For all that went right as the Braves reached their first National League Championship Series since 2001 — young pitching finding its groove in a record-setting postseason, Freddie Freeman taking MVFree to the big stage — the one-year bet that Marcell Ozuna and Atlanta took on each other was at the top of the list.
The NL’s leader in home runs and RBI, Ozuna delivered six extra-base hits in the playoffs, including two HRs in Game 4 against the Dodgers in the NLCS, and the free agent enters the offseason as one of the most sought-after bats on the market.
Bringing Ozuna and his neon sleeve back to Truist Park was a point of conversation for Alex Anthopoulos during Tuesday’s media availability, but as the general manager alludes to, the economics of baseball right now are ... complicated.
“I’d love to have him back,” Anthopoulos said. “I certainly plan on having discussions. But just a day after we got back, there is uncertainty in so many areas. I’m not trying to be cryptic or to foreshadow. We’re going to have to work hard to get as many answers as we can from a revenue standpoint, a [designated hitter] standpoint, all of those things. But there’s no doubt he was tremendous for us. He fit in great, and we’d love to have him be a part of what we’re doing going forward.”
In those comments lies one of the biggest mysteries surrounding this offseason: revenue and how it will impact the available dollars for free agents. With an abbreviated season, no fans and less television dollars coming in, the simple truth is that we just don’t know.
Call it a cloudy forecast or just a dose of reality, but Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly said this week at the Milken Institute Global Conference “I think we’re looking for 2022 to start to feel normal again, while we work through this in 2021.” He was speaking about the fan experience, but it’s all tied to the amount of dollars teams feel they can put toward player acquisitions, and if Boehly is right and we remain with a muted version of attendance in 2021 (think the limited capacity of 11,500 at Globe Life Field, site of the NLCS and World Series), it’s going to affect team spending.
“In terms of what we’ll have for 2021, if I had a number, I wouldn’t tell you just from a competitive standpoint,” Anthopoulos said. “But we haven’t had that discussion, and there’s a lot of uncertainty. Will we have fans? What will the revenues be? But those are questions for the world, and likely all of sports. We’ll have to work through that uncertainty. But the focus and the goals will be the same. We want to put the best team on the field that we can and get back to a position to win a World Series.”
We’ll have at least some idea in the coming weeks how much the current environment has affected the Braves. Liberty Media president and chief executive officer Greg Maffei will host a conference call on Nov. 5 to discuss the conglomerate’s third-quarter earnings. If it’s anything like the last breakdown — where the Braves were have shown to go from a year-over-year $36 million operating profit to a $30 million loss — things could be dire, despite the fact that there is north of $70 million coming off the books from the 2020 payroll.
The Braves, as part of a publicly operated company, at least have to disclose those figures, but it’s naive to think this isn’t going to impact the available dollars for all 30 teams.
An offseason priority is going to be making sure Freeman, who is a free agent after 2021, remains in an Atlanta uniform. Then there’s the matter of Shane Greene and Mark Melancon walking as well — not to mention Tyler Flowers and Nick Markakis — and manager Brian Snitker has a club option for the 2021 season.
The point is, there’s much to do for the Braves this winter, and as we wait for the Dodgers and Rays to play out the World Series, the Starting Nine has some bold predictions for the three-time defending NL East champions.
1. Ozuna signs a two-year deal
The argument can be made that Ozuna, who was third in wRC+ (179) and 11th in fWAR (2.5), while hitting an NL-best 22 home runs with 52 RBI, is among the few free agents that are going to get paid, regardless of what impact COVID-19 had on the game’s financial health. But the uncertainty is real and if the Dodgers co-owner is right, Ozuna — who wrote the above love letter to Atlanta — staying in a Braves uniform while the money side of the game recovers makes sense. It’s not going to be cheap, with Spotrac forecasting an average annual market value of $20.1 million, and if the designated hitter is here to stay in the NL it’s going to mean even more suitors. Anthopoulos struck gold in having reclamation projects Josh Donaldson and Ozuna both deliver on their one-year gambles, but the Braves can’t afford to think they can pull it off by letting Ozuna walk and finding a third player to plug into the lineup for a year to rebuild his value. Here’s forecasting Ozuna will sign a two-year deal for $36 million.
2. Freddie gets his extension
This will be one of the first dominoes in the Braves offseason, with the Braves avoiding a season of Freeman and the front office deflecting questions about the four-time All-Star’s future. Like his mentor Chipper Jones, he wants to retire a Braves; the Braves want him to retire a Brave, so get to the podium already. The first baseman was among the topics Anthopoulos hit on Tuesday, saying “He’s someone we plan on and expect to have as a Brave for a long time. I know he plans on that as well. When that time comes, hopefully, it will be the first time you hear about it. Like with any contract, we’re going to work real hard to keep that quiet, because we don’t want daily questions of the players, manager and coaches. It just makes it hard to get deals done. He’s a key part of this organization. The hope and the plan is he’ll be a part of it going forward.” Entering his Age-31 season at the height of his powers — Freeman is the likely NL MVP after tying for the MLB lead with a 3.4 fWAR to go with finishing second with a 187 wRC+, .456 wOBA and 1.102 OPS — the 11-year veteran is on the books for $22 million in 2021. He’s not due Mookie Betts money, with the outfielder inking a $365 million deal with the Dodgers that included a $65 million signing bonus, but the use of the bonus could be a working foundation for Anthopoulos, who comes from the Andrew Friedman school of front-office running. The Braves could keep Freeman at a similar AAV ($22-$23M) while maintaining a club-friendly deal with a bonus spread evenly across the seasons for payroll purposes. Six years north of $200 with the bonus and Freeman remains the foundation of the Braves through at least age 37.
3. ... and so does Snitker
Brian Snitker signed a two-year extension in 2018 that included a club option for the 2021 season and it was curious that Anthopoulos didn’t take advantage of Tuesday’s media session to make the announcement that it had been picked up, with that same end-of-the-year availability when the manager’s deal was made public two years ago. Nonetheless, Snitker isn’t likely to be going anywhere after successfully defending the division crown for a second time and making it one win from a spot in the World Series. Expect some alterations to the coaching staff given the base-running missteps against the Dodgers as the Braves look to put an emphasis on the finer points of the game, but Snitker remains beloved among his players. This deal will go beyond picking up the 2021 option — let’s call it a redo of his last contract — offering a sense of security for Freeman as you look to lock up the remainder of what figure to be your first baseman’s most productive years.
4 ... and so does Swanson
Entering his second year of arbitration, now may be the time for the Braves to buy out the last two of those years, as well as — at a minimum — Dansby Swanson’s first year of free agency. Truncated season or not, Swanson stayed healthy throughout and had a career year with 116 wRC+, a .348 wOBA and .889 OPS and was tied for fifth in fWAR (1.9) among shortstops along with the Red Sox’s Xander Bogaerts and Dodgers’ Corey Seager and went on to hit .267/.333/.556 in the postseason with three home runs, two doubles and a triple. Is this the height or the new floor for Swanson? If it’s the latter, Atlanta shouldn’t wait to find out. The price tag gets sticky, as the company Swanson kept in 2020 included a $20 million a year player in Bogaerts, while Seager made $7.6 million. Meanwhile, the Braves signed Ozzie Albies in 2019 — five years for $35 million — to an extension that was considered grand larceny and the second baseman has been far more productive than Swanson, averaging 4.2 fWAR the past two seasons before injury limited him to 12 regular-season games. It’s unlikely the Braves can get Swanson at the below-market value they locked Albies up at, but an AAV around between $8-$10 million seems about right after a breakout year at a premium position.
In a world with so many batters obsessing about hitting the ball into the air, it seems especially noteworthy that nobody who threw even half as many pitches as free agent Marcus Stroman did from 2017-2019 had a lower average launch angle on balls in play.— Codify, Inc. (@CodifyBaseball) October 20, 2020
5. The Braves bring in another blast from Anthopoulos’ past
Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Ian Anderson’s names will all eventually be etched in concrete as far as who makes up the rotation, but Soroka may not be back by Opening Day as he recovers from an Achilles injury, with the expected recovery time of 6-7 months putting him back in April or May. Add in glimpses but not enough consistency from Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright and the uncertainty with Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb’s roles and it’s clear Atlanta is going to have to add at least one starter to the mix for next season. While the Cole Hamels deal blew up in their faces, Anthopoulos and Snitker love having a veteran presence, and it would be stunning if they didn’t bring another one in. Trevor Bauer would be a welcome addition given the edge he showed in the playoffs (and his ability to break out the chop), but his desire to stick to one-year contracts could make what he’ll command difficult to match, especially in this climate. One of Anthopoulos’ favorites from his past could make a ton of sense, so don’t rule out a reunion with Marcus Stroman, who Anthopoulos was with in Toronto. The 29-year-old didn’t throw an inning for the Mets this season due to a tear in his calf, but much like with Donaldson, the GM knows the player’s ability and his impact on a clubhouse. It would seem a practical pairing, with the potential of a pitching version of Donaldson/Ozuna on a one-year pact.
6. Markakis returns to Baltimore
The opt-out, opt-in 2020 of Nick Markakis was statistically the worst season of his 15-year career. He hit a paltry 65 percent below league average and had the first negative fWAR (minus-0.4) of his career. He went over the 500-doubles mark but remains 612 hits away from 3,000 and playing in just 37 games in this shortened season has to make that milestone feel miles away, as does his entering his Age-37 season after the worst production he’s had. If Markakis doesn’t decide to call it a career, it’s unlikely it continues in Atlanta, where the Cristian Pache era has arrived, further crowding the outfield picture with Drew Waters waiting in the wings. A return to the Orioles, the team where it all started for Markakis, could be a fitting final chapter as he would bring veteran leadership to a team that had the second-youngest average players age (27.4) in 2020 and yet made a run at a wild-card spot.
7. Inciarte is on someone else’s Opening Day roster
Thrust into action in the NLCS as Adam Duvall was lost to an oblique injury, Pache thrived, showing everyone what all the fuss was about, especially on defense. He wasn’t too shabby at the plate, either, becoming the fourth-youngest Atlanta player to homer in the playoffs behind Ronald Acuña Jr., Andruw Jones and Brian McCann. Snitker’s point that kept Pache to just four regular-season at-bats while Ender Inciarte manned centerfield no longer holds water and it all but spells the end in Atlanta for Inciarte, who was left off the postseason rosters. He’s still due $8.7 million in 2021 and has a $9 million club option for 2022 that carries a $1.025 million buyout. He remains a strong, if no longer premium defender — Inciarte had minus-1 defensive runs saved in each of the past two seasons and had his first negative UZR/150 at minus-5.5 in 2020 — and it may take adding a prospect and sending additional cash to complete a deal, but the future has arrive with Pache and it’s difficult to see Inciarte having any kind of role in the Braves’ plans given his absence from the postseason.
8. In a revamped bullpen, A.J. Minter will be given the closer role
The bullpen is likely to go through some tweaks with Greene, Melancon and Tomlin all free agents and Darren O’Day holding a $3.5 million club option the Braves can buy out at $500,000. But this group enters the winter in good shape even if all move on, with Will Smith entering the second year of his three-year, $40 million deal, Chris Martin in at $7 million for 2021 with three arb years to follow, A.J. Minter in his first year of arbitration eligibility and Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek and Jacob Webb under club control. Those returners include the Braves’ top three relievers in fWAR (Matzek at 0.8, Martin at 0.5 and Minter at 0.4) and the three leaders in ERA (Webb at 0.00, Minter at 0.83 and Martin at 1.00). Smith has been an All-Star closer, but he thrived in pitching when the situation dictated in his first season in Atlanta, appearing in the sixth inning three times, the seventh three times, the eighth inning 10 times and the ninth once. That will remain the operating procedure and the Braves will turn the closer role over to Minter, who has long coveted that spot — though maybe after his NLCS heroics, he’ll switch that dream toward being a starter again — and was fifth among all relievers in ERA in a bounce-back season in which he fanned 9.97 per nine and had a slider that stood at 5.5 wSL. That was sandwiched between the Mets’ Jacob deGrom and Dodgers’ Brusdar Graterol (5.1) in the top 15 in MLB.
9. A changing of the guard and approach at catcher
Signing Travis d’Arnaud proved a deft move, as had a highly-productive regular season (145 wRC+, .368 wOBA) and was a force in the playoffs through Game 1 of the NLCS with a 1.221 OPS (though he hit .158 in Games 2-7 of that series) and with Tyler Flowers a free agent, the Braves are in a position to change their tactics at catcher. Since 2015, no Atlanta backstop has made more than 94 starts and no one has been behind the plate for 126 or more since Brian McCann in 2011 in what has been a timeshare with combinations of A.J. Pierzynski, Flowers and Anthony Recker (2016), Flowers and Kurt Suzuki (2017 and ‘18), Flowers and Brian McCann (2019) and d’Arnaud and Flowers this season. That will change going into 2021 with Flowers signing elsewhere and d’Arnaud assuming the primary catching role. He’ll be in line for the bulk of the work with Williams Contreras in a part-time role, before he assumes the job when d’Arnaud’s deal expires after next year (and consider that a tease for the next offseason’s bold predictions).