As expected, the baseball offseason is off to a crawling start. The stove isn’t even lukewarm yet, let alone hot.
For the second straight year, however, one of the Phillies’ division rivals has made some quick under-the-radar moves and a series of some of the most interesting decisions in regard to letting their own players walk away.
The Atlanta Braves, winners of consecutive National League East titles, added lefty Will Smith, the best relief pitcher on the market, for the relatively modest price of $40 million over three years.
It was another crafty move by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who a year ago signed Josh Donaldson to a one-year deal worth $23 million in late November and watched him regain his elite status among the game’s best third basemen. No player on the Braves had a higher WAR (wins above replacement) and that’s saying something when you’re talking about a lineup that includes Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna Jr., and Ozzie Albies.
Atlanta’s greatest weakness a year ago was its bullpen and now the Braves have already addressed that area for 2020.
In addition to the recent signing of Smith, the Braves had also added veteran relievers Mark Melancon, Chris Martin, and Shane Greene at the trade deadline and their bullpen showed significant improvement in the final two months of the season. The Braves have also signed Martin to a two-year deal worth $14 million since the start of free agency and they may have struck gold by converting lefty Sean Newcomb from a starter to a reliever last season.
On the position-player side, the Braves have quietly made two other signings. Nick Markakis, for the second straight year, agreed to a one-year deal worth $4 million. By no means is Markakis a star, but he’s a fit for the Braves and that obviously means something to Anthopoulos and manager Brian Snitker.
The Braves also signed former Phillies prospect Travis d’Arnaud to a two-year deal worth $16 million to fill the hole left by Brian McCann’s retirement.
McCann split time almost evenly with Tyler Flowers last season and d’Arnaud figures to do the same in 2020. Neither is considered a premier catcher, but together Atlanta had a quality tandem last season and d’Arnaud’s addition figures to give them that again.
Atlanta’s roster-building remains a work in progress. In fact, the Braves have some major holes to fill and difficult decisions to make. Do they bring back Donaldson or do they entrust third base to Johan Carmago? Donaldson, having proven he has fully recovered from the injuries that limited him to 52 games in 2018, figures to get at least a two-year deal worth $50 million and possibly more on the market this year.
The Braves also must fill the rotation vacancies left by righthander Julio Teheran and lefthander Dallas Keuchel. Those two could be the best bargains in a class of pricey starting pitchers.
Atlanta declined Teheran’s $12 million option and let Keuchel walk after signing him in the middle of last season to a $13 million deal. It’s possible the Braves will use that cleared salary to sign one of the front-line free-agent pitchers. They have been connected most closely with San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner, but at this point in the process that means little.
The Braves figure to be good regardless of what they do. In Acuna, Freeman, and Albies, they have a trio of stars and shortstop Dansby Swanson sure looks like a player on the rise. Even without Teheran and Keuchel, the Braves have solid rotation options in Mike Soroka, Max Fried, and Mike Foltynewicz and they could conceivably make Newcomb a starter again.
Still, it has to be a little comforting to the Phillies to know that Atlanta also has some significant holes to fill.
It will also be fascinating, of course, to see if the world champion Nationals can retain either one of their big-ticket free agents. Both World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg and superstar third baseman Anthony Rendon are clients of agent Scott Boras, who likes to charge Rodeo Drive prices.
The Phillies clearly want to shop from the window that includes Boras’ clients again. In addition to Strasburg and Rendon, Boras’ stable of stars includes Houston’s Gerrit Cole, the grand prize among the starting pitchers, and Keuchel, a client who left money on the table by not signing until the middle of last season.
He also is the agent for Dodgers lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, the 2019 runner-up in the National League Cy Young Award voting, and Mike Moustakas, a power-hitting infielder who can play second base and third base.
With the Braves having so much to do and the Nationals potentially losing two of their biggest stars, it makes the Phillies’ offseason even more interesting. But with Boras in control of the burners, the stove is unlikely to become hot before the calendar turns to 2020.