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Starting Nine: When lockout ends, what’s left for Braves on free-agent market?

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Splashes, gambles, and playing it safe as Atlanta looks to fill remaining roster holes

Miami Marlins v New York Mets
Coming off his least productive season in five years, could the Braves get Michael Conforto on a one-year deal to reestablish his value?
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

As the MLB lockout stretches into its ninth day, suffice to say you’re all probably tired of hearing about the lockout.

There are no negotiations scheduled as of this writing, and one recent report doesn’t expect any progress to be made until the weeks before pitchers and catchers are to show up in February for spring training.

But once it does thaw, expect the free-agent market to become a veritable feeding frenzy. Think Sizzler the second they bring out the Cheese Toast, but instead of white bread, pecorino cheese and margarine, the elbowing is for the likes of Correa and Story (we already know which one will be fiercer, because you can only deny the people cheese and bread for so long).

Some of the biggest pieces have already come off the board, so what’s left? Running through the splashes, the gambles and the opportunities to play it safe as Atlanta eventually gets back to work in building its roster for the championship defense.

We’ll assume, until we see otherwise, that Freddie Freeman is coming back. Rumors being rumors, others have shown interest, but we’ll largely shy away from those that could help at first base in running through the remaining free agents.

The Splashes

Nick Castellanos, OF/DH

He’s far more than the subject of copypasta legend, riding his finest season into free agency, as the 29-year-old posted career highs in home runs (34), average (.309), OPS (.939), wRC+ (140) and fWAR (4.2) this past season. The defense may not be Gold Glove-caliber — OK, it’s been pretty bad if we’re being real — tying for 108th with minus-6 Outs Above Average and he’s averaged minus-11 Defensive Runs Saved in three seasons with 1,000-plus innings in the outfield. But like some of the other players on this list, Castellanos figures to one of the biggest beneficiaries from the expected addition of the designated hitter from these CBA talks. It’s been reported the right-hander is seeking a seven- or eight-year deal, and with a market value of $21.3 million, that may be too rich for Atlanta depending on how things play out with Freddie Freeman. Getting into that market would also seem to be tied to whatever lies ahead for Marcell Ozuna (as would more players on this list). Castellanos isn’t exactly helped by being a Scott Boras client given the agent’s comments about the Braves, but in terms of complete hitters, there may not be a more impactful bat remaining on the market.

Michael Conforto, OF

The former Met is an interesting case. Another Boras client, one who the mouthpiece has dubbed a “National League East beast” and “king of diamonds” — the latter for Conforto having played in a Little League World Series and College World Series, which is an odd flex — is coming off his least —productive season in five years. Conforto had 106 wRC+ in 2020 with 14 homers and a .232 average after hitting no lower than 19 percent above league average in the four previous campaigns. The defensive metrics aren’t spectacular, either with a negative dWAR in each of the past six seasons. Nonetheless, the offensive highs have been pretty high, with a 33-home run 2019, a 147 wRC+ in 2017 and 158 in the shortened 2020 season. While primarily a corner outfielder, he can play center — having done so in over 1,100 innings in 146 games — and depending on the gameplan for Cristian Pache, can play the spot, as can 40-man inhabitants Adam Duvall, Guillermo Heredia and Ronald Acuña Jr. Coming off a down year, could Anthopoulos sell Conforto on following the paths of Ozuna and Josh Donaldson in taking a one-year deal and riding it to a bigger payday?

Kyle Schwarber, OF/1B/DH

The DH completely changes the market for Schwarber, who’s past three seasons include Fielding Runs Above Average of minus-10, minus-3.7 and minus-7.1. Instead, you have as many as 15 more teams in on a guy who mashed to the tune of 145 wRC+ and 32 home runs in 2021 after reinventing his swing with the aid of Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long. If Ozuna remains on the Braves roster, there’s obvious redundancy with players who have questionable defensive skillsets, but if there’s an ability to add Schwarber, he’d add another big left-handed bat to the lineup. Coming with a market value of $12.9 million, one report has Schwarber looking to ride his success of past season into a deal of upward of $60 million over three years. Anthopoulos has said the Braves will increase payroll in the upcoming year. Now, whether that goes to meeting Freeman’s contract demands or figuring things out on roster that’s sans Ozuna, Schwarber can take the Braves into the new DH world in style. There’s also the benefit of being able to play first should anyone be able to convince a returning Freeman to take a day off.

The Gambles

Chris Archer, RHP

Reclamation Project, I: Archer hasn’t had an ERA lower than 4.02 since 2015, and no better than 4.31 over the past two seasons in which he took the field, and his average fastball velocity has declined every season since 2017. Likely gone are the days of his logging 200-plus innings, as he was limited to a mere 19 1/3 in 2021, a year cut short with inflammation in his left hip and add in a forearm injury last April and missing the entire 2020 following surgery to address neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome and he’s the definition of a gamble. That’s exactly why he could be so intriguing for a team like the Braves. Chances are he’s going to have to take a one-year deal to both show he’s healthy and rebuild his credentials.

Matthew Boyd, LHP

Reclamation Project, II: Boyd went from putting up All-Star-caliber numbers in the first half of 2019 to being non-tendered by the Tigers last month, the result of a roster crunch, as well as a troubling 2021 that ended with surgery to repair the flexor tendon in his left forearm. Chance are, Boyd is not going to be ready to help anyone by Opening Day, with an anticipated June return from the procedure. Still, there was promise in 2021 before the left arm discomfort issues set in, as Boyd — who led the American League in home runs in allowed in 2019 and 2020 — allowed one homer in six April starts and had a 3.43 ERA through May. At the root of that success was a reworked changeup that he was throwing a career-high 22.5 percent of the time and resulted in a near-30 percent whiff rate. Another player out to prove he still has something to tap into, Boyd could likely be had on the cheap.

Carlos Rodón, LHP

Some may put Rodón in the “splashes” category, but while he threw a no-hitter last season and can still run the four-seamer up to triple digits, he comes with plenty of question marks considering a calculated market value of $24 million. To begin with, he didn’t receive a qualifying offer from the White Sox, and while that may be because he may have taken it, it’s also because the 29-year-old has simply struggled to stay on the mound. His long injury history, which included Tommy John surgery in 2019, shoulder fatigue, as well as biceps and wrist issues in his pitching arm. The stuff is undeniable, though, including a 34.6 strikeout rate that’s in the league’s 96th percentile behind a fastball that resulted in a .199 batting average against last season. Unlike the pitchers we just discussed, Rodón isn’t expected to take a one-year contract. But if the Braves believe he can stay healthy, he could be a factor in the rotation for years to come, but among those arms left, it will cost a premium to make it happen.

Playing It Safe

Corey Dickerson, OF

A player we’d previously looked at when it comes to free-agent bargains, Dickerson remains a depth option that could fill a variety of needs. A former Gold Glove winner, he can provide premium defense in the corner outfield spots and be worked into a backup role in center field (at a fraction of the cost of, say, Conforto). FanGraphs’ crowed sourced numbers have Dickerson earning $7 million on a one-year deal, a more than acceptable figure on a player that, along with his defense, has never hit below league average in any full season he’s played and slashed .271/.326/.432 last year, including a .779 OPS in 140 plate appearances after he was dealt to the Blue Jays. It’s not a move that will electrify a fanbase, but Dickerson could prove valuable, especially if the Braves are unable return either one of these next options.

Eddie Rosario, OF/DH

The safety comes in sticking with a bat you know, if you’re Anthopoulos. There could be a gamble that comes with Rosario or Jorge Soler (more on him in a minute), depending on how much you buy into their postseason eruptions. That’s not to say anyone expects Rosario to replicate the 1.073 OPS he had in the Braves’ title run for the duration of the season but putting up a .383/.456/.617 slash line figures to drive up the price a bit, especially for a player with a 30-home run season on his resume. Despite his Super Rosario catch, he’s not a top-shelf defender, though he’s not going to kill a team with a minus-0.1 dWAR in each of the past two seasons. But, as part of a rotation with the DH mixed in, the 30-year-old Rosario — who is projected to draw $10 million per on a two-year deal after making $8 million a year ago — may be the most likely to return of the now free-agent outfielders the Braves acquired at last year’s deadline.

Jorge Soler, OH/DH

Soler’s glow up saw him go from having to sign a one-year, $8 million deal to World Series MVP. The totality of his 2021 numbers weren’t spectacular, as he hit one percent above league average with a minus-0.2 fWAR, but like the story of the champion Braves, Soler’s story is defined by after the trade deadline. After being dealt from the Royals, he had 136 wRC+ in August and 126 in September, then followed that with a .948 OPS in the postseason and 1.911 in the Fall Classic. That, you all know. But so does the rest of the baseball world. The defense isn’t going to win him a Gold Glove, but again, the rest of the baseball world knows that, too. Again, the future of Ozuna factors in as there’s redundancy, but Soler showed his 48-home run, 136 wRC+ 2019 was no fluke. His October drove up the price, with projections having the 29-year-old making in the $10-$12 million range on a multi-year deal. The DH furthers the case to bring him back, but with Acuña, Duvall, Heredia, Ozuna and Pache all in the fold, the Braves are going to eventually run out of room for outfielders. Without further roster machinations, bringing back multiple free agents from the championship run could be difficult.