It’s been an active offseason in the National League East, where four of the five teams have made steps to improve themselves in 2014.
The Washington Nationals stole Doug Fister from Detroit and added role players Jerry Blevins andNate McLouth to fill out a roster that was among the league’s hottest down the stretch in 2013, while the New York Mets imported Curtis Granderson, Bartolo Colon, and Chris Young in an attempt to show some respectability. The Philadelphia Phillies should see some benefit fromMarlon Byrd, Roberto Hernandez and the returning Carlos Ruiz, and even the Miami Marlinsdipped their toes in the free-agent waters, adding Jarrod Saltalamacchia to an impressive collection of young talent.
Those teams are all attempting to catch the defending champion Atlanta Braves, who have worked to maintain their edge by … acquiring a catcher who can’t catch (Ryan Doumit) and a pitcher who can’t pitch (Gavin Floyd, recovering from May Tommy John surgery) while bidding farewell to star catcher Brian McCann and longtime starter Tim Hudson.
It’s hard to see those moves as anything but a step down, and so from a baseball perspective, it’s been a decidedly disappointing winter in the Peach State.
The Braves do have enviable young talent on the field and in the rotation, along with the best closer in baseball. But they also have two expensive black holes in the lineup — second base (Dan Uggla) and center field (B.J. Upton) — and are limited by a poor television deal that pays them a fraction of what other clubs receive, as well as a notoriously tight-fisted ownership group that regards the team as merely a minor line item on a larger ledger.
That makes Atlanta’s flexibility limited, since the Braves usually spend about $90 million annually, and a steady payroll is a declining one in today’s increasingly wealthy game. Including Doumit and Floyd, the Braves now have about $55 million committed for 2014, but they still need to set aside approximately $30 million for what was the largest arbitration-eligible group of players in baseball at the beginning of the offseason. Unless ownership suddenly finds itself in an unexpectedly generous mood, Atlanta looks to be getting close to its payroll limit, and the team has little choice but to give Upton a second chance to prove himself.
That said, there is still time for the Braves to salvage the winter, and here are three things they can do to prevent this offseason from being a complete disaster.
Start signing extensions with young players
This isn’t going to immediately make the 2014 roster stronger, because the Braves will have these players anyway. But in addition to helping make a public relations splash by showing that they’re “committing to the future,” or whatever they think ticket-buying fans would like to hear, this would help alleviate in future offseasons what’s limiting them now — an unusually high amount of arbitration cases making for difficulty in projecting cost certainty (see table).
There’s probably a half-dozen such players Atlanta might want to extend — Mike Minor and Andrelton Simmons among them — but tops on the list ought to be Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, two 24-year-old established stars who should represent the core of the Braves’ lineup for years to come.
Freeman is probably just outside the very elite at first base — no slight when we’re talking aboutChris Davis, Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto — but comfortably ranks as the sixth or seventh best first baseman in baseball by most of the major offensive and total value metrics. Heyward has had some health concerns, but has been a star-level producer in his two completely healthy seasons of 2010 and 2012. Considering their age and talent, the Braves need to buy out a few free-agent seasons while they still can.
Fix second base
There’s bad, and then there’s what Uggla was in 2013, which ended with him not even making Atlanta’s postseason roster as the Braves instead went with Elliot Johnson. Yes, Uggla hit 22 homers, but he also did so with a .364 slugging percentage, making him the only man in the history of the game to hit that many homers with such a low slugging percentage. (Uggla had just 13 other extra-base hits, and only one total after
Over the past two seasons, he’s hit only .201/.330/.374, a huge drop from the six consecutive seasons when he slugged at least .450, all while striking out a whopping 31.8 percent of the time.
Some cling to the fact that late-season laser eye surgery can help him rebound, but it’s unlikely we see a big turnaround at age 34 after two consecutive down seasons. That said, the Braves still owe him $26 million over the next two seasons, and the internal options — mainly reserves Tyler Pastornicky andRamiro Pena, with prospect Tommy La Stella unlikely to be ready in April after just 81 games above Class A — are questionable.
The Braves may need to live with Upton, but it’s difficult to see a contender going into a season with the potential for zero offensive production at three spots, including the pitcher. So what to do?Howie Kendrick is a great fit, since he’s been reportedly very available in trade talks, and the Braves are a good match for an Angels team that is thin on both pitching and prospects. The Giants may be willing to discuss the reliable Marco Scutaro, or Atlanta could try to make a rare deal with the Mets for the very available Daniel Murphy.
However, if the team really wanted to get creative, Atlanta could attempt to send Uggla to a non-contender who is looking for an effective way to spend its cash. That is, a team like the Astros or Cubs may prefer to effectively “buy prospects” from Atlanta in exchange for taking on a decent amount of Uggla’s contract, rather than throw money away on a Nelson Cruz type.
No matter what direction they go in, the Braves can’t simply assume Uggla will rebound. His age and several years of decline say otherwise.
Don’t go crazy for an “ace”
The Braves are unlikely to have the financial resources to be in on Masahiro Tanaka, and don’t seem willing to completely clear out their farm system for David Price, so perhaps this is a given anyway. While certainly every team would love to add another elite starter, the narrative that the Braves can’t succeed without one doesn’t ring true.
As a group, the Atlanta rotation was top-six in both ERA and FIP last year, and while no one will confuse Minor with Clayton Kershaw, Atlanta’s underrated lefty was one of the 30 best starters in the game. As Julio Teheran continues to mature along with Kris Medlen, Alex Wood, David Haleand (when healthy) Brandon Beachy and Floyd, the Braves have a solid enough rotation while waiting on prospects like J.R. Graham and Lucas Sims to arrive.
If a Matt Garza drops into their laps, then fantastic, but it’s not worth the risk considering the other needs this team has.