty McGee bounced back after a dreadful first season in Colorado.

Don’t expect to see the Braves enter the Greg Holland or Wade Davis sweepstakes. Think pitchers with solid, yet unspectacular track records.

The outfield conundrum. 

The Braves’ prized prospect is outfielder Ronald Acuna, who could start opening day in 2018 as a 20-year-old.

One or both of Nick Markakis and Matt Kemp will be a casualty. It’s no secret the team would prefer to move Kemp and the two years, $43 million remaining on his contract. But they aren’t willing to eat much, if any, of that deal. Aside from the finances, Kemp’s consistent hamstring troubles and conditioning complicate an already scare market. Markakis has been valuable in the clubhouse and productive, but with one year and $10.5 million left, he’s significantly easier to move than Kemp.

That said, Markakis won’t be given away. The team won’t rule out platooning the veterans. Given Kemp’s health history, it’s feasible, though dividing at-bats between two established veterans isn’t optimal. Plus, it cuts into Lane Adams’ time. He earned the fourth outfielder spot with tremendous situational play down the stretch.

Third base.

Rio Ruiz caught fire upon his September promotion, but he's failed to prove he's the answer. Snitker called Johan Camargo the most pleasant surprise of the season. Camargo has earned a place moving forward, whether that's in utility or starting. If Dansby Swanson starts next year similarly to this one, don't be surprised if Camargo gets more time at shortstop.

But Camargo doesn’t supply much power for the position. With Austin Riley and Kevin Maitan in the ranks, they’ll probably target a short-term solution. The team is unlikely to pursue soon-to-be expensive free agent Mike Moustakas. Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson could be available, but with one year left on his deal plus the prospect sacrifice required, the Braves won’t be deeply involved. The team will swap premium prospects only for controllable assets.

Todd Frazier, for instance, could be a valuable free-agent addition as a quality defender with pop. Don’t expect them to make a heavy investment here. If all else fails, entering the season with Camargo and Ruiz splitting time isn’t a terrible worst-case scenario.

The rotation.

Coppolella recently told ESPN's Buster Olney that Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb and Luiz Gohara were penciled into the 2018 rotation. He singled out Sims as a candidate for the fifth starter.

R.A. Dickey has been valued as a mentor and innings-eater. He’s considering retirement, but if he returns, the Braves are likely to pick up his option.

As usual, the Braves will entertain adding a controllable top-of-the-rotation pitcher via trade. Chris Sale, Sonny Gray and Jose Quintana – players the Braves explored – have been dealt, but other names will emerge. The team won’t bid for top free-agent starters. Any major rotation addition would come at the expense of prospects.

Coppolella coveted Rays ace Chris Archer, whom the Tampa Bay Times reported the team will again listen on, and his exit doesn't change the interest. The Braves, like most other teams, would love to put Archer atop their rotation, as the AJC most recently reported in June.

Archer, 29, is controllable through 2021 at a total of $30.25 million, which is less than Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw will make next season alone ($33 million). Archer also presents two qualities the Braves need: proven innings-eater and capable MLB strikeout leader. His renowned clubhouse reputation doesn’t hurt either.

Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer reportedly intrigued the Braves before the trade deadline, though Fulmer's current arm issues might scare away suitors. If the Braves complete their search for a frontline starter, Teheran could be flipped, as the AJC reported. Otherwise, dealing Teheran potentially leaves the team without a single starter who's hit the 200-inning mark.

The Braves had grown more pessimistic about acquiring an ace, meaning the team could enter the season with a similar group. But it’d be unwise to rely on the young arms to pile up innings. That concern is what prompted the Braves to add Dickey, along with Bartolo Colon and Jaime Garcia, last offseason.

Don’t forget that prospects Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard and Patrick Weigel, among others, could debut next year, too.

Power shortage.

With or without Kemp, the Braves want to add power. Freddie Freeman (theoretically) playing a full season will help, but banking strictly on Acuna’s power potential would be foolish. Third base should be the spot given the roster’s build. Trade candidate Matt Adams might be more valuable on the Braves’ bench than whatever the team would receive in return. He’s perhaps their second-best slugger, and having an otherwise versatile bench may allow for keeping the limited Adams.

Staff writer David O’Brien contributed to this article.