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Starting Nine: Buckle up, baseball looks headed for (another) rocky and uncertain offseason

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The debate over analytics and finding a middle ground, the Braves’ best Gold Glove bets and free-agency primer

World Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Six
MLB crowned a champion, and now the focus turns to hammering out the parameters for the 2021 season.
Photo by Maxx Wolfson/Getty Images

They turned a marathon into a sprint. They bubbled-up and when it was all said and done, they awarded that “piece of metal.” Now, with the strangest and shortest MLB season since 1878 complete, we turn the page for an offseason that figures to be just as strange, and maybe gut-wrenchingly longer.

We know there will be GM Meetings — Dec. 6-10 in Dallas, so set those travel plans now — but it’s unlikely there are Winter Meetings, at least in an in-person setting, par for the course as baseball and sports in general keep navigating the uncharted.

But whatever shape this offseason takes, there are plenty of storylines the Braves will find themselves in, but first as we open this week’s Starting Nine, let’s take that 10,000-foot view of things.

1. Baseball looks headed for a rocky and uncertain offseason

The confetti has barely been scraped off Globe Life Field — enjoy the afterglow and continued scrutiny after some wild breaches in protocol amid the celebration, Dodgers — and already thoughts turn to the 2021 season and, sorry to break it to you, another looming dispute between the players and owners.

There in the triumph of it all, that MLB actually pulled things thing off after the opt-outs and the positive COVID-19 tests came the cloud of Justin Turner playing in Game 6 of the World Series after an inconclusive test, being pulled after testing positive, and then inexplicably taking the field later to celebrate with his teammates. Coupled with commissioner Rob Manfred two days prior painting a picture of harsh realities, both financial and circumstantial, and it feels like baseball is in for one very rocky and uncertain offseason.

Let’s start with Manfred, who told Sportico this week that MLB has amassed $8.3 million in debt and will post an operating loss between $2.8 and $3 billion this season. Without the benefit of attendance and stadium revenues, baseball also dealt with pared down local television contracts with 102 fewer regular-season games and there’s no assurance that 2021 is going to look any better.

“It’s absolutely certain, I know, that we’re going to have to have conversations with the MLBPA about what 2021 is going to look like,” he said. “It’s difficult to foresee a situation right now where everything’s just normal. And obviously, if it’s not normal we’re going to have to have conversations about it.”

Call it merely a negotiation tactic, but the trickle-down effect of it all will most certainly fall on the players via the payroll. Already we’ve seen clubs lay off or furlough employees, and now with players compensation back at the forefront in a new financial year, it’s likely we’ll see fewer money spent on free agents and scores of players being non-tendered.

None of that is to say that some teams won’t spend, and the Braves — who have roughly $70 million coming off the books and a number of key free agents like Marcell Ozuna — have needs to fill. But where the players once shouted accusations of collusion when hot stoves went cold during sluggish free-agent markets, the owners now have real losses amid a pandemic to back up their narrative ... and they need to prove it.

Last time around, when MLB wanted to further impact players’ salaries from the agreement they reached in March and pursue a revenue-share model (salary cap at its heart), there was an unwillingness as there always has been — this time despite the MLB Players Association’s request — to provide the financial documents that showed the league’s stated financial losses were accurate.

Transparency is the first thing that should be brought to the table to let the players see the hurt is real. But the transparency in these talks isn’t just within the league’s ranks, it going to include understanding how Turner — in a bubble with his Dodgers teammates and limited outsiders for a month — contracted the virus to begin with, how he was able to play after an inconclusive test and why, after the positive test and being isolated, he decided to put so many others at risk by refusing to follow MLB security’s instructions and joining his teammates.

As MLB said in a statement Wednesday “It is clear that Turner chose to disregard the agreed-upon join protocols and the instructions he was given regarding the safety and protection of others. ... Turner’s decision to leave isolation and enter the field was wrong and put everyone he came into contact with at risk. The Commissioner’s Office is beginning a full investigation into this matter and will consult with the Players Association within the parameters of the joint 2020 Operations Manual.”

Those are important points as the league and the union hammer out the details of what the safety protocols are going to look like for next season. We’ve seen it work for 60 games, and it was working almost flawlessly with teams in a bubble in the postseason, but if every player and every team can’t have faith that all are going to follow the procedures — including everyone involved during the most visible moments the sport has — then no one involved is truly negotiating in good faith.

If you’re one of the Rays, what’s your response to knowing Turner played at all after an inconclusive test? If you’re a player on another team watching it unfold, does that make you feel safe about coming back to work next season? Do the players feel the league is acting in their best interest if agreed upon protocols are cast aside because a championship is on the line or if it meant fulfilling a contact with a broadcast partner (really the only reasons to believe why Turner took the field in Game 6 to begin with)?

There’s no guarantee that MLB will play a full 162 games next season, no certainty that there will be an All-Star Game at Truist Park or a postseason that’s completely operated outside of a bubble. If there’s no vaccine and safety protocols continue to limit attendance, and in some states make them an impossibility, lost revenue is going to impact every facet of the game and Manfred’s refrain on losses will be repeated a year from now.

With the understanding that, as the commissioner put it “it’s difficult to foresee a situation right now where everything’s just normal,” then the business tactics that have ruled negotiations can’t be, either, with the last back-and-forth leaving Manfred to step in and impose that 60-game season.

So far, Manfred hasn’t done much to change that course. With the expectation that teams are going to slow spending, and some even stand put this offseason, it sets up the possibility of a rash of unemployed players amid an ugly battle that will seem tame with that next collective bargaining agreement fight on the horizon after the ‘21 season.

But, hey, we got to see smiling faces and a trophy awarded this week. We got a champion, and in the closing days of a season that was delayed, and in its early stages ravaged, by COVID-19, we got dueling gut punches with a key player and the commissioner offering reminders that the virus continues to hang over the sport.

Let’s also, though, have a little hope; hope that these sides will strike a chord that’s anything but adversarial and that’s going to start with complete transparency.

2. Analytics and finding a middle ground

Kevin Cash has become a pariah for those that loathe analytics and he’s turned into a talking point for all the saber-rattlers that despise how much metrics have permeated the game. The Rays manager pulling Blake Snell after 5 1/3 innings with nine strikeouts and just 73 pitches has become the talking point of the climax of the postseason (by the way, remember when bunts were the subject du jour?), and it’s going to haunt Tampa Bay and its fanbase, without question. Whether your agree with Cash or not — the numbers, to be fair, were in his favor as Snell has a 13.50 ERA in the sixth inning this season and a .913 OPS against when facing a lineup for the third time; though the counter is he was able to see a lineup beyond a second time in just six games this season, hardly a determining split as he made 11 starts in this abbreviated season — the situation has far-reaching potential damage. Take the makeup of the Braves’ dugout, where Brian Snitker had admittedly little use or understanding of advanced metrics before Anthopoulos’ arrival and has learned to adapt and take that information in when it comes to making decisions and it’s something the Atlanta manager has passed along to his staff. But when it blows up in the face of arguably the best tactician in the game today in Cash — someone who lives and, as we saw Tuesday night, can die by what the numbers say — you think a manager who isn’t nearly as comfortable with those numbers is going to let them weigh key decisions in key situations? Clearly, there are moments for balance, for bucking what the page tells you and letting your eyes and gut be the guide. Cash is learning this the hard way, but his missteps shouldn’t be a soapbox for those who hate what the game has morphed into.

3. Who is Braves’ best Gold Glove bet?

The Braves have three Gold Glove finalists in Ronald Acuña Jr., Max Fried and Dansby Swanson, marking the 10th straight season that they’ve had a finalist and the eighth time in that span that they’ve had multiple players make the cut. But among that group, who is the best bet to win a Gold Glove? There are six center fielders that rank above Acuña in defensive runs above average (Def), including fellow finalist Trent Grisham of the Padres ranking first (8.3), and the Braves outfielder is 20th in dWAR. He’s not likely to win, but you can make a strong case for Fried and Swanson. Fried is first in the majors in defensive runs saved among pitchers at five and his four pickoffs were tied for the league lead and more than his fellow finalists, the CubsKyle Hendricks and Alec Mills, combined. Meanwhile, Swanson trails fellow finalist Miguel Rojas of the Marlins in Def (5.6 to 2.8), but he leads all shortstops with 10 DRS and 1.4 dWAR. There’s a strong chance Atlanta has multiple winners for the 10th time since 1998 with its first shortstop since Andrelton Simmons in 2014 and the first pitcher since Mike Hampton in 2003.

4. Alex Wood is fit for a ring, but would be an option for Braves?

Sorry to dredge up hurt feelings for some, but Alex Wood pitching two sterling innings in Game 6 for the Dodgers brings those flashbacks of the Hector Olivera trade, which was without a doubt the worst move John Coppolella made in the general manager’s chair. Sending Wood, Jim Johnson, Jose Peraza, Bronson Arroyo and Luis Avilan to the Dodgers for Olivera, Paco Rodriguez, Zach Bird and a competitive balance pick that wound up being Joey Wentz proved disastrous, though it did eventually lead to Alex Anthopoulos sending Wentz to the Tigers in landing Shane Greene. On a personal note, when I began covering the Braves in 2012, Wood was the first player I encountered as he we walked into Turner Field together from the players’ lot and neither of us knew where to go to get to the clubhouse. Wood entered free agency Wednesday, along with 146 other players, and it bodes the question: could a return to the Braves be an option for the left-hander? He was pretty bad in his two starts (10.80 ERA) but was better out of the bullpen (3.52) and fantastic in the postseason (1.35 ERA in 6 2/3 innings over four games) as he worked his way back from the shoulder issue that hampered him in 2019. With the expectation that the Braves will need to bring in at least one starter, and potentially more if Mike Soroka’s return is at all delayed, Wood — who made $4 million in a one-year deal with Los Angeles — could be a middle-of-the-rotation option that wouldn’t break the bank, with the added bonus of experience of his having gotten over the hump in the postseason.

5. Speaking of free agents ...

Wading through that list of 147 free agents, the Braves have the third most of any team at nine as Tyler Flowers, Greene, Cole Hamels, Adeiny Hechavarría, Nick Markakis, Mark Melancon, Marcell Ozuna, Pablo Sandoval and Josh Tomlin all enter the market. Clearly, Ozuna is atop the list of those players Atlanta wants to bring back after his NL-leading 18 home runs and 56 RBI, but let’s say for the sake of argument that he and his neon sleeve move on. Where do the Braves turn? With logic telling us that if you can’t get Ozuna you’re sure as hell not getting George Springer (his market value is $24.7 million per season per Spotrac to Ozuna’s $20 million) or J.T. Realmuto for that matter (expected to net $22 million AAV), there are intriguing fallbacks. Michael Brantley is coming off a 1.3 fWAR season in which he hit .300/.364/.476 and Joc Pederson could be a bargain after a minus-0.1 fWAR season that he followed up with a .991 OPS in the Dodgers’ playoff run. They’re not overwhelming options, as just 11 free agents had WARs over 1.0, which doesn’t bode well as the Braves will have serious competition to keep Ozuna, though we don’t know exactly how much league-wide spending will be affected in the coming months.

6. Speaking of free agents (Part II) ...

Teams have until Sunday to tender their eligible free agents a qualifying offer, which this year stands at $18.9 million. Ozuna is off the table as he was extended one last year by the Cardinals, but do the Braves have another potential candidate? Not one that makes a ton of sense. Mark Melancon came in at $14 million last season (prorated at $5.185 million) in the final year of the four-year, $62 million deal he inked with the Giants in December 2016 and entering his Age-36 season, he seems unlikely. The same for the Cole Hamels, who turns 37 in December and whose deal ($18 million) in a season that multiple injuries limited to three innings was in line with that QO. Last season, the Braves had to relinquish two compensation round picks — the 69th and 73rd selections — for inking, respectively, Will Smith and Ozuna, and it seems unlikely they’ll be in line to extend a qualifying offer to ensure they get additional picks this time around.

7. The clock is ticking on O’Day

The number of available free agents could grow by Friday, the deadline for most contract options and that includes the Braves and their decision to exercise the $3.5 million 2021 option for Darren O’Day or pay a $500,000 buyout. The veteran left-hander had a 1.10 ERA and 0.769 WHIP in 2020, while striking out 12.12 per nine with a .136 batting average against. O’Day will be 39 on Opening Day, but with Melancon, Greene and Tomlin all hitting the market, having one less spot to fill in the bullpen, and seeing how effective O’Day was in his first season devoid of an injured list stint since 2015 seems a wise move.

8. Kyle Muller and another Rule 5 option that may be worth protecting

With no minor league season to evaluate players in 2020, don’t expect any surprises when it comes to the Nov. 20 deadline to protect players ahead of the Rule 5 Draft. There’s a no-brainer in Kyle Muller, the 6-foot-7 left-hander who becomes Rule 5 eligible as a 2016 draft pick and is most assuredly going to be added to the 40-man roster. The sixth-ranked prospect in the organization per MLB Pipeline, Muller would seem to be the next in line among the developing arms to make his major-league debut. Beyond the obvious, keep an eye on Thomas Burrows. The club’s 25th-ranked player, Burrows struck out 86 across three levels in 2018 and 24 in 21 innings at Double-A in 2019, but control has been an issue. He registered 18 walks with his 39 Ks at Triple-A in ‘19, but regardless has been a nightmare for left-handed hitters (.167 BAA last season in Gwinnett). Burrows is intriguing enough to think someone would pounce if the Braves don’t protect him.

9. They say it’s your birthday, Ender and R.A.

Today is the birthday for one current and one former Brave, as oft-maligned outfielder Ender Inciarte turns 30 and R.A. Dickey celebrates his 46th. For all the heat he’s taken — and all those he’s blocked on Twitter (raise your hand if you’re in that club) — and how quickly Inciarte has fallen out of favor, with his first negative fWAR (minus-0.6) in 2020, the resume since he arrived in Atlanta hasn’t come without some extremely high moments. There was the robbery of Yoenis Cespedes in 2016 that got the bobblehead treatment, the three Gold Gloves, one of which came in that 200-hit, All-Star season of 2017. Dickey’s 2017 stint with the Braves, the final season of his 15-year career, was about serving a role on a rebuilding team and he did, with 31 starts and just under 200 innings. He also provided a couple of truly memorable moments he’d probably just as soon forget on Aug. 5 when Giancarlo Stanton connected on two home runs that totaled 901 feet, punctuated by a 477-foot shot that smacked the batter’s eye just below the camera well opening. But anyway, to a couple of Gold Glove-winning guys to don a Braves uniform, enjoy your day.