Salvaging Atlanta’s Winter

It’s been an active offseason in the National League East, where four of the five teams have made steps to improve themselves in 2014.

The Washington Nationals stole Doug Fister from Detroit and added role players Jerry Blevins andNate McLouth to fill out a roster that was among the league’s hottest down the stretch in 2013, while the New York Mets imported Curtis GrandersonBartolo Colon, and Chris Young in an attempt to show some respectability. The Philadelphia Phillies should see some benefit fromMarlon ByrdRoberto Hernandez and the returning Carlos Ruiz, and even the Miami Marlinsdipped their toes in the free-agent waters, adding Jarrod Saltalamacchia to an impressive collection of young talent.

Those teams are all attempting to catch the defending champion Atlanta Braves, who have worked to maintain their edge by … acquiring a catcher who can’t catch (Ryan Doumit) and a pitcher who can’t pitch (Gavin Floyd, recovering from May Tommy John surgery) while bidding farewell to star catcher Brian McCann and longtime starter Tim Hudson.

It’s hard to see those moves as anything but a step down, and so from a baseball perspective, it’s been a decidedly disappointing winter in the Peach State.

The Braves do have enviable young talent on the field and in the rotation, along with the best closer in baseball. But they also have two expensive black holes in the lineup — second base (Dan Uggla) and center field (B.J. Upton) — and are limited by a poor television deal that pays them a fraction of what other clubs receive, as well as a notoriously tight-fisted ownership group that regards the team as merely a minor line item on a larger ledger.

That makes Atlanta’s flexibility limited, since the Braves usually spend about $90 million annually, and a steady payroll is a declining one in today’s increasingly wealthy game. Including Doumit and Floyd, the Braves now have about $55 million committed for 2014, but they still need to set aside approximately $30 million for what was the largest arbitration-eligible group of players in baseball at the beginning of the offseason. Unless ownership suddenly finds itself in an unexpectedly generous mood, Atlanta looks to be getting close to its payroll limit, and the team has little choice but to give Upton a second chance to prove himself.

That said, there is still time for the Braves to salvage the winter, and here are three things they can do to prevent this offseason from being a complete disaster.

Start signing extensions with young players

This isn’t going to immediately make the 2014 roster stronger, because the Braves will have these players anyway. But in addition to helping make a public relations splash by showing that they’re “committing to the future,” or whatever they think ticket-buying fans would like to hear, this would help alleviate in future offseasons what’s limiting them now — an unusually high amount of arbitration cases making for difficulty in projecting cost certainty (see table).

There’s probably a half-dozen such players Atlanta might want to extend — Mike Minor and Andrelton Simmons among them — but tops on the list ought to be Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, two 24-year-old established stars who should represent the core of the Braves’ lineup for years to come.

Freeman is probably just outside the very elite at first base — no slight when we’re talking aboutChris DavisPaul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto — but comfortably ranks as the sixth or seventh best first baseman in baseball by most of the major offensive and total value metrics. Heyward has had some health concerns, but has been a star-level producer in his two completely healthy seasons of 2010 and 2012. Considering their age and talent, the Braves need to buy out a few free-agent seasons while they still can.

Fix second base

There’s bad, and then there’s what Uggla was in 2013, which ended with him not even making Atlanta’s postseason roster as the Braves instead went with Elliot Johnson. Yes, Uggla hit 22 homers, but he also did so with a .364 slugging percentage, making him the only man in the history of the game to hit that many homers with such a low slugging percentage. (Uggla had just 13 other extra-base hits, and only one total after

Over the past two seasons, he’s hit only .201/.330/.374, a huge drop from the six consecutive seasons when he slugged at least .450, all while striking out a whopping 31.8 percent of the time.

Some cling to the fact that late-season laser eye surgery can help him rebound, but it’s unlikely we see a big turnaround at age 34 after two consecutive down seasons. That said, the Braves still owe him $26 million over the next two seasons, and the internal options — mainly reserves Tyler Pastornicky andRamiro Pena, with prospect Tommy La Stella unlikely to be ready in April after just 81 games above Class A — are questionable.

The Braves may need to live with Upton, but it’s difficult to see a contender going into a season with the potential for zero offensive production at three spots, including the pitcher. So what to do?Howie Kendrick is a great fit, since he’s been reportedly very available in trade talks, and the Braves are a good match for an Angels team that is thin on both pitching and prospects. The Giants may be willing to discuss the reliable Marco Scutaro, or Atlanta could try to make a rare deal with the Mets for the very available Daniel Murphy.

However, if the team really wanted to get creative, Atlanta could attempt to send Uggla to a non-contender who is looking for an effective way to spend its cash. That is, a team like the Astros or Cubs may prefer to effectively “buy prospects” from Atlanta in exchange for taking on a decent amount of Uggla’s contract, rather than throw money away on a Nelson Cruz type.

No matter what direction they go in, the Braves can’t simply assume Uggla will rebound. His age and several years of decline say otherwise.

Don’t go crazy for an “ace”

The Braves are unlikely to have the financial resources to be in on Masahiro Tanaka, and don’t seem willing to completely clear out their farm system for David Price, so perhaps this is a given anyway. While certainly every team would love to add another elite starter, the narrative that the Braves can’t succeed without one doesn’t ring true.

As a group, the Atlanta rotation was top-six in both ERA and FIP last year, and while no one will confuse Minor with Clayton Kershaw, Atlanta’s underrated lefty was one of the 30 best starters in the game. As Julio Teheran continues to mature along with Kris MedlenAlex WoodDavid Haleand (when healthy) Brandon Beachy and Floyd, the Braves have a solid enough rotation while waiting on prospects like J.R. Graham and Lucas Sims to arrive.

If a Matt Garza drops into their laps, then fantastic, but it’s not worth the risk considering the other needs this team has.




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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.
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Anon21
Member
Anon21

Mike, sorry, but this article really demonstrates why national writers are often bad at writing about specific teams they don’t really follow. It is very well-known among writers who cover the Braves that the team has approached both Heyward and Freeman about extensions and has been told essentially that they aren’t interested, that they intend to test free agency. So a bog-standard suggestion like “Extend your young stars!” that seems so obvious that it ought to have already occurred to the front office… has in fact already occurred to it. Your perspective may be skewed by covering the Dodgers, where affordability is just not a constraint the team operates under.

Anon21
Member
Anon21

The other NL East teams were also completely outclassed by Atlanta last season, so they were under pressure to make moves to attempt to catch up with the Braves. I don’t think they’ve succeeded, but that’s why they play the games. I don’t mean to come down hard on you specifically, it’s just that the generic “extend your stars” advice is blind to team specifics. If the team could afford to pay free-agent prices for Heyward and Freeman now, they would, but they can’t, so both players will likely hit free agency on schedule.

Kraemer_51
Member
Kraemer_51

How do you measure “outclassed”? The other NL East teams were comfortably outplayed sure, but you’re setting up a pretty ridiculous narrative by asserting that the Atlanta Braves were in any way/shape or form classier than any other team.

I don’t think Petriello is blind to teams specifics really either. Having Freeman and Heyward reach free agency at the earliest date possible is an inextricable failure by the Atlanta Braves, an opinion both he and I share. To not be able to extend at least one of them would constitute a monumental failure.

Anon21
Member
Anon21

I just meant “outclassed” in the sense that the Braves demonstrated pretty clearly that they were the best team in the East. I didn’t mean to invoke any concepts of character or style of play or whatever. As for the rest, even when a team controls the player’s rights, they cannot force him to accept an extension he doesn’t want. Reports are that Heyward is simply uninterested, and was also uninterested last year. Freeman is apparently a little more willing to talk, although after the year he just had he may be out of the Braves’ price range. Anyway, your formulation is like saying it was a massive failure on the Rays’ part not to extend David Price before they got put in a position where they have to trade him. If you haven’t got the money to extend a guy, you haven’t got the money—every front office (save the Dodgers’) works within a budget.

Kraemer_51
Member
Kraemer_51

TB still extended Ben Zobrist, Matt Moore, Evan Longoria, James Shields to long term contracts. There’s a difference between the Rays having Cobb/Moore/Hellickson/Colome/Torres/Odorizzi/Archer for a number of years to replace Price’s productivity, and Atlanta’s situation.

Anon21
Member
Anon21

You’re really going to pretend like the Evan Longoria contract is some kind of reasonable model for extending a player? Agents use that contract as a cautionary example to avoid. Kudos to the Rays for pulling a fast one on a young star, but the majority of players, most definitely including Heyward and Freeman, have better representation. And when a guy has good representation, you can’t just say “Take our extension!” because he’ll just say “No thanks, I’ll wait for free agency.”

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