On the heels of their second straight NL East crown, the Braves have gotten off to an aggressive start this offseason.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos, who’s trying to build an Atlanta team capable of winning a playoff series for the first time since 2001, has doled out an array of guaranteed contracts in the early stages of the winter.
But the Braves are still in danger of losing one of their top performers from 2019, free-agent third baseman Josh Donaldson.
- Ronald Acuna Jr. OF: $99M through 2026 (includes buyout of 2027 club option; contract also contains 2028 option).
- Freddie Freeman, 1B: $44M through 2021.
- Will Smith, LHP: $40M through 2022 (includes buyout of 2023 club option).
- Ozzie Albies, 2B: $34M through 2025 (includes buyout of 2026 club option; contract also contains 2027 option).
- Ender Inciarte, OF: $16.025M through 2021 (includes buyout of 2022 club option).
- Travis d’Arnaud, C: $16M through 2021.
- Mark Melancon, RHP: $14M through 2020.
- Chris Martin, RHP: $14M through 2021.
- Tyler Flowers, C: $4M through 2020.
- Nick Markakis, OF: $4M through 2020.
- Darren O’Day, RHP: $2.75M through 2020 (includes buyout of 2021 option).
Arbitration-eligible players (salary projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz):
The Braves’ bullpen was unreliable, which is why Anthopoulos started making over the unit in the summer. He swung pre-deadline trades for Shane Greene, Mark Melancon and set-up man Chris Martin, who will return as key members of the group in 2020. Martin had been in line to leave, but the Braves instead brought back the 33-year-old right-hander on a two-year, $14M contract.
Likewise, the Braves re-signed righty Darren O’Day this month, preventing his exit with a $2.75M guarantee. Originally acquired from the Orioles before the 2018 deadline, hamstring and forearm injuries stopped the 37-year-old O’Day from pitching for the Braves until September. But when O’Day finally retook the mound, he looked like the steady reliever he has been throughout his long career.
While the Martin and O’Day re-signings are hard to argue with, no move the Braves have made thus far should help more than the splashy addition of Will Smith. Once Aroldis Chapman stuck with the Yankees, the left-handed Smith, 30, became the undisputed premier reliever in this class. Previously with the Giants, Smith earned his first All-Star nod in 2019, during which he fired 65 1/3 innings of 2.76 ERA ball, posted 13.22 K/9 against 2.89 BB/9 and racked up 34 saves in 38 attempts.
As a result of his brilliant final season in San Francisco, MLBTR forecast a three-year, $42M at the outset of free agency. The Braves, to their credit, paid a little less than that. They reeled in the Georgia-born Smith for $40M over three years, though it seems they plan to use him as a setup man to his former Giants teammate Melancon. Regardless, with the two of them, Greene, Martin and O’Day among its best late-game choices, Atlanta has remade its relief corps dating back to the summer. The Braves’ bullpen, although not particularly young, now looks like a strength.
While the bullpen has been Anthopoulos’ primary focus to this point, he has also made several other moves. First of all, veteran outfielder Nick Markakis and catcher Tyler Flowers are back. The Braves bought out both players’ options for $2M after the season, only to re-up them for guarantees of $4M. The Braves still have to pay the pair $6M apiece, but they’ll only count for $4M in salary toward next year’s payroll. Whether that will actually matter remains to be seen, as the Braves aren’t typically a team that has to fear the luxury tax.
The lefty-swinging Markakis seems likely to platoon with the righty-hitting Adam Duvall in one of the outfield corners in 2020, continuing to bridge the gap toward promotions for high-end prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters. In the meantime, Markakis, Duvall, potential starter Ender Inciarte (if he’s not traded) and Austin Riley don’t make for the most confidence-inspiring outfield quartet, though superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. is obviously well-equipped to keep serving as the rising tide that lifts all boats in the outfield.
Behind the plate, Flowers remained a decent option last season, once again combining adequate offense (relative to his position) with elite pitch-framing skills. He teamed with Brian McCann and Francisco Cervelli, but the former retired after a stellar career and the latter is a free agent. With that in mind, the Braves needed a new partner for Flowers. They got one in Travis d’Arnaud, whom they signed to a two-year, $16M deal last week.
A former Blue Jay, d’Arnaud is now reunited with Anthopoulos, Toronto’s ex-GM. It was Anthopoulos who traded d’Arnaud out of Canada, landing then-star knuckleballer R.A. Dickey in a 2012 blockbuster with the Mets. D’Arnaud was an elite prospect at that point, but wound up enduring a somewhat disappointing Mets tenure that was consistently marred by injuries. The Mets finally had enough of d’Arnaud early last season, designating him for assignment, but he has enjoyed a career renaissance since. The 30-year-old rebuilt his stock as a Ray over the last few months, thus turning himself into the second- or third-best catcher on the open market. MLBTR projected a two-year, $14M deal, so his Braves payday hardly came as a surprise.
Every pact Atlanta has handed out so far looks reasonable, but it’s still worth wondering how much more ownership is willing to spend. Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei has said the team still plans to “spend some money,” but it’s anyone’s guess what that means. The Braves began last season with a payroll in the $115M range and have never spent more than $122M-plus on a season-opening roster, per Cot’s. Now, according to the math of Jason Martinez of Roster Resource and FanGraphs, they already have about $140M in commitments for next year. There’s room to cut some of that out via non-tenders and trades (Inciarte?), but those moves wouldn’t free up a windfall of cash.
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