• Mike Moustakas

    Cole for Christmas is Nice, but Braves Must Pump Up Power

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Many Braves fans felt they were left with coal in their offseason stockings last spring after the Atlanta Braves signed Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann in November, then did little else.

    But a different type of coal – Cole Hamels, to be specific – became the latest acquisition of a busy shopping spree for general manager Alex Anthopoulos on Wednesday. And while it’s not Gerrit Cole, who figures to sign for a bazillion dollars given the established price of free-agent starters, this Cole will fit into the Braves rotation just fine.

    Atlanta inked a one-time nemesis – stemming from Hamels’ 10 years in Philadelphia – to a one-year, $18-million contract, landing the Braves youthful rotation a veteran left-hander with 422 career games, a career 1.18 WHIP and 2,694 2/3 innings. Add in his 17 postseason games, a World Series MVP award and four All-Star appearances, and it would appear Anthopoulos has satisfied his desire to add an experienced arm to the trio of Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz.

    Since the World Series ended, Anthopoulos has spent like a shopaholic carrying five new credit cards on Black Friday. He remade the bullpen by signing Will Smith, the best closer on the market, and bringing back Chris Martin and Darren O’Day. He grabbed Travis d’Arnaud to team with Tyler Flowers behind the plate, after re-signing Flowers and Nick Markakis.

    Including Hamels, Anthopoulos has added $56.25 million to the 2020 payroll. To this point, it’s mostly money well spent (we’ll know for sure after next season). What we do know in early December is this: The bullpen, a source of so much pain and hand-wringing for the first four months last season, is markedly better. d’Arnaud figures to get more than his share of starts following a healthy and resurgent season in a platoon with Flowers. Markakis will work with Adam Duvall in a left field platoon that likely will see Markakis get more starts than he should (because Brian Snitker remains manager, after all).

    Everybody knew Cole (Gerrit, not Hamels) and Stephen Strasburg would command mega deals on the open market, which in turn forced many teams to focus on a second tier centered around Zack Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner. It became clear to the Braves quickly that landing either the East Paulding High alum (Wheeler, who signed a $118-million, five-year pact with Philadelphia later Wednesday) or the Hickory, N.C. native (Bumgarner) would require a heavy investment in years and AAV (average annual contract value).

    So Anthopoulos pivoted quickly to Hamels, who had expressed a desire early in the offseason to take a one-year deal with a contender. And while that World Series MVP award was 11 autumns ago, the soon-to-be 36-year old showed in 2019 he still is capable of pitching at a high level. Hamels posted a 3.81 ERA and 1.39 WHIP with a 3.0 bWAR in 27 starts for the Cubs, both numbers taking a hit after he returned too quickly from an oblique injury.

    Through his first 17 starts (pre-injury), Hamels posted a 2.98 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP across 99 2/3 innings, allowing nine homers with a 2.77 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In his 10 starts after returning, he pitched to a 5.79 ERA with eight homers surrendered in 42 innings and an unsightly 1.88 WHIP. Most of that damage came in three starts; in the other seven, he gave up a total of 10 earned runs in 33 2/3 innings – a 2.67 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP. Hamels closed the season by giving up three runs on nine hits in 11 2/3 innings across his final three starts.

    Just as important is the influence the Braves hope Hamels will have on their young pitchers. Fried in particular resembles a younger Hamels in both stature (both are 6-foot-4) and mechanics. Another southpaw, Sean Newcomb, figures to get a shot to win a rotation spot in spring training (barring acquisition of another starter between now and March). Both should benefit from having an experienced lefty mentor in the locker room.

    Yes, Anthopoulos has accomplished a lot so far this winter. As baseball’s glacier-like pace of offseason moves thankfully has sped up this winter, the Braves are showing signs of a team making progress along the journey from rebuilding franchise to bona fide World Series contender.

    But at this point, it’s just that. Progress.

    Work remains to be done, and now is when things get tricky. Baseball’s Winter Meetings kick off Sunday evening in San Diego. For the moves Braves have completed, a glaring hole remains in the middle of the batting order. Donaldson (who was named NL comeback player of the year Wednesday) is one of the hottest commodities on the open market, viewed as the second-base third baseman behind Anthony Rendon and even more in demand now that Mike Moustakas has signed with Cincinnati.

    I expected payroll to rise this offseason, but it’s moving up at a dizzying rate when compared with the historical thriftiness of Liberty Media. Adding Hamels (and sadly subtracting fan favorite Charlie Culberson, who was non-tendered Monday) to the opening-day locks list, I project 21 players who will be owed approximately $128.62 million for 2020.

    Suffice to say, the work cannot stop now. Especially after all the moves of the past month, Atlanta simply cannot settle with a Johan Camargo/Austin Riley platoon at third base without adding a power bat elsewhere. Ideally, it’s Donaldson at third base, which would mean re-signing the Bringer of Rain for something around $25 million AAV for at least three years (if other camps offer a fourth season, I’m concerned the rain will fall elsewhere in 2020).

    Re-signing Donaldson is the simplest path, one that would take the payroll north of $153 million with four spots left (two on the bench; two in the bullpen). Maybe the Auburn football program could put in a good word for the Braves, considering Donaldson watched his alma mater win Saturday’s Iron Bowl from the sidelines at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

    But if he lands elsewhere, Anthopoulos will have no choice but to trade some of the prospect stockpile and likely Ender Inciarte (and perhaps a bullpen piece) to land a power bat, perhaps Starling Marte from Pittsburgh or Jorge Soler from Kansas City or Mitch Haniger from Seattle, provided he can make the deal sweet enough to compel the other side to jump). The trade market is so much harder to pin down, but every GM in baseball will be at the same place in Southern California for four days next week.

    Given the activity we’ve seen across the sport this offseason, it might be quite a week.

    Regardless, the Braves have no choice. Adding Hamels to the rotation, bolstering the bullpen, and addressing catcher early puts the Braves in a great position with the Winter Meetings approaching. But as long as that hole in the lineup remains, Anthopoulos cannot stop doing everything possible to deliver Braves Country the ultimate prize next autumn, one far greater than coal (or Cole).

    —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.

    d’Arnaud Signing Sets Stage for Big Winter Moves

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When Yasmani Grandal signed a four-year deal Thursday with the White Sox, it removed the one game-changing free agent catcher from the market. Nonetheless, as he’s done all offseason, Alex Anthopoulos wasted no time in getting what the Braves needed, even if in this instance it wasn’t perhaps what the Braves really wanted.

    Sunday’s signing of Travis d’Arnaud to a two-year, $16-million deal does not necessarily move the needle on its own standing. We’re talking about a player who played all of four major-league games in 2018. But d’Arnaud put together a solid season while taking quite a circuitous route through 2019, from 10 games with the Mets to one lone at-bat with the Dodgers before landing in Tampa Bay, where the 30-year-old hit 16 homers with 16 doubles, 67 RBIs, slashed .263/.323/.459 for a .782 OPS in helping the Rays reach the American League Division Series.

    Now he’ll help try to push the Braves through the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001 next season. And while adding d’Arnaud on its own isn’t going to make anybody do backflips, I’m of the opinion it’s necessary to look at Anthopoulos’ latest move through two different prisms:

    Locking in Value in a Lackluster Market

    There have been plenty of names bandied about regarding the catcher market, but only one really stood out: Grandal. With him now on Chicago’s southside and $73 million richer (a fair deal in terms of years and money), the rest of the market features quite a few options – from Jason Castro to Alex Avila, from Robinson Chirinos to Martin Maldonado – that weren’t going to make people to buy season tickets or jerseys.

    And that’s OK. The Braves saw that, without landing a real difference maker, the move was to strike quick and get what they felt to be a viable platoon option to team with Tyler Flowers. We all know Flowers has regressed both offensively and defensively, but remains one of the better pitch-framers in the game. He ranked fifth in 2019 according to Baseball Savant in getting strikes in what the website defines as the “shadow zone,” or the edges of the strike zone, among catchers who caught six called pitches in those shadows per team game played.

    d’Arnaud ranked fifth among this winter’s free agent catchers last season, getting shadow strikes called at a 48.7 percent rate (Flowers, by comparison, got strike calls on 52.8 percent of said pitches). The Braves long have valued pitch-framing and ability to guide a young staff, the second box checked by d’Arnaud given his work with young Mets pitchers en route to the 2015 World Series and with Tampa Bay this past season.

    d’Arnaud gave up six passed balls in 578 2/3 innings in 2019 (one every 96.44 innings, while Flowers allowed one every 42.43 innings in 2019) and threw out 28 percent of would-be base stealers. Offensively, d’Arnaud recorded a 20.6 percent line-drive rate (his best since 2015) and overall posted a .745 OPS (again, best since 2015) while matching a career high in homers and setting a new high mark in RBIs.

    To strike quick and cross catcher off the to-do list, it’s hard to criticize this move. At the same time, how effective this looks depends in part on what happens next.

    The Next Shoe to Drop

    The Braves seem destined to soar past their largest opening day payroll this century ($122.60 million in 2017, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts). The d’Arnaud signing pushes the projected Atlanta opening day payroll to $112.42 million with 21 locks at this point for the opening day roster (the caveats offered in recent pieces still apply, with Sean Newcomb moving to the starting rotation and Nick Markakis teaming up with Adam Duvall to platoon in left field, for now).

    One spot remains on the bench and two remain in the bullpen. As opined previously, we’ll give two MLB-minimum salary guys (say Jacob Webb and A.J. Minter) those final bullpen spots, taking the opening day payroll to $113.56 million with three spots remaining – a bench bat, a third baseman, and a starting pitcher. If you assume Atlanta spends $2.5 million on that bench bat (Matt Joyce, come on back, bro), that pushes the payroll to $116.06 million.

    If we think the opening day payroll is going to $150 million – and I can’t believe I’m saying this about the Atlanta Braves, but from where I sit, I actually think that’s plausible – the Braves have $33.94 million left to fill third base and a rotation spot. Going the pure free agent route, the most logical choices are to bring back Josh Donaldson at somewhere near $25 million per season and find a value starter for around $9 million a season.

    I expect the Braves, when all is said and done, to either re-sign Donaldson or, if the bidding gets too high, to pivot quickly to Mike Moustakas at somewhere around a $14 million AAV.

    But I don’t think the Braves are settling for value in the rotation considering the starting staff today consists of two players with just one year each of full-time MLB rotation experience (Mike Soroka, Max Fried), one experienced starter who spent six weeks at Triple-A last season (Mike Foltynewicz), and a starter who ended up becoming an effective reliever in 2019 and only has been guaranteed a chance to nail down a rotation position (Newcomb).

    Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they sign a veteran at a discount like Tanner Roark or Wade Miley. Maybe they reunite with former UGA lefty Alex Wood. Maybe they can’t completely rid themselves of Julio Teheran and bring the longtime right-hander back on a reduced deal to eat innings.

    I just don’t see it.

    Anthopoulos has stated ad nauseum that trades are an effective – if not preferable – method to build a team. He’s filled in plenty of gaps via free agency in the infant days of this offseason, from the best available closer to multiple veteran relievers to a catcher representing value in an otherwise indistinguishable market. He’s spent plenty of money ($30.25 million of the 2020 payroll, to be exact) via free agency, a number that rises even more if Donaldson or Moustakas are signed.

    Regardless, a trade is coming. The feeling is we’re rapidly approaching the moment where the currency of choice shifts from dollars and cents to prospect capital. Anthopoulos has been on the job for 24 months. He knows the system inside and out. He has his opinions on who on the farm will help the Braves win the World Series, and who needs to go to acquire the pieces that will bring Atlanta a championship.

    The Winter Meetings begin in two weeks in San Diego. The week of Thanksgiving typically is quiet, but the pace again will accelerate with urgency after the turkey is finished. It could be a transformative period for a franchise that continues to emerge as a powerhouse, one with back-to-back division titles on its resume, a painful playoff series loss on its soul, and now in a position to take that leap.

    Work remains to be done, and even the timing of the d’Arnaud signing illustrates how that work really never ceases. Anthopoulos, who was born in Montreal and grew up cheering for the Expos, signed d’Arnaud on Grey Cup Sunday, the news released about two hours before kickoff in Soroka’s hometown of Calgary. As my adopted second sports home of Winnipeg prepared to chase its first Canadian Football League championship since 1990, Anthopoulos made his next move.

    “Wipe away the wing sauce, hold off on the adult beverages and get to writing,” I mumbled to myself (along with a few choice adjectives) as construction of this piece began, as construction of the 2020 Braves continued with no regard to the Canadian sports calendar.

    Safe to say, the building will continue as November fades into December. As the Bombers and Tiger-Cats played to end their decades-long championship droughts, the good Canadian kid continued his work to help his baseball franchise end a title drought of its own.

    —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.

    Gettin’ Jiggy with Smith, Payroll Numbers and Offseason Impact

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When Will Smith learned his 2017 season would end on the operating table before it could begin thanks to a spring training injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery, he tweeted a note of gratitude to San Francisco Giants fans, including the message, “Nothing a little hard work can’t fix!”

    Spoken like a true Georgia kid, whose hard work has brought him home.

    The Atlanta Braves seized the opportunity Thursday to make the first big strike of baseball’s offseason, signing Smith – the unquestioned top closer candidate on the free-agent market – to a three-year, $39 million contract, with a $13 million option for 2023. In doing so, not only did the Braves further vault their bullpen – such a source of consternation as recently as late July – toward elite status, they brought the Newnan product and Northgate High alum back to North Georgia.

    But this signing goes way beyond adding to the number of Peach State players on the roster (and Smith has plenty of company, from Tyler Flowers to Nick Markakis, Dansby Swanson and Charlie Culberson). It sends the message that the Braves are ready for the next stage of their emergence, they are ready to spend the money it takes to win, and are ready to make amends for an October gone so terribly wrong just a few short weeks back.

    How the Bullpen Looks

    Smith fully recovered from that left elbow injury that derailed his 2017 season and has dominated since, posting a 2.66 ERA (2.71 FIP) with a 1.006 WHIP, a 12.7 strikeouts-per-nine ratio, 48 saves, and 167 strikeouts against 36 walks in 118 1/3 innings across the past two seasons. The 30-year-old, who turns 31 in July, earned All-Star honors in 2019 and finished with 34 saves, a 2.76 ERA, 96 strikeouts and 21 walks in 65 1/3 innings.

    Smith held right-handers to a .212 average in 165 at-bats last season, but did give up nine homers (contributing to an OPS of .709). He absolutely was lethal against lefties, who posted a .157/.167/.229 slash line and a .395 OPS in 70 at-bats. His overall numbers were better away from pitcher-friendly Oracle Park, posting a 0.910 WHIP with a 13.7 strikeout-per-nine ratio in away games.

    Braves fans (not to mention fanbases of several other contenders) clamored for Smith at the trade deadline, but the Giants opted not to deal the lefty. Instead, veteran right-hander Mark Melancon was shipped to Atlanta. Smith now joins him and the other remaining trade-deadline acquisition, Shane Greene, to form a strong back end that has combined for 309 career saves.

    Suffice to say, Luke Jackson isn’t getting the ball in the ninth inning this season.

    Add in the re-signing of Darren O’Day – who impressed with his work in September and October – plus Jackson serving as a matchup righty, and perhaps Sean Newcomb, who will get a chance to start in spring training but was a revelation in relief in 2019, and the Braves bullpen is as good as anybody’s in the National League.

    Certainly, Braves Twitter will lead the league in Will Smith references next season, one year after Tiger Woods evolved from Masters champion to unofficial fanbase symbol.

    And this Will Smith isn’t going to Miami.

    He’s on his way back to Georgia.

    How the Payroll Looks

    Given some of the contracts doled out to relievers in recent years, the $13 million AAV (Average Annual Value) investment in Smith is a good deal for Atlanta. And while $13 million for 2020 may seem like a big chunk considering the salaries of Melancon ($14 million next season) and Greene (projected to make $6.5 million in arbitration per MLB Trade Rumors), the Braves payroll at the moment remains fine.

    How? Smith’s signing gives Atlanta 19 “locks” to make the 25-man opening-day roster. A breakdown:

    Starting Lineup (all dollars in millions): Freddie Freeman ($22.36), Ozzie Albies ($1), Dansby Swanson (projected in arbitration by MLBTR at $3.3), Nick Markakis ($4), Ender Inciarte ($7.7), Ronald Acuna Jr. ($1). Note: Markakis is listed as the starter, but he will platoon (he better platoon).

    Total: $39.36 million

    Open spots: Catcher, third base (more on this shortly).

    Bench (all dollars in millions): Charlie Culberson (projected $1.8), Johan Camargo (projected $1.6), Tyler Flowers ($4), Adam Duvall (projected $3.8).

    Total: $11.20 million

    Open spots: One

    Starting Rotation: Mike Soroka (MLB minimum $564,000, rounded to $570,000 for simplicity), Max Fried ($570,000), Mike Foltynewicz (projected $7.5 million), Newcomb ($570,000).

    Total: $9.21 million

    Open spots: One (assuming Newcomb is in the rotation).

    Bullpen (all dollars in millions): Smith ($13), Melancon ($14), Greene (projected $6.5), O’Day ($2.25), Jackson (projected $1.9).

    Total: $37.65 million

    Open spots: Three (again, assuming Newcomb is in the rotation)

    Grand total: 19 players, $97.42 million

    How Does Smith’s Signing Impact the Rest of the Offseason

    It certainly will have some impact, but I’d caution against some of the reactionary, absolute statements I saw on social media saying this means the Braves cannot pursue a reunion with third baseman Josh Donaldson. On the contrary, it’s my take the Smith signing should embolden those who want the Braves to think big and back it up by raising the payroll.

    The Braves window just now has opened. Yes, October sucked. I get it. But this team is set up to be right there for the next several years. For the value Melancon and Greene add – and yes, there was comfort in knowing that, for a change, there would be no worry about finding a closer entering 2020 – both are free agents after next season. Now the Braves have a closer through at least 2022. To sign a closer to this type of deal, even if closer wasn’t a priority just a few days ago, the Braves would have missed an opportunity if they didn’t act.

    The vast majority of the remaining members of the Braves 40-man roster (currently at 33 players) all will make the MLB minimum next season (except for catcher John Ryan Murphy, who is arbitration eligible but likely will be non-tendered, and reliever Grant Dayton, who is arbitration eligible and projects to an $800,000 salary). If, say, Austin Riley or Kyle Wright or A.J. Minter or Cristian Pache make the opening-day roster, the payroll impact will be minimal.

    There remains work to be done at three key areas: catcher, third base and one rotation spot. As I wrote last night, I still believe the Braves will sign Donaldson (the value I opined is $26 million AAV for three years; let’s say three years at $24 million per year brings him back) and should heavily pursue Yasmani Grandal (I speculated AAV would be between $16 million and $20 million; let’s split the difference at $18 million).

    If the Braves did sign those two and Grandal costs my midpoint, the opening day payroll would be at $139.42 million, with the need to add a starter. That’s where I think Mike Moustakas (my guess is three years at $40 million; an AAV of $13.33 million) could make a lot of sense, especially if the demand for Donaldson carries his deal into four-year territory or an AAV north of $26 million. Adding the combo of Moustakas and Grandal (at my midpoint) pushes the opening day payroll to $128.75 million, again with the need to add a starter.

    I wrote last night if the Braves go the free-agent route to find a front-line catcher and a third baseman, they likely would explore the trade market for a starter. I think that’s even more likely now, unless they look for a value signing at catcher (say, Jason Castro at perhaps $6 million) to form a true platoon with Flowers at a rate much lower than signing Grandal.

    Those numbers will draw some skepticism, and that’s fair. After all, Atlanta’s opening day payroll has exceeded $120 million just once this century ($122 million in 2017) according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. But at some point, the Braves must push the payroll north to further enhance their chances of pushing deeper into October, with the goal of grabbing the pot of gold that awaits the last team standing come Halloween.

    Thursday’s signing signals the Braves indeed are pushing, and the thought here is acquiring Smith is the first salvo of a transformational winter.

    —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.

    Winter is Here, but Work for 2020 Starts Now

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – We’re knee-deep into the offseason and, if you weren’t 100 percent sure after a painful choke in the NLDS, a World Series title signed with a curly W that has made me moved our prescriptions from Walgreens to CVS, and the missing daily backbeat of live baseball, just walk outside.

    It’s cold enough to snow. In North Georgia. In November.

    Pardon me while I throw up in my mouth.

    Welcome to winter. Or, to be more specific, welcome to baseball’s offseason. Recency bias tells us it’s a long, slow slog that will continue well into spring training. It shouldn’t be that way, but if the dispatches we’re seeing on Twitter from the MLB General Managers meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., this week are any indication, we may see a shift back to a more normal cadence of moves.

    Heck, four free agents have signed already, all four with Braves connections! Atlanta technically made Tyler Flowers and Nick Markakis free agents for about 17 seconds thanks to some creative bookkeeping – a smart move that freed up an extra $4 million for the 2020 payroll – then the Braves brought back right-handed reliever Darren O’Day for $2.25 million (a good move in my opinion) and the Cardinals signed former Braves first-round draft pick and the pride of St. Simons Island, one Adam Wainwright.

    I shared some personal thoughts on the St. Louis righty during our NLDS coverage. He’s a pillar of the St. Louis baseball community, but if there is any other place he would pitch besides under the Gateway Arch, it would be in his home state. That won’t happen in 2020, but plenty of moves remain to be made for the National League East champs.

    Let’s get into a few topics as we stoke the coals in the hot stove on this chilly November evening:

    Is There Rain in the Forecast?

    I’ve made it known far and wide for months that objective numero uno this offseason for the Braves is to re-sign third baseman Josh Donaldson. The soon-to-be 34-year old bet on himself in 2019 and the move came up aces, as he slugged 37 homers while slashing .259/.379/.521 for a .900 OPS in a (still mind-blowing to me) 155 games.

    The good folks on Braves Twitter are losing their minds with every passing day, hitting refresh every four seconds hoping to see the tweet that the Bringer of Rain has re-upped with Atlanta. People, relax! Donaldson is going to take his time, rightly so, and for a reason. There are numerous contenders who need a third baseman and have money to spend. Donaldson has vaulted himself into the No. 2 position in the market, only behind Anthony Rendon and the massive contract the former Washington third baseman will land.

    Donaldson has earned this right to take his time. A tweet from Jon Heyman of MLB Network (who blocked this author because, well, he’s a boob) on Wednesday indicated what I long suspected, and what didn’t throw me into a tizzy while every tweet reporting Donaldson interest scuttlebutt sent Braves fans into cliff-diving mode: Donaldson’s camp is talking to other teams, but he will circle back to the Braves once that’s done. At that point, Atlanta will measure the market and make what I think will be a strong offer.

    Will it be enough? I still think it will be. There is strong interest on both sides to re-sign with Atlanta. If somebody swoops in with, say, three years at $30 million a year (or a fourth year guaranteed), that’s likely too much for the Braves. But three years at $26 million? I see the Braves doing that. Just relax. This process will play out.

    What if the Forecast is Clear?

    And yet, it’s quite possible Donaldson dons a new jersey next season – push me for odds, and I still think it’s 65%-35% he returns to Atlanta. If he does go elsewhere, then contrary to the tone on social media, the franchise will not fold. There actually is a Plan B out there that, in some respects, is quite attractive vs. sinking $26 million into a soon-to-be 34-year old.

    If there is a poster child for the free-agent freeze in recent years, it’s Mike Moustakas. After hitting 38 homers for Kansas City during an All-Star season in 2017, Moustakas could not find the deal he wanted on the open market and returned to the Royals, signing in spring training. Four months later he was shipped to Milwaukee at the trade deadline, finishing 2018 with 28 homers and 33 doubles between the two teams.

    He re-signed with the Brewers as spring training opened in February for $10 million, a salary that netted 35 homers, 87 RBIs, an .845 OPS and a 3.2 bWAR season. Back on the open market again, Moustakas figures to finally land a multi-year deal as the third-best third baseman behind Rendon and Donaldson, and the Braves figure to be all over him, especially if they feel Donaldson may sign elsewhere.

    FanGraphs Steamer projections paint Moustakas as a 35-homer guy against in 2020 with a .260 average, a 2.8 fWAR (same fWAR as he posted in 2019) and an .824 OPS. Yes, it’s a step down from Donaldson but not as much as people think. He will play the bulk of 2020 at age 31, and most projections peg Moustakas earning an AAV somewhere between $11 million and $14 million. It’s a sizable reduction in salary for production that comes pretty close to what Donaldson provided. If Donaldson isn’t back, you could do far worse than a three-year, $40 million deal with Moustakas.

    Making Up for the Lost Offense

    I’d look no further than where Moustakas played 197 games the past two years. Milwaukee catcher Yasmani Grandal is on the open market, and in my mind he – combined with either Donaldson or Moustakas – would give the Braves the most length we’ve seen in an Atlanta lineup in close to two decades.

    Grandal just turned 31, is a switch hitter, and would give Atlanta a legit front-line catcher – relegating Tyler Flowers to 35-40 starts (which I think is optimal). Grandal has hit at least 22 homers in each of the past four seasons, is regarded well defensively – despite a hiccup with the Dodgers in the 2017 playoffs – and last season in Milwaukee posted an .848 OPS and 2.5 bWAR, which from the catcher’s spot totally is acceptable.

    Grandal would be a great addition, regardless of who plays third base. Yes, catchers are scary when they cross age 30. Yes, it won’t be cheap, as he projects to make somewhere between $16 million and $20 million per year. And yes, Atlanta has two strong catching prospects in William Contreras and Shea Langeliers, both of whom could be in the majors in two years. But a switch-hitting catcher who produces offensively and can shoulder a large bulk of the workload (126-plus games in five of the past six seasons) would be well worth the investment.

    For Starters, How About a Starter?

    There’s no question Alex Anthopoulos wants to fortify the starting rotation. Atlanta figures to enter 2020 with three starters locked into the rotation: Mike Soroka, Max Fried, and Mike Foltynewicz. A fourth arm from the rebuild, Sean Newcomb, will get a shot to win a rotation spot in spring training after spending 2019 as a valuable lefty relief arm.

    There is no shortage of arms available on the open market, from World Series hero and North Carolina native Madison Bumgarner, to East Paulding High alum Zack Wheeler, to resurgence candidate Jake Odorizzi. But if the Braves fill third base and catcher via free agency, I think they will pivot and try to trade for a veteran starter.

    Perhaps that’s Matthew Boyd of Detroit, whom the Braves were rumored to be in on at the trade deadline and whose performance plummeted in the second half (3-6, 5.51 ERA, 20 homers in 78 1/3 innings after the All-Star break). Perhaps that’s Corey Kluber, the Cleveland ace whose 2019 was scuttled after he took a line drive to his arm.

    And perhaps the final rotation piece resides in house, be it Kyle Wright (whose 90 mph slider was very impressive in a couple of late-season relief appearances), or Bryse Wilson (who was inconsistent in the majors, yet dominated the Phillies in a July start), or Touki Toussaint (who endured a completely lost season in 2019, but whose raw stuff remains tantalizing). Ian Anderson probably needs more time at Triple-A; same with Tucker Davidson.

    What About the Big Targets?

    There is plenty of chatter about superstars nearing free agency who could be on the trading block, partly because their teams know they cannot afford them once club control expires, and partly to pivot toward keeping other stars on their roster. Three names bantered about have created quite the stir: Boston outfielder Mookie Betts, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, and Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor.

    Betts is a non-starter for the Braves, even though he is 12 months removed from a MVP award. He’s under contract for only one year with a projected arbitration price of $27.7 million. Anybody who thinks Atlanta should open its prospect vault for one year has lost their grip on reality. This isn’t a team whose winning window is about to close; it’s just opened. Dealing multiple top prospects to Boston for one year of Betts would undercut the years Atlanta spent trying to rebuild its franchise and farm system.

    Bryant is more interesting. The Cubs have a slew of talent that helped Chicago break their 108-year World Series curse in 2016, but with guys like Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo getting close to free agency, there simply isn’t enough money to go around. I expect Bryant to be moved this offseason, but a projected $18.5 million salary for 2020 with his injury history gives me cause to pause. Perhaps striking out on both Donaldson and Moustakas changes my tune.

    The one I’m fascinated by is Lindor. A two-time Gold Glove winner (remember, he plays in the same league as Andrelton Simmons) who has playoff and World Series experience, who turns 26 on Thursday, who has placed in the top 10 in AL MVP voting (likely to be there again when the award is announced Thursday evening). Lindor has slugged 32-plus homers with at least an .842 OPS in each of the past three seasons, with 22 or more stolen bases each of the past two years, and he hit .284 in 2019 with 22 steals (thrown out just five times), 40 doubles and 101 runs scored.

    Lindor truly is a generational talent, and he’s under club control for 2020 and 2021. There is a thought process that putting him with the Braves makes Atlanta the most dynamic lineup in the NL. I see it. Can you imagine that dude with Acuna and Albies and Freeman and perhaps Donaldson or Moustakas, and perhaps Grandal?

    There will be a price, certainly from a money perspective (Lindor is projected to make $16.7 million in arbitration, a figure that could soar above $20 million in 2021), and certainly from a fanbase perspective (as Atlanta native Dansby Swanson absolutely would be included in the deal, and perhaps center fielder Ender Inciarte as well, to help offset the money). But Lindor is a game-changing talent, and one under control for two years. If there is a risk to take on the trade market, this makes sense for Atlanta to explore.

    Patience is a Virtue

    There has been far more chatter this November than the past two autumns. Sure, some of it is agent-driven noise, designed to try and accelerate the market. But the feeling is this offseason will unfold differently, and quicker.

    Traditionally, there are few moves made during the GM Meetings. But it’s the first chance for general mangers to get together in one place, compare notes, discuss needs and wants and desires. It feels like the weeks between now and the early December Winter Meetings will see more action than recent years, with a flurry of activity happening between now and Christmas.

    The Braves figure to be right in the middle of it, shaking off the chill of winter’s onset with a burning desire to get to 2020 as quickly as possible, with an evolving roster that by spring better be capable of winning the World Series.

    Anthopoulos has been on the job for two years. He’s been splendid in many ways, frustrating in others. This is the offseason to make his mark.

    The market is ripe, and the time is now.

    —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.

    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.