Sunday, April 2, 2023

What’s next for the Braves? Three questions facing Atlanta after loss to Phillies in NLDS

For the 22nd consecutive season, Major League Baseball will not have a repeat champion. The 2021 World Series champion Atlanta Braves were sent packing by the NL East rival Philadelphia Phillies in Game 4 of the 2022 NLDS on Saturday. The 1998-2000 Yankees remain baseball’s last repeat champion. The sport is in an unprecedented era of parity.

“Well, we ran into a really hot team, pretty much,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said after the Game 4 loss. “They were hitting on all cylinders. They were playing great baseball. They got big hits. They shut us down offensively, and I think all the credit goes to the Phillies. They came in here, like I say, they got hot at the right time and played a heck of a series.”

The Braves won 101 games during the regular season and they won their fifth consecutive NL East title despite being 10 1/2 games back on June 1 — only the 1951 Dodgers (13 games) and 1995 Angels (11 games) have blown larger division leads than the 2022 Mets* — though given their roster, any season that ends with someone else being the last team standing is a disappointment.

* The Yankees famously erased a 14-game deficit to win the AL East in 1978, though the Yankees were in fourth place at the time. The Red Sox never led the division by more than 10 games that year.

That said, the quick postseason exit doesn’t diminish what looks like one of the best cores in baseball, if not the best. The Braves have aggressively locked up their core players to long-term extensions. Just look at these deals:

  • OF Ronald Acuña Jr.: Signed through 2026 with club options for 2027 and 2028.
  • 2B Ozzie Albies: Signed through 2025 with club options for 2026 and 2027.
  • OF Michael Harris II: Signed through 2030 with club options for 2031 and 2032.
  • 1B Matt Olson: Signed through 2029 with a club option for 2030.
  • 3B Austin Riley: Signed through 2032 with a club option for 2033.
  • RHP Spencer Strider: Signed through 2028 with a club option for 2029.

Those six players will be together through at least 2025 and potentially through 2027, with most signed well beyond that. The average annual value of those six contracts is $81.2 million. That is an absolute steal. Acuña and Riley might’ve commanded that much on their own had they hit free agency as scheduled after the 2024 and 2025 seasons, respectively.

Atlanta’s core is young, excellent, and signed affordably for the better part of the next decade. I’m not sure any team is set up as well for long-term success as these Braves. So, while the NLDS loss was a letdown, there is no reason to think this team will fade out of contention anytime soon. They’re set up to remain among the game’s elite teams for a long time.

With that in mind, here are three pressing issues facing the Braves this offseason, as they look to get back on top and win another World Series title in 2023. 

1. Will they re-sign Swanson?

It’s easier to list the core Braves players who don’t have a long-term extension at this point: Max Fried and Dansby Swanson. Fried is under team control through 2024, so Atlanta still has plenty of time to lock their ace up. Swanson is a free agent this offseason, however, and the Braves don’t have an obvious heir apparent (Vaughn Grissom is considered a subpar defender at short).

“The bottom line is, he’s real important,” GM Alex Anthopoulos said about Swanson during an interview with Dukes & Bell earlier this month. “He plays a premium position, and he’s important. He’s important. Especially for me this past year, he’s always been important but he stepped up – I’m not even talking on the field, I’m talking even in the clubhouse – he stepped up more this year than anybody would have expected. He’s taken a lot on … You put yourself in the GM’s chair, you don’t want to lose a glue guy, but – there’s got to be a but – it’s not that easy. That being said, we want him. We need him.”

Swanson grew up outside Atlanta and he’s spent all but six months of his career with the Braves after the Diamondbacks made him the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft (the D-Backs sent him to the Braves in the ill-fated Shelby Miller trade in December 2015). He had a breakout year in 2022, though it came more on the defensive side than at the plate, and at age 28, Swanson is right smack in the prime of his career. Atlanta’s championship window is right now and Swanson fits is perfectly in so many ways.

Xander Bogaerts and Carlos Correa are expected to opt out of their contracts and join Swanson and Trea Turner in free agency. Correa and Turner are the best all-around players in that group and figure to command the largest contracts. Bogaerts may not be a shortstop much longer, though his track record as an elite offensive player is much longer than Swanson’s. Last year’s free agent class was excellent as well. Here are those deals:

Correa’s contract is an outlier. It was essentially a one-year deal with a two-year insurance policy in case of catastrophic injury or underperformance. That deal allows him to re-enter free agency this offseason, at age 28, and with no qualifying offer strings attached. It’s hard to believe Swanson would take a similar deal. This is his best chance at a massive free agent payday.

With all due respect, Swanson is no Seager, who hit free agency a year younger than Swanson is now and was a much more accomplished hitter. Swanson fits firmly in that Báez/Story to Semien range, I think. Paying big for defense-first players is risky, but when your core is signed as affordably as Atlanta’s, you can afford to splurge to keep your prime-aged shortstop around.

The Cubs, Dodgers, and Yankees stand out as teams that could play the game of shortstop musical chairs this offseason. Possibly the Cardinals too, and maybe the up-and-coming Orioles as well. It would behoove the Braves to lock up Swanson soon to avoid a bidding war not just for Swanson, but a replacement should he sign elsewhere. Free agency is unpredictable. All it takes is one desperate owner or GM to come in with a huge offer to change the landscape.

2. How do they sort through their pitching depth?

To be clear, having pitching depth is in no way a problem. It’s not even a luxury. It’s a necessity. In Fried, Strider, and breakout righty Kyle Wright, the Braves have an enviable 1-2-3 punch atop the rotation. And because their core is signed so affordably, they can afford to bring Charlie Morton back next season on a $20 million deal. Splurging on one-year deals is smart business.

Beyond those top four starters and swingman Jake Odorizzi (Odorizzi holds a $12.5 million player option for 2023), the Braves have these arms in place heading into the offseason (listed alphabetically):

Righty Freddy Tarnok (No. 6 prospect per and lefty Dylan Dodd (No. 16 prospect per are knocking on the door of the big leagues too. That’s a lot of quality options behind the top four, though all come with questions. Will Soroka be healthy? Can Anderson rebound? Can Muller and/or Shuster be effective big leaguers? That’s why having numbers is important. Atlanta can cycle through their options until they find the right mix.

Keeping this pitching depth and taking it into 2023 is justifiable and frankly smart. At the same time, young pitching is one of the most valuable commodities in the game, and I can’t help but wonder whether Anthopoulos sees this as an opportunity to do something really big and really impactful this offseason. On that note …

3. Will they make a big splash?

Anthopoulos has never shied away from making a blockbuster, and with their core locked up affordably, the Braves are in position to be opportunistic and pounce on anything that makes sense. Consider some of the big names who could hit the trade market this offseason (listed alphabetically):

  • RHP Corbin Burnes, Brewers: Burnes is two years away from free agency and recently said Milwaukee has not approached him about an extension. Could the Brewers trade Burnes this winter like they traded Josh Hader at the deadline?
  • C Sean Murphy, Athletics: The Braves traded top catching prospect Shea Langeliers to get Olson last offseason and Travis d’Arnaud can be a free agent after 2023. Murphy and William Contreras would be a great 1-2 punch behind the plate.
  • DH/RHP Shohei Ohtani, Angels: Hoo boy, this would be fun, wouldn’t it? The six-man rotation thing can be a headache, but for a talent like Ohtani, you figure it out. Ohtani is a year away from free agency, but one year of Ohtani is insanely valuable.

  • OF Bryan Reynolds, Pirates: Eleven different players have started a game in left field for Atlanta the last two years. Wouldn’t it be nice to put an end to that revolving door and fill the position with a switch-hitting All-Star controllable through 2025?

The Braves are set up for long-term success as well as any team in baseball. That’s primarily because they have their core locked up to such affordable contracts. It’s also because they have the resources (payroll flexibility and tradeable prospects) to jump on an impact player(s) who hits the trade market to further supplement their core. The NLDS loss was a bummer. Moving forward, the Braves have put themselves in excellent position to remain among the sport’s most dominant teams.

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