This is the first in a 8-part series on the offseason options of the Atlanta Braves. The schedule will be as follows:
Monday, November 4: Free Agents
Tuesday, November 5: AL East trade options
Wednesday, November 6: AL Central trade options
Thursday, November 7: AL West trade options
Monday, November 11: NL East trade options
Tuesday, November 12: NL Central trade options
Wednesday, November 13: NL West trade options
Thursday, November 14: “Best” options for the Braves in the 2013-2014 offseason
So to review where we are starting from here, it’s best to review what exactly the Braves need going into the offseason. 2013 was a great season in all respects for the Braves. Certainly fans would have liked to see a deeper run into the offseason, but when you consider that the two highest-paid Braves failed to even top .190 in batting average in nearly 1000 combined plate appearances, their pitching staff leader didn’t make a single start after July 24th, and of their opening day “best in baseball bullpen”, three members underwent season-ending surgery, their season cannot be viewed with anything but success. The team may have found a role for Jason Heyward in the lineup at leadoff, seen the incredible defense that Andrelton Simmons will provide, saw Freddie Freeman take that next step to MVP candidate, and watched their young pitching all take another step forward.
So what do the Braves need for 2013?
Catcher – Brian McCann will likely be offered a qualifying offer, but most likely due to his advancing age and contract demands on the market (he will likely be given the 3rd-highest free agent contract among position players), he will not accept, and the Braves will be left with Evan Gattis, Gerald Laird, and Christian Bethancourt at the position. There’s not likely going to be a push for a long-term answer here, but if the team feels that Laird/Gattis can’t handle the catching in 2013, they may be seeking another option.
Second Base – Dan Uggla was simply terrible in 2013. There’s no two ways around it. Yes, he powered out 22 home runs, but with a .179 batting average and a career-high 171 strikeouts (in a career-low amount of plate appearances), the team will very likely be looking to get anything they can for Uggla. In-house options are actually not bad with Arizona Fall League stalwart Tommy La Stella on the way with speedster Jose Peraza rising fast and possibly pushing for 2015 playing time, so a long-term signing is likely not on the horizon. The Braves also have Ramiro Pena, Paul Janish, and Elliot Johnson under arbitration and Tyler Pastornicky who could all hold down the position until La Stella is ready if an option isn’t out there.
Bench – The bench is always in flux to some degree, though super-sub Gattis will likely assume his role of backup catcher/left fielder/RH pinch hitter, which led him to an incredible April. Reed Johnson is likely gone, in spite of a cheap option ($1.6M). Most likely the Braves will non-tender at least one of Elliot Johnson, Paul Janish, and Ramiro Pena. Most likely will be Janish, but he and Johnson could both be gone depending on Pena’s health. There are a ton of internal options, including Jordan Schafer, Todd Cunningham, Joey Terdoslavich, and Pastornicky, but the team may look for a veteran as well.
“Ace” – The Braves have a loaded pitching staff with young arms, some of which have tremendous upside. The issue that many pointed out in the postseason is not having one guy who was the staff leader after Tim Hudson went out. The team could absolutely allow high-end arms to mature into that role and stick with what they have, or they could choose to bring in a veteran staff leader to lead the youngsters.
Bullpen – Specifically, left-handed help. The Braves made the offseason with a patchwork bullpen after losing 3 of their key bullpen members this year, but that lack of depth became obvious in the postseason. Eric O’Flaherty is a free agent, Jonny Venters will likely miss a lot of the season after surgery, and Luis Avilan was a revelation in 2013, but he was used hard and could use more help in 2014.
So let’s take a look at free agents:
Catcher – AJ Pierzynski will likely be open to a one-year deal, but his skills have likely eroded enough that his defense is sub par in the National League. Former Brave Jarrod Saltalamacchia is coming off a World Series win where he’s most noted for a throwing error that led to a Cardinals walk-off win. He may want to cash in on a solid 118 OPS+ and 55 home runs over the last three years for a long-term deal. The top free agent option seems to be former Athletics and Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki. He is not an offensive stalwart, but he’s a decent gap-style hitter who plays excellent defense. With the Braves young pitching staff, a solid defender like Suzuki may be the best short-term option.
Second Base – So, Robinson Cano simply isn’t in the budget. That leaves two other solid options for the Braves, former Brave Omar Infante, who was once part of the deal to acquire Uggla, and Mark Ellis. I would personally prefer Ellis, who is a very good defender and consistent hitter, but there could be a good argument for either Infante or Ellis.
Bench – The Braves are likely going to be looking for someone who can backup the corners in the infield and outfield as they have solid options for the bench at middle infield and center field. Some names to consider would include veterans looking for another chance like Mark Reynolds, Kevin Youkilis, and Michael Young. They could go for guys who offer high defensive value with Clint Barmes, Rajai Davis, or Franklin Guitierrez. Last would be the multi-position options like Kelly Johnson and Skip Schumaker. Personally, I would prefer seeing someone who could provide some spark off the bench, like Rajai Davis or Kelly Johnson, but those guys will likely get more money to start somewhere and at their ages, they’d be foolish to take a backup gig over a starting one.
“Ace” – In free agency, there simply isn’t a lot for aces anymore as teams typically sign their stud arms before reaching free agency or trade them before they reach that level and the new team signs them. The list for this year includes many arms that are either elder statesmen that could provide one more solid season as a veteran leader for the Braves like Tim Hudson and AJ Burnett. There are also a few guys who have never pitched at that “ace” level, but always have had the ‘stuff to do it like Ricky Nolasco, Jorge De La Rosa, or Ervin Santana. The one guy I would like to see the Braves take a serious run at is Josh Johnson on an incentive-laden deal to allow him to re-establish himself as a stud starter. De La Rosa is a personal favorite who could be even better than 2013 in 2014 two years removed from surgery, so at the right price, he would be an excellent addition as well.
Bullpen – There are a ton of options here that could be huge for the team. Lefty veterans like Matt Thornton, Erik Bedard, JP Howell, Javier Lopez, Darren Oliver, Mike Gonzalez, and O’Flaherty are good options. Hideki Okajima pitched well in AAA for Oakland and even better in the short callup he received in his return to American baseball, and he was an elite lefty at one time that could be a good buy-low type. Right handers available may get a bit expensive, mostly based on their 2013 role, in which a number of this list were closers for at least a moment in 2013: Matt Belisle, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Rafael Betancourt, Joel Hanrahan, and Edward Mujica. Pat Neshek would be a good groundball option if the team was looking that way, and Craig Breslow would be a likely more expensive similar option. Hanrahan leads a group of guys that could be intriguing as flyers based on coming back from surgery and/or poor performance in 2013 that also includes Joba Chamberlain, Jesse Crain, and Carlos Marmol. Like most seasons, if the Braves are wise, they can nab a guy or two who are in that second/third tier of bullpen arms and continue to produce an effective bullpen with minimal financial investment. I love EOF, but I will admit that I’ve always been a big fan of JP Howell, and if we can make him a Brave, I would be a very happy guy!
I understand there aren’t any definitive answers here, but I will address that in the last piece of the series. You can find a fairly extensive list of the available free agents here, and if you see any you think we should be going after, comment with them, and I can address them in that final post.