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Starting Nine: Hunting bargains for Braves’ shopping needs

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High-end free agents and trade targets will and should get all the buzz, but there are bargains that could be had as Atlanta mines the markets

Baltimore Orliores v Kansas City Royals
Free-agent starter Danny Duffy had a 2.51 ERA in 13 games in an injury-shortened 2021 with a 29.1 whiff rate. 
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Not to date myself, but I can remember sitting around Thanksgiving night, flipping through the Sears and JC Penny catalogs, circling everything that was on a Christmas list that grew by the minute, hoping to arm my mom, grandmother, and aunt before they set out the next morning for Black Friday.

Did they always get what was on my wish list? No, sometimes they hunted bargains, found them, and that’s what would wind up under the tree. Occasionally those gifts were even better than something you thought you wanted just because it was hyped (me in 1986 getting Lazer Tag over Teddy Ruxpin was a prime example).

I like to imagine Braves Country doing some version of the same, thumbing through a catalog of free agents and potential trade chips, feverishly circling Jorge Soler and Marcus Stroman and the like. Meanwhile, Alex Anthopoulos is surrounded by whatever Black Friday circulars end up on a general manager’s doorstep, his eyes on deals, a bag already packed to camp out in front of whoever’s door to beat the rush.

With Atlanta’s needs in mind, these are the bargains he should be hunting.

Free Agents

1. Jon Gray, RHP

The Rockies didn’t extend a qualifying offer to the 30-year-old right-hander, making him even more appealing as he comes without any draft pick penalty attached. He had a 4.59 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 149 innings in 29 starts this past season, saw his hard-hit rate drop from 46 percent to 38.2 and increased his strikeout rate nearly 12 percent year over year. Flipping the script on what you come to expect from Colorado starters, Gray was better in Denver than away, with a 4.02 ERA in 14 starts in Coors Field and 5.22 in 15 outings away. but no matter the location, Gray is durable. Since 2016, he’s in the top 15 in the National League in innings (788 1/3) and strikeouts (809). Projected to get a multi-year deal in the $10 million-range, the righty’s career 46.7 ground ball rate would fit in nicely with those of the Braves’ rotation incumbents Max Fried (51.8 percent), Ian Anderson (49.3) and Charlie Morton (47.8).

2. Danny Duffy, LHP

It’s a bit murky with Duffy, and he’s a bit of a gamble — which is why he could be a tactical deal. Technically, he’s never pitched for anyone but the Royals, though he was traded to the Dodgers last July while sitting out with a flexor strain, and never returned, suffering a setback on his path back. At least one report said he could require reconstructive surgery on his elbow, but if he’s right, the 33-year-old could be worth a chance. He had a strong 2021 with a 2.51 ERA in 13 games last year before the injury and has a long history of swing-and-miss stuff, totaling a 29.1 whiff rate in in 2021 and an average of 25.6 since 2016.

3. Mark Canha, OF

The Braves already mined value and turned it into postseason success in the forms of NLCS and World Series MVPs, Eddie Rosario, and Jorge Soler. They could dip into that well again with Canha, who has been extremely solid over the last four seasons in Oakland, posting wRC+s of 115, 146, 127 and, most recently, 115. Canha’s 12.3 percent BB rate in 2021 was 0.1 behind Freddie Freeman and his .358 on-base percentage ranked 14th in the American League among qualified hitters. That was equal to Soler and topped by only Ronald Acuña Jr. (.394), Freeman (.393) and Austin Riley (.367) among Braves. He’s not the sexiest name on the market and depending on who else returns may not be an everyday outfielder but add in the ability to play all three outfield positions — and if we want to imagine a world without Freeman, or at least giving him a day off here and there — he can also play first base in a pinch, and Canha could provide further versatility along with a dependable bat.

4. Michael Pineda, RHP

Many of the next-level numbers don’t paint the picture of the strongest of seasons. Pineda was in the bottom four percent in hard-hit rate (46.7), the bottom five percent in exit velocity (91.4 mph) and the bottom eight percent in expected batting average (.282), but he also had a 3.62 ERA, and his 1.73 BB/9 was seventh best among all starters, beating out the Cy Young winner, the Brewers’ Corbin Burnes (1.83). Injuries have been an issue, with Pineda missing time this past season with forearm and oblique troubles (and, yes, there was the PED suspension), and his average fastball velocity has dropped in each of the past five seasons, going from 94.7 mph in 2016 to 90.9 in 2021. Those all may sound like red flags, but since 2019 he’s pitched to a 1.19 WHIP, which is 34th among all starters in that span, and is unlikely to command the $10 million he’s made the past two seasons.

5. Corey Dickerson, OF

A former All-Star, Dickerson has been an at or above average hitter in seven of the last eight seasons, with 100 wRC+ in 2021 and as high as 126 in 2019. Shipped from the Marlins to the Blue Jays ahead of last year’s deadline, Dickerson had his most productive stretch in two years, posting a .779 OPS. Another versatile option that can play all three outfield spots, Dickerson would figure to be en economical pickup, coming off a two-year $17.5 million deal in which he combined for a 0.8 fWAR.

6. Clint Frazier, OF

The former first-round pick — and Georgia native — never met the expectations with the Yankees. While he appeared prime for a breakout with 149 wRC+ and a .267/.394/.511 slash line in 2020, he followed it with a paltry .186/.317/.317 in 66 games this past season. He hasn’t performed, and Frazier has also had health concerns with a concussion in 2018 after crashing into an outfield wall and he dealt with blurred vision and symptoms of vertigo that led to the end of his 2021 season. First and foremost, for Frazier is getting himself right to play at a high level again, but he’s just 27. As a potential fourth outfielder, this could be an extreme low-cost add to bring the Loganville, Ga. product home.

Trade Targets

7. John Means, LHP

The Orioles are reportedly “dangling” the left-hander, who is a little hard to read given the extremes in his 2021. Means spun a May 5 no-hitter against the Mariners as part of an electric first half in which he had a 2.28 ERA before the All-Star break and followed it with a 4.88 in the second half with a .792 OPS against. Amid those highs and lows, he averaged a 87.9 mph exit velocity — which ranked in the 71st percentile — and had a 1.60 BB/9 (96th percentile). A shoulder injury that sidelined him for part of 2021 could limit the asking price — though it didn’t come with many red flags as his average fastball velocity didn’t change — and add in that he’s projected to make $3.1 million in 2022 with two more years of club control and Means makes sense as an addition that could solidify the rotation for years to come.

8. David Peralta, OF

A Gold Glove finalist in left field last season, Peralta will be in the final year of a three-year, $22 million deal and there’s the potential that the rebuilding Diamondbacks hold onto him with the intent of moving the 34-year-old in-season. That could be the play given that Peralta regressed at the plate with 93 wRC+ after hitting no lower than four percent above league average in each of the previous four seasons, but Arizona’s farm system is in need of boosts the Braves could provide. The Diamondbacks’ top arms — Blake Walston, Ryne Nelson, Bryce Jarvis, and Slade Cecconi are all projected to be at least a year away from contributing — and Atlanta has young pitchers that can help immediately as part of a trade package. While Peralta has largely played a corner outfield spot, he’s capable of playing center. With Adam Duvall under club control as well, the Braves could utilize that combo without blocking Cristian Pache for the future if the belief is the prized prospect still isn’t ready for the everyday job.

9. Michael Fulmer, RHP

The starter-turned-reliever was a solid late-inning option for the Tigers in 2021 with a 2.97 ERA and 9.43 K/9 in 69 2/3 innings over 52 appearances, and you can look at him as another right-handed weapon to strengthen a bullpen that secured the Braves’ championship. But he’s a former Rookie of the Year and All-Star as a starter, and Fulmer had the misfortune of trying to come back from Tommy John surgery during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He struggled in 10 starts that year (8.78 ERA) but was a 1.6 fWAR arm in 2021 and regained his mojo with a career-best 29.5 whiff rate and an average exit velocity (86.7 mph) was his lowest since 2017.