Next Steps: Complete Offseason Guide, Predictions for Atlanta Braves
A 96-win season for the Braves ended in a disappointing early exit in the NLDS at the hands of the Dodgers. But they are an extremely young team on the rise and their window of contention isn't expected to close anytime soon. The 2013 season should be seen as a stepping stone with greater things to come.
Losing catcher Brian McCann and Tim Hudson—both eligible for free agency—could hurt. But most teams aren't equipped with the depth that the Braves displayed in 2013, while those players and several others were out with injuries. They also weren't slowed much by terrible seasons from B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, who will make a combined $25.45 million this season.
The Braves could opt to stand pat this winter and still come back as one of the top contenders in the National League. But to ensure a potential drop-off, general manager Frank Wren will likely try to add depth to the roster so they are in a good position to withstand the inevitable injuries and performance declines that happen to almost every ball club around the league.
Here's everything you'll need to know before Wren and the front office get started.
The Braves only have four guaranteed contracts to pay in 2014 but three of them account for a huge chunk of the team's overall payroll. Dan Uggla, B.J. Upton (pictured) and Juston Upton will make a combined $41.7 million in 2014, while backup catcher Gerald Laird will make $1.5 million.
The 11 arbitration eligible players expected to be tendered contracts will likely make somewhere around $36 million with Jason Heyward and Kris Medlen leading the pack. And Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Mike Minor are each expected to receive substantial raises in their first year of eligibility.
If the remainder of the roster was filled out with players not yet eligible for arbitration, they'd sit somewhere around $85 million, or around $5 million less than their 2013 Opening Day payroll, according to Baseball Prospectus.
Thirteenth in baseball with an overall attendance of over 2.5 million, it wouldn't be a surprise if ownership boosted payroll closer to $100 million after a terrific season on the field. But considering how poorly two of their highest paid players—Uggla and B.J. Upton—have performed, they may be a bit gun shy when it comes to adding or re-signing a veteran with a big salary.
There will be one big name free agent—catcher Brian McCann—possibly departing after the season. And two others will be much more notable, pitchers Tim Hudson (pictured) and Eric O'Flaherty, if not for season-ending injuries.
While McCann, who will be 30 this offseason and is coming off of his seventh All Star season in eight years, is expected to command a contract that is likely beyond what the Braves will pay, Hudson and O'Flaherty could take reduced deals to stay in town.
Hudson is expected to be fully recovered from ankle surgery by next month, according to MLB Trade Rumors. This will ensure his price tag doesn't fall too much because of concerns that he'll be ready for the start of the season. But the 38-year-old may prefer to stay in Atlanta—he has homes in Georgia and Alabama—where he'd continue to serve as a mentor on a relatively young staff.
The Braves bullpen did just fine without lefty setup men O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters after both underwent Tommy John surgery in May. But with both questionable for the start of the season, there could be interest in bringing back the 28-year-old O'Flaherty, who has a 1.99 ERA in four seasons with Atlanta, on an incentive-laden deal.
Other free agents-to-be include pitchers Luis Ayala, Freddy Garcia and Paul Maholm, and, in all likelihood, outfielder Reed Johnson, who has a $1.6 million club option. The 36-year-old had a .653 OPS in 74 games and has taken a backseat to Jordan Schafer as the team's fourth outfielder.
If Hudson leaves, there's a chance Garcia or Maholm will return to give the team some back-of-the-rotation depth.
Holes to Fill
Aside from upgrading the bench, adding some rotation depth and possibly finding a new catcher if Brian McCann departs, there aren't too many holes to fill on the roster.
Sure, they can use a lot more production out of the center field and second base positions. But Dan Uggla (pictured), who was left off the NLDS roster after finishing the regular season on a 10-for-101 slump, is due $26 million over the next two seasons and would appear to be immovable. Same with B.J. Upton, who was a bust in his first year with Atlanta and is still due close to $60 million through 2017.
Adding a versatile bench player who could fill in at second base for the long-term, should Uggla's struggles continue, could be the top priority.
While McCann would be a major loss, the Braves are likely to go with slugger Evan Gattis as his replacement with Christian Bethancourt, one of the top defensive catchers in the minors, another possibility.
The rotation should also be fine with what they have in-house, including Mike Minor, Kris Medlen, Julio Teheran, Brandon Beachy and Alex Wood. Bringing Tim Hudson back, however, wouldn't be a surprise. And, at the least, adding an inexpensive veteran to serve as the No. 4 or 5 starter would take some pressure off of a young staff.
Potential Free-Agent Targets
While it's unlikely that the Braves will let Brian McCann go without making what they feel is a fair offer, it probably won't be enough as teams with more payroll space—such as the Red Sox and Rangers—should be able to outbid them.
They'll likely opt to spread their money around to improve their overall depth.
Here's a look at some projected free-agent targets who could fit their needs.
Jeff Baker, IF/OF: If Evan Gattis does take over for McCann as the team's starting catcher, the team will be looking to replace his right-handed power bat off the bench. Baker, who played with Atlanta during the last month of 2012, would likely be No. 1 on the list after he posted a .905 OPS with 11 homers while playing five different positions with Texas in 2013.
Kelly Johnson, IF/OF: A former 1st Round pick of the Braves, Johnson (pictured) posted a .786 with an average of 12 homers per season as the team's starting second baseman from 2007-2009. While he isn't likely to be named the starter if he returns this winter (he can play first base, second base, third base and left field), he could eventually supplant Uggla.
Colby Lewis, SP: After missing the entire 2013 season recovering from multiple injuries, Lewis will likely be limited to a one-year deal this offseason with a low salary base. This could suit the Braves just fine, especially if Hudson's price is out of their range. The 34-year-old had a 3.43 ERA in 16 starts in 2012 before he was shut down with an elbow injury.
Johan Santana, SP: Continuing down the line, if Hudson and a pitcher like Lewis end up being too pricey, the Braves could take a chance on a bigger risk at a much lower salary. That would be Santana, who missed all of 2013 with a shoulder injury. The two-time Cy Young award winner appears to be progressing in his rehab, as he recently tweeted.
Unless ownership approves a significant increase in payroll, the Braves might be fairly quiet in free agency. As a result, they could turn to the trade market to fill their needs as they did last winter when they acquired Justin Upton and Chris Johnson from Arizona in a deal that didn't add much to the 2013 payroll.
Here are some potential trade targets for this offseason.
Luis Valbuena, IF, Chicago Cubs: Coming off of a solid season as the Cubs' starting third baseman (.708 OPS, 12 HR), Valbuena could be the odd man out if Mike Olt gets a shot at the everyday job. He'd be welcomed with open arms by the Braves, though, as a utility infielder who could fill in exclusively at second base.
Logan Forsythe, IF/OF, San Diego Padres: His numbers dropped from 2012 when he posted a .733 OPS in 91 games, but Forsythe showed his versatility by playing shortstop and the corner outfield spots, in addition to his primary positions of second and third base. The Padres could have an overload on the bench next season, which is why he could be expendable.
Felix Doubront, SP, Boston Red Sox: The Sox will have six starters heading into the offseason and Doubront would appear to be the odd man out. That wouldn't be the case with most rotations around the league that aren't nearly as deep as Boston's—including Atlanta—that would likely pencil the 25-year-old into the No. 3 or 4 spot in their rotation.
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