Last season came to a disappointing end, but it represents a lot of optimism resonating within Braves country. We must not forget the great successes of the 2020 season: our first playoff series win under our current core, the emergence of bright young stars like Ian Anderson and Max Fried, and the continued development of key players like Ronald Acuña Jr. and Dansby Swanson. With these successes in mind, I paid keen attention to our offseason progress, and I would like to share my opinions on the matter. I will grade all of our major offseason moves in chronological order, analyzing how they may affect our team this season.
Signing of Free Agent Starting Pitcher Drew Smyly: 1 year, $11 million dollars.
I like this signing a lot; Smyly is a versatile guy that could see innings out of the rotation or the bullpen. In the small sample size that was 2020, he was absolutely filthy, as he posted an ERA of 3.42, with a FIP of just 2.01 and a WHIP at 1.10 for those who favor advanced statistics. Additionally, he posted an obscene K/9 at 14.35 and improved his Ground Ball % from 33.2 to 41.7%. That being said, I think he could reasonably keep up the pace of last year, albeit with a little bit of regression. Nevertheless, I think this is a great signing that will help add depth to a rotation that desperately needed it. My only hesitation is his contract, as I felt that $11 million seemed a bit high for him, but I have no problem with Anthopoulos paying a bit more money than market value to get his guy, especially on a one year deal. After all, I had those same thoughts about D’arnaud last year, and that worked out pretty well for us.
Signing of Free Agent Starting Pitcher Charlie Morton: 1 year, $15 million dollars.
I am so excited. When I saw that the Rays had not tendered a contract to Charlie Morton, I immediately texted my Braves-loving friends: let’s go get this guy. To Anthopolous’ credit, he pulled through for us. The two time all star will help bolster a rotation that ranked among the league’s worst last year, but appears to be poised to rank among its best this year. Morton didn’t have his best season, with an ERA at 4.74, but he still posted a very respectable FIP at 3.45 while striking out 9.9 batters per 9 innings and looked great for the Rays en route to their World Series appearance. All of this was derived from a mere 9 regular season starts, so they should be taken with a grain of salt. Some believe he is getting a bit too old to remain elite, but with potential aces in Fried, a healthy Soroka, and maybe even Ian Anderson, Morton does not need to be our ace, and he will definitely contribute a healthy load to our rotation. Other than the signings Marcell Ozuna and Josh Donaldson, this was by favorite move Antholpoulos has made as the GM of the Braves at the time of the signing.
Deciding not to tender Outfielder Adam Duvall a contract.
This one surprised me, and it hurt a bit. At first, I was upset; Adam Duvall’s two 3 run performances, notably in our 29-9 domination of the Marlins, was pretty fun to watch. However, the more I have looked into it, the more ok with it I am. While he posted a great WRC+ at 116, he really accumulated all of his statistics within a two week stretch where he hit more than half of his season’s home runs. He also posted an OBP of just .301, while striking out over 25% of the time; both of these figures are not optimal. That being said, moving on from Duvall is not a terrible move, but he still is a great defender and would make for a great 4th outfielder and platoon option, much better than our current 4th outfielder in Ender Inciarte.
Signings of Relief Pitchers Nate Jones and Carl Edwards Jr. on minor league deals.
I am coupling these together because they both will compete for a spot in our bullpen that needs rebuilding after losing Mark Melancon, and potentially Shane Greene, who is a free agent at the time this is being written. Both relievers have had success before, but are coming off subpar seasons in which they struggled. However, these are high ceiling picks, as both hope to return to the successes of their earlier careers, and the minor league contracts they signed makes their floors pretty high as well. Overall, high reward, low risk signing, a fan can’t complain.
Resigning of Outfielder Marcell Ozuna: 4 years, $64 million
Alex Anthopoulos really gave us a scare. The hesitancy to sign the terrible defensive player, but incredible hitter, in Marcell Ozuna, left a void in our lineup for a power bat, and by Mid-February, candidates like Michael Brantley, Joc Pederson, and even JT Realmuto that could have replaced Ozuna had signed elsewhere. However, Anthopoulos got it done, and boy did he do a good job. Signing a silver slugger caliber hitter in Ozuna for just 16 million per year is incredibly efficient. Additionally, his unique payroll structure that will give him $12 million guaranteed this year allows the Braves to spend bolstering the rest of the lineup, another surprising benefit to Ozuna’s contract. The new collective bargaining agreement that will go into effect in 2022 will certainly add a universal DH, so the liability that is Ozuna’s defense will only affect us for one year. Then, he could absolutely mash for the remaining 3 years of his contract.
Failure to resign Mark Melancon
I understand this one; Melancon is getting up there in age, and he is expected to regress going into this season. However, I am only disappointed because Ozuna’s unique contract opened the door for the Braves to resign a bullpen arm like the beloved Melancon. This fact becomes more clear when considering the fact that Ozuna, set to make $12 million this year, made 18 last year, so it can be understood that his unique contract cleared at least $6 million dollars of cap space. Melancon only signed a $3 million deal with the Padres, so we should have had space to sign Melancon. There also is a lack of quality bullpen arms remaining on the free agent market, so this failed signing hurts us a bit more. I do understand the hesitancy, as Melancon is aging, and the last large contract we gave to a touted free agent reliever in Will Smith has not looked great so far, so the decision to not sign Melancon was not absolutely abysmal.
Signings of Infielders Jason Kipnis, Pablo Sandoval, and Travis Demeritte on Minor League Deals.
These signings are a lot like the earlier signings of the relief pitchers in the sense that they are low risk with high upside; Kipnis, Sandoval, and Demeritte will all compete for a spot off the bench bats. Returning to a league without a DH, it is vital that we have a handful of pinch-hitting options. Before these signings, the Braves had Johan Camargo, Ender Inciarte, and Wilson Contreras -none of whom are compelling options- off the bench. Expect Jason Kipnis to play a role off the bench, as well as Sandoval who pinch hit in the NLCS last year. These signings, while not very flashy, will help build up the depth that is integral to championship teams, and were absolutely necessary.
Failure to Trade for Elite Third Baseman
Austin Riley is an intriguing prospect; at times, he has shown flashes of raw power that makes him look like a future star. However, his 88 WRC+ and 23.8% strikeout rate simply will not cut it for a Braves team that looks to contend for a World Series. I understand the decision to keep him, he is young and has shown signs of improvement (while his strikeout rate is high, he did decrease it substantially from his rookie year), and the Braves have not commit to the win now mentality to the extent that teams like the Padres have. Rather than align all the stars for one glorious season, the Braves are trying build a team that can contend for years. I like this dynastic mentality, but at the same time, it could still have been achieved by trading for Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, or Jose Ramirez, and singing them to a long term extension. While Arenado has been shipped off to St. Louis, the latter two are still available, although I cannot imagine trading for them after signing Jake Lamb. I understand the reasoning of trying to build up a franchise internally rather than risking money on long term deals, but at the same time, I feel like trading for a piece to win a World Series would be worth shortening this core’s championship window if a championship is won. After all, that is the ultimate goal, and any step taken to achieve that should be looked towards as beneficial. However, with teams like the Mets and Padres loading their rosters, its hard for me to agree with the passive mentality we showed at obtaining an elite player to compete with the not so passive Steve Cohen. I would have been happy with trading Riley, some of you may disagree, and I respect that opinion and agree to it to some extent, but my desire to win a World Series at all costs is reflected in the grade I give to this lack of a move.
Singing of Third Baseman Jake Lamb: 1 Year, $1 Million
If you were to tell me that trading for an elite Third Baseman was not an option, I would be ecstatic about the signing of Jake Lamb. The former all star will provide a solid bench bat, and his presence may motivate Austin Riley to take his game to the next level. This is a very similar move that the Las Vegas Raiders pulled off, in brining in veteran quarterback Marcus Mariota to compete with incumbent Derek Carr, and Mariota’s presence motivated Carr into having a career season. If Lamb’s presence results in Riley’s improvement, that will be the best case scenario for the Braves, and Anthopoulos’ dynastic plans will have paid off in a genius manner. If Riley cannot put it together quite yet, Lamb will provide a temporary improvement to help us contend for a championship this year, but not necessarily in the long run. This second option is not optimal, as Austin Riley’s improvement is the real target here, and Lamb is just a catalyst to bring about this improvement this season. I really like this move; worst case scenario, we upgrade at third base for a really cheap price. Nevertheless, the pressure is on Austin Riley; it is vital for him to prove that he is a franchise player that can help us win now and can remain a part of our core for years to come.
Looking back at thus offseason, I am pleased. While we were not as aggressive in rebuilding the bullpen and building on top of our offensive success by trading for an MVP caliber third baseman, we did improve the rotation and bring back Marcell Ozuna, filling our two clear biggest holes. Additionally, we brought in talent like Jason Kipnis and Jake Lamb, that could add the depth that teams like the Dodgers always have. I am very excited for this season; we did not only take steps to maintain our success, but also to improve upon it, and I cannot wait to see how Anthopoulos’ strategies play out.
Offseason Grade: A-