If the Braves seemed outclassed in the NLDS – they were outscored 20-8; eight Dodgers hit home runs, while only four Braves, Sean Newcomb among them, had RBIs – that should have been no shock. Having won the National League West six years running, the Dodgers approach every season thinking of October. The 2018 Braves were coming off four losing seasons, and their new general manager wasn’t sure what he had.
On the day the Braves clinched the NL East, Alex Anthopoulos conceded it wasn’t until the Braves summoned Mike Soroka at the start of May that he began to believe. Let’s recall that the GM’s one big winter move was meant to yield long-term salary relief, not immediate on-field impact. In dumping Matt Kemp back on the Dodgers, Anthopoulos cleared $18.5 million for 2019 – but added roughly $22 million to the 2018 payroll, most of it in dead money owed Adrian Gonzalez and Scott Kazmir, neither of whom played an inning.
The offseason that commenced Tuesday morning will be rather different. Anthopoulos knows exactly what he has – and what he doesn’t. He has money to spend. He has no bad contracts to shed. He said in July that Liberty Media, the Braves’ distant-in-every-sense owner, would allow him to “shop at any aisle.”
Owing to youth and talent, Anthopoulos could do nothing major this winter and the Braves would still be considered the East favorite. Any move he makes won’t be with mindset to get the 2019 Braves back to October; it will be to win 11 games – 10 more than this team managed – once there. His to-do list could look a bit like this:
1. Find a right fielder. Nick Markakis turns 35 next month and is set to become a free agent. (There’s another $11 million off the books.) He graced his first All-Star game in July. His bright season crashed thereafter. His pre-ASG OPS was .877; his post-ASG OPS was .701. The only way he’d be asked back would be on a one-year deal, which isn’t what he’ll be seeking. Cristian Pache, the Braves’ best minor-league outfielder, is 19 and finished this season in Double-A. He won’t be ready before 2020. (Oh, and Adam Duvall didn’t quite pan out, did he?)
The best free-agent outfielder will be Bryce Harper, which leads to this: Would the Braves want Bryce Harper? As good as he has been – he was the 2015 NL MVP – he hasn’t done all that much since, and the team he’s set to leave (though he might wind up staying) is the dynasty that never was. Would the bearded face of #Natitude fit in a clubhouse that already houses Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna? A better/cheaper option might be A.J. Pollock of Arizona, who’s a center fielder by trade but could surely handle right field.
2. Re-evaluate the pitching infrastructure. The Braves finished seventh among MLB teams in team ERA, which was good. They finished next-to-last in walks, which was … less good. By season’s end, that had become a hobbyhorse for manager Brian Snitker. He took pains to mention the walks his staff issued in the NLDS – a whopping 27 in four games – in his postgame briefing Monday. If we credit pitching coach Chuck Hernandez for helping turn this rotation into one of playoff caliber and Mike Foltynewicz into an All-Star, we must also ask: Can a staff make repeat postseason runs if it continues to walk the ballpark?
Hernandez is here because relations between Julio Teheran and Roger McDowell had soured. (Foltynewicz wasn’t crazy about McDowell, either.) But Teheran got only worse under his new tutor. The Braves have soured on him to the extent that his one playoff appearance came in the seventh inning of an elimination game his team trailed by four runs. It would be a shock if he were here next season. As for Hernandez: That could go either way.
3. Keep fingers crossed for Soroka. Apologies to Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, but Soroka has become the bell cow for Generation Coppy, that passel of pitching assembled by the ousted John Coppolella. His final start came June 19. He was placed on the 60-day disabled list and eventually shuttered for the duration with shoulder inflammation. He hasn’t had surgery. He did some throwing at the team’s minor-league complex at Disney. Still, teams worry about shoulders in a way they don’t about elbows. One round of Tommy John and your elbow’s fixed and you’re throwing even harder. Shoulders are trickier.
If Soroka can’t work 150 innings next season, this rotation will take on a lesser look. Anibal Sanchez is 35 and cannot be expected to replicate this season, and he’ll be a free agent to boot. Kevin Gausman’s first month after arriving from Baltimore was excellent; his September was such that wasn’t trusted with a playoff start. Touki Toussaint is almost ready, and Kyle Wright isn’t far off. The first big-league glimpse of Kolby Allard, alas, was less heartening. So much depends on Soroka.
4. Redo the bullpen. Five of the relievers who helped get the Braves to October -- Shane Carle, Dan Winkler, Sam Freeman, Luke Jackson and Jesse Biddle -- didn’t make the NLDS roster. Going by FanGraphs WAR, the Braves’ bullpen was baseball’s 17th-best in baseball. An upgrade, duh, is needed
That doesn’t, however, mean Anthopoulos should splurge on the prodigal son Craig Kimbrel. A savvy shopper, which this GM is, can build an excellent bullpen without overpaying for any one man.
5. Rustle up a catcher. Again by FanGraphs WAR, the Braves’ catching tandem was MLB’s sixth-best. (It was No. 1 in 2017.) Tyler Flowers, who’s 32, just signed an extension through next season with a club option for 2020. Kurt Suzuki, who’s 35, can become a free agent. There’s no obvious candidate in the minors: Alex Jackson hit a combined .201 at Double-A and Triple-A. William Contreras is 20 and finished his season in High-A.
Yasmani Grandal is set to become a free agent, but he’s coming off his best season, and the Dodgers might be loath to let him leave. (Then again, they mightn’t be able to afford keeping both him and Manny Machado.) The Braves would have made a run at Wilson Ramos two years ago, but he tore an ACL with Washington just before hitting free agency. He signed with Tampa Bay and was traded to Philadelphia in July. He’s a year younger than Flowers.
6. Make like Hippocrates: First, do no harm. Back to Ramos vis-à-vis Flowers. Would you pay significant money to a guy who might be a bit – but not a lot – better than what you have, or would you be better served giving Suzuki one more year? Do you throw money at Machado if having him would mean changing a darn good infield? Machado wants to play shortstop, but Dansby Swanson is a far better defender. By Baseball-Reference WAR, third baseman Johan Camargo was the Braves’ fourth-best player, pitchers included. Machado could become the first $300-million free agent; Camargo isn’t yet eligible for arbitration.
We say again: Anthopoulos could sit on his hands and this team would still be good. His mission is to make it better without messing it up. That might sound easy. It won’t be. Many risk-versus-reward judgments must be made. After a stunning summer, an intriguing winter awaits.