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Braves Roster Moves: The Bear Necessity

Why Recent Braves Transactions Matter (Or Why They Don’t)

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League Championship - Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Seven Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Brave Moves covers recent Braves transactions. The last edition, which covered all of January, can be found here.

Feb 5: Signed OF Marcell Ozuna to a 4 year, $65,000,000 deal with a club option

League Championship - Los Angeles Dodgers v Atlanta Braves - Game Four Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

By a certain point, this started to feel inevitable. Braves fans watched in frustration as free agent outfielder after free agent outfielder signed elsewhere, and somehow the 2020 fan favorite remained available. Similar to Atlanta’s fan frustration, for the second straight year the market likely frustrated the Ozuna camp, with some reports he was looking for a deal in the $20-25M AAV range. Ballplayers should try to get every dollar they can in this climate, and all it takes is one team to bite, so I commend Ozuna for trying, but that kind of money just never seemed all that feasible to me.

A year ago, Ozuna’s market failed to really come together, and it’s probably due to there being a lot of questions over both his bat and glove. In 2020, he answered both. Unfortunately, while his career year at the plate confirmed his 2017 breakout wasn’t a blip and all those tantalizing exit velos could be trusted, it also confirmed that his glove wasn’t all UZR and other older fielding metrics cracked it up to be. Entering this offseason, teams were likely excited about Ozuna’s bat, but his season in the field seemed to suggest his future might be best served joining MLB’s shrinking fraternity of DH-only sluggers.

It’s hard to know how MLB teams currently value primary DH types, because they’re not as common as they used to be. Last season, I looked specifically at JD Martinez’s contract in Boston as a potential framework for re-signing Ozuna. Like Ozuna, Martinez is an excellent hitter who can don a glove now and then, but preferably only in cases of emergency. Let’s compare the two hitters at the time of their FA:

Martinez: 30 years old, with DRC+’s of 133, 140, 128, and 158 over his last 4 seasons.
Ozuna: 30 years old, with DRC+’s of 134, 109, 111, and 151 over his last 4 seasons.

Not only did Martinez have a better recent track record of consistent success at the plate, he also had his best year in a full season, while Ozuna’s came over two months. Martinez received a 5 year, $110M deal from Boston (in late February, I might add). Figuring Ozuna’s track record wouldn’t earn him as many years, and figuring a tax bracket a few rungs below Martinez, I predicted a 4 year, $72,000,000 deal for Ozuna this offseason when asked about it on a podcast. It was hardly an interesting prediction; both Craig Edwards and Fangraphs readers later pegged Ozuna at 4/70, and MLB Trade Rumors wound up matching me at 4/72. Ozuna got slightly less; here’s the payout structure:
2021: $12,000,000
2022: $16,000,000
2023: $18,000,000
2024: $18,000,000
2025: $1,000,000 buyout OR $16,000,000 club option

It’s not entirely fair to Ozuna that MLB values him this way. As a DH or even as a poor defender, he’s still probably around a 3 win player, which suggests something greater than what turned out to be the more predictable AAV he got. Just as relievers get overpaid relative to their value because teams really want deep bullpens, perhaps Ozuna got relatively underpaid because teams might not specifically covet a long-term commitment to a DH. If a DH position is available, a team can justifiably use it to give partial days off to its regulars, or give extra playing time to players in position battles that are too close to call (or cut ties to). An open or revolving DH gives teams flexibility with their roster, and might even let a player continue to hit when they’re too banged up for field duty. Signing Ozuna could limit that flexibility. That’s not to suggest signing Ozuna is a bad idea at all - there are 30 lineups he can make better - it’s merely that teams might factor in his effect on the rest of the roster when making offers to him.

Still, I echo the other happy reactions to the news The Big Bear is staying home in 2021 and beyond. Oh, this might turn into a bad contract down the line, sure, especially considering its backloaded structure. There are some legitimate questions about how he’ll age, and few players can be Nelson Cruz or Raul Ibanez and just get better and better the older they get. But Marcell Ozuna makes this team a hell of a lot more fun to watch, and entertainment matters. He also seems to make the clubhouse a happy place, and while it’s true we’ve never been able to really measure clubhouse chemistry and prove it affects the sport meaningfully, it’s not like we’ve been able to prove it has no effect either, so dismissing it seems like a bad idea. It’s comforting to know, after our winter of discontent, that Ozuna will be mixing it up both on and off the field in Atlanta for years to come.

Feb 5: Designated OF Kyle Garlick for assignment

Signing Ozuna with a full 40 man roster means someone had to leave, and since Chad Sobotka presumably has diplomatic immunity of some kind, the Braves sprinkled one final dash of Garlick onto their transaction page. As you read the last time we did this, Garlick hits the ball far when he hits it, making him at least a sacrifice fly superstar in the making. Picked up by the Twins via a waiver claim, his time in Atlanta is toast, and he’ll head to the no-longer Indy Ball, full-fledged AAA St. Paul Saints, where he can gaze westward across the Mississippi in hopes of some injury-related news to change his fortunes.

Feb 9: Signed RHP Nate Jones to a minor league deal with a ST invite

Upon hearing this news, I muttered, “Hey, I remember him being pretty good!” The problem is, I can say the same thing about Juan Berenguer, so I admit I had to look up to see when the pretty good descriptor applied to this new Brave. In 2013, his sophomore season after a solid rookie campaign, he posted 2.0 WARP and an impressive 2.49 DRA, with 89 Ks in 78 innings. Check Ivan’s post on the signing for more background on Jones.

How good can he be in 2021? He’s a reliever with a history of arm trouble, so just throw a dart at any possible outcome and you’ll have as good a chance as anyone else. PECOTA suggests run prevention in the 4.50 ERA ballpark. Jones is a nearly pure sinker/slider specialist. The sinker, which used to run 97-98, has slowed down to 95-96 in recent seasons, and it turns out MLB hitters now love crushing sinkers, so he’s increased his slider use a tad to help make up for it.

Feb 12: Claimed OF Travis Demeritte off waivers from the Detroit Tigers

MLB: MAR 12 Spring Training - Braves at Yankees Photo by Icon Sportswire

After his trade from Atlanta to Detroit for Shane Greene, Demeritte earned just 219 PA for a pair of ballclubs that combined to go 70-149, so that’s not... ideal. In those 219 PA, he slashed .217/.284/.323 with a 62 DRC+. Though he may hit like one, with -5 OAA in just 147 plays in RF, Demeritte isn’t a defensive wizard. He’ll head to the last place he had success: lovely Buford, Georgia. The focus for the Braves should be on Demeritte working on his timing. Typically, a player with a 35% K-rate has serious discipline issues, but Demeritte lays off the junk pretty well. He just hasn’t been able to hit the pitches he knows to swing at. MLB’s average in-zone contact rate is nearly 83%; Demeritte’s has been just over 67%. If they can fix whatever broke when Demeritte’s bat headed north, the Winder product could earn a return trip to the big leagues.

Feb 12: Released RHP Jeremy Walker

It’s easy to assume the shoulder impingement that sidelined Walker in 2020 is a considerable concern to Atlanta. Why else would a team starved for right-handed relief options give up on a once promising arm who posted a 1.93 ERA in his cup of coffee 2019 debut? And to do so to make room for Travis Demeritte? Walker probably isn’t destined for stardom, what with his sinker-reliance and the era in which he plays, but if he can get healthy again, there’s probably a bullpen out there somewhere for him.

Feb 13: Via arbitration, RHP Mike Soroka’s 2021 salary set to $2,800,000

MLB: AUG 03 Mets at Braves Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The organization offered $2,100,000, so Soroka came out the winner in the first of Atlanta’s two arbitration hearings. Using the same model we used last time for Max Fried, let’s take a look at what this might mean for Mike Soroka’s market value and future earnings potential.

Estimated current market value: $14,000,000
2021 Arb 1 (Super Two): $2,800,000
2022 Arb 2: $4,666,667
2023 Arb 3: $7,000,000
2024 Arb 4: $9,800,000
Estimated Total Pre-FA earnings: $24,266,667

Had he lost, the same model would set the total Pre-FA estimate at $18,200,000.

I don’t expect market value to remain static, of course. There’s some injury concern baked into these estimates for Soroka. Over the next few seasons, he’ll probably either prove himself more injury prone or less injury prone. He can rediscover his CYA contender self or regress. A lot could happen. However, if Atlanta were looking to sign Soroka to some kind of extension this spring, my guess, based on this, is that the offer would look something like 5 years, $45.5M, offering to buy out his first two years of FA at around $12M each, with a club option for something higher-end after that. That locks in what Soroka is already on track to get in arbitration, and it gives him a slightly discounted current market value guarantee for 4 and 5 years from now.

There’s hardly any guarantee Soroka would sign such a deal, of course. He’s coming off an injury and could significantly improve his leverage with another year of award contention. However, as Soroka is only 37 (brilliant) starts into his MLB career, and has 3 individual IL trips to his name, some caution from the organization makes sense as well. As such, an extension seems awfully unlikely at this point in time, especially considering the two sides couldn’t agree to terms before this hearing. Still, I enjoy pontificating about this sort of thing, and you’re captive, at least until you remember that back button.

Feb 15: Signed 2B Jason Kipnis to a minor league deal with a ST invite

Kipnis had a weird year in 2020, but so did everyone else, so let’s not dwell too much on the collapse in strikeout avoidance, the above average wRC+ (103) that DRC+ (89) is warning us not to trust, and the continuing slide in defense. We all need a tabula rasa here and there. The Braves are going to need bench bats to hit for pitchers because this season is dumb, so Kipnis might help with that.

Feb 15: Announced Non-Roster Invitees to Spring Training

Having not seen many of these guys in 2020, it’s hard to know what to expect from the prospects in an immediate sense. Hernandez is a guy who has intrigued me for a bit, thanks to his two-pitch mix and impressive 2019 numbers, but you’d imagine the team would like to see him throw at least a single pitch in the high minors before calling him up. Adrianza, who we covered last week, might be the team’s best option if the organization wants to move on from the pricier and also offensively challenged Johan Camargo. Shewmake is a much more interesting, aggressive option at the same spot. If I could wave a magic wand and get one of these guys onto the roster for my bench, it’d probably be Trey Harris, but I’m not a scout, so when people tell me why it won’t translate to the big leagues, I get easily distracted by the shiny fact he has never done anything but just flat-out rake. Here’s Gaurav Vedak’s article on the invitees, and you should always listen to Gaurav over me when it coms to prospects, pies, or anything else inside that 16th encyclopedia volume on your shelf.

Feb 16: Via arbitration, SS Dansby Swanson’s 2021 salary set to $6,000,000

Let’s play the same arbitration/extension game with Swanson we did with Soroka. This time, it’s worth noting the Braves won the hearing.

Estimated Current Market Value: $15,000,000
2021 Arb 2: $6,000,000
2022 Arb 3: $9,000,000

This is a bit late in the process to probably work up an extension, but thanks to a somewhat muddled picture of what caliber of player Swanson is ultimately going to be, there might be some incentive on his part to get something done. This is his home team, after all. And even though this is an arbitration loss, it’s still a nice raise for Swanson, setting his perceived market value at a level more commensurate with how the former #1 overall pick likely sees himself. 2020 was a small sample of excellence for Swanson, so perhaps he’ll feel like cashing in while he can. Here’s the kind of extension I’d envision, if Atlanta is interested:

3 years, $33,000,000 with 2 club options at $18M each.

Swanson gives up some potential payday money for ‘23-’24 for the cost certainty of today, and he can still hit FA at age 30, unless Atlanta picks up the options. Doing so would bring the total value of this deal to 5/69, which, in terms of AAV, perfectly aligns with that final arb year ($9M) and 4 years of fair market value ($60M).

The odds of this extension being signed are low, of course. Swanson just lost arbitration, so he doesn’t see himself as someone with around $15,000,000 in market value. Judging by his submission of $6,700,000, his valuation might be closer to $17,000,000 or so. The guy who just lost the hearing may not be keen on basing a five year decision around that loss.

Even if it’s unlikely, the numbers are still fun to play around with.
(Boy, if there was ever a mission statement for this column...)

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