Reassessing Atlanta Braves' Offseason Plan and What's Next
Major League Baseball's offseason, nicknamed the Hot Stove, is dedicated to flair, bravado and excessive free-agent contracts that often exceed $100 million. Technically, the Atlanta Braves participate in this annual ritual, but rarely does a headline exist with their name in it.
Thus far this winter, Atlanta has been in the news for off-the-field stories (Bobby Cox's Hall of Fame induction, new stadium plans) rather than on-field acquisitions. After allowing Tim Hudson and Brian McCann to walk away in free agency, the team signed Gavin Floyd to provide rotation depth and traded for Ryan Doumit to fill a unique bench role of pinch hitter, backup catcher and occasional corner outfielder.
If you expected more, this franchise isn't for you.
With a slew of young, ascending talent, the Braves don't need to make a splash to compete for a postseason berth in 2014. Instead, incremental improvements and small moves can keep the Braves near the top of the NL East for years.
Yet, there's still some business to tend to in Atlanta before the 2014 season begins.
Here's what should be next for the Atlanta Braves.
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference, unless otherwise noted. Signings are via MLB Depth Charts. Contract information is from Cot's Baseball Contracts.
Trade Dan Uggla
When the Atlanta Braves signed Dan Uggla to a five-year, $62 million contract in 2011, the former Marlins second baseman was one of the most prodigious sluggers in the history of the position.
With an .837 career OPS in 3,372 plate appearances, Uggla owned what would now rank as the ninth-highest slugging percentage in the history of the second base position. He was a lock for 30-plus home runs from a position that rarely saw home run hitters of that magnitude.
What he lacked in defense or speed could be made up with raw power.
Unfortunately for the Braves, that ability is fading fast.
After slugging 36 home runs in his first year in Atlanta, the 33-year-old has slipped to 19 and 22, respectively, over the last two seasons. Due to a decline in home runs, Uggla's OPS marks have fallen from .877 in 2010 to .671 in 2013. At this point, he's a borderline starter at best.
Due to a contract that guarantees him $26 million through the 2015 season, Atlanta is stuck with a player that is hurting it.
Yet, as we saw in the midst of a pennant race last season, sunk costs won't dictate how Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez constructs his lineup card. For the first time in Uggla's career, he started fewer than 140 games. When the postseason rolled around, the Braves left him off the NLDS roster.
If the Braves aren't willing to play him every day, the team needs to search for a trade partner willing to take a shot at resurrecting his career. Overpaying a poor player is a difficult roster issue, but sitting a $13 million former star is too much for Atlanta to handle.
Give B.J. Upton a Fresh Start
Unlike Dan Uggla, it's not time to give up on B.J. Upton in Atlanta.
The former Tampa Bay Rays star, one year removed from signing a five-year, $72.25 million deal with the Braves, had a nightmare season in 2013. The numbers weren't just bad—they were ghastly. From the .184 batting average to the 53 OPS+, Upton profiled as the worst offensive performer in the sport.
Yet, at the age of 29, Upton's career isn't over. One year hasn't changed the fact that Atlanta saw a player that was an all-around athlete capable of hitting for power, playing excellent defense and stealing bases at a prolific rate.
When Upton was at his best, literally no other outfielder in baseball was like him.
From 2007-2012, the six years Upton spent as a starter for Tampa Bay, he was the only outfielder in the sport to produce at least 100 home runs and 200 stolen bases. During that span, his 16.2 WAR ranked 10th among all center fielders.
With four years and over $58 million left on his deal, the Braves can't move on from Upton the way they should from Uggla. That day may eventually come, but it shouldn't happen this winter.
When Atlanta pieced together an outfield of B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton, the young, versatile group of stars were poised to dominate together for years. The first year didn't work as planned, but it's not over yet.
Talk Contract Extensions with Young Stars
A quick look at Atlanta's current salary commitments paints two distinct pictures: With only around $55 million committed to the payroll in 2014, the Braves are reaping the benefits of having young, cost-controlled stars littered throughout their roster.
The flip side of that spectrum: Those stars are poised to become very expensive, very quickly.
If Atlanta general manager Frank Wren avoids the pitfalls of free agency this winter, he should allocate money for contract extensions to young stars like Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Mike Minor and Andrelton Simmons.
Buying out arbitration years now, before these players ascend into perennial All-Star-caliber talents, can save the franchise major headaches down the line.
In particular, Heyward's case should be pressing. Although he's not a free agent until after the 2015 season, suitors will be lining up to outbid Atlanta when that day arrives. Through Heyward's age-23 season, his 115 OPS+ ranks 27th in the history of baseball among players with at least 18 WAR at that career juncture.
Furthermore, Baseball-Reference lists Barry Bonds as the second-most comparable player to Heyward through their respective age-23 campaigns.
Avoiding free agency is fine, but the Braves need to reinvest their payroll in homegrown stars before it's too late.
Find a New Leader
Over the last two decades, the Braves have been blessed with some of the best and most accountable veteran leaders in the sport.
From John Smoltz to Chipper Jones to Tim Hudson to Brian McCann, the torch was passed from generation to generation in Atlanta.
Now, along with longtime manager Bobby Cox, all are gone. Smoltz, flanked by Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, will soon join Cox in the Hall of Fame. McCann is now an on-field general in New York for the Yankees. Hudson has taken his veteran leadership back to the Bay Area with the Giants.
In order for the Braves to continue their run of consistency, new leaders must emerge. When Atlanta assesses which young players to lock up with long-term extensions, this point will be bantered about in the Braves front office.
The current list of candidates (Freddie Freeman, Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, Kris Medlen) is long, but the players will ultimately decide who those true leaders turn out to be.
When spring training arrives, Fredi Gonzalez and the Atlanta staff must make it clear to those players, along with other ascending talents, that the onus is now on them to lead by example. Vocal leadership is fine but not imperative.
Instead, the new leaders must emerge to carry out the day-to-day virtues that have made the Braves a model of consistency for decades.