Without question, this offseason has been a success for the Atlanta Braves. Once the 2019 season concluded, the Braves had needs in the bullpen, behind the plate, in the rotation, in the middle of their order, and at third base. Before the Winter Meetings began, the Braves had found answers for the first three needs, and satisfying answers at that with such signings as Will Smith, Travis D’arnaud, Chris Martin, and Cole Hamels. The Braves clearly showed they were motivated to correct the nearly two decade long narrative that they could reach the postseason, but not advance.
Despite every other question being answered, the one remaining question arguably carried the biggest significance: middle of the order producer. With a need at third base as well, resigning fan favorite Josh Donaldson made perfect sense as the big move to cap off the offseason. However, Donaldson eventually found his future in Minnesota, as Atlanta simply did not feel comfortable with his desired length of a contract. As a result, the Braves still needed to find an answer for their lineup, but now had fewer options to consider.
Just as he had done earlier in the offseason, Alex Anthopoulos was quick to respond. Six days after Donaldson headed north, the Braves signed perplexing yet intriguing outfielder Marcell Ozuna. Many had reported the Braves interest in Ozuna throughout the offseason, yet it seemed Atlanta wanted to see where other options would settle first. Though perhaps not the ideal option as the main protection for the Braves heralded trio of Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, and Freddie Freeman, Ozuna was a sensible alternative for the Braves. Add in the fact that his one year, $18M deal with Atlanta seems like an absolute steal of a deal compared to other contracts similar talents signed this offseason, Ozuna easily became an attractive addition for Atlanta that they could not pass on.
After all the aforementioned moves and with the season being right around the corner, the Braves seem to be in just as good of a position to contend as they have been over the past two years. The Braves current roster for the 2020 season seems to have less question marks about it than the 2018 and 2019 versions of the Braves, and early projections seem to indicate that Atlanta is currently a top 3 team in the National League. However, recent comments by Alex Anthopoulos over the weekend seem to indicate that the Braves have the resources, and have had the discussions, to add more in the right situation to strengthen their position as a contender.
These comments at Chopfest are as close to a confirmation as we have had during Anthopoulos’s time as the Braves general manager that Atlanta truly does have the means to go “all in” and “over the top” as a contender. Without a doubt, the Braves financial flexibility and deep supply of tradable assets are wonderful. However, the value of these characteristics is truly defined by how they are utilized.
When they have utilized their finances or assets on signings or trades in the past, Anthopoulos and Atlanta have preached that both the timing and the target had to be right to make a move. With that mindset, in terms of needs and narratives, there is no better time than now. Furthermore, in terms of truly making a move that will allow Atlanta to take full advantage of its strong position to contend, there is no better target currently than Kris Bryant. Here are a few reasons why:
Position Player Versatility
It is hard to find many things to complain about during a 97-win campaign. However, that likelihood increases when the main reason behind those 97 wins combines to go 10-72 in a five game playoff loss in the NLDS. There had been plenty of debate as to whether the Braves should have rested their position players more. While it is hard to determine rather a lack of rest caused the injuries and ineffectiveness that ended the Braves 2019 season, it is also hard to argue more rest is a negative thing.
If the Braves were to acquire Bryant, it becomes easier to keep players fresh. With Bryant’s ability to play the outfield and third base, different lineups and fielding variations can be more frequently used. Not only does this keep players fresh, it also allows for a deeper bench and better options to utilize in late game situations to earn needed victories. Without a doubt, Bryant would be the Braves third baseman most days. However, if his acquisition could also allow other regulars an extra week or two of rest, it could help lower the chance of injuries or struggles once the playoffs arrive.
If you look at the Championship Series Participants over the past five years, 15 of the 20 teams finished in the top ten of wRC+ in the majors. Though pitching and defense also matter (along with that Damn Devil Magic), the teams that can hit the ball consistently ( with or without aid) usually stand a good chance of advancing in October. Atlanta was a top ten offense in 2019, and produced plenty of chances to advance against St. Louis. Unfortunately, a series win was simply not in the “Cards” (pun fully intended.)
Anthopoulos himself has experienced the success of this trend. When the Toronto Blue Jays advanced to the ALCS in 2015 and 2016, they ranked first and sixth in wRC+, respectively. When Anthopoulos signed Donaldson despite it not being a necessity due to the presence of Johan Camargo’s 2018 breakout and Austin Riley’s potential, he still made the move to maximize the offensive potential of the Braves. For most of 2019, it worked.
Anthopoulos again showed his preference for high level offense by signing Ozuna when there was arguably a bigger need to fill at third base. However, it seems likely that Ozuna will fall short of delivering the offensive value Donaldson provided last year. Though Bryant himself may not reach Donaldson’s 2019 level of production, the combination of both Ozuna and Bryant would potentially allow the Braves lineup in 2020 to be better than it was in 2019. If that becomes a reality, a lineup with the addition of Bryant could be one of the best in franchise history.
Future Cost Control
Beyond his preference for offense, Anthopoulos has also clearly shown a preference for short term contracts. The signings of names such as Anibal Sanchez, Dallas Keuchel, and Donaldson prove that Anthopoulos and his staff are very good at identifying short-term, low risk, high reward targets to support their young core. Each of these players have signed multi-year contracts elsewhere, contracts that carried enough long term risk to prevent the Braves from investing in these players.
Though Anthopoulos made it clear he wanted Donaldson back, he also made it clear that minimizing risk and maximizing flexibility are the priorities for his future budgets. He accomplished both of these goals with the extensions given to Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies in 2019, while also giving the Braves one of the best young offensive duos to build around for the foreseeable future. He also increased the likelihood of being able to extend other talents such as Freddie Freeman and Mike Soroka when their contracts deem it necessary in the future.
While Anthopoulos’s past financial moves provide good value for the future, they may have even more value in the present. With several of Atlanta’s best talents still being paid under market prices for the next few years, the Braves had the room to pay premium talents such as Ozuna and Hamels. Furthermore, since those contracts are only one year pacts, the Braves will again have plenty of money to work with next offseason. As a result, despite his cost likely nearing 45 million between 2020 and 2021, the Braves have the room to comfortably add Bryant into the mix.
The fact that Bryant is only under contract for two more years carries value itself. It would allow Anthopoulos to maintain a good amount of financial flexibility beyond 2021. The certainty of Bryant becoming a free agent in two years makes him a more attractive target than other options with longer and more complicated contracts, such as Kyle Seager and Nolan Arenado. The settling of his grievance also makes his potential cost in terms of prospects more certain to gauge. The Braves can now feel comfortable paying a significant prospect cost for him since he will be around for two years. And, due to such team friendly budget projections over the next few years, they could get an extended opportunity to make Bryant a long term answer for the Braves. Overall, adding Bryant seems to provide more sensible and successful outcomes financially than other targets the Braves have been connected to.
A few weeks ago, the Braves were recognized has having the best farm system of the decade, mainly due to the offensive talents they have developed over the past several years. However, while the current roster has such a bright future due to several home grown talents, the Braves also have experienced the downside of holding on to so many prospects.
Though names such as Riley, Wright, Wilson, and Newcomb are certainly not busts on the level of the Goharas of past years, their potential value in trades arguably have dipped a bit due to flaws being exposed at the major league level. Though this happens more often than not with top prospects, the potential of the opinion of these players dropping could make them less valuable as trade chips. With other top prospects on the way, if these names were to again struggle in 2020, Atlanta likely will have missed out on maximizing their value as trade chips to improve their World Series chances.
As a result, along with future roster decisions becoming more and more difficult, turning the current significant trade value these players possess into a more certain, difference-making talent makes a lot of sense. For Atlanta, the ideal outcome would be each of these players turning their significant potential into significant production during the 2020 season. However, the more logical approach could be trading some of that potential for more certain and significant production in Kris Bryant for this year and beyond.
Without a doubt, Alex Anthopoulos’s patient approach during his time with Atlanta has paid off for the Braves. Keeping the Braves plethora of young and extremely talented players in tact has allowed Anthopoulos to create one of the highest floors of future success in baseball. As a result, he also has created a good reason to make a move that could provide the high reward of significantly improving the Braves’ World Series chances.
An argument could be made that Anthopoulos could simply go with what he has into the season, and make moves as needs arise. However, when the Braves had clear needs after their playoff series, Anthopoulos aggressively found resolutions mere days into the offseason. While he was very successful in his trade deadline moves last year, it also seems unlikely that Anthopoulos could gain a player with the potential of Bryant. If Atlanta’s roster were to experience an injury or regression to a significant talent, having Bryant at the start of the season is the best way to minimize any negative impact. As a result, making the move to acquire him now seems to be a prudent philosophy.
For a man that is very careful and directed with his words and actions, Anthopoulos has always made moves that proved to be quite sensible over time. The timing, logic, and need for an acquisition on the level of Kris Bryant are very well aligned. Many around the Braves and their fans have strongly supported a return of the Toronto version of Anthopoulos that made franchise-altering moves every year. The difference between now and then is that Anthopoulos’s efforts in Atlanta have likely put him in a better position than he ever was in Toronto to confidently make the “go for it” move that will truly allow his team to matchup with anyone in pursuit of a World Series.