Dig, if you will, a picture: The Braves’ 10 free agents — the third most of any team this offseason, all move on. Marcell Ozuna proves out of Atlanta’s price range, Nick Markakis returns to Baltimore (or retires), the bullpen arms (Shane Greene, Mark Melancon, Josh Tomlin and Darren O’Day) move on, as does Tyler Flowers, Cole Hamels etc., etc.
So now what? Where doe general manager Alex Anthopoulos turn as the three-time defending National League East champions have to address what looks to be three primary needs: a middle-of-the-order bat, a starting pitcher and an additional catcher?
This week’s Starting Nine is like The Dating Game, albeit with just a tad bit less innuendo, as we try and find nine singles on the market to fill Atlanta’s holes — and if it helps, picture Brian Snitker in the role of Jim Lange/Chuck Woolery.
• Middle-Of-The-Order Bat
If Ozuna is priced out of the Braves’ checkbook, then certainly George Springer will be too, and the uncertainty of whether the designated hitter returns to the NL in 2021 will make it a non-starter to consider Nelson Cruz. There aren’t a ton of sexy options, and the trade market could prove a more desirable rout, but consider ...
1. Michael Brantley
The 34-year-old, four-time All-Star is among the most productive outfielders from 2020 (fourth at 1.3 fWAR) in the second season of a two-year deal with the Astros. Blocking or delaying Drew Waters’ arrival comes into play when considering Brantley or any other outfielder (and there’s also the fact that Ender Inciarte is still on this roster in a crowded group with Ronald Acuña Jr., Adam Duvall and Cristian Pache), but a two-year deal for the veteran can help to fill the Nick Markakis role, while also providing a consistent bat coming off three straight seasons of at least 124 wRC+. Per FanGraphs, he’s estimated at pulling an average annual value of $15 million.
2. Justin Turner
With the Dodgers finally ending their championship drought, it would be a surprise for them not to return a catalyst in that run (although the controversy in his joining the World Series selection after a positive COVID-19 diagnosis may impact the willingness to keep him), but if Turner does exit Los Angeles, an existing relationship with the Braves’ GM could be helpful. At 36, it’s unlikely Turner is seeking anything more than a two-to-three-year deal, and if the market is as tight as many think, he may have to settle for a contract of the one-year variety. With an expected market value of $13.94 million, Turner, who has hit no less than 32 percent above league average once since 2016 could slot in behind Freddie Freeman. Granted, this would mean Austin Riley’s supplanted at third base, but Riley can still factor in here and in the outfield rotation.
3. Joc Pederson
This may be the wild card. Pederson was pretty much awful in the regular season with 88 wRC+ and .176 ISO, but he was a monster in the postseason for the Dodgers with a .991 OPS and a pair of home runs in 34 at-bats. The lefty has been largely put into platoon situations due to his career struggles against left-handed pitching (59 wRC+, though he hit better against southpaws in 2020 at 12 percent above league average), but has always torched righties (128 wRC+) and has never played more than 149 games in a season. Expected to fetch $6.5 million, this is the kind of player that could look to gamble on himself and fit that one-year deal mode as he tries to show he can deliver getting daily, or close to it, playing time.
• Starting Pitcher
How long will Mike Soroka be out? It seems a stretch to think he’ll be back for Opening Day after his Achilles injury, and the best-case-scenario likely has him back in the first weeks of the season. That being said, no timetable has been set and the Braves are likely to pursue an upgrade in this area anyway to ultimately put with Soroka, Gold Glove-winning Max Fried and NL Rookie of the Year candidate Ian Anderson.
4. Trevor Bauer
Will the NL Cy Young favorite really sticks to his guns and only take one-year deals? Doing it in this environment would truly be stunning, but we know Bauer does what Bauer wants. Regardless of how you feel about his antics (or his Chop mechanics) the guy is ruthless, effective and exactly what this rotation needs. If the Braves could roll out Bauer, Soroka, Fried and Anderson it would be arguably Atlanta’s best rotation since a bunch of Hall of Famers called the city home. Bauer, coming off a 2.5 fWAR season in which he posted a 1.73 ERA, 12.33 K/9 and 0.00 BB/9, has been projected to fetch $30 million on a one-year pact, though we really don’t know how much the losses of 2020 are going to impact teams’ ability to make that kind of an offer. Regardless, it’s going to a king’s ransom, but they say there’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal and this is the price of doing business if the Braves want to make the kind of move that puts their only discernible weakness in 2020 way in the rearview.
5. Charlie Morton
A reunion with Morton, who the Braves traded to the Pirates way back in 2009 for Nate McLouth, could be a much more beneficial version of the one-year boost they hoped to get with Cole Hamels last season. This is obviously dependent on whether the 36-year-old Morton even returns for 2020. He said during the American League Championship Series that he’d need to sit down with his family and discuss whether he’d even play again if the Rays opted not to pick up his $15 million club option — which they didn’t — as he’d signed with Tampa two years prior because with spring training Port Charlotte and playing in Tampa meant more time at home with his four young children. There’s a chance the Rays simply renegotiate and hold onto him, but if something close to what he would have received via that club option (Spotrac forecasts a $14.6 million value) gets it done, it’s a return the Braves should consider. This could just as easily be another again ex-Brave, Adam Wainwright, but Morton has simply been better with an average of 3.25 fWAR the past four seasons, while Wainwright is at 1.25 in that span.
6. Mike Minor
Also in the reunion vein, the Braves’ first round pick in 2009 is coming off his worst season — 5.56 ERA in 12 games with 11 starts for the Rangers and A’s — and his average fastball velocity dipped from 92.5 mph in 2019 to 90.6 in this abbreviated season. That being said, he still struck out 62 with 20 walks with a 2.6 barrel percentage that was among the top three percent in the league. But with the volume of available starters and his step-back season, it stands to reason that it could all drive down Minor’s cost. He’s projected at an AAV of $10.6 million and may be among the best options if the move is to add a veteran middle-of-the-rotation arm that won’t break the bank.
The Braves have young catchers on the horizon in a pair of 22-year-olds with William Contreras, who appeared in four games last season and Shea Langeliers, the organization’s fifth-ranked prospect. But how far away are they from factoring into bulk playing time at the majors? That figures to have a major impact on what way Atlanta goes in filling this spot alongside Travis d’Arnaud ... and, no, don’t expect the Braves to get into the J.T. Realmuto derby, with the best catcher in the game likely to be in the $200 million range.
7. Yadier Molina
Does he really leave St. Louis on his way to Cooperstown? His agent told Jon Morosi that the 38-year-old Cardinals icon is seeking a two-year deal, and that may not tie into the Braves’ timeline with Travis d’Arnaud on the second year of a two-year deal and Contreras looming. However, going this route could have Atlanta teaming d’Arnaud and Molina in 2021, then have Contreras learn from Molina the following season. With a staff that has the 26-year-old Fried as its current “grizzled” veteran, adding a backstop with Molina’s Gold Glove resume would only help in the development of the Braves’ young arms. He’s forecasted at $12 million per year.
8. Matt Wieters
The Georgia Tech product had attempted to join the Braves before he wound up with the Cardinals, who he spent the last two seasons with sharing time with Molina. He had a paltry 0.1 fWAR in 2020, appearing in just 20 games, slashing .200/.300/.529 over 41 plate appearances and last hit above league average in 2015. But the Braves aren’t looking for a primary catcher, they’re looking for a secondary one and Wieters is still just a year removed from a .700-plus OPS. Earning $2 million in 2020, Wieters could conceivably be had on the cheap and wouldn’t come close to blocking Contreras if the Braves believe he’s ready to stick at the majors in 2021.
9. Russell Martin
This may seem unlikely, but it’s another free agent with ties to Anthopoulos, who he signed with the Blue Jays in 2015. The 37-year-old didn’t play this past season and hasn’t been better than 1.2 fWAR since 2017, but this is a light catcher class beyond Realmuto, Molina and James McCann (1.5 fWAR), which may make bringing Flowers back into the fold the most logical move, but Martin would be intriguing and gettable given that relationship with the GM.