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SB Nation 2020-21 Offseason Simulation: Discussion and Results

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Now with infinity percent more pandemic economics!

MLB: MAR 18 Spring Training - Braves at Astros Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Hello, friends. As you may be aware, there’s an ongoing SB Nation tradition where, in early November, “representatives” of all 30 teams get together to simulate an offseason. Fearless/tireless leader Max Rieper of Royals Review negotiates on behalf of free agents, and the remaining “representatives” negotiate with one another on behalf of their teams. It’s a good time on a very compressed schedule, as the whole thing takes place over around two full days.

In most years, the simulation is a fun and interesting exercise that doesn’t quite align to reality because spending is out of control. This year, with the pandemic still looming, the spending was somewhat reined in, but probably still a little out of whack given expected league-wide cuts in payroll. My quick glance over team rosters at the end of the sim suggests a bit of bifurcation: some teams were definitely doing sim-business as usual and spending quite a lot, while others were trying to function in something akin to COVID-world. The latter is essentially what I did — rather than trying to build the best 2021 Braves team, I tried to build “a 2021 Braves team that could plausibly happen even if payroll takes a hit.”

The plan

Coming into the offseason, the sim-Braves, like the Braves, had a few specific holes. In terms of the lineup, there were one or two outfield spots and a whole bench that needed reinforcement. The rotation needed depth, and the bullpen didn’t really “need” anything but could benefit from more names, given the offseason departures. Beyond that, the team was pretty much fine; you could point to starters like Austin Riley and Kyle Wright as needed competition if not outright upgrades, but that seemed like a “want” rather than a “need” for a budget-conscious offseason. So, my focus was not on them, but on the other stuff.

As the sim progressed, it became clear very quickly that there were enough teams with cash to burn that free agency was not going to be much of an avenue if the Braves didn’t want to spend much. Marcell Ozuna quickly bounded way out of any price range I was comfortable with, settling back in Miami for $100 million over four years. I then pivoted to Joc Pederson, who ended up signing for $42 million and three years with Toronto. After that, I basically gave up on upgrades that might require multi-year deals and worked the trade market, as well as the bottom rung of free agency.

On the pitching end, I was never looking to make a splash. However, the combination of staff needs and soft budget constraints pushed me towards one obvious avenue that I wish the Braves (and all teams) would head towards sooner, rather than later: stop relying on short-stint relievers, and just use a bunch of pseudo-starters who might benefit from working in relief to get outs. The plus side of this approach: you basically have infinite built-in rotation depth, and you’re trading reliever volatility for uncertainty associated with making a starter a reliever, which I would posit is way less of a problem. (Reliever volatility works both ways — see Will Smith and Tyler Matzek in 2020; making starters into relievers tends to, on average, improve the performance of the converted pitchers. That seems like an appropriate overall gamble to take, when the alternative is just signing similarly-priced relievers instead.)

The trimming

There were a few no-brainer roster cuts before things really got going. Say goodbye to Darren O’Day, Johan Camargo, Luke Jackson, and Grant Dayton. The three arms didn’t really fit into the plan to have a bunch of pseudo-starters; Johan Camargo just didn’t project to do enough for his salary. O’Day ended up signing for $5M/2, while the other three guys got minor league deals elsewhere.

No free agent was re-signed. Thanks for your contributions, everyone, hope you can find a good payday out there. (Markakis went unsigned, Greene signed $20M/2, Melancon signed $4.5M/1, Flowers was at $4M/2, Hamels could only get $3.5M/1, Hechavarria and Tomlin got less than $1M.)

I also took an opportunity to do Ender Inciarte and the Phillies a solid: Braves trade Ender Inciarte for Odubel Herrera and Kyle Dohy; Braves release Herrera. I imagine Inciarte’s days as a Brave are numbered, given how quickly the team moves on from guys that have fallen out of favor (see Kevin Gausman, Mike Foltynewicz). This gives Inciarte a chance to play somewhere that Pache doesn’t exist, and lets the Phillies “get something” for Herrera, who is promptly released and hopefully blackballed from playing. In exchange for the extra salary, I picked up Kyle Dohy, who is a generic fringy relief arm that would be a lot better if he had any control or command, but has good stuff. Basically, I picked up a wee bit more depth in exchange for a wee bit more salary, and Inciarte gets to play elsewhere to try and rebuild his value heading into free agency.

(Note: the rest of these sections are grouped thematically rather than in chronological order.)

Addressing the outfield

As mentioned earlier, free agency was a non-starter. Yet, that meant the Braves would go into the season with a Duvall/Pache/Acuña outfield, with little on the bench. Pache remains a bit of a question mark, Duvall might be stretched facing righties all the time, and so on. Reinforcements were needed.

One thing was a straight backup plan: Matt Joyce, $1.5 million for one year. Before I knew that I would be able to bolster the outfield with additional support, Joyce was a consolation prize for not landing Pederson. There aren’t really any pretensions that he would have been a great option — he was rotten in 2020 due to some substantial contact rate dips and he’s the opposite of a defensive asset — but I didn’t stop looking for starting options and he’s an okay bench move.

So, how did I “fix” the outfield? Like this: Braves trade Kyle Muller and Freddie Tarnok to the Giants for Austin Slater, Alex Dickerson, and Camilo Doval. Let’s start with what the Braves gave up: pitching prospects. Muller certainly has some real value as a 45 FV, but his Driveline experience seemed to worsen his control/command while improving his pitch quality. Would I have preferred not to trade anyone of Muller’s quality? Sure. But you gotta give to get, unless you’re dealing with Dave Stewart. Tarnok wasn’t traded specifically because he was Tarnok, but more just to add value. He’s the kind of high-risk, high-reward 40 FV type that you can pick up in draft after draft if you want.

And, what the Braves received: Alex Dickerson has been a longtime favorite, even after he missed 2017-2018 with injury. He’s a slugger who can’t really field, and while he’s nowhere near as his good as his 2020 surface stats (big xwOBA overperformance), he’s basically a low-cost platoon partner for Duvall who fills the DH role if it suddenly starts existing. He doesn’t have many weaknesses at the plate provided that he’s being platooned, and Truist (blech) is more favorable to him than his former haunts, which can help rack up cheap-o homers. Dickerson has an option and is controlled for two more seasons, so he fits well in the “platoon with Duvall and then maybe go find another solution later” timeline. Austin Slater, meanwhile, is more of a longer-term play with a way more variable profile. He was not very good in about a combined half-season in 2017-2018, ended up being more like an average outfielder over a couple of months in 2019, and then was straight-up amazing (.401 xwOBA, 1.2 fWAR in just 104 PAs) in 2020. Do I believe that 2020 is the real Austin Slater? Absolutely not. But if he’s somewhere between 2019 and 2020, then he becomes a real building block that’s controlled for a while and solves an outfield spot. If he’s more like 2019, that’s still totally fine to have and frees up cash to address other issues. There’s a chance he’s more of a fifth outfielder, as he was in his pre-2019 days, but I think that chance is lower than him being a mix of 2019-2020, hence why I gave up Muller and Tarnok. Camilo Doval is one of the weirdest pitchers in the minors, so I was excited to get him. Value-wise he’s probably like Tarnok, but he’s also very different: Tarnok is a high-reward guy who might become a cool starter; Doval is basically a weird-as-hell reliever that might be untouchable (he throws stuff that basically no one else does) if he manages to avoid stretches where he walks everyone.

Note that after this trade, I tried to trade Duvall to shed some salary and let Dickerson and Slater pseudo-platoon, depending on what happens with the DH and Pache. I ran out of time, though — but in hypothetical sim-Spring Training, there’ll be an injury and that could be a chance to move Duvall... unless the injury happens to the Braves, and then we’ll all be glad that with this move, the Braves have four major-league caliber outfielders, plus Pache and Joyce as well.

Bolstering the bench

This one isn’t quite as interesting. Aledmys Diaz was signed to a $2.5 million, one-year deal. Diaz fulfills the Camargo/Culberson role and has some decent offensive upside with a career .333 xwOBA that was above .340 in 2018 and above .350 in 2019. He was bad in 2020, but eh, two months and just 59 PAs. He also can’t really play short, which means that I had to make another move, and I really liked this one:

Braves trade Sean Newcomb, Phil Pfeifer, and Tyler Owens to the Mets for Amed Rosario and Desmond Lindsay. Aside from filling the need for a backup shortstop (and no, Rosario is not a great defensive shortstop unless you really buy into his 2020 OAA... but it’s fine, he’d be a backup at most), this trade does something fun — it swaps Newcomb and Rosario. Let’s look at Newcomb: he was a former 55-FV-at-best who was a totally fine starter in 2017-2018 before stuff happened, and he may not even be rosterable on a team that has to go out and acquire Tommy Milone anymore. Now, Rosario: he was a former 65 FV who was below average in 2018 and a totally decent starter in 2019 before being real bad offensively in 2020. Rosario has higher bygone upside, has had more recent success, and has been rosterable more recently. If I could wave my magic sim-wand and just make Newcomb his 2017-2018 self, I wouldn’t make this deal. That was a totally fine Newcomb. I don’t know what Newcomb we have now, and swapping him for Rosario seems fine. The other guys in the deal don’t factor in much, and maybe Lindsay will finally stop hurting his hamstrings once he’s no longer a Met.

So, that’s it for position players. Here’s how that part of the roster shakes out:

  • Catcher is set with Travis d’Arnaud, plus whomever of Alex Jackson, William Contreras, and Shea Langeliers makes sense in the near term. The Braves basically gave d’Arnaud the bulk of the playing time down the “stretch” of 2020 anyway, so I imagine they’ll do that again rather than leaning harder into a tandem as they have for the last half-decade.
  • The infield is set. I’m not enamored with Riley but we didn’t learn enough about him in 2020 and I’m not sure it was worth paying a real price to upgrade him. A deal to upgrade the position or move him never really presented itself; his value is probably not all that high, which makes using him to secure an upgrade a problem. The bench adds Diaz and Rosario to the mix, who can cover everything between them.
  • The outfield consists of a mix of five guys, meaning that Pache can at least start in the minors for that sweet, sweet, unethical team control bonanza. I believe Dickerson and Slater have an option each, anyway, should the need arise. There’s your 13 position players — two catchers, six infielders, five outfielders.

The pitching morass

Now, for the fun part. Here are all the pitching moves made. Most were signings. Only one was a reliever signing: David Phelps, $2 million for one year. The rest were part of the strategy, all are one year deals.

  • Brett Anderson, $3.5 million, incentives triggering another $3M at 100 IP and 150 IP.
  • Robert Gsellman, $1.5 million.
  • Michael Wacha, $3 million.
  • Chase Anderson, $1.5 million.
  • Derek Holland, minor league deal.

There was also a trade, moving Greyson Jenista to the Rockies for Jeff Hoffman.

Why these guys in particular? Brett Anderson has actually been above-average when he’s pitched (career 98/95/91 line), and fine to eat some innings recently (94/101/100). I like him as a bulk guy contrast to most of the other arms and would try to have him go far more slider/curve/cutter (each of which have real good stuff about them) and way less sinker (duh), but even if he’s sinker-heavy he’ll probably be okay. Gsellman is another obvious “stop throwing the sinker” candidate with at least a somewhat-interesting four-seamer and a good curve; he also throws a super-weird extra-hard slider thing that again, which provides for a different look from anything anyone else on the roster has. Wacha’s been real bad in each of the last two seasons, but his xFIP’s been fine and his pitch mix is really average, with some good rise on his fastball. He’s a prime bounceback guy on the strength of his xFIP and being used in a shorter-stint role where he can lean on that fastball more. Chase Anderson is like a more extreme Wacha and I hate his changeup; I’d like to see what he can do going mostly fastball/curve with some cutters out of the bullpen. Holland is just depth, I’m not expecting him to make the roster.

Phelps got some real nice motion on his pitches in 2020 relative to 2019 as he added a bit more spin. I’m interested in what he can do if he throws more cutters and four-seamers (he was basically 25 percent each four-seamer, sinker, cutter, curve last year), or maybe without cutters, since that was the pitch that killed him last year by getting dingered left and right. There’s stuff to work with, and his xFIP was real cool in his few innings of work. Lastly, Jeff Hoffman has a real nice pitch mix without commensurate results. His projections are also pretty good.

Anyway, what this all ends in is something like this:

  • Obvious rotation spots: Max Fried, Mike Soroka, Ian Anderson
  • Bulky dude spots: Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, the Andersons, Wacha, Gsellman, Hoffman
  • Relievers (ugh): Chris Martin, Will Smith, A.J. Minter, Tyler Matzek

That’s 14 players, with some of those guys having options, Soroka possibly not being able to start the season ready to go, etc. Guys like Touki Toussaint and Tucker Davidson are also hanging around in the minors.

The financial situation

The Braves had a $158M Opening Day payroll in 2020... or they would have had not the pandemic happened. Given the above moves, the payroll for 2021 looks to be more like $117 million, with around $25 million in additions and some arbitration raises offset by a bunch of departures. This hits my general target of trimming around $40 million off the payroll, which is my pulled-from-nowhere, wild guess as to how the Braves will treat their payroll heading into this season. (Note that comparatively, the Braves don’t move much — they were 13th in payroll in 2020 and in the sim, this payroll dropped them to 15th.) It wasn’t the most exciting set of moves, and in reality, we’ll never know how adding five bulk arms to the staff would really work out, but I thought it was an interesting exercise that did not involve just emailing Max to raise a bid over and over.