New years always seem to lead to new ideas and new hope. While the clock was counting down on 2015, it suddenly occurred to me that the Braves could very quietly sneak in and top off their winter by adding a seemingly forgotten player that could not only inexpensively bolster the team’s offense over the next couple of seasons while also bridging the gap to the future with a move I hadn’t yet considered. The addition of new CF Ender Inciarte (coming over from Arizona in the Shelby Miller trade) should help, but he doesn’t bring the skillset to generate lots of runs on his own.
There’s little doubt the team needs to improve substantially on the offensive side of the game if it hopes to keep from flirting with a 100-loss 2016 campaign. The most obvious “hole” the team has is a 20-25 HR power source (preferably right-handed) to slot behind Freddie Freeman in the lineup. The 2015 Braves finished 30th in runs per game (3.54 – .24/game less than the Marlins), 30th in runs (573 – 40 fewer than the Marlins), and 30th in HRs (100 – 20 less than the Marlins). While the obvious “quick fix” is still available on the free-agent market in the form of a Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes, those players will require substantial long-term commitments in both years (5+) and dollars (likely in excess of $100 million).
Since the organization doesn’t appear to be keen on the idea of bringing someone in at those levels, here’s one option that I feel could help quite a bit without being a power guy…
One of the stated goals “The Johns” mentioned when discussing details about the makeover was a desire to get away from swing-and-miss players on offense, instead focusing on players who excel at putting the ball in play and “keeping the line moving”. Signing players like Nick Markakis and trading for players like Inciarte and new SS Erick Aybar (obtained in the Andrelton Simmons deal) fit that mold perfectly. While they’re not players who necessarily help you score runs quickly, they are the type of hitters who will help keep innings going by putting pressure on opposing defenses by forcing them to catch the ball and make all the plays. Another player who really fits that mold is Howie Kendrick.
While Jace Peterson showed flashes of being a decent hitter at times in his first taste of baseball at the MLB level, he may not ultimately develop into an everyday player. That said, 2B isn’t expected to be a long-term concern at this point with a projected middle infield consisting of Ozhaino Albies and Dansby Swanson as early as late 2017.
Kendrick is a 32 year old former All-Star 2B whose market seems to have crumbled this winter. His most recent team (the Dodgers) appear to have chosen to move in another direction. The Yankees picked up Starlin Castro in a trade with the Cubs. The Cubs replaced Castro with Ben Zobrist. The other New York team traded for Neil Walker. The Nationals signed former Met Daniel Murphy. The Royals not only lost Zobrist but still owe former Brave Omar Infante $17.75 million through 2017. Howie is also very familiar with current SS Aybar – the two teamed together as the Angels double-play combo for years before the Dodgers traded for him. While neither is a Gold Glove caliber defender these days, their familiarty with each other certainly couldn’t hurt when they’re in the field.
The Braves have in the neighborhood of $20-ish million left available to spend this winter. They could have more than that if recent signees Emilio Bonifacio and Gordon Beckham were released early on in camp (the reasoning behind offering either player major league deals so early continues to escape me), and if they jettison Kyle Kendrick and Jhoulys Chacin (who were signed to minor league deals). While it would also make sense to question the addition of a veteran who comes with draft pick compensation attached, offering Kendrick a 2 year/$14 million deal to bridge the gap to the kids would give Atlanta a completely balanced lineup full of exactly the type of hitters the front office is said to covet (career statistics listed)…
1.) CF- Inciarte (Left – .291 BA, .328 OBP, 10.9% K-Rate, 96 OPS+)
2.) 2B- Kendrick (Right – .293 BA, .333 OBP, 17.2% K-Rate, 108 OPS+)
3.) 1B- Freeman (Left – .285 BA, .366 OBP, 20.8% K-Rate, 129 OPS+)
4.) 3B/LF- Adonis Garcia (Right – .277 BA, .293 OBP, 17.7% K-Rate, 116 OPS+)
5.) C- A. J. Pierzynski (Left – .282 BA, .322 OBP, 11.5% K-Rate, 96 OPS+)
6.) LF/3B- Hector Olivera (Right – .253 BA, .310 OBP, 13.8% K-Rate, 99 OPS+)
7.) RF- Markakis (Left – .291 BA, .359 OBP, 12.9% K-Rate, 112 OPS+)
8.) SS- Aybar (Switch – .276 BA, .315 OBP, 11.3% K-Rate, 93 OPS+)
While it’s completely understandable that the brass would seem to be changing direction somewhat if the team gave up a draft pick to sign someone at this juncture, it’s also not impossible to justify doing so – the competition in the NL East hasn’t gotten better this winter, their #3 overall pick is protected (meaning they should add at least one more impact prospect in June), they plan to spend big internationally this July (adding several more potentially impactful kids to the system), and the pick they’d lose would be a Competitive Balance pick they obtained in the trade that brought Olivera to them.
Just to add a little fuel to the fire for those who believe being relevant as early as 2017 is attainable, you could argue that giving up that draft pick could help the organization meet that time frame IF it was willing to expand payroll a little bit this winter (which both Terry McGuirk and John Schuerholz have said they have the OK to do as long as doing so is justifiable from a baseball standpoint). Doing so would require relying on the belief that the young pitching talent the Braves have already stockpiled is going to produce enough rotation pieces from within to be able to compete for a Championship in the not-so-distant future. That already seems to be what the front office believes, so would giving that pick up to bring in TWO impact bats be acceptable?
Reports surfaced today that the White Sox and Orioles are apparently the most likely teams willing to meet the AAV demands for Yoenis Cespedes’ services, but are also apparently not interested in signing him for more than three years (http://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2016/01/white-sox-rumors-cespedes-gordon-three-years.html). If that truly is the case, would it be prudent to try to sneak in and offer him a 4-5 year deal in the $100-$110 million range with an opt-out after two years? Gambling on him at that point becomes a much lower-risk/higher reward proposition. If you believe in the young arms (and I do), you’ve bridged every gap while adding lots of offense AND that right-handed power bat to protect Freeman. If Cespedes performs like he did last season, he doesn’t substantially affect the long-term budget (Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher come off the books following this season and would cover his 2017 salary, and he likely opts-out when the monstrous 2018 free-agent class becomes available). If he doesn’t, you still have that power threat behind Freddie in the lineup through 2019 or 2020.
You then turn 3B into an open competition between Olivera and Garcia, with the loser (the one who is the lesser defender this spring) becoming a solid bat off a bench that has of a little pop, a little speed, and players that can fill-in wherever needed:
C- Tyler Flowers, 3B/LF- Garcia/Olivera, RF/1B- Swisher, CF/LF- Bourn, 2B/3B/SS- Peterson
That kind of offense supporting the starters would relieve some of the pressure of immediately reaching their ceilings. If they even come close, a late 2016/early 2017 rotation consisting of Sean Newcomb, Julio Teheran, Aaron Blair, and a back-end of Matt Wisler/Mike Foltynewicz/Manny Banuelos/Lucas Sims/Tyrell Jenkins could conceivably make Atlanta legitimate contenders WITHOUT seriously altering the long-term plans.