The Atlanta Braves heated up the coils of the Hot Stove on Monday by agreeing to a pair of one-year contracts. To wit, they inked third baseman Josh Donaldson and veteran catcher and former Brave Brian McCann .
The Braves are of course the reigning NL East champs. In 2018, they barged to the division title despite being heavy preseason underdogs to the Nationals, and they did so with what was generally a young, high-upside roster. As such, the Braves have one of the strongest long-term outlooks of any team in baseball, but these two targeted additions bring their near-term outlook into focus. As it turns out, that's quite strong as well.
Now let's have a closer look at where the Braves stand after their Big Monday ...
The Donaldson signing is a wise calculated risk
The Braves got good production from Johan Camargo at third base last season, but when you have a chance to get former MVP on a one-year deal, you do it. Donaldson has struggled with calf issues for much of the last two seasons, and he didn't really hit prior to being traded from the Blue Jays to the Indians. With Cleveland, though, Donaldson hit more in line with his peak norms (146 OPS+). Yes, the sample size was miniscule (60 plate appearances), but seeing something close to vintage Donaldson in terms of production and quality of contact was notable.
Yes, Donaldson is about to turn 33, but he can still put up big power numbers while being selective at the plate and playing at least an average third base. As well, there's real hope that getting off of the Rogers Centre turf will help Donaldson's lower half stay healthy. Beyond all that, there's obviously a lot of incentive for him to stay healthy and productive given that he's going to be back on the free agent market next winter. It's a risk for the Braves, yes, but if Donaldson nails his projections while staying generally healthy, then he's going to justify the price tag and then some.
They don't need McCann to carry the load behind the plate
McCann didn't really hit last season, but the 34-year-old is just two seasons removed from a 106 OPS+ for the Astros with 18 home runs in 97 games. Obviously, McCann these days isn't an everyday catcher -- he hasn't caught more than 1,000 innings since 2015 -- but he doesn't need to do that on this team. That's because the Braves also have the terminally underrated Tyler Flowers on the roster. In addition to being a skilled defender, Flowers also boasts a .360 OBP over the last three seasons. As a right-handed hitter, he makes a natural platoon with the left-handed McCann. Stated another way, the Braves have fairly enviable catching depth right now.
The rotation is potentially in good shape
Last season, the Braves ranked second in the NL in rotation ERA and a respectable seventh in rotation Brandon McCarthy and (presumably) Anibal Sanchez won't be back, which leaves the Braves with this likely starting five ....
Of those, Gausman is the elder statesman at 27 years and 324 days of age. The Braves last season gave starts to 13 different pitchers, so depth is obviously important, as it is for every team. On that front, the Braves have a mother lode of high-upside young arms who can be slotted in when injury or ineffectiveness strikes -- Luiz Gohara, Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Kolby Allard, Max Fried, Kyle Wright and at some point Joey Wentz. All of those names were ranked by at least one major service as being among the top-100 prospects in baseball coming into last season, and all are or soon will be ready for duty at the highest level.
That's some rare in-house depth, and it means the Braves can safely sit out the derby for free agent starters. Atlanta's recent deep rebuild focused heavily on pitching, and the fruits of that effort will help them greatly in the upcoming season (and beyond).
They still have some needs
Right now, the Braves have Camargo penciled in as the primary right fielder. Really, though, he's best used as a super-sub and occasional fill-in for Donaldson at third. Camargo, in two seasons at the major-league level, has spent time at third, short, second and left, and obviously the Braves think he's capable of manning right. Throw in his above-average plate production, and the soon-to-be 25-year-old has the potential to be Ben Zobrist Lite or perhaps even go Full Zobrist in the years to come. Having that kind of weapon makes a roster flow better, but given that the switch-hitting Camargo is much better from the right side of the plate, he's perhaps stretched as a regular. That's also why he's not a platoon fit with Adam Duvall.
The Braves, then, could use a left-handed-hitting outfield bat. Ambitious minds will leap to the name of Bryce Harper, and indeed he's been informally linked to the Braves in the past. On the other hand ...
Alex Anthopolous said that the #Braves would not be players on long-term deals (Harper/Machado) because it was too much risk. So he took a short-term risk on the oft-injured Donaldson instead. But @BringerOfRain20 also comes with a huge upside if he is healthy.— Steve Phillips (@StevePhillipsGM) November 26, 2018
So much for that, presumably. Bringing back Nick Markakis, provided he's willing to accept a platoon role and a short-term deal, is a possibility. Other options include Carlos Gonzalez and Lonnie Chisenhall.
As for the bullpen, it needs work. Last season, the Atlanta relief corps ranked 10th in the NL in bullpen ERA and eighth in Joe Kelly and either Andrew Miller or Zach Britton (I'd avoid Craig Kimbrel, given that he seems like a decline candidate in 2018 and beyond). David Robertson might also be a reasonable add. That aforementioned glut of young starters can also be tapped into for relief help. As for incumbents, Arodys Vizcaino and A.J. Minter have upside, and Darren O'Day is a comeback candidate. It's a mix-and-match approach that may require shuffling as the season goes along, but the Braves have enough arms and resources to build a better unit.. That's sub-optimal, especially for a team with designs on the World Series. The Braves should be in play for, say,
If they fill those needs, then they may be the best team in the NL
Obviously, much depends on where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado wind up, and regardless of those outcomes the Dodgers, Cubs and Brewers will likely have something to say about "NL's best team on paper." The Braves, though, are in position to have a strong case.
Ronald Acuna may already be the best player in the National League when it comes to 2019 projections, and he played just 111 games last season. The promise of a full campaign from Acuna moves the needle for the Braves. Also, young infielders Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson probably haven't yet found their respective ceilings. Throw in that rotation depth and what's one of the best one-through-four hitters in baseball, and the Braves look like the heavy favorites in the NL East (and that's the case even if the Phillies let the dollars fly this winter).
Also, the Braves won 90 games last season, but their baseline may be a little higher. Per run differential, they played more like a 92-win team. Look at the BaseRuns standings available at FanGraphs, which correct for some of the sequencing and clustering effects inherent in run differential, and you'll find that the Braves also played more like a 92-win team at that level. In other words, their 2019 baseline is a bit higher than their record would suggest. Add, say, 40 more games of Acuna and then Donaldson plus young arms further along in their development, and you may be talking about a team with a 95-100 win projection.
GM Alex Anthopoulos very likely isn't done making moves, but Monday's events plus the already strong state of the Braves make this a potential powerhouse in the season to come.