• Exclusives

    Braves could still target a blockbuster this winter

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – “Focus,” I tell myself, as I gaze across a frozen landscape.

    It is Jan. 19. Almost as much snow has fallen at my house as in Green Bay. I need more than two hands to count the number of mornings in the teens. Baseball teams sit mostly idle as spring training approaches, as more than 120 free agents remain unsigned.

    The Hot Stove is frozen deeper than this coldest Georgia winter in memory. Baseball executives remain in a holding pattern that’s befuddling to experts, frustrating to players without a contract and downright maddening to agents.

    If you are Alex Anthopoulos, you sit at quite the intersection in this bizarre offseason. The franchise he now runs looks to step away from 3 straight 90-loss seasons and a disgraceful controversy that stained the organization to its once-pure core. We already have seen a creative deal that rid the Braves of Matt Kemp’s burdensome salary and even more rigid left field defense, in return for money that basically washes out Kemp’s deal overall but expels the outlay this year, not after 2019.

    That in and of itself is a win, and normally we would be content to let Anthopoulos take time to evaluate the megatons of talent in the Braves system. But while we focus, we see the names on the open market.

    The mind wanders …

    Free agent 3B Mike Moustakas

    Free agent 3B Mike Moustakas

    The Hot Corner: Both Johan Camargo and Rio Ruiz are young and have upside, but combined they have 398 at-bats in the majors. Austin Riley, the No. 6 prospect in the organization according to Baseball America, has the natural light-tower power from the right side that could anchor him in the midst of the Atlanta lineup for a decade. The Braves are not keen to block Riley by signing a free-agent third baseman to a long-term deal.

    But Mike Moustakas was a lock in November to get a six-year deal, yet his 38 homers from a season ago remains unsigned. A team with a third-base opening could do far worse than a guy whose OPS topped .800 each of the past three years, a two-time all-star with a World Series ring entering his age 29 season.

    Would a two-year deal with a third-year option entice Moustakas to sign with Atlanta? Probably not. But it is worth exploring.

    The Rotation: Perhaps the most dangerous path in free agency is signing an aging pitcher to a long-term deal, especially one who will be 32 when he throws his first meaningful pitch in 2018. It felt like somebody would throw five or six years at Jake Arrieta when free agency began, considering he’s averaged 188 innings a season while making a total of 119 starts across the past four years, winning 64 games with a 2.67 ERA.

    Sure, somebody still may throw four or five years at Arrieta. That’s not a place for Atlanta to swim given the amount of pitching talent in the system. But part of the reason sage baseball folks say you never can have too much pitching is there are no guarantees arms will pan out, no matter how eye-popping the minor-league numbers.

    Yes, the Braves have more arms than anybody, and odds are more than a few will be solid major league hurlers. But this franchise needs an ace. A proven veteran at the top would provide an impact measured now, and in the years to come.

    A three-year deal for Arrieta? At this point, in this market, it’s worth asking.

    Top prospect Ronald Acuna is likely to join the Atlanta outfield this season.

    Top prospect Ronald Acuna is likely to join the Atlanta outfield this season.

    The Outfield: Ronald Acuna is a prospect of a different ilk. From his throwing arm to his raw power to the way the ball sounds coming off the bat, Acuna is special. He is the best prospect in baseball, and one that will anchor the Braves outfield for years to come. He’s not getting traded.

    There is a better chance the Braves deal H&F Burger and the Chick-fil-A Cow for the Miami Home-Run Monstrosity than Acuna wearing teal (more on that shortly). Atlanta currently has two-time Gold Glove winner Ender Inciarte in center and veteran Nick Markakis, entering the final year of his deal, in right.

    Markakis is owed $11 million and Braves fans are obsessed with arguing either for (38-plus doubles each of the past three years) or against (two seasons with eight or fewer homers and a OPS ticking downward) the 34-year-old. If the Braves make a move for an outfielder, obviously Markakis has to go.

    The Blockbuster: How could one rid themselves of Markakis and at least get value in having to swallow those dollars, while making their lineup and their defense infinitely better? Back to Miami, and focus – there’s that word again – on Christian Yelich.

    Braves social media has drove itself mad this offseason when it comes to the Marlins’ ultra-talented 26-year-old. He is signed for the next four years with a team option for 2022. He is a career .290 hitter who has averaged 14 homers, 34 doubles and 16 stolen bases in his four full major-league season, along with winning a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger.

    Yelich in left field is the bold move that puts the Braves on the cusp of contention, and the money owed through 2022 ($51.25 million total) would allow Atlanta to compete on the free-agent market after next season. The price will be steep prospects wise. The Marlins are reportedly demanding Ronald Acuna headline any trade package for Yelich. Again, that’s not going to happen. However, once Miami is firmly convinced that they won’t be able to pry Acuna from Anthopoulos’ mitts, maybe they will be open to an alternative, but still formidible, offer. A safe bet is at least four or five of Atlanta’s top 15 would head south. It’s worth it. Yelich, Inciarte and Acuna would form one of baseball’s most potent outfields, defensively and offensively. And while it is a reach, perhaps Anthopoulos gets the approval needed to sign a Moustakas or Arrieta. The man loves a blockbuster deal.

    This blockbuster, the one that would bring Yelich to Atlanta, would be enough to not only push the Braves to the edge of contention this season, but make SunTrust Park all the more attractive of a destination for the Manny Machados of the world once next winter arrives. We do know that offseason won’t be frozen.

    We just have to focus to get there.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.