Signing Josh Donaldson to a 1 year, $23 million dollar deal to open the off-season was a dream come true. You have a former MVP on a prove it deal filling one of the organization’s most unstable positions since the retirement of Chipper Jones in 2012. The Braves have fielded a remarkable 18 players who have logged over 100 defensive innings at third base in that span.
But the one-two punch of the move was having Johan Camargo transition into a bit of a super utility role. Every good team in the modern era has one: Brock Holt, Marwin Gonzalez, Ben Zobrist twice. Each of the last four World Series winners had a valuable super utility guy. Camargo has already flashed above average defense at third base, plays a very good second, and an adequate shortstop. He is probably going to be given a game or two faking it at first, and he’ll probably handle it fine. If things get weird, he might even see a good bit of time in left field.
But the 2018 Braves had quite the luxury on many fronts. More casual fans don’t seem eager to admit the shortcomings of the surprising defending National League East champions, both last year and presently. The Braves had zero major injuries on their position player front last season. Players missed time, as all do from time to time, but there was no extended offensive injury. And when there was a hole to be had, Charlie Culberson was there. But Charlie Culberson is not a deity. He’s a soon to be 30 year old utility man who has never hit major league level pitching outside of 2018.
The Braves entered the playoffs last season with what many saw as a 22 man roster. Ryan Flaherty, who had been designated for assignment and not seen again until September, was part of that roster. As was Rene Rivera, who caught all of 8 regular season innings and saw 4 plate appearances for the Braves. Rivera did not make an appearance in any of those four playoff games. Lane Adams was a necessary inclusion, but the fact that the team allowed him to hit free agency and walk to the division rival Phillies says something.
Did you notice that I said 22 man roster? In the most important games in your teams last five years. That was unacceptable for fans, but we understood it. They weren’t built to win a World Series in 2018. The Braves won the division by a myriad factors all working at once. And you expect that to happen again? Johan Camargo and Josh Donaldson make that roster much stronger now., but we’re still talking about a plus one in a negative three hole. This is where the frustration lies.
As spring training begins this weekend, many players have started the settling phase, including many notable ones who were unable to secure the deals they imagined when setting foot into free agency. This period was seemingly kicked off when Curtis Granderson settled for a minor league deal in Miami. Curtis Granderson is not the player he once was, no one will be arguing that. But he is a useful left handed bench bat who can play a serviceable left field. If he went to the Miami Marlins, arguably tied with Baltimore for the worst team in the game, why couldn’t he have gone to the Braves? The obvious answer is that they didn’t offer him anything.
While I can’t speak for the man, it seems like Granderson is no longer playing the game for his health. He’s made over $100 million dollars in his career. But what he hasn’t accomplished is winning a World Series. Miami gives him the second worst odds at accomplishing that, at best. If he makes the Marlins Opening Day roster, which seems extremely likely looking at their depth chart, he will have a shot at earning a maximum of $2 million dollars. You’re telling me Granderson doesn’t accept the same deal from the Braves? I’m going to go with my instincts here.
I wrote a piece a month or two ago, which feels like a lifetime now, about how Derek Dietrich would be a natural fit on the Braves roster for similar reasons as Granderson, with the added benefit to relieve Freddie Freeman at first base, as well as being able to fake it at second and third. The Reds signed him on Monday morning to a minor league deal, which guarantees him roughly $2 million this season. Asleep at the wheel yet again.
What happens if Ender Inciarte pulls a hamstring on March 20th? Well Ronald Acuña Jr. would slide over the center field, leaving 35 year old Nick Markakis, straight out of a post May slump that also saw him collect 1 hit in the 15 plate appearances he made in the postseason, and Adam Duvall, a guy who collected just 7 hits in 57 scare plate appearances in Atlanta last season, as your flanks. And who would take Duvall’s spot on the bench? Culberson has played some left field, yes, and as I said before, Camargo might see some time there. But obviously you’d need a more traditional 4th or 5th outfielder here. Let’s look at the depth charts on Roster Resource:
Ryan Lamarre and Rafael Oretga, both minor league organizational filler signings this off season, are the only two with major league experience, though both are brief and generally unexciting outside of a .391 BABIP fueled 71 plate appearance cameo from Lamarre in Chicago’s south side last season. Beyond them? Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, a pair of 20 year olds that probably shouldn’t even see AAA this season, barring an Acuña like performance at each level. It’s bad. And that’s just one potential glaring hole.
Dansby Swanson still hasn’t put it all together at the plate in the majors. If he has a bad April, how do you not use one of his two remaining option years to attempt to get him comfortable at the plate by giving him regular at bats in AAA? Even his replacement in Camargo still has lingering questions. Which Camargo is the real one? The slap happy, low power, high BABIP guy he was in 2017, or the patient and power filled 2018 version? Will Mike Foltynewicz have a repeat season? Will Sean Newcomb ever consistently find the plate? Will Julio Teheran be of any value in his final guaranteed season? How will the young starters perform? Is Mike Soroka healthy? Is Arodys Vizcaino healthy? Is Markakis going to even return to his 2017 form? Will Duvall bounce back? Will Ozzie put it all together from the left side of the plate? What will McCann be able to realistically contribute? Will Charlie Culberson even be a fraction of the 2018 version?
This may seem all negative, but it’s simply realistic to have these questions when you look at things objectively. And these questions could seemingly be answered by bringing in experienced depth and talent, and the Braves have not done that. And that leads me to question just how much faith they have in their team. If their excuses for not spending money on major free agents were ones of wisdom, why haven’t they used fractions of that risky money to increase the floor of the team? “There’s no such thing as a bad one year deal” is commonspeak among baseball minds, so why is it so hard for them to extend minor league deals with invites to Spring Training that guarantees no salary? Because to me it seems that the Braves are well aware of their obstacles, and it seems they’re in favor of rolling die at many small tables instead of betting big on one spot simply because it’s more convenient. Less risk, less reward, and less space taken up from that “financial flexibility” they continue to publically flaunt.
The Braves need to offer more transparency in these times of inactivity. An off season consisting soley of lateral, cost effective moves paired with one major free agent signing still puts them in the plus column, but why stop there? Why treat us like we’re dumb, pretending we care about Liberty Media’s bottom line? There are only a few conclusions to be drawn here, and none of them are very positive.
The first is clearly the one the Braves all but made in an interview with The Athletic just a few days ago: they don’t have as much money as they like to admit because they’re in debt due to our development of the shopping complex outside of the taxpayer funded new stadium that wasn’t necessary. But they would never admit that.
The second is to believe that every free agent is asking for way too much, and that you legitimately believe that the cards you have are more valuable for the risk than any player that was on the market at any cost. In this scenario, you don’t account for many injuries or unremarkable performances that need improving, as noted by the obvious lack of depth.
The third is to believe that there is some white whale out there that has yet to be caught. Whether you believe that to be Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Craig Kimbrel, Mike Trout, or any other star level talent that carries a significant price tag, history is not on your side with this one. The Braves were never going to be able to afford anyone like that this offseason without some serious video game general managing, even with all the supposed money they just refuse to spend for the sake of the flexibility they claim to have but won’t use. The Michael Brantley’s, the Andrew McCutchen’s, those were the guys they could afford, but chose not to. And now they’re all gone.
The fourth and final conclusion is that the Braves simply know better. They know a lot of things need to go right to repeat as a first place team. They saw the other teams making wild moves and froze, attempting to let the dust settle. But ii didn’t, and the Nationals checkbook and the Phillies and Mets farm systems took some serious bruising to build them up. And now there’s nothing significant left to comfortably do until they see how the season plays out.
I believe one and four to be valid, but precedent leads reasonable thinking to suggest number one is the correct choice.
Depth is a huge issue with the Atlanta Braves and will be a major obstacle to overcome the ever increasing additions to their rivals in the National League East. The Phillies are better. The Mets are better. The Nationals are still trying to stay afloat, but they have just as much talent and upside on the major league level as anyone. Is the Liberty Media cashflow so strict that we can’t even reinforce the cracks in our armor while our opponents are buying brand new pieces? Which one do they not believe in, the team or the intelligence of the people who they expect to buy tickets?