I knew the Atlanta Braves were going to be good one day. I just didn’t know it would happen so soon.
A combination of shrewd trades and a dominant run on the international market paved the way for Atlanta to shock the baseball world by winning the NL East in 2018, fresh off four straight losing seasons. The dynamic homegrown duo of 20-year-old outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. and 21-year-old second baseman Ozzie Albies helped fuel much of that success.
Granted, the Braves’ success in signing talented international players became tainted when the league discovered Atlanta’s front office was up to no good. But the penalties imposed by MLB mostly hurt the low levels of the Braves’ farm system; there’s still lots of talent in the high minors, and key contributors like Acuna and Albies are already in dominating in “The Show.”
The end result is that the Braves were not only really good this season, but they were also really young, with six players in the lineup’s starting eight, four of Atlanta’s starting pitchers and all five of its most effective relievers in their 20s. All those factors, combined with a small list of potentially relocating free agents, mean the Braves don’t necessarily need to go nuts this winter to field a winning team again in 2019.
But this is Alex Anthopoulos, a general manager who has never been afraid to shove all his chips to the middle of the table when the time is right. On top of that, the Braves could have up to $60 million to spend on additional player salaries this winter. So there’s plenty of opportunity to do more than simply resign their free agents and run it back with the same crew.
The Braves would hypothetically be a great fit for the marquee free agents coming out this winter. Bryce Harper, as I’ve written before in this column, could slide neatly into the right field void left by Nick Markakis and provide a devastating one-two double-lefty punch with All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman in the middle of Atlanta’s lineup.
Manny Machado could provide a big upgrade on the left side of the infield, replacing either third baseman Johan Camargo — if the Braves aren’t buying his 2018 breakout — or shortstop Dansby Swanson — if the Braves are sick of Swanson not living up to his top-prospect hype as a hitter.
The problem is that Liberty Media owns the Braves.
And while the publicly financed SunTrust Park helped fill the media giant’s coffers, this is still a publicly traded company with shareholders to answer to, making it risky as owners of a Major League Baseball team. So I can probably bury those pipe dreams of Harper or Machado stepping to the podium at the winter meetings and putting on an Atlanta cap.
Plenty of next-tier free agent pitchers could attract Atlanta’s attention, though.
Even after heisting Kevin Gausman from the Orioles last summer for a practically nothing, Anthopoulos could still make a run at a quality starting pitcher. Left-hander Patrick Corbin, 29, didn’t garner the headlines and accolades thrown at Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Aaron Nola in 2018, but he might’ve been the best pitcher in the National League after those three — throwing 200 innings, ending with a 3.15 ERA and punching out 246 batters. All after having Tommy John surgery in 2014.
Right-hander Nathan Eovaldi managed a more modest 111 regular-season innings after his own return from TJ surgery. But the 28-year-old flamethrower shined, striking out five batters for every one he walked in the regular season, then reaching folk hero status in the postseason thanks to his six-plus inning of relief in Game 3 of the World Series.
If Atlanta wants to go older, lefty J.A. Happ, righty (and former Brave) Charlie Morton and (current Brave free agent) Anibal Sanchez are all mid-30s options with a recent history of success.
The best non-Harper outfielders on the market are Michael Brantley and A.J. Pollock. Both carry risk as over-30 players whose best days might already be behind them, with significant injury histories further muddying up the waters. But both have monster seasons — and with it, big upside — on their resumes. Pollock batted .315 with 20 homers, 39 steals and plus defense in center in 2015. Brantley hit .327 with 20 home runs and 23 steals back in 2014, and hit a very serviceable .309 this season. Either player could serve as a reasonable stand-in for Markakis and his surprising 2018 campaign.
Meanwhile, the Braves could use the free agent market to upgrade a decent but walk-prone bullpen that finished around middle of the pack in most pitching categories this past season. Cody Allen and Jeurys Familia have the track record and closing experience to push Arodys Vizcaino to a setup role, if manager Brian Snitker wanted to go that way.
There are plenty of big-armed pitchers who could thrive in high-leverage roles that don’t include walk-in music, with Adam Ottavino and David Robertson, in particular, coming off big years.
And if the Braves really wanted to make a splash, they could try and talk Craig Kimbrel’s agent into leaving the world champs to return to his baseball roots.
This being Anthopoulos, though, don’t be surprised if the Braves supplement free agent spending with a big trade…or two.
In addition to the Gausman deal this summer, Anthopoulos also bagged names like David Price and Troy Tulowitzki in big trades when he was in Toronto. Focusing on some of 2018’s worst teams, you could guess that players like the Royals’ pitcher Danny Duffy, Marlins’ catcher J.T. Realmuto, the Rangers’ first baseman Joey Gallo and one of the Padres’ billion young outfielders could be had for the right offer. All of the above would offer the combination of skill, youth and not-too-crazy salary that would make sense for Atlanta’s needs.
With talent, youth, disposable income, tradable prospects and an aggressive general manager on their side, the Braves could be one of the most compelling teams to cook on this winter’s Hot Stove. If their offseason goes well, a run at their first National League pennant in 20 years becomes a very real possibility.