Although the 2019 season just ended, the Braves already have some difficult decisions to make for 2020. Some of those initial decisions will focus on the four players on whom the Braves hold team options for the 2020 season. These decisions will have a significant impact in shaping the Braves’ focus and priorities this offseason.
First, it is important to consider how options work and how they should be viewed. There are three main types of contract options: player option, team option, and mutual option. The difference in the three is who gets to make the decision whether the option is exercised. All the Braves’ options except for Billy Hamilton’s are team options, meaning that the team gets to decide whether they exercise the option under the parameters in the contract. Hamilton has a mutual option, meaning that both sides would need to agree to exercise the option, but you’ll see later that this is of little significance. (In fact, mutual options are basically a placebo, as Sam Miller notes here, fewer than five percent, or literally four all-time have ever been picked up by both sides, and one of those four was picked up 18 months in advance.)
Each option under consideration for the Braves includes a buyout. This means that the team must pay this amount regardless of whether they exercise the option. For example, a $7 million option with a $2 million buyout would mean that the team will have to pay the player $2 million regardless of whether or not they retain his services for the following season. The decision is whether they want to pay the additional $5 million to keep that player on the roster for the next season (not an additional $7 million on top of the $2 million).
This wrinkle is critical in determining whether a team should exercise the option. The correct question is, “Is this player worth the option cost minus the buyout amount?” (in our example, is the player worth $5 million – i.e. $7 million option minus $2 million buyout?). The team is already on the hook the buyout amount, so if they decline the option, the $5 million is all that has been saved, and this amount can be used to fill that roster spot, externally or internally.
Now that you’re an expert on options, let’s look at the options that the Braves must consider:
Option: $12 million option for the 2020 season with a $1 million buyout
2019 season: 174 2⁄3 IP, 3.81 ERA, 4.66 FIP, 5.26 xFIP, 1.6 fWAR
Teheran provided solid results for the Braves in 2019 and ate a lot of innings for a rotation that was fluid for much of the season. He tied for the team lead in innings pitched, and a respectable 3.81 ERA and 1.6 fWAR provided decent value for a back-of-rotation starter.
However, Teheran outperformed his peripherals by a good margin. His 5.26 xFIP was the highest in the NL and his 11% walk rate was third-highest in baseball among qualified pitchers. All his breaking pitches had below-average movement, and his fastball was in the 10th percentile in average velocity, per Statcast.
Why are his peripherals important to the decision of whether to exercise Teheran’s option? Because the decision must be based 100 percent on how the team thinks he will perform in 2020, and these peripherals can be predictive. In other words, Teheran’s peripherals suggest that he had luck on his side in 2019, and the Braves shouldn’t throw $11 million at a pitcher that relies on luck so heavily to make his results decent.
(Even if you believe that Teheran can outperform his peripherals to a substantial extent, his FIP-ERA gap in 2019 was 0.85, whereas for his career, it’s only been 0.56. His 2019 xFIP-ERA gap was 1.45; for his career, it’s 0.70. Regardless of whether Teheran can consistently outperform his peripherals, there’s no arguing that he did so to an extreme extent in 2019, and failing to do so again in 2020 would have adverse impacts on his run prevention.)
The biggest indication of how the Braves view Teheran is how he was used (or not used) in the last two postseasons. Teheran was not given a start and was only used in mop-up duty in both postseasons. He didn’t even initially make the postseason roster this season and was added only after Chris Martin was injured. A pitcher that has not been trusted in the postseason seems unlikely to be given $11 million.
Teheran has done some great things in Atlanta and has been a consummate professional and competitor in a Braves uniform. However, the Braves could spend $11 million more wisely than exercising his option. That said, I would not be surprised if the Braves declined Teheran’s option and tried to work out a less expensive deal to keep him.
Option: $6 million option for the 2020 season with a $2 million buyout
2019 season: .285/.356/.420, 9 HR, .332 wOBA, 102 wRC+, 0.4 fWAR
Markakis is coming off a less than inspiring season. He was slightly above average offensively (102 wRC+) and below average defensively (-2 Outs Above Average, -4 Defensive Runs Saved, -6 Ultimate Zone Rating) which led to an overall production slightly above replacement level (0.4 fWAR).
Markakis does have some value as a corner outfielder who hits right-handed pitching well. Additionally, with top prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters likely to be knocking on the door to the big leagues soon, the Braves probably do not want to dole out any big long-term contracts to outfielders this offseason. Having a veteran outfielder like Markakis on a one-year deal would certainly be a good fit for the Braves.
If I had any confidence that the Braves would use Markakis as a platoon player and pinch hitter against right-handed pitchers, I might be inclined to advocate for exercising his option. However, as long as Markakis is on the active roster, Brian Snitker will start him and bat him fifth in the lineup as routinely as he brushes his teeth every night before going to bed. The Braves can find other options that are just as good as or better than Markakis at probably a lower cost. Just like when the team signed Matt Joyce for $1 million this season (and I would much rather bring Joyce back than Markakis), there are usually some slightly above replacement-level outfielders out there that could help the team wean themselves off their Markakis addiction.
However, given this organization’s admiration of Markakis, I would not be surprised at all to see the Braves exercise Markakis’ option. I could see them deciding that they would like Markakis to serve as a mentor for and bridge to the young prospects and would rather focus their resources on third base, pitching, and catcher. While I don’t think this would be the worst decision they could make, it would be a big mistake to continue to start and hit a 36 year-old replacement-level player in the heart of the lineup on a team that is trying to win a World Series.
Option: $6 million option for the 2020 season with a $2 million buyout
2019 season: .229/.319/.413, 11 HR, .310 wOBA, 88 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR
The Braves’ formula for the last several seasons of carrying two veteran catchers has worked well, and I don’t see much reason for them to stop now. Over the last three seasons, the Braves have ranked in the top nine in baseball in fWAR from the catcher position by using a combination of Flowers and Kurt Suzuki or Brian McCann. It makes a lot of sense to have two backstops sharing the catching load equally considering how many games the Braves play in the dead of summer in Atlanta.
McCann retiring certainly increases the chances that the Braves exercise Flowers’ option. There isn’t another catcher in the system yet that appears ready for regular major-league starts, although William Contreras and 2019 first-round draft pick Shea Langeliers might not be too far away. If the Braves were to decline Flowers’ option, they would need to find two catchers via free agency or trade.
Flowers is still an elite framer and provides good value as a platoon or backup catcher, as his 2.1 fWAR despite limited playing time indicates. Retaining an elite framer for $4 million to pair with a more offensive-minded, lefty-batting veteran catcher like Jason Castro or Alex Avila seems plausible and would make for one less position to fill this offseason. (For those clamoring for Yasmani Grandal, let’s save that discussion for another article.) Of all of the options, I think Flowers’ is the most likely to be exercised by the Braves.
Option: $7.5 million option for the 2020 season with a $1 million buyout
2019 season: .218/.289/.275, 22 SB, .251 wOBA, 50 wRC+, 0.4 fWAR
This is the easiest option decision the Braves will make – they should and will decline Hamilton’s option. For $6.5 million, the Braves can get more than just a defensive substitution and pinch runner, which is all that Hamilton can add to this roster. Hamilton hasn’t posted a season with a wRC+ above 70 or an on-base percentage above .300 since 2016. His addition was prudent for the playoffs, especially amid a rash of injuries, but the Braves knew when they claimed him that they would be paying his buyout and letting him enter free agency.