The 2016 Major League Baseball season has officially come to a conclusion following the historical World Series victory for the Chicago Cubs over the Cleveland Indians. While the Cubs have been celebrating their victory with giant parades, crashing Saturday Night Live, and shaving their beards, John Coppolella has been formulating a plan of attack for this upcoming offseason. The sophomore general manager responsible for stockpiling one of the best farm systems in all of baseball, has stated that the Braves will be looking to add two veteran starting pitchers as well as a catcher for incumbent starter Tyler Flowers to back-up.
After Julio Teheran’s bounce-back season as well as the promise shown by young flamethrower Mike Foltynewicz, the Braves starting rotation has three vacancies that need to be filled before opening day. Internal options for the job include Matt Wisler who has seen success at the Major League level but, has yet to blossom into the number two starter he is supposed to be, indicated by his 4.88 career ERA. The Braves avoided arbitration with Josh Collmenter with a 1-year deal (per David O’Brien) so it will be interesting to see how aggressively they will pursue other veteran starting pitchers.
Not forgetting the hard work Coppy has done to stockpile pitching in the farm, several prospects might be in the hunt for a rotation spot come Spring Training. 23-year-old Max Fried enjoyed a great season at single-A Rome, that was capped off with a South Atlantic League championship that saw him pitch to a 1.23 ERA and a staggering 24 strikeouts in 14.2 innings pitched. The number 11 prospect in the Braves organization has never pitched above single-A but, will prove to be a contender for a rotation spot come Spring Training. Other internal options include names like Williams Perez, Aaron Blair, John Gant, Rob Whalen, many of whom could be traded or moved to the bullpen, given the incredible depth the Braves have in their minor league starters.
As for the veteran starters, several free agents meet the mark that Coppolella has set, as well as some viable trade options.
Hammel is coming off a fantastic season as the Cub’s number five option in their rotation and was recently told his option would not be picked up for the 2017 season for the world champs. His 15-10 record as well as his 3.83 ERA may have been bolstered by the Cubs prolific offense as well as their league-leading defense but, he has solid stuff that easily matches up with the needs of the Braves. The biggest question at this point is will the 34-year-old veteran accept a one or two-year deal. A two-year, $20 million deal with a third-year club option would be perfect for the veteran who just missed out on $12 million, on the north side of Chicago.
A 36-year-old journeyman just now finding his groove is usually a high risk, high reward signing. With his age in mind, it is unlikely that many teams will offer him more than a two-year (maybe a three-year) deal but, the price tag may be a bit steeper than the Braves are looking for. If the Braves can get Hill for the right price, a left-hander coming off a 2.12 ERA season (albeit only in 110.1 innings pitched) might be exactly what this righty-heavy rotation needs.
Other starting options
Some other names on the free-agent list this year include R.A. Dickey, Bartolo Colon, and Doug Fister. Rumors of Dickey retiring might stall discussions between the Braves and the veteran knuckleballer while it is rumored that Colon wants to stay in New York. Fister might be the biggest question mark in the starting pitcher market as his inconsistency since leaving Washington might put a damper on his value. Other likely names to come up in rumors include Charlie Morton and Ivan Nova.
In the trade market, names to look for range from Sonny Gray, Chris Archer, or Archer’s teammate, Jake Odorizzi. Unfortunately, each of the trade candidates will most likely come with a steep price tag that will include top-flight prospects but, thanks to the Braves’ 2016 draft, there is plenty of currency.
Coppolella has made it clear that starting pitching was the number one priority heading into this off season, and that he would be happy with the backstop tandem of Flowers and Anthony Recker. That being said, it was announced today that the Orioles would not be extending a $17.2 million qualifying offer to Matt Wieters, which is the only reason he is on this list. There have also been rumors of a reunion with all-star Brian McCann but, the latest talk on that seems to have evaporated after Atlanta refused the steep asking price that the Yankees pinned on him. Other free agent catchers include Nick Hundley, Jason Castro, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
The prime catcher in an otherwise thin free agent market, Wieters has seen his production decrease as the years go on. Tommy-John surgery for a catcher is an oddity in itself but, the surgery seems to have taken a toll on former all-star backstop as 2016 saw him slash a an average .243/.302/.409 with 17 homers, to a tune of a 1.7 WAR. To put that into perspective, in 2016, Braves catchers hit .230/.300/.376 with 10 combined home runs (if you count AJ Pierzinsky’s numbers, the total gets much worse) per FanGraphs. So yes, adding Wieters to this Braves lineup would be an improvement, especially considering the 1.3 WAR that Flowers and Recker combined for but, will he be worth the price? A Scott Boras client, Wieters will be looking to command a large paycheck but, the Braves have a few advantages in the bidding war that might ensue. Wieters attended college at Georgia Tech and has lived in the area his entire life, much like his former teammate Nick Markakis, who ended up taking a discounted rate to play for the team he grew up watching. Will Wieters give the same kind of discount? Who knows, but it is worth exploring. The other advantage is that he won’t have a qualifying offer connected to him so negotiations won’t involve worrying about losing a draft pick (even though the Braves’ first round pick is protected, they could have still lost a later round pick).
Anybody who was on the “Brian McCann hype train,” should have fallen off by now, after seeing that the Yankees asked for not only Foltynewicz in return but, gold-glove candidate Ender Inciarte. Still, it is nice to imagine a world where this might happen again for the Braves.
The aforementioned free-agent catchers would be available to Atlanta for a much lower price than that of Wieters or McCann but, none would be much of an upgrade over the current catching situation other than maybe Castro (if for any reason, throwing out 14 of the 59 attempted base-stealers is far better than Flowers). Catchers available through trades are unlikely to be much better. As far as the farm system goes, none of the Braves’ top 30 prospects are catchers other than Lucas Herbert, a second round pick that so far has struggled with professional pitching. Brett Cumberland is an intriguing prospect with promise of some power but he, like Herbert, has struggled with professional pitching.
The 2016-2017 off season should be an interesting one for the Atlanta Braves as the final steps of the rebuild start to take shape and the fans begin to see the results that were promised back when Jason Heyward got traded and began the tear-down process.