Let’s face it – this winter’s free agent class is horrendous. Two of the biggest deals signed so far have went to closers and only one starter has received a contract of over two years in length. The Braves have dipped their toes into the free agency market, but only on short-term veterans that, while they improve the team, are not long-term difference makers.
Could that change next winter? Well, the available players increases dramatically in quality, that’s for sure. Let’s take a look at the market.
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Catcher – Jonathan Lucroy will turn 32 a little more than two months into his next contract. Could that contract be a pact with the Braves? If you weren’t aware, Lucroy has quietly become the best catcher in baseball not named Buster Posey. Much of the lack of hype was due to playing for Milwaukee, but now, he’s got a chance to play a year for a contending Rangers club before hitting free agency where he’ll look for one more big deal. Atlanta has been linked to him in trade rumors before and certainly would be intrigued by the idea of acquiring him next offseason – especially since the punishment for signing a player that receives a qualifying offer is much less severe. However, will the Braves be a little turned off by his age? I imagine if he has a healthy 2016 and doesn’t extend his contract with the Rangers, the Braves will be one of his top suitors next winter.
Third Base – Royals third sacker Mike Moustakas had an injury derail him in almost the worst season – having it happen this year would be worse because he hits free agency next winter. Nevertheless, “Moose” enters his final year of arbitration with a chance to earn a big deal even if it’s not from the Royals. After a mostly underwhelming four-year run after his callup in 2011, Moustakas slashed .284/.348/.470 in 2015 with 22 HR, a .353 wOBA, and a 122 wRC+. His defense has never graded below average and provided he rebounds from a torn ACL last year, he could solidify third base for the Braves. Granted, many will argue that it won’t be needed with Travis Demeritte, Rio Ruiz, and Austin Riley maturing in the minors. Oh, and there’s that Kevin Maitan guy. All of that is true, but if Moose is healthy, he’s a first-division player at his position rather than a prospect who possesses the skills and potential to become one.
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Outfield – While the Braves would have to make a move to open up a spot, there are some good outfielders on the market next year that might prompt Atlanta to be active. J.D. Martinez has proven over the last three seasons that he’s a force at the plate. Defensively, he looked horrid last year according to the metrics, which helped to explain how he went from 9 fWAR the previous two years to just 1.8. That low defensive component might be soft and he could flip it. He doesn’t turn 30 until August and posted a .384 wOBA last year. Lorenzo Cain needs a bounceback season, but has been worth 16.3 fWAR over the last four seasons. A center fielder by trade, he would either move to a corner slot or prompt an Ender Inciarte trade. Shockingly, Carlos Gonzalez will only be 32 when his next contract begins. While there are questions regarding his away numbers the last few years – plus a number of injuries – CarGo can be an impact addition to someone’s lineup. Might it be Atlanta’s?
The Rotation – This year’s market was saturated with rotation depth like Jason Hammel and Rich Hill, but not much else. That helped to produce interest in trading for Chris Sale and others. Next year’s market won’t have the same problem. Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish will garner a lot of attention around the league. Danny Duffy finally settled into a starter role last year and will be under 30 when his next contract begins. Potential bounceback options like Clay Buchholz and Alex Cobb could be line for a big payday if they have a solid 2017. The market could also increase if a quartet of pitchers with opt-outs in Wei-Yin Chen, Johnny Cueto, Ian Kennedy, and Masahiro Tanaka test the market. With the new CBA’s more forgiving rules regarding signing pitchers who receive a qualifying offer, starting pitchers are poised to receive a number of mega deals next offseason. Could the Braves be one of the teams dishing out a contract?
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The Bullpen – Going big in next year’s reliever market would go against the recent philosophy of the Braves to build the bullpen with a wealth of cheap power arms. Next year’s market isn’t great, either. Tyler Clippard has a 4.24 FIP and a 3.22 ERA the last two seasons with 18 homeruns allowed. Something has to break there for the soon-to-be 32 year-old. Steve Cishek flamed out with the Marlins, but had a good year with the Mariners last season. Another solid season will have the 30 year-old ready to cash in on a nice contract. Bryan Shaw was part of the trio of arms the Indians used early-and-often in the playoffs to make up for a questionable starting rotation. That said, his last two seasons were weaker than the two seasons before in FIP, HR/9, and K/BB. Pedro Strop has quietly been a very solid reliever for the Cubs over the last 3+ seasons (2.68 ERA, 2.82 FIP, 11 K/9, 3.2 K/BB). As for lefties, Jake McGee was a superb reliever for the Rays, but last January’s trade to the Rockies hurt him considerably. Could be worth a flyer even if he has a bad season as a one-year, shoot-for-the-stars candidate. Tony Watson was homer-prone last year for the first time in his career and his 2014 dominance was short-lived. Still, lefties have a career .266 OBP against him. On the higher end side, Wade Davis might be shut out of a big deal that other closers got this offseason because so few teams will be hunting.
Did I miss a free agent? Well, there’s Shohei Otani, but paying for him is going to require robbing Fort Knox and while I’m not saying that’s a deal breaker, I’m also saying there’s probably about a 55-60% chance of that not happening. Who else would make a good fit? Peruse this link from MLB Trade Rumors and let me know.