Now that the rush of the Winter Meetings has passed, we’ll turn our focus to other potential moves that could be forthcoming as “The Johns” continue their quest to transform the organization’s system into the best in the game. The question recently being asked by many in the industry has been “Why not go ‘all the way’ while you’re at it?” In other words, now that you’ve “mailed it in” in 2016 – and potentially 2017 as well – why not go ahead and gut the big club’s roster and add even more prospects to the impressive pile you’ve already built? While it would sting for a little bit, I’ve been in the minority who have thought that should be the goal for some time now. For the record, I’ve been in favor of beginning a rebuild for a few years – while the team was exciting to watch with the Uptons, Jason Heyward, and Evan Gattis in the lineup, I also felt that it just didn’t have that “it” that it was going to take to get over the hump and win another Championship, and the window that it had with those guys was rapidly closing if payroll couldn’t be increased.
There are compelling arguments that can be made for either stance as the answer to that question. It’s completely understandable for younger Braves fans to be impatient – 2015 was the worst season they’d experienced in their lives. That said, the older generation saw much worse in the dark days (the late 70s through the beginning of “The Run” with the exception of Dale Murphy’s two MVP seasons). That crowd tends to feel that sacrificing a couple seasons is more than OK with them as long as they don’t have to go through that again.
Since I’ve already tipped my hand about my view, I’ll explain the reasoning a bit and take a look at what doing so could mean moving forward…
History has taught us that ALL MLB teams tend to get a pass for the first season when they open a shiny new ballpark, regardless of whether they’ve got a competitive product on the field. That first season always seems to be about fans experiencing the new digs – checking out the new statues, restaurants, fanstores, video boards, distractions for the kids, and everything else that contributes to the live fan experience at the park. It’s the excitement surrounding all the “extras” that typically get the home team 81 sellouts during that first year. The brass has said all the right things and done the politically correct thing by not mentioning that they’re well aware of that fact, but you can bet that they – better than the rest of us – have known that all along and that it has influenced their decision-making process (whether they’ll ever admit it or not).
The diehards who “just” go for the games miss all that, but they also tend to understand what’s going on behind the scenes – if they see what’s on the horizon, they’ll always be there. THIS is the reason it should be clear (now, at least) that 2017 was never meant to be a specific date for a return to relevance as opposed to having things lined up for a chance to have another sustained period of success. Even the “serious fans” don’t usually look more than a couple years into the future when talking about the moves they think their team should make, so it’s understandable when even they don’t necessarily recognize the long-term potential when the front office “punts” a season or two. Building a system that’s as deep with potential major league contributors as the Braves have puts you in a position to trade those you don’t commit to building around to fill any holes you may have in the future – and often players that fill those holes that come WITHOUT having $25 million/year contracts attached.
Having watched (and questioned) the Astros’, Cubs’, and now the Braves’ approach to loading up with the future in mind has now led some of the national media to turn their focus to questions like “Where is this all going to eventually lead?” rather than “Why on earth did they make that trade?” with only the next couple of years in mind. For instance, you’re beginning to hear the talk show hosts and MLB Network analysts discuss the 2018 free-agent class rather than just the players that are left this winter and the ones that will potentially be available next winter. That class may very well become the best free-agent class in MLB history, with players such as Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson, Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, Manny Machado, Andrew McCutchen, Dallas Keuchel, Adam Jones, Michael Brantley, Adam Wainright, Adrian Gonzalez, Dee Gordon, A. J. Pollock, Garrett Richards, Shelby Miller, Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, David Robertson, potentially available as well as Clayton Kershaw, David Price, and Jason Heyward potentially opting out of their contracts.
The above names should help bring absolute clarity to those who still don’t quite grasp what “The Plan” is. When Sid Slid’s 2018 Braves’ projected lineup currently looks like…
CF- Mallex Smith, 2B- Ozhaino Albies. SS- Dansby Swanson, 1B- Freddie Freeman, 3B- Austin Riley, RF- Ender Inciarte, LF- Hector Olivera, C- Free-Agent/Lucas Herbert/International Signing
Rotation- Sean Newcomb, Julio Teheran, Max Fried, Aaron Blair, Kolby Allard
Pen- Shae Simmons, Mike Foltynewicz, Manny Banuelos, Arodys Vizcaino, Lucas Sims, Tyrell Jenkins, and Matt Wisler
*** None of the players listed above will have salaries of any consequence other than Freeman ($21 million in 2018) and Teheran ($8 million in 2018).
Yes, it’s risky to project any of those players to become All-Stars since they’re currently a couple years away from contributing, and we’re all aware of the attrition rate for pitching prospects. However, it appears that the current management realizes the position it’s currently in and the benefit adding a few more high-end prospects could provide.
Given the fact that Braves’ Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk has already openly stated that payroll will increase “significantly” (into the Top 10 in MLB) beginning January 1st, 2017, it would now appear that it’s the perfect time to continue dismantling the big club in an effort to gather even more pieces that would be assets 2-3 years from now as opposed to gambling on potential long-term “answers” that aren’t slam-dunks. While it seemed short-sighted for John Coppollela to say that he’d “cut his right arm off” before trading Freeman, it makes much more sense when you look at that list of potentially available players and consider the rate salaries for free-agents continue to grow each year. An All-Star caliber 1B for 4 years and $86 million may still be a “steal” in 2018. Even with Freeman making $21 million, overall projected payroll would be in the $50-$60 million range in 2018. If you expect payroll to climb into the Top 10 (with the current rate of inflation), you’re looking at around $150-$160 million. That would put the Braves in a position to go out and spend ~ $30 million/year each to bring in THREE free-agents to plug holes. When you imagine that, the possibilities are endless. You want a balanced lineup? How about…
2B- Gordon, SS- Swanson, 3B- Machado or Donaldson, 1B- Freeman, LF- Riley, RF- Inciarte, C- ???, CF- Smith
You want an even deeper rotation with a proven “Ace” at the top? How about…
Fernandez or Harvey, Newcomb, Shelby Miller, Fried or Allard, Blair/Sims/Jenkins/Wisler
You want an even more bulletproof pen? How about…
Miller, Simmons, Fried or Allard, Vizcaino, Folty, Banuelos, Jenkins/Wisler
While I certainly wouldn’t expect the Braves to go out and get three of those guys, they’d be in a position to if they so chose. When being wined and dined, wouldn’t you imagine those guys would love to hear “we’re going to spend $100 million on free-agents this winter to go from worst-to-first and become a dynasty again, and we envision Gordon at the top of our lineup with you and Freeman in the middle and Matt Harvey fronting the rotation for years to come with the best farm system in baseball to support you with.” That’d be a pretty tough pitch to turn down.
The organization seems poised to go on an international spending spree this summer, adding several potential impact players. It also currently owns 5 of the top 110 picks in the 2016 Rule IV Draft, giving them an opportunity to duplicate their 2015 haul. This should put them in a position to cover for the inevitable pitching prospect flameouts for several years, and even allow them to deal from some of their current depth moving forward. The future may now be as bright as it’s ever been – including the beginning of “The Run”.
If the brass does decide to move current assets like Teheran, Inciarte, Nick Markakis, Erick Aybar, and A. J. Pierzynski, the focus should be on a legitimate long-term, controllable answer behind the plate (Willson Contreras, Max Pentecost, Gary Sanchez, Austin Barnes, Chance Sisco) and potential impact prospects from the lower levels (Eloy Jimenez, Daz Cameron, Kyle Tucker, Garrett Whitley, and Demi Orimoloye) rather than players who are closer to contributing like Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, and others if they’re not COMPLETELY sold on them.