Here we are again.
As the holiday season approaches, it is time to start taking a little closer look at where the Braves may stand as the calendar rolls over to 2020. So far we have had one big splash out of nowhere (Will Smith signing a 3 year, $40m deal) and have seen the team attached to a couple of the bigger names available — Madison Bumgarner and Josh Donaldson. Which, honestly, is more than what we could say this time last year (the Donaldson/McCann signing day wasn’t until November 22nd).
Where are we right now, financially speaking?
Unfortunately, we don’t know what the payroll is expected to look like heading into Opening Day 2020. That has been a recurring theme the past couple of seasons, with the team instead opting to stow away money for in-season acquisitions instead of going all-in during the offseason. The last two Opening Day rosters have seen the Braves weigh in with a payroll less than $120m. The big difference from 2018 to 2019, however, was taking a huge chunk of sunk payroll in players like Adrian Gonzalez and Sean Kazmir, and turning it into money spent on Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann (and later, Dallas Keuchel).
The only real speculation we have seen on a potential increase in payroll heading into 2020 is from Mark Bowman’s latest Braves mailbag, which posited the low numbers of years past could potentially balloon upwards of $140m for next season. If that number sounds a little familiar, it is right around where the 2019 payroll ended up by season’s end.
While it may be a little optimistic, that is the number we are going to roll with in terms of today’s rosterbation experiment.
Now the question is, how much of that $140m estimate is left to spend?
Using guaranteed salaries from Roster Resource, arbitration projections from MLB Trade Rumors, and assuming all five players eligible for the Rule 5 Draft are added to the 40-man roster, the Braves should be left with just under $30m to spend for the rest of the winter.
With financials out of the way, what are the areas the Braves are going to need to tackle between now and pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training?
Up until a week ago, the bullpen was likely the key area of focus, but with a backend of Smith, Mark Melancon, Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, and presumably Shane Greene, the Braves could have one of the better backends in the Majors next season. Thankfully, there isn’t a lot of room left to improve there. We could talk about Greene being non-tendered, but we will save that for some other time. After all, we have all tweeted about how the team shouldn’t be taking two steps forward to just take one step back by cutting a piece like Greene loose for no return.
Tyler Flowers was brought back when the Braves opted to refuse his option in lieu of signing him to a different 2020 contract in order to move money from one hand to the other, but the team still lacks a top of the line, everyday catcher.
Josh Donaldson opted to reject the Braves qualifying offer, and although he continues to be tied to multiple teams in the rumor mill, you have to assume Atlanta will at least get a chance to match or beat any offer he feels strongly about. Until we reach that point, however, 3B will likely need an upgrade over current de facto starters Austin Riley and/or Johan Camargo.
While the Braves also chose to work the same voodoo magic with Nick Markakis as they did with Flowers, you have to wonder what the current state of the outfield is. Right now the guarantee is Ronald Acuña, even if we don’t know which of the three OF positions he will be playing when 2020 starts. Everything below his name is a question mark. Ender Inciarte will be back and (presumably) healthy. The aforementioned Markakis is also returning, but while we hope it is a more limited role, one can never assume with Brian Snitker at the helm. And then you have some combination of Adam Duvall, Austin Riley and/or Johan Camargo (if a 3B is acquired), and a list of fringe names that contains guys like Rafael Ortega and Charlie Culberson. There’s not a lot to inspire confidence there, so you have to assume Anthopoulos is at least kicking a few tires.
The area that a ton of people have been highlighting is the starting rotation, however. As we saw in the NLDS against the Cardinals, the lack of a shutdown ace type continues to plague the Braves. While Mike Soroka certainly showed he has the makings to be that type of starter, the organization seemed hesitant to thrust such a role on a kid who is just 22 and has less than two full seasons of experience under his belt. While there may be some depth in the rotation with Max Fried, Mike Foltynewicz, and a host of young and emerging arms (Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, and potentially Ian Anderson) by choosing to buy out the final year of Julio Teheran’s contract, the Braves also lack a veteran innings-eater to bail out all of these young arms. That leaves two question marks out of five slots in the rotation.
So, the list of needs is some combination of:
- Primary catcher (or one at least capable of splitting time)
- Starting 3B
- Potential OF upgrade
- Front of the rotation SP
- Backend veteran SP
Is it possible to fill all of those holes with the rumors being tossed around thus far?
1Scenario 1: Re-sign Josh Donaldson
This is the one we have heard the most about, and the majority of the fanbase has been clamoring for.
It’s also one that I am not exactly high on. Not necessarily because I wouldn’t love to see Donaldson back, but because the $25m AAV that has been thrown around is very steep when there are multiple holes to fill and not a lot of money left over. It’s an issue I brought up multiple times last year — when you have a number of issues with how your roster is constructed, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to commit the majority of your available assets to fill just one of them.
Entering this little experiment of ours, the Braves have a presumed $30m or so to spend, if $25m was dedicated to filling the 3B alone, that would leave a mere $5m to either add a catcher, add a starting pitcher, or attempt to upgrade the outfield. That just isn’t happening.
(Note: Over the course of this experiment, I have assumed in every scenario there would be two non-tenders — John Ryan Murphy and Rafael Ortega. Murphy because he is due to make over $1m in arbitration, and Ortega because he is out of options and the Braves have a wealth of comparable players to fill-in as a fifth or sixth outfielder. These two moves give us an approximate $2m extra to work with.)
So even if we play around with the fringe pieces of the roster, the most we can get around working with to fill a couple more holes is around $8m or so.
The best we can do with that amount of money is a couple of pieces near the bottom of MLB Trade Rumors Top 50 free agents — catcher Jason Castro and pitcher Drew Smyly.
Castro is a name we’ve tossed around a little on Twitter, mainly because he’s a cheap catcher who is pretty much going to fill the exact role Brian McCann filled last season, both offensively and defensively. With Smyly, he is about as bargain-basement as you can get. He has shown flashes in the very distant past and has battled with injuries for the better part of the previous five seasons, but he is cheap. And, honestly, that is about it. When you get into the $3m range and attempt to find a starting pitcher for the back half of the rotation, there isn’t a whole lot you can hang your hat on. This scenario doesn’t have to end with Smyly being the exact name, as any number of similar arms will become available the closer we get to the start of next season, but he is the highest on most free agent rankings in the price range.
That is where we are in the Donaldson scenario. You pretty much get Donaldson, and that’s about it. You lose just about any wiggle room or ability to sell on someone with a mid-range salary dump like Inciarte or Greene because at that point you are robbing one portion of the roster in an attempt to improve elsewhere.
2Scenario 2: Sign Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas
If you have followed anything we have written here on the site or recorded on the podcast during our year and a half existence, you know I’m probably about the biggest Moustakas mark in Braves Country. He’s essentially become my white whale. I said last season the team should have gone after Moustakas in place of Donaldson and used the additional money saved to bolster the rotation and bullpen. And I still feel the same way in November 2019.
Moustakas isn’t going to give you everything Donaldson provided in 2019, but the $15m difference in salary enables the Braves to seek out at least one more big-money deal, if not more, depending on how the money falls.
Adding Moose to the lineup alone does leave a lot of production on the table, but when you pair his production with that of Yasmani Grandal, things get a lot more interesting.
With Donaldson, you are likely stuck with a combination of Flowers and Alex Jackson behind the plate. If you go Moustakas and Grandal, you end up with additional production for slightly less according to MLBTR’s salary projections. Donaldson alone is expected to pull $25m as we noted above, whereas the combination of Grandal/Moustakas is only $2m more, at $27m. While this cuts into the little bit of money left over from Donaldson, you are left with fewer question marks.
Adding Donaldson would likely require an upgrade in-season behind the plate and in the outfield to offset a lineup that becomes extremely top-heavy. With the combination of ex-Brewers, the lineup gets extended and having an outfield that includes Inciarte and some combination of Markakis and Duvall becomes a lot more tolerable, leaving the only demand to be lengthening the rotation.
With a couple extra non-tenders (say someone like Grant Dayton, who is approaching 32 years old and has battled injuries, and any combination of mediocre, replaceable fringe bullpen arms — I’m looking at you Chad Sobotka and Patrick Weigel) the Braves could have anywhere from $6m to $8m to drop on a backend starter like Alex Wood to eat innings and put up Major League caliber output. Hell, they could even bring back Teheran on a budget deal if it is there at the price.
3Scenario 3: Sign Madison Bumgarner
I apologize. You knew it was coming.
Honestly, outside of a certain fraction of the fanbase, no one wants this.
It’s not necessarily that Bumgarner is a bad fit — he could very easily fill the Braves dire need for a starting pitcher to solidify the rotation. The problem is the financial cost on that return. MLBTR has Bumgarner slotted in at $18m AAV. Committing that level of money (not to mention the length) to a starting pitcher who isn’t going to add any more or less than Dallas Keuchel added in 2019 is a very risky move when you currently stand to have Tyler Flowers catching 100 games and some combination of Riley/Camargo at 3B. A good, but not great, starting pitcher isn’t going to compensate for the fact you aren’t landing a refutable 3B or C in a top-heavy batting order.
The problem behind the plate is there is a huge gap between our two options so far, Grandal and Castro. There is Grandal at the top, a number of comparable catchers to Castro, and not much else. With Bumgarner signed on, Grandal is out. And with around $5m dedicated to Castro or the ilk, there would be $8m to $10m left to possibly add another outfield piece. And like with the catching options, there isn’t any one name in that price range that sticks out above the field. My default choice in that situation is another that I rallied around last season — Avisail Garcia. He’s not going to light the world on fire, but he adds an additional RH option, who along with Duvall, would allow the Braves to have a number of different outfield configurations built around Acuña. It may not directly upgrade the outfield situation, but it can lengthen the lineup against lefties, and beef up the bench even further.
The big problem here is, of course, it leaves the team still lacking a headlining starter, a primary catcher, and that impact bat at 3B.
In other words, adding Bumgarner really brings nothing at all.
4Scenario 4: Sign Cole Hamels and Mike Moustakas
This is the portion of the program I outsource to MLBTR almost entirely.
In their yearly Top 50 projections, these are the two they expected to land with the Braves. And, well, it is pretty much the same as above with Bumgarner. I will admit, I like this scenario more, however, if only because of Moustakas.
Hamels isn’t quite as expensive as Bumgarner, and is likely to match the production output. The main problem is his age at this point. Hamels will be 36 by the time April rolls around, and entrusting an arm with as many miles as his, is a questionable decision at best. So in that regard, Bumgarner may actually be the better option. Of course, there is still the price disparity, which may swing things back towards Hamels.
The good thing about pairing Hamels and Moustakas is you do manage to fill the backend of the rotation and a part of the Donaldson hole in the lineup. The bad thing is again you are left with the bare minimum to try and bolster either the catching situation or trying to enhance the outfield.
With adding Moose, Riley and Camargo are available to fill any RH needs in a LH heavy outfield, so we are going to go back to our old friend from before Jason Castro to make the backstop conundrum a little less shaky.
Overall, we can pretty much call this one a wash.
Now, let’s get a little crazy…
5Scenario 5: Trade For Chris Archer and Starling Marte
I’m going to lay out two trade scenarios to wrap things up here, one a little more realistic and the other a total shot in the dark. What I’m not going to do is speculate on a potential return, because today’s experiment is more focused on the financials of the current roster than trying to move around trade pieces. Plus, I’m sure no one wants to read me try and trade Cristian Pache six ways to Sunday.
Anyways, Archer and Marte… It just hits.
Neither is set to make a ton of money in 2020, with both coming in at around $21m when everything settles. And I think that is what makes this deal all the more enticing — again prospect capital cost notwithstanding.
A lot of people will scoff at Archer after his disastrous run with the Pirates, but there are a ton of parallels to be drawn between his time in Pittsburgh and Sonny Gray’s time in New York. They messed with his arsenal and tried to force him to become something he wasn’t, despite the fact the groundwork was still there for a really, really good pitcher. We lusted over Gray last winter, and Archer is the 2020 equivalent.
The other selling point is adding Marte, which opens up a host of options with the offensive side of the team. The real key here is it opens up Inciarte to be dealt, either in this trade or a straight salary dump, which would give the Braves a huge chance at going out and getting…
Yasmani Grandal with the extra money left over.
If you add a potential frontline starter, impact bat added to the outfield, and a top-shelf catcher, you can afford to trot Camargo or Riley (assuming he isn’t dealt as part of the package going) out at 3B and just let nature take its course with very little to worry about in terms of filling Donaldson’s shoes.
6Scenario 6: Trade For Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras
Hey, I warned you we were about to get a little crazy.
Stick with me here, because this one is going to get a little dicey. (You can’t have an article with rosterbation in the title without just throwing everything against the wall at least once, right?)
Ok, so, a similar situation to the above here, in that I’m not even going to begin speculating on what the return may be. I’m not expecting the parts going to Chicago to be significant Major League pieces, so the financials aren’t greatly affected.
Like with Archer/Marte, the big advantage in adding Bryant/Contreras comes in the monetary cost. Bryant is entering the backend of his control years and will likely be due around $19m or so, but Contreras is the real deal, entering his first arbitration year, and expecting to garner in the $4-5m range.
This would leave the Braves with a bat comparable, if not better than, Donaldson at 3B and with an option behind the plate who stacks up nicely with what one could expect from Grandal at a much lower financial stake.
The problem is, like with the above trade, we’re likely going to have to part with Inciarte in some fashion in order to make everything else shake out the way we need it to.
And we still need some pitching.
This is where a couple of our previously mentioned come in — Hamels and Garcia.
Full disclosure here, this scenario actually came in about $4m above where I set the bar at $140m, but one has to think if Anthopolous is going to go out and drop the prospect capital to land a pair like Bryant/Contreras, he also probably has a little more wiggle room in the salary department than what we all have been anticipating. And if not, well, there is always the Shane Greene trump card in our back pocket that we didn’t want to talk about above.
There you have it.
Just a quick (ok, maybe not so quick, this got a little wild and crazy…) glimpse into where the Braves could be headed over the next couple of months.
But knowing how things have gone over the past two seasons with Alex Anthopolous at the helm, we are likely to see a bunch of moves straight out of left field that no one in the Braves blogosphere/twittersphere didn’t even dream up.