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Braves begin building the 2024 bullpen with return of Pierce Johnson

The Braves got started early this off-season, making their first big signing of the winter.

MLB: NLDS-Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

In true Alex Anthopoulos fashion, the Braves announced out of nowhere Wednesday they had signed reliever Pierce Johnson to a 2-year extension with a club option for 2026. The deal pays Johnson $7M guaranteed for 2024 and 2025, with a $7M club option for 2026 that comes with a $250,000 buyout. So total, Johnson is guaranteed $14.25M over the term of the deal.

It’s technically labeled an extension instead of a free agent signing despite the fact that Johnson was set to be a free agent this off-season. But free agency doesn't officially start until 5 days after the World Series, still around 2 weeks away, which made it even more impressive the Braves were able to complete this deal. Johnson could've negotiated a contract with all 30 teams once free agency started, assuring he would’ve gotten the maximum contract available to him. The fact that he passed up that opportunity and signed now shows how much he enjoyed his time in Atlanta and clearly how interested he was in returning.

The Braves motivation for this deal isn't hard to understand. After coming over from Colorado mid-season, Johnson immediately established himself as one of the better relievers out of Atlanta’s bullpen. In total, Johnson made 24 appearances with the Braves and posted a 0.76 ERA and a 2.83 FIP in those games. He struck out 12.17 per nine innings with the Braves while only walking 1.14 per nine, and alll of that along with a 56% ground-ball rate made him one of the best relievers in baseball in the second half of 2023. And $7M per year for that type of reliever, along with a relatively short contract, is plenty of value from the team side to make this an easy decision for the front office. I’m more surprise Johnson said yes to this than I am the Braves, given how close he was to the open market.

It's also no wonder the Braves wanted to get something done as soon as possible. They have a lot to do this winter, with the bullpen especially. Kris broke down the entire 40-man situation on the site earlier this week, and as you can see from it, there’s currently quite of bit of uncertainty in the relief core. Technically as we sit here today, Raisel Iglesias and Tyler Matzek were the only two relievers with a guaranteed contract going into 2024, at least before the Johnson signing. And Matzek is recovering from Tommy John surgery. Coming into the winter, Johnson, Joe Jimenez and Jesse Chavez were all set to become free agents, Kirby Yates and Colin McHugh both have team options that are far from locks, Brad Hand has a mutual option that certainly will be declined, and AJ Minter, Nick Anderson, Michael Tonkin, and Ben Heller are all arbitration eligible. Combine that with injury uncertainty to Dylan Lee and his shoulder, you can see there’s plenty of work to be done this off-season.

Minter is lock to at least have his contract tendered, if not more than that in the shape of an extension, but either way he’ll be back next year. My guess is Nick Anderson gets tendered a contract as well after a strong debut season with Atlanta. Add in Iglesias and now Johnson, that at least gives you a solid 4 guys to build off of the rest of the winter.

I imagine the Braves will be aggressive in trying to get Jimenez under a similar contract they just gave to Johnson. But like Johnson, Jimenez is coming off a strong season himself, posting a 3.04 ERA and a 3.59 FIP over 56 innings pitched in his one season with the Braves. The advantage Jimenez has over Johnson is next year will be his age 29 season, versus the age 33 season Johnson will be playing at. Other team will be more likely to give Jimenez a longer deal and therefore make it harder for the Braves to re-sign him. Still, my guess is they’ll make at run at him at least until they get priced out.

With Yates and McHugh, my guess is both guys get their option decline and both enter the free agent market, though Yates’ case is more interesting than McHugh’s case. Yates’ option for 2024 is for $5.75M with a $1.25M buyout so you could make the argument that’s worth picking up, since you’re only saving $4.5M in declining it. What can you realistically expect to get on the open market that’s better than Yates for $4.5M? Yates doesn’t kill you as a relatively low leverage option and the price point is hard to beat. Still, Yates was maddeningly inconsistent last year, especially with his command, and it wouldn‘t shock me to see them move on entirely.

If the Braves need to wade into the free agent reliever market, there’s plenty of interesting names they could target. Josh Hader, Reynaldo Lopez, Jordan Hicks, Keynan Middleton, David Robertson, are all out there plus more, and the list going to get even bigger when all the team options and players options get decided on around the league. Signing free agent relievers is one of the riskier ventures a front office can undertake, as they represent what is easily the most volatile unit in baseball. But a great bullpen is absolutely essential in the modern game, especially as you move into October, and therefore the risk is a necessary one.

The list of trade names is even longer and basically impossible to put together with so many potential deals. No one had the Braves trading for Joe Jimenez last off-season or signing Nick Anderson for that matter, and both ended up playing significant roles at times. Similar unexpected names I'm sure will be targeted this off-season as the Braves try to fill out the rest of their bullpen. And you still have guys like Tonkin and Heller who can be tendered contracts and kept around for depth, for which teams are always desperate.

Bullpen building is a bit of an art form and in today’s game, has become an annual endeavor, with teams routinely turning over most of their pen year-over-year. The Braves have been no different and this off-season will be no different as they attempt to once again build a World Series winning level relief core. Re-signing Johnson was a nice first step. There will be more steps to come.

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