What was the story last season?
The team of Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz entered the 2016 season with a festering dumpster of a starting rotation. Sitting behind the promising Julio Teheran was a cluster of MLB’s sick, lame and lazy – no team with a two through five of Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz, Aaron Blair and Williams Perez is setting out to contend. And contend the Braves didn’t, finishing with a 68-93 record after an historically terrible start to the campaign. That finish rather hid the fact that this Braves squad quite clearly began its transition toward contention in 2016. Ender Inciarte and Dansby Swanson, acquired in the trade for Shelby Miller, set out on their journey as club corner stones, whilst Freddie Freeman quietly (at least on the National sense) established himself as the Braves first ‘Franchise Face’ since the retirement of Chipper Jones.
In July, GM John Coppolella’s decision to hold onto Teheran and Freeman looked forward, but the Braves ended 2016 as one of MLB’s form teams, justiftying his view that the team was heading in the right direction. The club’s Single A affiliate Rome Braves were named MILB team of the year, boasting a cadre of frighteningly juicy young arms in Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint and Kolby Allard. With the team moving from their Turner Field home to a new state-of-the-art facility in Cobb County this is a bright time to be a Braves fan.
Any impending free agents?
AJ Pierzynski: the most hated man is baseball finally moves on from the Braves at the age of 39, hopefully never to be seen again. He does, though, leave a hole behind the dish which the team will look to fill via trade or free agency.
So… what’s the plan?
It seems Coppolella’s plan has largely unfurled itself, and unsurprisingly it centres on addressing the Braves’ disastrous starting pitching options. The veteran battery of Bartolo Colon and RA Dickey may have the combined age of a geriatric, and push hardened Georgians to wish Maddux out of retirement but they’re a clear upgrade on last year whilst their one-year commitments allow the team to bridge whilst offering potential trade bait at the deadline if last year’s pattern is followed. Jaime Garcia, acquired from the Cardinals, offers more potential upside and is likely to slot in behind Teheran as the ‘on paper’ number two starter. He too is on a short leash contract-wise, which keeps Coppy’s options open in the longer term.
Whether or not the Braves are done in the starter market has been one of the big questions of the offseason with constant rumblings that they are in the sweepstakes for the White Sox Chris Sale, A’s Sonny Gray and Rays’ Chris Archer. Both of those arms would be a clear upgrade, even over Teheran, and offer the type of affordable, tenured contract a team on the up craves. The Braves also have the prospects to close a deal – Allard, Soroka, Swanson, Max Fried and phenom shortstop Ozzie Albies are highly coveted throughout the sport. That begs the question as to whether much of the speculation is little more than educated guesswork.
The 2017 free agent market offers some intriguing options which, post CBA conclusion, come at a far lower prospect cost than Sale, Gray or Archer. Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish heading the Braves rotation after this season seems a better long shot bet than any of the studs on the block. In the shorter term, the Braves have the flexibility to buy low on San Diego’s non-tendered former ace Tyson Ross, who’d upgrade their rotation assuming he returns to his 2015 standing.
Beyond the pitching market the Braves have picked up Pirates second baseman Sean Rodriguez for a 2-year $11m commitment- a clear upgrade over the incumbent Erick Aybar. With Swanson, Freeman, Inciarte and Nick Markakis locked in the core of the line-up looks set for the next few years. Questions remain at catcher and third base where hokey-cokey Brave/Met Kelly Johnson spent much of the season last time out before being replaced by Adonis Garcia. Matt Kemp seems likely to resume in left field following his confounding move from San Diego. There’s likely little market for lumbering, overpaid prima donnas but we’ve said that before.
Welington Castillo, a non-tender candidate in Arizona, could be an intriguing option behind the plate after the Braves passed on trade candidates Derek Norris and Brian McCann. Matt Wieters’ asking price is probably too rich, and it seems probable that the Braves would baulk at the cost of the Athletics Stephen Vogt if they passed on a buy-low option in Norris.
Best case scenario: The Braves find an eye-opening bundle deal for Gray, Vogt and Sean Doolittle, ‘winning the offseason’ and moving the betting markets.
Worst case scenario: The trade away Allard, Swanson, Albies and Soroka for Sale who breaks his pitching arm in a freak Yuletide Twister accident.
Likely scenario: The Braves sign Castillo, then put up the shutters. Coppy spends next week in Washington stalking the lobby turbo-wedgieing the golf club slacks of other GMs.