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Now what? Rounding out the Braves’ 2021 roster

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With Ozuna re-entering the fold, the Braves can now focus on the fringes of their roster

Atlanta Braves v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Marcell Ozuna signing was a major coup for the Braves, as they grabbed an above-average player for a substantially under-market deal, while being at the exact place on the win curve where moves like this have the most impact. There’s also another, quite gigantic, reason for the deal being essentially manna from baseball heaven: Ozuna and the Braves present a rare case where a team basically upgraded from zero to non-zero, meaning that none of their resource outlay was “wasted” by paying for WAR of which a portion was already going to be produced in-house. In other words — when the Dodgers signed Trevor Bauer (projected for 3.8 WAR), their projected team WAR total didn’t go up by 3.8, because the Dodgers were already getting some non-zero rotation production that Bauer’s addition bumps away. But, the Braves literally had 0 WAR projected for left field, so their boost from Ozuna is not diluted.

And, what a boost it is: on the Depth Charts team WAR projections, the Braves jumped from 13th to ninth (though they only leapfrogged AL teams, their rank as fourth in the NL remains unchanged); in Fangraphs’ projected standings, which are cognizant of team schedules, they’re listed as centrally estimated to end with MLB’s fifth-best record. In those projected standings, there is no gap between them and the Mets; the projected WAR gap is fairly small.

What’s not-quite-critical-but-still-important here is that the Braves still have some obvious roster holes. If you figure they carry 13 position players, then, beyond their presumed starting-seven-and-probably-Cristian Pache, the depth chart looks kind of ominous. Here are the current in-house options for a five-man bench:

If not self-evident, the problems with this motley assortment are vast. Not only are just two of the nine players projected, in a vacuum, to be even okay bench players by one of two projection systems (Camargo and Inciarte, both via ZiPS), but the group as a whole projects to be below replacement when you blend the two systems. That is, in the modern parlance, “Ew, David Anthopoulos!”

So, let’s break down what could be of use.

Second catcher — desire level: meh

Travis d’Arnaud has a stranglehold on the de facto starting role here, but his catching partner is an open question. The in-house options aren’t too concerning — Alex Jackson has good minor league framing numbers for whatever they’re worth, and William Contreras is a fine prospect who might be ready to take part in a timeshare at some point in 2021, if not at the beginning of the season. As a result, there’s not much urgency here. If both Jackson and Contreras faceplant, there will always be a fine second catcher floating around somewhere.

In terms of available free agents, I can’t imagine there’s any need or desire for Yadier Molina. Tyler Flowers still projects for a very strong 0.9 WAR in 211 PAs because of his thicc framing skill, and is a fairly ubiquitous option. It’s really just a matter of whether the Braves bother to sign him again. The other options beyond Flowers are mostly pointless; there’s little Tony Wolters, Rene Rivera, or Robinson Chirinos offer that the Braves can’t just replicate internally or by signing Flowers.

Generic infield man — desire level: kinda

One of these spots is likely Camargo’s spot to lose. It’s unclear whether that’s the only spot, or if the Braves will carry a five-man bench with just one “true” outfielder. (Mayfield and Adrianza are in the category below this one.) Camargo is an okay but not great bench option; Pablo Sandoval really shouldn’t be an option except for the sake of the mythical “lulz.”

Fortunately for the Braves, there are tons of choices here for either supplanting Camargo or supplementing him.

  • Travis Shaw was great in 2017-2018, awful in 2019, and not-very-good bench quality in 2020. ZiPS sees him as essentially average right now, which makes him a great handcuff or platoon partner for Riley. As a 30-year-old who seems like a good bet for an average-y bat and average-y third base defense, there’s probably a bigger concern that Shaw would be too expensive or unwilling to take a non-starting role than that he’d be a bad bench option.
  • Marwin Gonzalez is basically what you’d hope to get out of Camargo at this point, with better aptitude in the outfield. He hasn’t played like a starter since the trash can era (if there’s one player you can make a case had outsize trash can-bolstered stats, it’s Gonzalez), but gives you okay versatility and an okay bat. Is he worth the extra commitment over Camargo? Eh.
  • In a career that’s spanned parts of eight seasons, Jonathan Villar has had two great campaigns (2016, 2019) and a few awful ones, including 2017 and 2020. His defense is more of a problem than a solution, but his combination of potential-for-decent-bat and speed gives him some upside. He might be an okay option because the Braves are going to need an actual backup shortstop anyway, who should be able to fill in elsewhere in a pinch.
  • Other options are too numerous to list, and should be cheap. Prominent names here are Asdrubal Cabrera, Brad Miller, Renato Nunez, Jake Lamb, Todd Frazier, Jedd Gyorko, Joe Panik, Brian Dozier, I got tired of typing names but you get the idea, etc. Most of these names don’t really supplant Camargo but just provide another option — but if the Braves really do want to carry two non-shortstop-capable backups, there are many to choose from. There’s just not too much difference between what these guys expect to provide and Camargo himself, so extra investment here may not be worth it unless the Braves are going to carry both.

Shortstop dude desire level: yes, please, but there’s a catch

There isn’t too much positive that can be said about the prospect of having either Mayfield or Adrianza pressed into service if Dansby Swanson is injured. Mayfield is 30 and has played parts of four seasons at Triple-A. Adrianza is 31, has had one average offensive season in eight tries, and is more average at short than anything else. Camargo may actually be as non-terrible of an option at short as either of them, but after what happened in 2019, I’m not sure they’ll go that way, or else there wasn’t much need to add either of Mayfield or Adrianza (and certainly not both!) in the first place.

Unfortunately for the Braves, though... uh... here’s the free agent Fangraphs Depth Chart for shortstops:

Villar has been horrid at short. Miller is an only-in-a-pinch option who was horrible there half a decade ago and is more of a DH anyway. (Imagine playing a DH at short!) Cozart’s usefulness relies on the health of his shoulder, and at this point he can’t actually be counted on to outplay Mayfield or Adrianza either. Strange-Gordon can’t really play short too well, and hasn’t been productive in years.

The Braves need to find some options here — perhaps a trade for someone like Detroit’s Niko Goodrum could work, but it’s not a great spot to be in.

Outfield humandesire level: eh

Ender Inciarte slots in as the obvious fourth outfielder and defensive replacement at this point. The Braves could either carry five outfielders in total, or another infielder. Both sets are fairly deep free agency-wise, with backup outfielders still available including guys like:

  • Defense-first types, such as Jackie Bradley Jr., Kevin Pillar, and Jake Marisnick. These guys are fairly redundant with Inciarte, but value is value. I’m guessing Bradley and Pillar may be out of the price range that Braves may want to pay for a bench guy, but it’s getting late and they did just shave a bunch of market price off Ozuna’s deal.
  • All-around fourth outfielder options, namely Brett Gardner and Yasiel Puig. These two guys will probably want to start somewhere if they sign at all, but if the Braves can get either for a pittance, they could be among the best fourth outfielders in the league and fine plug-and-plays to prevent the team from bleeding value if an injury occurs. Highly unlikely the Braves get these guys.
  • Platoon-type bats, including a reunion with Adam Duvall, Brad Miller-as-an-outfielder, Ryan Braun I guess, and I guess I’ll mention Nomar Mazara here even though he’s miscast as a platoon bat and is more of a “hey maybe someone will teach him to elevate finally” guy.

The gamut of options here isn’t super-appetizing for their possible prices, especially given that the Braves are already paying Ender Inciarte. If any of these names come very cheap, like that-time-the-Braves-paid-Peter-Bourjos-$1M-to-stick-around-a-month cheap, then go for it. Even a few million might be okay, but there isn’t a huge need for more unless there isn’t more to spend it on.

And don’t even mention his name.

Speaking of there being more to spend on, let’s briefly touch on pitching.

Swingman pitcher type — desire level: not needed but can’t hurt

The Braves’ inning allocation is fairly stacked at this point, with Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson still on the outside looking in at a bolstered rotation. Those guys will probably get first dibs on any injury-related opening and may work in longer relief stints depending on what the team needs. Still, there are a ton of pitchers floating around that would be decent as additional depth, should the Braves need them. Names like Collin McHugh, Trevor Cahill, and Mike Montgomery have a wide range of future outcomes, but some are nice, and could be had for not too much. Andrew Cashner was destroyed when he attempted to move to relief but has been an okay backend option otherwise; Zack Godley might benefit from such a move given how terrible he’s been as a starter since 2018.

Relief pitchers — desire level: ew, Alex

Look, the Braves are going to add relievers. They probably need to, too, just from a numbers perspective — there aren’t enough arms in the organization to use in traditional short-stint relief roles and survive the season unless you start yoinking random guys from Gwinnett, not at current rates of reliever implosion.

They just shouldn’t pay more than a few million at most for any of them. There’s no reason to, and adding a bunch of guys to see who is able to make progress on improving versus who isn’t seems like a way safer and cheaper strategy than tying up assets in something that might resemble Pitcher Will Smith 2: The Smithening.

There are so many relievers out there it’s insane. David Robertson, Keone Kela, and Oliver Drake may not have working throwing arms, but that might mean they can be had for nothing. If so, grab ‘em. Otherwise, find whichever of: Justin Wilson, Mark Melancon, David Phelps, Trevor Rosenthal, Tommy Hunter, Jake McGee, Tony Cingrani, Oliver Perez, Ian Kennedy, Brad Peacock, Brandon Workman, Jose Alvarez, Shane Greene, Cam Bedrosian, Chaz Roe, and Nate Jones will sign for $1 million or less (are they all seriously going to find jobs of over $1M before March?) and invite them to Spring Training. And that’s just the first wave. There are tons of other guys also still unsigned, like Jeremy Jeffress, that might really be looking for scraps come March.

Do not pay for relievers. But get some anyway, I guess. Waivers is fine too.