As the Braves’ 2016 wore on, Adonis Garcia did plenty to allay concerns about third base, while starting pitchers provided frequent reminders that most of the high-level arms Atlanta acquired in recent trades and drafts were either still in the minors or not quite ready for big-league roles they’d been thrust into.
And so, the projected offseason primary-needs list evolved since summer, from third base and catching to starting pitching and catching, with an emphasis on the starting pitcher. The Braves can live with Garcia at third base, but can’t afford to have such a shaky starting rotation again if they expect to make strides at SunTrust Park in 2017.
And while they got better-than-expected production from the catching duo of Tyler Flowers and Anthony Recker after A.J. Pierzynski struggled mightily and eventually went on the disabled list, the Braves would like to add a preferably left-handed hitter to pair with Flowers in 2017.
“(Starting pitching) would clearly be our big need,” Braves general manager John Coppolella said of the to-do list. “We need two starters at least, possibly three. As the season’s gone on, we’ve been very pleased with the job Adonis has done. He came back — from when he was sent down (to Triple-A) — a new man; offensively and defensively he played very well.
“There’s a need to get a catcher to help Tyler Flowers; we like him a lot. He had a great year for us. That isn’t a knock on Tyler or anybody. We want to see what’s out there. There isn’t a whole lot of catching out there. If we can’t find anything, we’re very happy going with Flowers as well as (backup Anthony) Recker. They both did a real nice job for us.”
The free-agent catching market was slim even before Wilson Ramos tore up his knee in the last week of the season. Switch-hitting Matt Wieters has some appeal but could be too pricey and a little risky given his past injuries. Still, he hit 17 homers in an All-Star season in 2016 and has three recent seasons with 22-23 homers.
Former Braves catcher Brian McCann also could be considered again if the Yankees lower the trade ask for him.
As for the rest of the lineup, where there appeared to be multiple holes early, by midseason the Braves felt a lot better about things as several slumping players suddenly began to produce. And after the second-half additions of veteran outfielder Matt Kemp and top shortstop prospect Dansby Swanson, the Braves looked downright potent most nights.
Even when the starting pitching was struggling for long stretches, the Braves scored enough to play over-.500 ball after their 18-46 start, and that was primarily due to the offense, plus an improved bullpen.
“We had the makings of a ballclub,” Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said. “This lineup is one that’s real now. You look at the year Freddie Freeman had, it’s an MVP-caliber year with a different club. Ender Inciarte, I think, is the player we knew we were trading for. Adonis Garcia has stepped up and played very well for us at third base. Nick Markakis, another banner year coming off of the injuries that he had two years ago. Jace Peterson (played well) when he came back from the minor leagues. Tyler Flowers…. It’s a nice list of successful players offensively.”
What the Braves don’t want to do again is watch multiple young starting pitchers going the trial-by-fire course, getting knocked around mercilessly or coming apart at the first sign of adversity. They love their young pitching, but want to make sure they can develop it at a proper pace while waiting for the elite arms to arrive in coming years.
Other than Julio Teheran, they can’t project with any certainty what they’re going to get from the likes of young fireballer Mike Foltynewicz, who stepped forward this year, and Matt Wisler, who took steps back. Prospect Aaron Blair, notwithstanding his 10-strikeout performance against the Tigers Saturday, was overmatched most of the season.
So they’ll look for starting pitchers and a catcher. And unlike recent years, they’ll look first to fill those needs through free agency rather than trades. They’ll have money to spend this winter, but won’t say if there’s a specific amount.
“There may be somebody that we thought would price themselves out that comes in at a great bargain deal,” Coppolella said. “There’s probably (a preference) to fill a need through free agency rather than trades, due to the fact we’ve worked so hard to add all this young talent, the last thing we want to do is trade away three or four of them that we really like so that we can get a quick fix. Everything we’ve done has been the hard way, it’s been build for the long haul. There haven’t been any quick fixes. And I think that’s why we’re going to build something that’s going to be long-lasting.”