The countdown to spring training has reached single digits, but it feels like baseball has already been in full swing for months. When’s the last time, between the free-agent spending spree, the Astros/Red Sox sign-stealing scandals, one of the top-five players in the game in Mookie Betts being traded and now Pete Rose pushing for reinstatement, that MLB was ripping away this many headlines in the winter?
Very soon we’ll have actual on-field action to dominate and stoke the conversation, with the Braves hitting North Port on Feb. 13, with the first full-squad workout to follow five days later. But before we look to the spring, the Starting Nine opens with thoughts on the megadeal that has another star in Hollywood.
1. Does Mookie Betts trade change anything from Braves perspective?
The Dodgers are going to have the National League’s most explosive offense ... again. Landing Mookie Betts in a colossal three-team deal that culminated Tuesday night was huge and a swing-for-the-fences maneuver by title-starved Los Angeles, which had been criticized for sitting on its hands as the major free agents were snatched up. But does it really change much? The Dodgers, who topped the Senior Circuit with 34.8 fWAR, 111 wRC+ and 279 home runs in 2019, are likely to lead the league in all those categories once again with Betts and his Steamer forecast of 29 home runs, 135 wRC+ and 6.6 fWAR. They also have the same pitching concerns, which now include hoping for a bounce-back year from David Price, and they didn’t address their bullpen issues. Los Angeles was the measuring stick in the NL before it basically swapped out Joc Pederson for Betts, and was already the favorite to reach the World Series. So, from that end, why should it add any pressure — as some have suggested — for Atlanta to make a desperation move to show they’re also in “win now” mode. Sure, adding Nolan Arenado or Kris Bryant would be a welcome sight, but retaliation moves have never been general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ style. The Betts/Price trade was a splash move, and one that shouldn’t offset a positive offseason for the Braves that’s come with a record payroll, the kind of right-handed power bat they needed, arguably the league’s top bullpen and it all has them inserted as favorites for a third straight division crown. Did the Braves do enough with Los Angeles going all-in on this title run? The fact is the Dodgers, who have dominated the NL for the past three seasons, were and are the biggest hurdle for the Braves anyway. Los Angeles has the same strengths, but also the same flaws and the same questions. Yes, they got better, but so did Atlanta, and the two-time defending East champ’s hopes were always going to hinge on the development of its young core, regardless of the moves made around them to help hope float before they take the field.
2. Making the case for contract extension candidate
Spring training 2014 was the end of a parade of contract extensions, with five Braves in all signing in the month of February in Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran and Andrelton Simmons. We have no reason to expect another spree as the team readies to descend upon North Port, but there are intriguing candidates to get new deals in the months to come. First is the franchise centerpiece in Freeman, who has two years remaining on that contract he signed in ‘14 — the All-Star first baseman is due $16.875 million in each of them — and has been clear he wants to follow in Chipper Jones’ footsteps and play his entire career with the Braves. Certainly, from the team’s perspective, they need to see an unencumbered Freeman put up monster numbers in his age-30 season, meaning those conversations may be better suited for next winter. Mike Foltynewicz may have been working toward an extension, but the lows of last season and demotion have the right-hander needing to prove consistency can be part of his game. And then there’s Dansby Swanson. You can make the same argument for the soon-to-be 26-year-old shortstop as Foltynewicz, but that might be why it makes more sense. When healthy — which has been a stretch from his Aug. 9 return after the demotion in 2017 through 2018 prior to the April wrist injury and before the heel issue last year, which we’ll call Peak Swanson — we’ve seen 600-plus at-bats, with a slash line of .274/.344/.445 and an .385 wOBA, but of course we’ve not seen that production stretch across a complete season. Anthopoulos pulled off a herculean task in inking Ronald Acuña Jr. (eight years at $100 million) and Ozzie Albies ($35 million over seven years) last April to deals that are unquestionable bargains. With Swanson posting a career-best 1.9 fWAR in 2018 that is 3.7 wins below Acuña and 2.7 behind Albies last season, forecasting him at a roughly 2.0 fWAR player to give him four years at $32 million — with the evaluation that 1.0 WAR is worth $8 million — buying out his last two arbitration years and two years of free agency might make sense. Especially if this is the year he finally stays healthy and puts it all together.
3. Optics of No. 16 being back in circulation
The Braves clearly aren’t afraid to pick up the pieces and move on when it comes to a player’s number. After trading Jason Heyward to the Cardinals in 2014, they gave his No. 22 to newcomer Nick Markakis a month later, and the No. 20 just vacated by Josh Donaldson when he signed with the Twins is now the property of free-agent acquisition Marcell Ozuna. As prolific as he was, it’s not as if Donaldson made a long-lasting impact in that number last season — but the No. 16 is a different story. New catcher Travis d’Arnaud will wear that number, and whether or not the Astros sign-stealing scandal being on the periphery is playing any part, Brian McCann became synonymous with it. No one wore No. 3 (Dale Murphy), 10 (Chipper Jones), 21 (Warren Spahn), 29 (John Smoltz), 31 (Greg Maddux), 35, (Phil Niekro), 44 (Hank Aaron) or 47 (Tom Glavine) after those players left Atlanta, and all of those numbers were eventually retired. For all his accolades, after Andruw Jones left in 2007, eight players have been No. 25, most recently Tyler Flowers. Are we to infer that McCann’s number won’t be retired either? Lane Adams (2017) and Charlie Culberson (‘18) have already worn it since McCann left the first time in ‘13, and taking it out of circulation after he returned could have signaled that it was off limits, even if unofficially, but d’Arnaud donning No. 16 would seem to tell us that McCann’s number may not be joining those past Braves greats.
4. For Black History Month, Satchel Paige’s final chapter
It’s Black History Month, and while it brings up stories of each franchise’s trailblazers — including the first African American Braves player, Sam Jethroe or cultural icon Hank Aaron — February also provides a chance to remember a 62-year-old Satchel Paige’s final chapter. Needing 158 days to earn his MLB pension, Atlanta and president Bill Bartholomay were the only team that didn’t deny the future Hall of Famer, signing him in 1968, three years after he had retired. As Bartholomay told me in 2015: “I didn’t think of it so much from the standpoint of diversity, I thought it was just the right thing to do.” Paige was signed as the assistant trainer and pitching coach, but Paige insisted on playing. He suited up the following spring in a series of exhibitions, and in the finale, took on future Home Run King Aaron. Up 0-2 on Aaron, Paige got him to line out to third. Years later, Aaron said “At that time — and I’m not exaggerating — Satchel could still throw the ball very, very well.” After his 158 days, Paige left the Braves and finally drew that MLB pension.
5. New BP/spring hats are ... a look
New Era released all new spring training/batting practice caps for 2020, which feature the team’s primary logo swallowing up the secondary logo. In the case of the Braves, that has the traditional ‘A’ with a tomahawk inside it, with another tomahawks on the side and on the back of the fitted hat is a Grapefruit League crest along with the MLB logo. It’s a look — and basically a wearable representation of the spinning ‘A’ that’s above the right-field seats in Truist Park — and the entire run of hats has some questionable decisions (see the Padres as the prime example) and has some shades of MLB’s horrendous Turn Ahead The Clock promotion in 1999. You remember, back when giant-sized logos and sleeveless jerseys were all the rage. Enjoy the flashback, if only for the Mercury Mets hat, which bore a resemblance to Prince’s unpronounceable symbol ... and now you’ve got an unshakeable connection each time you see the new BP hat. You’re welcome.
6. Bullish on the Braves’ win total
USA Today released its 2020 projected win totals, with its six-person panel having the Braves claiming a third straight NL East title at 92-70, followed by the Nationals (88-74), Mets and Phillies at 85-77 each and the Marlins (62-100). This by far the most bullish anyone has been on Atlanta in what figures to be a cutthroat division, with sportsbook PointsBet having the team’s win total at 90 1/2, while FanDuel and OddsShark both have the Braves at 91 1/2 Ws. Before you get too excited, the panel also picked Washington each of the past two seasons.
7. Get behind the Luiz Gohara comeback story
Julio Teheran will see another familiar face in Angels camp. No, this isn’t about Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton or Tommy La Stella, all of whom will be joining long-time Braves starter Julio Teheran when the Angels hit Tempe Diablo Stadium for spring training. Once-prized prospect Luiz Gohara will be there too, with the big left-hander among the non-roster invitees for Angels camp. Gohara won’t be a full-go when camp opens, as he’s still rehabbing from the arthroscopic shoulder surgery that kept him from pitching last season, but given the dearth of young arms in Los Angeles’ system, it would be no surprise for Gohara — who dazzled back in 2017 when he debuted with 9.51 K/9 in five starts for Atlanta — to see the field at some point for the Angels in 2020. Plus, after the roller coster of a personal run he’s been on, it would be a comeback story worth rooting for.
8. Bob Wickman’s birthday
Today (Feb. 6) is ex-Braves closer Bob Wickman’s birthday, who happens to share the day with another former stout right-hander, Babe Ruth. Yes, Wickman was on the delivering end of a walk-off, two-run home run to Adam Dunn in a 12-inning loss to the Reds on Aug. 23, 2007 — the final straw as he was designated for assignment the next day — but, he also has the lowest walk rate (7.1 percent) of any Atlanta fireman with 30 or more saves and less than 133 appearances. So, celebrate Wickman by watching him take the mound at SunTrust Park to AC/DC’s ‘Are You Ready.’
9. Braves get some Super Bowl face time
Braves turf god Ed Mangan, the team’s director of field operations, got some serious face time during the Super Bowl, as he escorted the 100-year-old Tuskegee Airman Col. Charles McGee (who days was later promoted to brigadier general) to midfield for the coin toss. Mangan, for those who are unaware, is also the groundskeeper for the Super Bowl — a job he’s had since 2000 — and since 1993, has completely remade the playing surface each year before the game.