For the past several years, Daniel Shoptaw over at Cardinals Conclave has graciously solicited inputs from myself and a few other writers about the state of Atlanta Braves baseball coming into each new season. In fact, he does this for all 30 MLB teams; a series you can follow at the link given above. What follows is that Braves Q-and-A session from me for 2023… this is part 1 of 2 parts.
[DS] The Braves had an active offseason and, of course, handed out some more extensions to young players. What did you think of their winter moves and how does this team look as 2023 gets ready to open?
[AC] Atlanta has undertaken a course that many teams are envying… they have locked up so many young position players that the starters came into North Port knowing exactly who they will be seeing at almost every position, every day… and for several years to come.
Talent aside — and that’s the reason the extensions were offered in the first place, of course — that breeds familiarity, camaraderie, confidence, and a “team” in the truist sense of the word (see what I did there?). This will pay dividends down the road.
The off-season saw a couple of obvious holes: left field and shortstop. In true Braves’ fashion, though, they went into another direction entirely with the expectation that internal solutions would suffice to fill those holes.
For catcher Sean Murphy, they gave up a lot of potential talent, but got back one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, which will pay big dividends in their efforts to suppress everyone else’s running game (the new timing rules and base sizes should unleash the greyhounds).
That part of this trade may have gone under the radar a bit, but don’t miss this point.
The other big move that didn’t get a lot of attention was the acquisition of Joe Jimenez from Detroit. This could be a stealth steal for Atlanta, providing yet another 8th-inning-type arm that just adds to a bullpen of strength. Likewise, Lucas Luetge was snatched from the Yankees, which further extends the bullpen’s reach.
Besides this pair, though, there’s a lot of competition for the end of that bullpen bench from numerous relievers brought in to see if they can recover prior levels of performance (Nick Anderson most notable here). If half of them do so, the pen will be untouchable.
Eddie Rosario says he can see now, but he had a ‘lost’ season in 2022 and needs to show he can recover his form. In truth, he probably doesn’t need to be spectacular at the plate, but playing some better defense would be helpful and if he can swing like he did for the stretch run in 2021, then Atlanta will have all the offense they need… but more on that later.
Vaughn Grissom showed enough during the Winter in his workouts with Ron Washington to tell the team they could afford to move on from Dansby Swanson — despite Swanson having the best WAR year for any shortstop in the history of the Braves’ franchise.
If Grissom can make the routine plays and throws at short, then he’ll be fine… and any offensive support will be a bonus. We tend to forget that in the years since 1990, the average season for any Braves SS was in the 2.0-2.4 WAR range.
Grissom is certainly capable of that, though there’s a late push from Braden Shewmake to challenge for the job. I still think Grissom gets it, but Shewmake could very well be his middle-infield backup.
[Ed. note: yeah… the last 3 paragraphs were written a few weeks ago…]
My main area of concern, then, involves the 5th starter position… and maybe the rotation’s depth in general. That will be a theme as we go through this.
Kyle Wright (shoulder [shudder]) and Mike Soroka (hamstring) have both had hiccups as camp got underway, which have slowed their progress.
Bryce Elder and Ian Anderson both laid eggs (definitely not goose eggs) in their first outings, but are showing better recently; Kolby Allard appeared destined for AAA, but an oblique took him out of the mix regardless. More to say on all that coming later (in part 2).
[DS] Max Fried, as of this writing, will be a free agent at the end of the 2024 season. What do you expect from him this season and are you surprised he hasn’t gotten the extension treatment?
[AC] Fried just turned 29 in January and will be entering his age 31 season when he hits free agency. He is clearly elite — and I’d expect nothing less than that from him this season again — but getting him signed up for the long haul will be problematic.
For one thing, he hasn’t shown the kind of long-term innings production you’d normally want to see before signing a pitcher to an extension. After peaking at 165.2 innings in the majors in 2019 and 2021, he finally broke through a bit with 185.1 in 2022. That’s good, but 17 other starters exceeded that career high number last year.
Another 180+ inning campaign in 2023 would go a long way toward allaying any fears there… but also make him even more expensive.
Pitchers like Aaron Nola (career ERA+ 117) may soon set a bar that the Braves can’t really reach with Fried (ERA+ 140). People are already suggesting something close to $30 million annually for Nola [MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM was the source for that]… and while he has been more durable overall, Fried has clearly the better performing pitcher.
The de facto ceiling number for Braves’ contracts right now is $22 million annually. Fried is clearly worth more than that. While the Braves would be highly reluctant to get to that $30m range, they’d likely need to be around $25-26 million just to get a conversation underway. Even so, Fried would have to want to stay if he were offered something in that ballpark.
So in this case, it’s likely a case where both sides would have to give in a bit — quite a bit, in fact — to make such a deal work. So those are the core reasons on why I’m not surprised on Fried’s status, but of course, just the general idea of extending pitchers well into their 30’s is fraught with risk. Buyer beware.
[DS] What’s the weakness of this team and do you expect the club to address it during the season?
[AC] While left field wasn’t specifically addressed in the off-season, it’s clear that bringing in more outfielders (Dalton Hillard, Jordan Luplow, Kevin Pillar, Eli White) sends a message to both Eddie Rosario and Marcel Ozuna that their playing time is not entirely secure… though manager Brian Snitker has declared that Ozuna will play (and he’s getting tons of Spring reps).
As noted earlier, the Braves have enough offense around the diamond, so they don’t necessarily need a thumper in left field. But Atlanta also ranked 30th — dead last — in left fielder WAR in 2022. That needs to change.
I don’t think the Braves are looking for a Gold-Glove guy out there… but they need a competent defender. They also don’t need a Silver Slugger… but they need someone who’s not an automatic out, either.
So this will be an area to watch closely. In-season trade options are going to be difficult, given the dearth of talent now in the minors and general lack of available quality OF’s (not counting the impossible-to-get Bryan Reynolds).
So regardless of the position – LF or pitching – Atlanta is running through numerous candidates in the hope someone steps up to seize the opportunity and avoid needing an in-season option… and that’s being done in this way for budgetary reasons.
Part 2 will have the answers to questions 4 and 5, but first a quick note about that term “budgetary reasons”.
This 2023 Braves team will easily have the highest payroll in franchise history — up close by around $19 million above 2022, thanks to those aformentioned contract extensions.
While the Braves have a stated goal of moving into the Top 5 payrolls in the majors, that bar keeps moving. As part of that movement, all of the current Top 7 clubs will be “tax paying” clubs as part of the revenue sharing rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
They teams now above the Braves are: Mets, Yankees, Padres, Phillies, Dodgers, Blue Jays. Numbers from the Cots Contracts site put the Jays at $249 million (that’s a fully-loaded 40-man roster estimate).
The Braves are estimated to be the seventh and final tax-payer for 2023, as they are being estimated to hit $235.9 million… $2.9 million above the 2023 tax threshold.
That will make things more expensive for Atlanta as every dollar they spend above the ‘cap’ requires a 20% penalty paid to the league… so a new player acquisition costing $10 million would really require a $12 million outlay from this point forward.
But maintaining a position as a ‘taxpayer’ has increasing penalties. This year, the Braves tax will be 20% (currently $580,000 for the overage of $2.9 million). However, exceeding the cap in 2024 would require a 30% surcharge. Doing that again in 2025 and beyond jumps the penalty to 50%, though any year where they can dip back under the cap drops the penalty to 0% and the escalations reset.
In any case… while Atlanta wants to spend enough to continue being competitive, it’s also clear that the Braves want to be smart about how they spend their money. They aren’t going to throw around cash like, say, the Padres have done.
That’s why I use the term “budgetary reasons”… they are clearly spending a lot of money, but it’s not going to be done with caution thrown to the wind. Check back in on San Diego in another 5-10 years and see how that’s working for them.
Meanwhile… more to come soon to finish this Braves pre-season Q&A.