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Starting Nine: Braves have defined needs, and here’s how they can fill them

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The newly crowned champions have a clear offseason checklist — beginning with returning a foundational star at first base — and this is how they can meet those needs

2021 World Series Game 6: Atlanta Braves v. Houston Astros
Bringing back free-agent Freddie Freeman is the No. 1 priority as the Braves retool for their title defense.
Photo by Darren Georgia/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The champagne had barely dried, and general manager Alex Anthopoulos was already discussing what lies ahead as the Braves look to defend that World Series championship.

When you play into November, things have a way of moving at warp speed, and that’s the reality for Atlanta.

“We hope to be a good team again,” Anthopoulos said during the end-of-the-season availability Sunday. “I always work with a little fear of failure, not of losing my job, or anything like that. You don’t want to fail, regardless of whether you came from winning the World Series or not.”

Within 24 hours of winning the title, the likes of Freddie Freeman, World Series MVP Jorge Soler and National League Championship Series MVP Eddie Rosario all become free agents. Joc Pederson joined them two days later when he declined his mutual contract options, and five days removed from partying at Minute Maid Park, and two days after hosting a mammoth parade around Atlanta and a celebration at Truist Park, the Braves extended Freeman the $18.4 million qualifying offer, a formality with a player they have every intention of keeping.

If there’s one positive for those impatiently waiting, especially on the future of Freeman, its’ that the Braves are in position to spend as they look to repeat.

“Payroll will rise,” Anthopoulos said. “Payroll will be going up from ‘21 to ‘22, which obviously is a great thing. Beyond that, you guys know me when it comes to that stuff, I don’t get into specifics. Our payroll, in 2020 it was the highest it’d ever been. It started out lower in ‘21 but we got it back up again after the trade deadline. It’s a credit to our attendance and the fans.

“It will continue to climb. We don’t necessarily have anything locked in right now. I know it’s going to rise. But I have a general sense of where we’re going with it. It’s going to be higher in ‘22 than it was in ‘21.”

However, that plays out, this figures to be a hectic offseason, one Atlanta goes into with defined needs.

There is Freeman’s currently open spot at first, and an outfield that has Ronald Acuña Jr. coming back from his season-ending knee injury — telling the Astros’ Alex Bregman he expects that to be in May — and the Braves still have a year of control with Adam Duvall — who declined a mutual option for 2021 — and question marks. The only other outfielders on the 40-man are Marcell Ozuna, whose future is uncertain, Travis Demeritte and Guillermo Heredia. Of course, there’s Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, but it’s an area where the Braves figure to be shoppers.

The same with a rotation that has Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson, along with a bevy of young options, and Mike Soroka, whose timetable in returning from another Achilles rupture is unclear (it’s even been suggested the team could consider non-tendering him). Atlanta could follow its recent approach and add another veteran to the mix.

With those needs in mind, here’s how the Braves can fill them.

FIRST BASE

1. Freddie Freeman

The obvious: Freddie Freeman has been clear he wants to stay a Brave; the front-office has been clear they want him to remain a Brave. It would be stunning for this not to get done, and sooner rather than later given the way Anthopoulos has operated in the past, it would be no surprise for it to happen in the coming weeks. In November 2018, the GM signed Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann. Twelve months later, it was Travis d’Arnaud and Will Smith, and last November, Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. Maybe the impending end of the Collective Bargaining Agreement on Dec. 1 leads to Freeman waiting, but with both sides wanting this to get done, the wait feels more like a formality than foreboding. Here’s expecting he signs six years at $168 with an option year for his age-38 season that will keep the homegrown star in a Braves uniform into the twilight of a career that’s seemingly destined for Cooperstown. But just in case, let’s sort through some options ...

2. Matt Olson

Thinking of anyone else playing first base for the Braves right now may feel like blasphemy, but we at least have to consider what could happen if Freeman moved on. We know the A’s tactics of trading players before they become too expensive, and Olson will never have more value than he does right now with two years before he hits free agency. He made $5 million in 2020 and MLB Trade Rumors’ projections have Olson at $12 million in what will be his third year of arbitration eligibility. The 27-year-old is coming off career highs in home runs (39), RBI (111), average (.271), OPS (.911) and fWAR (5.0) if any of his four full seasons. He’s also a Gold Glove defender, with two to his credit with 12 Defensive Runs Saved in 2019 and six over this just-completed season.

3. Anthony Rizzo

If it’s not Freeman, Rizzo — his on-field antics chum — is next up on a list of free-agent first basemen that’s underwhelming considering how many are on the wrong end of 30. Rizzo is the same age as Freeman and coming off a year in which he had 112 wRC+ with a .248 average, .783 OPS and 22 home runs playing for the Cubs and Yankees. He hasn’t hit well at Truist Park — a .161/.284/.268 slash line with two extra-base hits in 15 games — and has a market value of $21.7 million per Spotrac, with an estimated contract of $86.8 million over four years. It would be a difficult situation Rizzo would conceivably step into if Freeman departed, and while he’s not the complete hitter Freeman is, since 2015, Rizzo has 180 home runs, five less than Freeman. He’s also driven in 16 more runs in that span.

OUTFIELD

4. The 2021 trade acquisitions

As Anthopoulos said, the Braves would love to retain Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler, but “realistically, it’s going to be hard to pull that off. But we’ll do our best to put the best club on the field that we can for 2022.” With Duvall projected to get $9.1 million in arbitration, it seems a given that he’ll return, and with the expectation that the designated hitter is coming to the NL for good with the new CBA, bringing back Soler makes sense and could allow Atlanta to resign Rosario or Pederson as well with the flexibility the DH provides. Making $8 million in 2021, the 29-year-old Soler is sure to be looking for a multi-year deal that could push him into the $12 million-per range. He proved to be an adequate defender in Atlanta, but it’s difficult to see the Braves rolling with Soler consistently in left field. Rosario is a different story, and — barring an upgrade in center of Pache showing he’s ready — a core outfield of Rosario in left, Duvall in center and Acuña in right could be the play. Projections have him with a two-year deal at $7.5 per, which is more than palatable given the power and consistency at the plate for a left-hander who had a 133 wRC+ after arriving in Atlanta. Pederson seems the least likely of the bunch to come back with the expectation that he wants the everyday playing time that won’t be available when the Braves are at full health.

5. Startling Marte

Rumor had it that the Braves were after Marte last summer, and he seemed like a fit before the Marlins shipped him to the A’s. If the Braves are looking to find a proven commodity in center field and put Duvall — who played 21 games at center in the regular season for the Braves and all 16 in the postseason — in a corner spot, Marte may be the man. He raked after arriving in Oakland, hitting .312/.355/.462 with five homers, 16 doubles in 251 plate appearances, and built on his stolen base crown with 25 of his 47 steals. There are 14 players listed as center fielders on the free-agent market, but Marte is the only one who had a fWAR above 1.1 in 2021. He could fetch into the $20-million range, and a multi-year deal would initially complicate things with Pache and be tricky for a 33-year-old, but Marte can play all three outfield spots, while providing power and speed. Keeping the postseason band together is surely on a lot of fans’ wish lists, but Marte would add a different level of dynamic play. Michael Conforto is another option here, but he’s projected to net a six-figure deal, which could be higher than the Braves are looking to go.

6. Byron Buxton

The Pirates’ Bryan Reynolds would be a fine trade target, but the Braves already tried that, and it didn’t work. So where else could they go? The Twins were reportedly shopping Buxton before this past trade deadline, so it makes sense that they’ll be willing to listen this winter on the former Gold Glove-winning center fielder. The injury concerns are real, as Buxton has played in more than 92 games twice in his career, and over the last three 162-game seasons, appeared in an average of 42 games, but it’s not as if he’s dealt with a reoccurring ailment. It’s been a laundry list that’s included a sprained thumb, knee contusion, back spasms, groin strain, migraines, strained wrist, fractured toe, concussion, bruised wrist, shoulder surgery, left foot sprain, hamstring, hip strain and fractured hand. In some states, that’s more enough to qualify for the Lemon Law, but Buxton is also an immense talent with a lot to prove. His assorted ailments could also make his value tough to gauge in trade but forecasted for $7 million through arbitration in his final year of control, the Twins don’t have a lot of time if they want to get something in return for the 25-year-old.

ROTATION

7. Justin Verlander

High average annual value. Short-term deal. Seems like a perfect combination for a team that that has young arms and the need to supplement its current rotation. The first of those options is the Hall of Fame-bound Verlander, who appeared in one game in 2020, undergoing Tommy John surgery in October of that year. During the workout he held in Florida on Monday, which included representatives from 15-20 teams, saw the right-hander get up to 97 mph over the roughly 25 pitches he threw. Sounds like the Verlander we’ve come to expect, and you can look at his pitching one game in 2020 and sitting out 2021 as less wear on a player going into his age-39 season. It’s unreasonable to expect he can give anyone a 200-inning season, but if the stuff is still there, he would have immense value, especially on a team with the pitching depth the Braves have. Now, he could well return to the Astros, but with an expected price tag of $20 million per, that’s within reason if Atlanta wants to make a splash that wouldn’t hurt long-term. Plus, the above video will give you all the feels. You’re welcome.

8. Carlos Rodon

There’s a long injury history here, with Rodon having dealt with biceps and shoulder issues (as well as undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2019). The White Sox declined to give him a qualifying offer, so there’s no draft pick compensation attached, and Rodon showed in 2020 that, when healthy, he can deliver, generating a 4.9 fWAR in making 24 starts — his most since 2016 — with a 2.37 ERA and 12.55 K/9 and threw a no-hitter April 14 against the Indians. But there’s uncertainty with Rodon, and maybe he gets a multi-year deal, but a one-year contract to try and re-establish his deal the most likely of maneuvers and it’s something the Braves have been all too familiar with (hello, Josh Donaldson). With a market value of $24 million, the 28-year-old lefty who can touch 100 mph would be a perfect fit. Though, you have to wonder if his agent Scott Boras’ comments about the way the Braves put together their postseason-defining outfield will impact any negotiations with one of his clients?

9. Corey Kluber

Take your pick among the rest of the veteran starters that could supplement the trio of Fried, Morton and Anderson. But whether it’s Marcus Stroman, Alex Wood, Anthony DeSclafani or Steven Matz or Alex Cobb, all those 30-plus arms are expected to get multi-year deals. Do the Braves really want to do that with Kyle Muller and Touki Toussaint on the cusp, and the hope that Soroka returns for the long term? Instead, let’s go with a guy with a track record who will likely be on a one-year pact in Kluber. He made 16 starts with the Yankees in 2021 with a 3.83 ERA and 1.5 fWAR over 80 innings, but there were some strong moments, including a May in which he had a 2.27 ERA and .215 wOBA against and a no-hitter against the Rangers. He’s not the ace he once was, and it’s not a sexy addition, but he’d also fit the mold of pitchers that have been brought in for this role before (think Anibal Sanchez and Drew Smyly).