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Starting Nine: Storylines that will define Braves’ winter

Does Dansby Swanson return? Will Atlanta add another rotation option? Where does Vaughn Grissom fit in? What to watch for this offseason

With their earliest postseason exit in three years, and the first time they’d been eliminated by a division rival since 1997, the Atlanta Braves are going into the offseason with far different feelings than they did a year ago.

“I’m disappointed,” manager Brian Snitker said during he and general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ end-of-the-year availability. “There’s like an emptiness there. I expected us to go a long way in this whole tournament.”

But the sour ending can’t erase a journey that saw the club’s first 100-win season since 2003, a fifth straight National League East title, and individual performances like the breakthrough of MLB wins leader Kyle Wright and Rookie of the Year front runners Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider.

“I’m excited about where we’re at,” Snitker said. “I’ll be really excited to get to Spring Training to get to work again.”

As the Braves turn the page toward 2023, we go position-by-position with the storylines that will define the months to come.

1A. Pitcher: Do Braves hit free-agent market for another starter?

Signing Charlie Morton to a one-year, $20 million deal — in essence picking up his 2023 option year and adding another option for 2024 — gives the Braves another rotation given along with Strider, Max Fried and Kyle Wright. There’s a bevy of in-house potentials for the fifth spot with Ian Anderson, Mike Soroka (who is expected to be ready for spring training without any restrictions), Bryce Elder and Kyle Muller among them — but will Atlanta look outside to fill that final spot?

And ... here’s where the conversation immediately jumps to two-time Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom. With an expected market value of $41.8 million (per Spotrac), the 34-year-old right-hander comes with a price tag that would be nearly $20 million more than the highest single-season payout the franchise has ever had (Josh Donaldson at $23 million in 2019). It’s a great thought, but at the hefty sum it seems unlikely, even if deGrom did grow up a Braves fan in DeLand, Fla.

The free-agent market has a number of big names that figure to be outside the realm of Atlanta’s typical spending, with Justin Verlander ($41.7 million market value), Carlos Rodon ($31.6 million) and Clayton Kershaw ($31.3 million) joining deGrom. Tyler Anderson, coming off a 4.0 fWAR and 2.57 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers and sporting an estimated $13.6 million average annual value, is interesting, but does he make more sense than Anderson? Soroka?

Another year of Morton doesn’t necessarily indicate the Braves won’t spend for a pitcher — and we don’t know who might be available via trade, but with so many possibilities already in the system — but it also doesn’t seem as likely.

1B. Pitcher: Does Kenley Jansen return?

Categorize it as Anthopoulos giving his stock answer when it comes to the Braves’ free agents when he said, “we’d love to have all these guys back,” during last weekend’s availability. But he did dive deeper when discussing closer Kenley Jansen.

“(Raisel) Iglesias came in and he was a great reliever that Snit had available in the seventh or eighth,” Anthopoulos said. “Being a good bullpen is about having depth. We have Iglesias under contract. He’s a fantastic reliever with experience in all kinds of roles. But if we can get a guy like (Kenley) Jansen back, that would be phenomenal.”

Jansen made $16 million last season on a one-year pact, leading the NL in saves (41) with a 3.38 ERA, 85 strikeouts and 22 walks in 64 innings over 65 appearances. He’s projected at $13.8 million in 2023, a palatable rate considering he’s coming off his best xERA (2.34) since 2017 and his best xBA (.169) in seven seasons.

Anthopoulos is right that Iglesias was great, with the right-hander posting an MLB-best 0.34 ERA in 26 1/3 innings after being acquired from the Los Angeles Angles as the trade deadline. But in trading for Iglesias with three years remaining on his deal, the Braves did so with the expectation that Jansen would exit, and Iglesias would step into the closer role.

Atlanta’s bullpen was brilliant, ranking second on the season in fWAR (7.6) and third in second-half ERA (2.87), and Jansen is the only major free agent. Add in Tyler Matzek being out for 2023 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and Luke Jackson — if the Braves secure the free agent to a deal to return — likely out for the first two months after that same procedure and keeping that dominant group intact may be a no-brainer.

2. Catcher: Anyone remember Manny Piña?

William Contreras broke out in a big way, hitting 20 home runs and posting a 138 wRC+ and 2.4 fWAR in sharing the catching duties with Travis d’Arnaud. In discussing the future of the position with that tandem, you wouldn’t be alone if you forgot all about Manny Piña.

The 34-year-old was sidelined in April with left wrist inflammation, then lost for the rest of the season after test revealed ligament and cartilage damage that necessitated surgery. He’s expected to be back by spring, but do the Braves still have a place for him?

They could move Piña, who is under contract next season at $4 million, or potentially carry three catchers, paving the way for Contreras and d’Arnaud to get more reps at designated hitter or Contreras to also have time in left field, which happened just once last season. But Contreras showed more than capable behind the plate with a positive dWAR, so there may be some unneeded redundancy with Piña.

3. First Base: Did 2022 change the expectations for Matt Olson?

Matt Olson’s power numbers in his first season in Atlanta were in line with his last two 162-game seasons in Oakland, as he hit 34 homers after going for 39 in 2021 and 36 in 2019. What was out of whack, though, was a wRC+ that was 27 percent below 2021 and 15 percent below 2019, and an average (.240) that was his lowest in six full seasons.

Olson hasn’t traditionally been a Three True Outcomes player, but with that average, homers, 170 strikeouts and 75 walks, he posted the 12th season with at least 34 homers, that number of Ks and walks and an average of .240 or lower. It puts him line with the likes of Kyle Schwarber, Joey Gallo, Chris Carter, Chris Davis, Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds, not the norm for a player who hit .271 a year ago.

It was an odd season for Olson, as he adjusted to his new surroundings, and had to do so replacing a franchise icon and having to watch said icon make a teary return to the team he left. So maybe those outlier numbers in 2022 were just that. To his credit, Olson ended on a tear, with the version that hit .343 with six home runs, a double, 12 RBI and seven walks over his last 42 plate appearances en route to earning the final NL Player of the Week overcoming “one of the lower points” of his career.

If the ending was any indication, Year 2 with the Braves figures to be more in line with Olson’s typical production.

4. Second Base: Where does Vaughn Grissom fit in?

Yes, he’s a shortstop by trade, but there’s a more pressing storyline at that position, and with Ozzie Albies — who Anthopoulos said would have been ready to play had the Braves advanced to the League Championship Series — coming back to take his spot at second bad, we’ll discuss Vaughn Grissom where he played this past season.

Hitting .420 through his first 14 games, Grissom dropped off to the tune of a .220 average and .613 OPS the rest of the way (27 games) and went hitless in three at-bats in the postseason.

He raked vs. four-seamers (.390) and changeups (.389), but had issue vs. breaking balls, hitting .216 — including .087 in September — with a 37.9 percent whiff rate and was a negative defender (-4 Outs Above Average). In his defense, he’s (again) a shortstop, but that position could be locked up for years to come, as is second base.

There’s the potential that he makes a play for left field, where he was getting in some work pregame before Albies made his short return, though nothing materialized there. The bat started off hot, but Grissom didn’t adjust to the league’s adjustments to him quite the same way his friend Harris did.

Look for Grissom to start the season in Triple-a Gwinnett, even if it’s just to get him acclimated to a potential new position and to see he can work out the kinks at the plate.

5. Third Base: What’s the next step for Austin Riley?

Each season, Austin Riley has built on the one before. In 2019, he couldn’t hit sliders, and he came back a year later and demolished them. In 2021 he broke out with 33 homers, 136 wRC+ and 4.7 fWAR, and eclipsed those numbers this past season, smashing 38 HRs with 142 wRC+ and 5.5 fWAR.

So now what?

Granted, he could have ended on a stronger note — Riley hit a season low one percent above league average in September and he batted a mere .067 in the postseason, going 1-for-15 with a walk — but the next step looks to come on the defensive end.

No one’s expecting Riley to supplant the St. Louis Cardinals’ Nolan Arenado — winner of the last nine Gold Gloves at third base in the NL, who was announce Thursday as one the three finalists for this year’s award, along with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Ke’Bryan Hayes and Colorado Rockies’ Ryan McMahon — but there’s reason to believe he can’t join that upper echelon of defenders at third.

In each of the past two seasons, Riley has had a positive defensive WAR (1.5 in 2021 and 1.2 in 2022) and his combined 2.7 dWAR in that span trails only Hayes (4.8), McMahon (4.0) and Arenado (3.2) among all third basemen. Now, he has committed 14 errors in each of the past two campaigns, most in the NL in that span and second overall, but Riley has shown the ability to make the spectacular play. Cutting out the miscues is his next evolution.

6. Shortstop: Will Dansby Swanson be back?

There is no bigger question hanging over the Braves this winter. It’s elevated after fans watched the Freddie Freeman saga play out, and Swanson being represented by the same agency, but there’s a desire on both ends to get things done and keep the metro-Atlanta area native at home.

“He gets better every year,” Anthopoulos said, after first giving his stock answer about free agents. “You can look at his stats and he’s always been a good teammate, but I think he rose to new levels. I told him that as well. I’ve been impressed with him across the board. He’s as good a teammate as you’re going to find.”

The shortstop put together a career year as he heads to free agency with his best fWAR (6.3), average (.277) and top wRC+ (116) in a 162-game season, while hitting 25 home runs and driving in 96 runs. He was named a Gold Glove finalist with 20 Outs Above Average, second only to the Detroit Tigers’ Jonathan Schoop (27) across all positions.

Spotrac gives Swanson a market value of $24.8 million per year, which would be a tick above the AAVs of the deals Olson and Riley signed (both at $21 million) and estimates a contract at six years, $148.8 million. As discussed in the deGrom note, giving Swanson that calculated value would be a new franchise high, and comparatively among shortstops it would be the third highest AAV behind the New York Mets’ Francisco Lindor ($34.1 million) and Texas Rangers’ Corey Seager ($32.5 million). Technically, Carlos Correa has a contract paying $35.1 million per with the Minnesota Twins, but he’s already publicly stated he’s opting out of that deal and will enter the market for the second straight winter.

There’s the other variable in this with Swanson. Correa is on the market, as is Trea Turner, with the latter having an estimated $33.6 million market value and the former at $31.7 million. The Red Sox’s Xander Bogaerts could opt out of his deal as well, and do so with an expected AAV of $31 million. Suitors will come calling for Swanson, who had equal production to Turner — who also had a 6.3 fWAR — and both of them have posted a higher fWAR that any on Correa’s resume.

Swanson’s career year came at the perfect time for him, but did it potentially push his price beyond what the Braves are willing to pay? Let the nail biting commence.

7. Left Field: Do Braves stand pat or seek an upgrade?

Adam Duvall is a free agent, Eddie Rosario underwhelmed in a season in which he dealt with eye surgery that limited him to 80 games, and we don’t know how the Braves are going to proceed with Marcell Ozuna once the legal process plays out after his arrest on a DUI charge.

As previously mentioned, Grissom could factor in here with an offseason to get him acclimated, and Grissom’s splits vs. lefties (161 wRC+) could make for a strong platoon option with Rosario, who hits better against righties (108 wRC+).

But if the Braves instead opt to look at the free-agent market, consider the potential of another reunion with Joc Pederson, who hit 23 homers for the San Francisco Giants with 144 wRC+ and hit above league average vs. both righties (149 wRC+) and lefties (112). He has a market value of $14.6 million.

8. Center Field: Does Michael Harris II have 30/30 in him?

The Braves are set at center field for a long, long time with Michael Harris II, who is under club control through 2032 with a game that has few holes in it. So, at this spot, we look ahead to what might be in 2023.

The NL Rookie of the Year resume was one home run shy of a 20/20 season, as Harris finished with 20 stolen bases over his 114 games. It would have been the first time in franchise history a rookie had reached those marks in a season.

Those 19 home runs and 20 steals put Harris on a 24-homer/28-steal pace across 162 games, which makes you wonder, could he produce a 30/30 season in Year 2?

That’s only been done five times in Braves history, most recently by Ronald Acuña Jr. in 2019. Before that, Ron Gant did it twice (1990 and 1991), Dale Murphy did it in 1983 and Hank Aaron in 1963.

The ZiPS projections have Harris with 11 home runs and 14 steals in 2023 and considering the way he finished with 175 wRC+ in August and 131 in September, he proved a quick study when it came to adjusting to how he was being pitched.

Harris is at least a threat to challenge for 30/30, and — despite tying for first among NL outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved and third in Outs Above Average — maybe this time he’ll do enough to avoid a snub for a Gold Glove.

9. Right Field: Is 2023 the return of the king?

Acuña wasn’t himself in 2022. In his return from the knee injury that cut his 2021 season short, the three-time All-Star dealt with “some pretty intense” knee pain, as well as a lower back issue.

His 114 wRC+ was his lowest in any of his big-league seasons, and his 2.3 fWAR was nearly half of what it was the year before (4.3) despite his playing in 37 more games in 2022. It was still good, but it wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from Ronald Acuña Jr. In order to work around those ailments, he spent 27 games at DH, including 12 straight from Aug. 31-Sept. 13.

While he wasn’t 100 percent, he still showed flashes of the Acuña of old, hitting 43 percent above league average in May, 31 percent above in June and 46 percent above in August, and the impact and influence with him in the lineup was undeniable. Atlanta was 83-36 when he was in the lineup and 19-24 when he was out.

Acuña stands to benefit from a normal offseason as he enters his age-25 season, and the ZiPS projections of .275 average, .953 OPS, 35 home runs, 17 stolen bases and a 4.9 fWAR would have him as the most productive player in the lineup and 11th across baseball.

But consider what the Braves lineup was with Acuña basically operating at half the player he was in 2021. They still finished second overall in homers and were seventh in fWAR and seventh in wRC+ with arguably their more talented player producing career lows in each category.

If he returns to form, there’s no doubt Atlanta has the potential to have the game’s best offense.

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