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Questions remain for Braves heading into the Winter Meetings

Questions about the Universal DH and MiLB could be answered this week.

Grapefruit League Media Availability

The 2020 Winter Meetings for Major League Baseball will have a different look this season as the entire event moves into a virtual environment for the first time ever. The league had been scheduled to hold the event in Dallas this week but the pandemic has necessitated a change. The Winter Meetings were once the starting point for the hot stove season as team officials could coordinate jumpstarts to their offseason plans. How transitioning to a virtual workspace will affect the meetings remains to be seen.

The Atlanta Braves have not announced any additions during the Winter Meetings the last couple of years, but it has been a important time for Alex Anthopoulos and his staff as they take in the scope of the league and lay the foundation for future moves. (Anthopoulos has gone on record that he prefers not to complete moves during the meetings, but sees them as an opportunity to lay groundwork.) Anthopoulos has already been busy this offseason adding Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton on one-year deals. There is still work to be done however and the heavy lifting likely starts this week.

League Landscape

There are two major items at the league level that still need to be addressed and this week would be a great time. First, the league needs to lock in discussions on the Universal DH for the National League and inform teams on the plan for the 2021 season. Second, the identity and structure of all 120 minor league affiliates should be announced.

It is really remarkable that the league and the union have allowed the offseason to begin without a resolution on the DH for 2021. This has had an adverse affect on the market of free agents like Marcell Ozuna and Nelson Cruz and has left teams having to plan for a couple of different outcomes. Conventional thinking would suggest that there is no better setting than the Winter Meetings to get this hammered out one way or the other, but the thinking is seldom conventional when we are talking about the league and the union negotiating anything.

One thing that should take place this week is Major League Baseball pulling the curtain back on the new look of Minor League Baseball. Bits and pieces have been announced over the last few weeks but the identity of all 120 affiliates is still unknown. The Braves lost long time affiliate Danville with the conversion of the Appalachian League to a summer collegiate wood bat league. Atlanta is expected to have return Gwinnett (Triple-A), Mississippi ( Double-A) and Rome (Low-A) as affiliates, but we still don’t know where their High-A team will be located.

Roster Needs

Anthopoulos did not waste any time addressing some of Atlanta’s starting rotation issues by signing Morton and Smyly to one-year deals. Now the attention should turn to the lineup. The Braves had one of the best offenses in the league in 2020 and most of the key contributors will return. However, the Braves will once again be looking to find a big bat to complement Freddie Freeman and friends, filling Josh Donaldson’s role in 2019 and Marcell Ozuna’s in 2020.

Ozuna bet on himself last offseason by signing a one-year deal with Atlanta and then turned in one of the best seasons of his career. His performance at the plate alone should have him in the upper tier of available free agent position players this offseason. His market will only be enhanced should the DH stick around in the NL again for 2021.

Reports have suggested that the Braves are willing to make a multi-year offer to Ozuna provided that the DH does remain. Ozuna saw some time in left field in 2020 and the Braves signed him before the DH was implemented in the NL last season. Still, he is seen as a liability in the outfield and the Braves or other NL teams may not want to run him out there every day over a full season. Some analysts have speculated that Ozuna could command a four or five year offer and it remains to be seen if Atlanta would be willing to go that far.

If not Ozuna, then who? The Braves elected to non-tender outfielder Adam Duvall last week as they reportedly wanted to maintain some flexibility in the event that the DH doesn’t return. Ronald Acuña Jr. is the only outfielder currently on the roster that is guaranteed to have his name penciled in on Opening Day. Cristian Pache took over as the team’s starting centerfielder during the postseason and may get the opportunity to nail down the job in Spring Training. Ender Inciarte, if he is still on the roster, will likely see another opportunity during the spring as well.

There is a question mark in left field now though but there are options available on the free agent market. In addition to Ozuna, names like Michael Brantley, Joc Pederson and the also-non-tendered Eddie Rosario would be options. The Braves could also consider moving Austin Riley to left field and acquiring a third baseman to fill their offensive needs. Former Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner is the biggest name free agent on the market, but there are some trade options out there, headlined by Chicago’s Kris Bryant (who can also play left field if needed).

One thing to keep in mind: we heard rumblings in November last offseason of Atlanta’s interest in Ozuna and mostly dismissed them because the focus was on Josh Donaldson. Once Donaldson elected to sign with Minnesota, the Braves pivoted quickly and locked down Ozuna. Given their current situation in left field, it is a safe bet that Anthopoulos will make some sort of move, but who or when might be hard to predict.

Another area that may need to be addressed is catcher. Anthopoulos pulled off one of the best value signings of last offseason when he signed Travis d’Arnaud to a two-year deal. With Tyler Flowers a free agent, the Braves will be looking for another catcher to pair with d’Arnaud. Atlanta currently has three catchers on the 40-man roster in d’Arnaud, Alex Jackson and prospect William Contreras. Given his lack of experience, the thinking would be that Contreras would see a lot of time at Triple-A before he was a serious roster option. Jackson is a quality pitch framer behind the plate but has a lot of swing and miss in the profile despite some legit power. My bet is that the Braves bring either bring back Flowers on a one-year deal or sign another veteran to compete with Jackson in the spring.

The Braves were able to overcome a struggling rotation in 2020 thanks to their great offense and a very deep bullpen. While Atlanta will return a strong base in 2021, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Darren O’Day are all free agents. There are plenty of right-handed relief options available and it is hard to say when that market might begin to move so we may not see anything here this coming week. Still it would be a small surprise if Atlanta doesn’t add another veteran reliever at some point this winter.

Rule 5 Draft

The Rule 5 Draft will take place on Thursday. I would consider it a surprise if the Braves selected anyone during the Major League portion of the draft just given their current needs and 40-man roster status. With that said, we took a look at some intriguing names last week.

Wrap up

There are a lot of other big picture questions involving the pandemic that will not be answered this week that could alter the scope of the 2021 season. Teams are still figuring out their offseason budgets and despite some early activity, it still feels like it is going to be a long cold winter for the middle class of free agents. We may not get a lot of activity this week, but here is to hoping we do get some answers.

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