On Sunday, October 1, I posted a comedy piece on this very website that said the Braves top offseason priority was trading Matt Kemp to open up a starting outfield spot for Braves top prospect Ronald Acuna.
Now, at the time I didn’t realize it was comedy. But like the clueless dad on a typical American sitcom, I (and most of Braves fandom) was blissfully unaware of the extent of the front office upheaval that was about to erupt to the surface the very next day.
For those who haven’t been following this story, here’s what it known in a nutshell:
- The Braves are under investigation by Major League Baseball for alleged violations of “rules regarding the international player market.”
- The scandal has caused general manager John Coppolella and director of international scouting Gordon Blakeley to resign their positions, effective Monday, October 2.
- President of Baseball Operations John Hart has assumed the role of general manager until a replacement is named.
- The Washington Nationals have given the Braves permission to interview assistant general manager Doug Harris and assistant to the general manager (and former Miami Marlins general manager) Dan Jennings for the position.
There have been few details released beyond this, and it seems highly unlikely that MLB will release more information about the investigation until after the playoffs are over. Despite some early reporting from some national writers, there have very few concrete details added to the narrative so far, though there’s been a metric ton of unconfirmed reporting and speculation.
While we are all waiting to hear more about the front office turmoil as well as the results of the MLB investigation and potential penalties to be levied, I would like to take a more specific view of the next decisions for the Braves from the standpoint of the on-field product, regardless of who ends up being the front office decision-makers. In addition to moving Matt Kemp, the Braves front office — whomever that turns out to be — will have many other decisions to make.
Figure out third base
The Braves finished the 2017 season with a loose platoon of Rio Ruiz and Johan Camargo handling the hot corner. Together they hit .261/.319/.380 for the last month of the season, which isn’t in the strictest sense “good”, but on par with the offensive production of former starter Adonis Garcia, but with far superior defense. Also unlike with Garcia, this platoon has some upside, especially if manager Brian Snitker can be disciplined enough to keep with the lefty/righty platoon advantage, allowing both players to hit to their strengths, and not be tempted to tilt the platoon to one side of the other in order to ride a “hot hand”. This also has the advantage of being cheap, allowing the team to apply payroll resources elsewhere while getting more time to evaluate a more long-term potential third base solution in AA slugger Austin Riley.
During the course of this writing, our friends at the Walk-Off Walk blog published a post about potential third base solutions and came up with a score of options, and I essentially agree with their opinions on them. To that I will add a couple of options.
Martin Prado. The Marlins by all accounts are going to start a rebuild, and with Prado coming off an injury-shortened 37-game season and $28.5 million owed him on the remaining two years of his contract he seems like a prime suspect to get moved. The two years remaining is an attractive time span, and Prado is still beloved in Braves Nation for his time with Atlanta. If the Marlins would pay down some of what is owed or take back a player with guaranteed salary (Jim Johnson?), bringing Prado back to the organization would likely be both a solid option at third base and engender some good feelings for a team that could use a win with fans right now.
Eugenio Suarez. The 26-year-old Reds third baseman had a breakout offensive season, hitting .260/.367/.461 with 26 home runs. He’s eligible for arbitration for the first time this offseason, and if the Reds decide to save money, perhaps in order to re-sign shortstop Zack Cozart, Suarez would be a logical player to move, especially with top major league third base prospect Nick Senzel likely to make his major league debut sometime next season. (Hat tip to colleague Dylan Short who first brought him up to me.)
Bolster the bullpen
Perhaps no one unit of the 2017 Atlanta Braves was more disappointing than the bullpen. Only Arodys Vizcaino and Jose Ramirez broke camp with the Braves and maintained solid performances all season. The rest of that Opening Day bullpen – Ian Krol, Eric O’Flaherty, Chaz Roe, Josh Collmenter, and even closer Jim Johnson – struggled all or part of the season. Most of the players that were brought in to fill those gaps were also middling to poor, a group that included veterans Rex Brothers, Jason Motte, and Matt Wisler as well as rookies like Jason Hursh and Luke Jackson.
One of the bright spots was veteran left-hander Sam Freeman, who course-corrected a career of reverse-splits and held left-handed batters to a .189/.260/.242 batting line against him. The bullpen also got a shot-in-the-arm from good late-season performances from rookies A.J. Minter, Dan Winkler, Lucas Sims, and Akeel Morris (though Morris mysteriously didn’t get a September call-up).
Barring trades (and relief pitchers are the most fungible of all on-field assets), the 2018 Braves bullpen will likely have a core of right-handers Vizcaino, Ramirez, Johnson, and Winkler and left-handers Freeman and Minter. If the Braves again elect to go with an 8-man bullpen, that leaves two spots open. If the team elects to move Sims to the bullpen full-time, he could fill one of those spots, but I believe they will elect for the time being to keep him as a starter, either in Atlanta or back in Gwinnett. Likewise left-hander Max Fried, who had a few late-season appearances out of the Braves ‘pen. That leaves the likes of Wisler, Jackson, and Hursh; of these, Jackson likely has the most upside and Hursh the least, but they all should be AAA depth (or designated for assignment if the team needs a 40-man roster spot).
I believe the team could make a strong impact on the fortunes of the 2018 team by surging in some solid bullpen arms from outside the organization. Ideally one would be a left-hander and one a right-hander. The options are almost too many to list from free agency and trade candidates, but here’s a few ideas.
Shane Greene. The Tigers have already started their own rebuild. Greene didn’t make it as a starter, but had a breakthrough season in the bullpen for the Tigers in 2017, just in time for his first season of arbitration.
Tommy Hunter. After a couple of injury-shortened seasons, the former Rangers and Orioles veteran had a bounce-back season with Tampa Bay, pitching to a 2.61 ERA/3.07 FIP in 61 appearances on a one-year deal.
Chris Rusin. A left-hander with the Colorado Rockies, Rusin had the best season of his career, pitching to a 2.65 ERA/3.64 FIP in 60 appearances in 2017. Rusin will go into arbitration for the first time this offseason and could be a player to be moved if Colorado wants to bring back Jake McGee.
Be open to anything
If John Coppolella were still the GM, I would anticipate the issues above to be the only major moves the Braves would make this offseason. However, any new Braves GM will want to put his own mark on the team early, and the Braves will want a better product on the field in 2018 to help smooth over any unrest among the fanbase. While I am a proponent of letting the young talent that has been accumulated play out a season, here are some other moves the team could make.
Trade for a starting pitcher. While a rotation of Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Luiz Gohara, and Max Fried, Lucas Sims, or even Mike Soroka to start the 2018 season would have tremendous upside over the long-term, many fans would no doubt like to add a proven starting pitcher. The Braves have been attached to Chris Archer and Michael Fulmer in particular, and both the Rays and Tigers would be likely to deal for the right package of prospects. I could also see the Braves kick the tires on Marcus Stroman of the Blue Jays and Dan Straily of the Marlins.
Upgrade the outfield. While trading Matt Kemp should still be the Braves top on-field priority, the play of Nick Markakis in right field has not be of premium caliber either. Markakis should however be easier to trade than Kemp, and the Braves could fill one side of the outfield with Ronald Acuna and the other with another upgrade. J.D. Martinez would bring an infusion of power beyond what the Braves would lose by trading Kemp, but he likely profiles best with an American League team. Jay Bruce also caught fire after a mid-season trade, but remains a frustratingly streaky hitter. The Braves could also go for an all-round player like Lorenzo Cain of the Royals; an outfield of Cain, Acuna, and Ender Inciarte would likely rank at or near the top of best defensive outfields in the game. Then there’s old friend Justin Upton, whom the Braves have been interested in having back at least once before.
Regardless of how the front office shakes out over the next couple of weeks, this is going to be a critical off-season for the Braves. The rebuild is essentially done, and the new GM will be tasked with bringing in veteran talent to complement the young players. Manager Brian Snitker has the opportunity to blend them together to build a winning team.
And if it doesn’t work, we are likely looking at more upheaval during or after the season.