Alex Anthopoulos’ Winter Meetings style, like most of his dealings, is best summed up by Lil Wayne:
Real Gs move in silence
The Braves general manager’s history, just like his other dealings, simply doesn’t speak to his being active as baseball hits San Diego this weekend. Instead -- as he’s put it in many conversations -- he uses it as an opportunity to lay the foundation for future dealings. Hence his first major move with Atlanta coming days after his first Winter Meetings at the helm, when he dealt Matt Kemp to the Dodgers in 2018.
As he did last offseason, the GM has once again removed some of the guess-work by doing plenty of heavy lifting before the meetings even start, Wednesday signing Cole Hamels to a one-year, $18 million deal after already inking Will Smith, Chris Martin, Travis d’Arnaud, Tyler Flowers and Nick Markakis. The Braves have already committed $56.25 million for 2020 and projections for arbitration-eligible players puts them at just over $130 million ... or nearly what they ended 2019 at ($135.5 million).
Nonetheless, the Braves still have needs, and one major rain-bringing free agent they’d love to return to SunTrust Park.
While Anthopoulos may not be among the biggest movers and shakers in San Diego, there’s still hope he bucks the trend this time. If we’re plotting a course for the Winter Meetings, all we can say with any certainty is that the Braves won’t be looking for any bullpen help, but if they hit the free-agent market, these are the positions and players that should be on their shopping list.
Everything starts and ends with how the Braves fill Josh Donaldson’s spot in the lineup.
No National League team was better in the top three spots at 122 wRC+ behind the trio of Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman, but beyond them there’s currently not much to strike fear into opposing pitchers. As it stands, there’s not a player under contract for 2020 that hit more than 17 percent above league average outside of Acuña, Albies and Freeman.
Bringing back Donaldson after a season in which he hit .259/.379/.521 with 37 home runs and 132 wRC+ and earned NL Comeback Player of the Year, is of course priority No. 1. His relationship with Anthopoulos -- who took a calculated gamble on him last season at $24 million -- and trainer George Poulos (who was with him in Toronto as well) weighs in Atlanta’s favor, but what will it cost, and will the Braves meet it? He’ll be 34 this month and the expectation here is it would take a three or four-year deal close in average annual value to his 2019 deal.
With the Nationals offering Anthony Rendon a seven-year deal between $210-215 million, it’s likely he’s out of the Braves price range, and Mike Moustakas, who would have been a fitting fallback option in Atlanta has already signed with the Reds.
So, if Donaldson doesn’t come back, where could Anthopoulos turn on the free-agent market?
Marcell Ozuna rejected the qualifying offer -- meaning he’d mean further draft pick compensation -- but coming off a 110 wRC+ and 29 homers in 2019, he would provide some right-handed punch in a starting outfield with Acuña and Ender Inciarte. Nick Castellanos, who hit 21 percent above league average in 2019 with 27 homers with the Tigers and Cubs and, wouldn’t cost the Braves a pick and is projected by FanGraphs to get $56 million over four years. That’s a bargain considered Ozuna is forecasted by Spotrac to have an average annual value of $19 million.
There’s also the fact that Castellanos, 27, has played 527 career games at third base, along with 312 in the outfield. He’s never been a plus-defender, but he can also deliver that right-handed power.
Are the Braves done? Anthopoulos said Wednesday that they’ll give Sean Newcomb a chance to claim a rotation spot, but they could still have an opening. Given the GM’s penchant for being coy, Hamels isn’t the game-changing name that many had hoped would be added along with Mike Soroka, Mike Foltynewicz and Max Fried, and the soon-to-be 36-year-old may simply be household name of a depth move.
With the likes of Ian Anderson, Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright, it’s not inconceivable to think they can go into ‘20 with one of those players taking the fifth spot in the rotation and Hamels filling the role Dallas Keuchel just vacated, especially if Anthopoulos is committing major money toward the offense. But does Hamels, who has hovered around 2.0 fWAR each of the past three seasons get them over the top? That’s likely going to take someone far splashier.
Getting into the Stephen Strasburg/Gerrit Cole bidding is unlikely, and the Braves already missed out on product Zack Wheeler, who signed with the rival Phillies for $118 million over five years. Atlanta is said to have made Madison Bumgarner a priority, and the 30-year-old certainly comes with pedigree with a World Series MVP on his resume (which, should be noted, Hamels has too).
A 3.2 fWAR pitcher last season over 34 starts, he went over 200 innings for the first time since 2016 and his average fastball velocity (91.7 mph) was the highest it’s been in three years. Although it’s dropped from the 93 he was averaging he was hitting at his peak in 2015 and last season’s 3.90 ERA was the worst of his career.
Projected to earn an average annual value of $21 million per Spotrac, the lefty Bumgarner could be a more digestible addition opposed to one of the aforementioned arms or 33-year-old Hyun-Jin Ryu, who has an expected AAV of $27 million. But, like Ozuna, Bumgarner would come with draft-pick compensation, which the Braves have already committed to paying up with the Will Smith deal.
If the Braves don’t try to add the front-line starter they’ve coveted, they could simply add more depth to their young arms, making Alex Wood, who is coming off a down year, an attractive option for a reunion.
With Charlie Culberson being non-tendered and MLB moving toward a 26-man roster in 2020, how will the Braves supplement their reserves? Right now, they have a projected four-man bench with whomever is not catching between d’Arnaud and Flowers, an outfielder with Adam Duvall/Nick Markakis, Johan Camargo and Austin Riley.
How deep the needs here go would seem to hinge on what happens at third base. If they can’t re-sign Donaldson or add another player at the position, then the position could be a timeshare between Camargo and Riley if one can’t outright seize the job this spring. It’s also worth considering whether the Braves opt to carry three catchers, with Alex Jackson an option and how long until we see the arrivals of Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, but let’s consider the potential of as many as three new faces here.
If they’re eyeing versatility without Culberson in the mix, then Wilmer Flores (who the past three seasons has played at first base, second and third) or Derek Dietrich or Scooter Gennett, both of who have seen time at second base, third and the corner outfield spots, could be viable candidates with power potential.
There’s also no shortage of outfield options, with the likes of Avisail Garcia (112 wRC+ in ‘19), Kevin Pillar (21 homers last season) or Eric Thames (25 homers).
But a smart move from both ends may be filling two bench spots by simply bringing back Matt Joyce, who had a 128 wRC+ off the Braves’ bench in ‘19 and middle infielder Adeiny Hechavarría and his .328/.400/.639 slash line in 24 games in Atlanta.