On bolstering pitching staff, no-trade clauses and Acuna’s path to majors

8:41 p.m Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017 Atlanta Braves
Braves prospect Max Fried’s first four major league appearances were as a reliever in August, and he or other starting prospects could get time in the bullpen this season if the rotation is filled. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The Braves haven’t made a move to strengthen their starting rotation and bolster their bullpen, but new general manager Alex Anthopoulos is undeterred with so much time remaining during the offseason and various options for reaching those ends.

Some relievers the Braves considered have already signed with other teams – for rather large sums -- since the Winter Meetings began Monday, but Anthopoulos said plenty of relievers remain in free agency or through potential trades.

“The (deals) that have been reported, the relievers are doing well,” he said of contracts that free-agent relievers landed this week. “It’s been a very robust market for that. Guys are doing well. There’s been a focus on relief help, but it’s still pretty deep as well, and there’s still some guys on the trade market. We’re staying engaged on that, we’re monitoring it. We’re not close to doing anything with a reliever right now.”

Of the prices for relievers so far, he said, “It’s not a surprise, the relief market has been continually strong the last two or three years.”

The Braves will continue looking to acquire a reliever or two via trade or free agency, but another option at their disposal will be using one or more of their young starters as relievers at the outset of their career. Anthopoulos noted that the Blue Jays did it with starters Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez at the beginning of their careers when Anthopoulos was Toronto’s GM. Stroman made four relief appearances in 2014 before his first major league start, and 54 of Sanchez’s 65 appearances in his first two seasons came as a reliever before he went 15-2 with a 3.00 ERA as a full-time starter in 2016.

The Braves similarly used starting prospect Max Fried as a reliever in his first four major league games in August before his first big-league start, and Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz was used as a reliever in 16 late-season appearances with Houston in his first major league season in 2014. 

“You see more teams do that,” Anthopoulos said. “We’ve explored it. A long time ago, starters would break in as relievers. Great way to get your feet wet and finally transition back to the rotation. It’s something that’s come up internally in our conversations. It’s not something we’re planning on doing right now, but at least it’s been discussed, in light of the market for relievers and the price points right now. It’s definitely the cause of that (discussion).

“Plenty of guys have converted to the bullpen and become great for various reasons. It’s something that we talked about, just because there’s so much (Braves pitching) depth on the mound. It’s something that we can explore.” 

Braves manager Brian Snitker said Wednesday that he currently projected an opening rotation with Julio Teheran, Foltynewicz and left-handers Sean Newcomb and Luiz Gohara, who have only 24 career starts between them, all of those last season as rookies and only five by Gohara.

Anthopoulos said he wouldn’t disagree with that projection, including Gohara, despite him having only one month in the big leagues. He was that impressive.

“I got to see some starts on video; he looks great,” Anthopoulos said of the hefty, hard-throwing lefty. “Like anything, we’ll go to spring training (open-minded), but yeah, he’s got every opportunity to be in that rotation. We’re expecting him to do well. With that being said, with any player with options, things can change. But we have high expectations for him, we think he has a good chance to be a really good starter. Based on the little that we saw last year, but even just the stuff itself, what he did in the minor leagues – he’s pretty exciting. 

“I don’t blame Snit. Doesn’t mean that things can’t change, but that’s the way it looks as we sit here today.”

If nothing changes, the fifth spot could be contested between rookies Fried and Lucas Sims, who also made their major league debuts in 2107. But there’s at least a pretty good chance that things will change before spring training as the Braves seek to add a proven veteran starter who can eat innings and help eat innings and stabilize a young rotation as more of the Braves’ elite pitching prospects continue to develop in the high minor league levels.

They are still open to multiple options for doing that, ranging from signing a veteran to a one-year contract – a la R.A Dickey and Bartolo Colon a year ago – to trading for a veteran with one or two years left on his contract. But Anthopoulos also kept open the option that gets Braves fans most excited – trading for a frontline starter with multiple years of contractual control. But for now, that seems the least likely option.

We have so much depth on the mound, we haven’t really explored long-term starters,” Anthopoulos said. “There’s some long-term starters you’ll make room for. But we’ve kicked around, if there’s someone in trade that has a year of control left, or even two, and certainly some free agents if there’s a one-year starter out there just to help with the innings, we’ve looked at it. We haven’t come close to anything, but it would be nice. 

“I’d say it’s more of a want than a need, just to be able to add some innings just to protect some of our kids.”

Anthopoulos addressed a few other matters on the third day of the Winter Meetings that end after Thursday morning’s Rule 5 Draft:

**On whether he believes in calling up a player (i.e. Ronald Acuna) at the start of his first season, or waiting to assure the team gets another season out of player before free agency: “Look, they’re ready when they’re ready. I can tell you this, we had Roberto Osuna, who made the team out of spring training (in 2015 as a rookie with no previous major league service time and not out of options). Like (Jason) Heyward here -- the Braves organization has shown -- I don’t see why that would change – that when we think you’re ready and you can help the Braves win, you’re going to be up here. So again, not that I’ve had a lot of examples, but I think in my time in Toronto, pretty sure when guys were ready to get called up we gave them a chance. Based on what I’ve done in the past, what the Braves have done in the past, we’re trying to win games. But there’s also a developmental component, too. Part of it is where you are as a club. ... We have three outfielders right now that are set (Ender Inciarte, Matt Kemp, Nick Markakis). That doesn’t mean that can’t change. But right now we have those three, that’s how we would start today. That doesn’t mean we don’t expect Acuna to factor at some point in 2018. It’s going to be up to him. Make it tough on us, make us find a spot for you. Eventually we expect him to be here and expect him to be a star.”

On not putting no-trade clauses in contracts: “I’ve never given out a no-trade clause before. That’s a page from the Braves I took in the past. Knowing that guys like Chipper Jones, a Brave his whole career, never had a no-trade clause. The Braves were successful not having no-trade clauses. I had it as a policy in Toronto. I haven’t set any Atlanta Braves policies yet because I don’t want to box myself in yet, but in the past I did believe in those things and they worked well, and we were able to get guys signed.

“The flip-side is, if you sign guys to long-term deals and you don’t do no-trade clauses, you better be selective with who you sign. Because if you start signing guys and trading them, (others are) not going to sign. So in a way, by making a commitment to a player long-term, even though you allow yourself flexibility to make a deal, the understanding is you’re doing it to keep the player. ... If you sign four or five guys and they all get traded, it’s going to be a lot harder to sign four or five more.”

On having to trade Roy Halladay after inheriting the late Toronto ace’s contract when Anthopoulos became GM: “He had asked for a trade, and he had a full no-trade clause. Not that it’s exactly the same as (Giancarlo) Stanton, but very similar in that you might have deals with other teams, you go to the player, and they just don’t want to go (to that team). Which is their right. My view of it is, if you negotiated a no-trade right, no one forced you to do that, that was something both parties agreed to. That’s part of it. But he’s demanding a trade, we’re staring down the barrel of, we’re going to have him for a year in a non-competitive season, and we’re (only) going to get draft picks for him.

“(He was a future) Hall of Famer; unless it’s a contending year, you want to walk away with more than draft picks. But when you’re left with one team left to negotiate with and they pretty much know that they’re the only team where you can go, it’s a really tough spot to be in. Not complaining, I just learned my lesson. And from that point forward we just didn’t do it.”

On what contractual policies he’ll have as Braves GM: “I have things that I’m comfortable with that I did in the past, but I need to respect and take time to assure that whatever opinions I had coming into this place, apply to this place. So I don’t have any hard-and-fast rules yet, I have strong beliefs. ...

“I studied contracts a lot. You try to take things from (other) teams. I’m like, the Braves can win all these divisions in a row and have the success they’re having and have great, Hall of Fame players, and they’ve been able to do it without no trade-clauses, why can’t we?”