Recently, our Stephen Tolbert wrote an article in which he tried to put together a version of the 2018 Atlanta Braves that could go to the playoffs. The trick was remaining realistic in both projections and what it might cost to acquire players. While some of the trades soured me to a degree, the logic was sound. To build the kind of winner people might want the Braves to become in 2018, it would require big time investment by the organization. Considering the lack of a Daddy Warbucks to foot the bill, the easiest way for a payroll-limited team to acquire talent was through trading prospects.
Many readers balked at the idea of losing Kevin Maitan, Kolby Allard, Cristian Pache, and others to build a winner. In my mind, though, the prospects are placeholders. They establish a baseline of how much talent the Braves would have to surrender to facilitate trades. Nevertheless, many complained about losing these prospects and with good reason. After all, the Braves traded away many fan favorites to hoard some of these prospects. Now, Stephen is telling us to trade them to build an immediate winner? For shame, sir!
To be fair, it was an exercise to try to build a winner on paper. Stephen constructed a possible playoff roster with the realities of the situation in mind. He wasn’t necessarily saying “trade this talent now!” so much as he was putting together a basic blueprint. Whatever the case, it made me think of a different exercise – could the Braves contend in 2018 and not surrender a collection of B-grade and higher prospects? Let’s find out.
The Realities of the Situation
For this exercise, it’s important to not go overboard with projections for young Atlanta Braves players. To do so would get the Braves closer to the math needed to compete, but would also defeat the purpose of trying to be realistic with our approach. I may disagree with some of Stephen’s projections, but I’m not going to attach 6 WAR seasons to Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna, and Luiz Gohara to get us closer to the hump. Not that any of those players couldn’t hit that benchmark in 2018 – it’s just not likely.
In his piece, Stephen explained team fWAR and I, too, will use it to try to get us to the magic number. It sets replacement level at around 46 wins. So, if a team finished with 0.0 fWAR, they would be around a 46-116 team. That’s pretty ugly, I know. The good news is each win above that replacement level adds equally to your number of dubyas. As Stephen pointed out, the Braves had a team fWAR of 26.8 in 2017. That gave them an expected win total according to team fWAR of 72.8 wins. They won 72. Think of this as that scene in Moneyball when Jonah Hill’s fictional character, Peter Brand, explained that the A’s needed X-amount of runs to get to the playoffs.
How many fWAR does a team need to be a winner? Well, Stephen used 90 wins as a benchmark, meaning you need about 44 team fWAR to get there. 90 wins in today’s era of two wild-card teams should keep you in the discussion. Stephen didn’t exactly get there, finishing with 42 fWAR, but that’s close enough to project a team that could make it to the postseason. Like him, I will stay within the confines of a $120 million budget. While I do believe there is a higher soft cap for the Braves – in the $125M-$130M range – his figure was a nice round number. After all, those other funds might help trade for a player later in the season.
Building a Roster
Since Stephen and I started from different benchmarks, we had different ideas on how close the Braves were from getting to the 44 fWAR needed. My first draft, which included absorbing all of Matt Kemp‘s contract (minus what the Padres chipped in) via a trade, came out to 37.6 team fWAR with about $20 million to spend. We had different players hitting different fWAR totals and I still had Matt Adams in the mix.
From there, I sought a potential bat for third base (combined 1.2 fWAR from the platoon before alterations), either a platoon option to help out Nick Markakis or a replacement and subsequent trade, a starter to help Julio Teheran, and bullpen help. That’s a lot to hope for.
Stephen revealed his team first and then filled in the blanks. I will go the opposite direction. I will give you my deals and the rationale. It took me three drafts to arrive at this roster.
- Trade Matt Kemp while absorbing all of his 2018 salary and probably most of his 2019 salary in the process. I have to believe there is an AL team that will take Kemp for next-to-nothing. The reason I need to trade him rather than just cut him is that I’m able to schedule out the payments. If I release Kemp, I believe he’ll be owed the entirety of his 2018 and 2019 salaries. At least, that’s what my accountant buddy tells me. Regardless, I’m not expecting much of anything in return.
- Decline R.A. Dickey‘s option. I need the money and the roster spot more.
- Trade Matt Adams along with a minor leaguer or two (no big prospects) to the Angels in exchange for Luis Valbuena and Blake Parker. I’ve talked about Valbuena before as a good bounce-back choice as prior to last year, he averaged 2.1 fWAR a season. You have to believe that he won’t have another .210 BABIP in 2018 like he did this year. Parker was solid last year for the Angels with a 2.71 FIP/2.73 xFIP. While a little regression could be expected because he’s never been that good before, I think he’ll still be a high-leverage arm.
- Sign C.C. Sabathia to a two-year, $24M contract. I have to overpay here a tad with the second year to convince him to sign rather than take a contract with an established contender. Getting him to Atlanta will be worth it, though. I like that Sabathia re-invented himself a year ago to accept that he no longer had 92-94 mph heat. The new approach meant more sliders and incorporating a cutter. As a result, he induces a great deal more weak contact and about half of said contact stays on the ground. $24M might be a bit of a bargain and I might need to pad the deal, but we’ll see how the market reacts.
- Sign Austin Jackson to a one-year, $3.5M contract. People may forget this, but Jackson was good for 2 fWAR before 2016. That year, he struggled with injuries and a new city. Last year, he landed in Cleveland and posted a 1.8 fWAR as a part-timer. Jackson isn’t a very good defender but brings a decent bat and depth for the outfield. Remember, the Braves are counting a lot on Ronald Acuna, who has just 111 games above Class-A ball in his career. Jackson also makes it easier to deal Nick Markakis.
- Sign Addison Reed to a one-year, $7M contract. Reed was likely headed to a bigger payday but struggled after a trade to the Red Sox. We’ll bring him to Atlanta with an opportunity to compete for the closing job. At the very least, he presents another option like Parker who has experience in high-leverage situations. Though his strikeout percentage fell about five points last year, he still sat down a quarter of all batters he faces. He’s also durable, having pitched 55 times or more in each of the last six seasons. Edit: It’s already been suggested that I gave Reed too small of a contract. To be fair, it’s quite possible that I did. I believe his value took a hit during his time in Boston. With his strikeout percentage falling and buyer’s remorse over some of the deals given out last winter, I could see Reed being available at my price as a “make-good” contract. However, if needed, I can find 1.3 fWAR from another reliever for $7M or less.
This roster had me really close to the 44 fWAR benchmark but was a bit over the $120M budget so I made one more trade and a signing.
- Trade Jim Johnson, Nick Markakis, Caleb Dirks/Corbin Clouse, and $10M to the Baltimore Orioles for Mychal Givens and a rookie league project
- Signed Adam Lind to a one-year, $2M contract
Let’s digest these two moves together. The Orioles take on $6M in salary, get two trusted vets who had success in Baltimore before, and a prospect ready to contribute in 2018. On the flip side, the best player in the deal is Givens, who the Orioles might balk at trading. The Braves could sweeten the deal with a C+ prospect at the lower levels like a Braxton Davidson or an injured high-reward guy like Patrick Weigel. Givens joins Parker and Reed in the re-made bullpen and gives the Braves another high-strikeout, high-leverage guy to add to the mix.
Lind is a cheaper version of Matt Adams with more experience in left field. He’ll provide the Braves with a platoon option who has a career .370 wOBA against right-hand pitching. That production with his new platoon buddy in Jackson should outproduce Markakis with ease.
So, here’s my team:
|Salary (arbitration estimates include an asterisk)||fWAR estimate for 2018|
|Total||$119,250,000||44.1 team fWAR|
Whoa, right? Did I do it? Did I build a winner and keep all of my prospects?
The Realities of the Situation (Revisited)
The answer to whether or not this is a winning team is that it depends. I know that’s lame, but that’s the facts. On one hand, the team lacks the star power Stephen’s team had, but it also has a lot of options and potential to improve. Could you see a number of these players out-produce their estimated fWAR? Absolutely. But there are a lot of risks here as well and it could blow up in our faces.
Let’s start with Luis Valbuena and with him, third base. I like Valbuena enough to go for it, but I have to admit it’s completely possible he has another bad season. Historically, he’s not a very good defender at third base, either. You might ask if he is truly a better option than Rio Ruiz, who he would effectively replace with Johan Camargo getting reps versus lefties? Maybe not so much of a better hitter, but a better option, yes. Ruiz is position-limited. At most, you can use him at first base, though that might be pushing it. Valbuena gives you an option that is comfortable moving to first base as needed and could even play second or left field in a pinch. He’s just a better fit. Whether the combination of all these pieces reach that 3 fWAR I was looking for is no given, but if Valbuena bounces back like I believe he can, I think the position has at least three wins.
The combination of Adam Lind and Austin Jackson in left field should outproduce Nick Markakis even though there will be defensive limitations here. Lind is a terror on right-hand pitching while Jackson is not platoon-limited. However, you might argue that the dead money associated with Markakis and Matt Kemp is too large to bear. Frankly, you probably would be right. But it’s my belief such moves will help build a winner quicker and for this exercise, that’s the goal.
The rotation still lacks a true ace, but in Teheran and Sabathia, it has a pair of arms used to being leaned on. I have my issues with Foltynewicz as a starter, but if Gohara and Newcomb put him the numbers I believe both are capable of, the Braves will be consistent night-in and night-out. They won’t have anyone to match up against Clayton Kershaw or Stephen Strasburg. That said, they’ll be deep with possible breakout stars both from the opening day projected staff and from the minors.
The pen is deep. It again lacks the name value a Wade Davis might bring, but it’ll give the Braves a lot of options.
The biggest problem with this roster is that, at most, my choices are band-aids. I’m making no true long-term commitments and instead am focusing on short-term deals that won’t block prospects. That’s not too dissimilar from what former General Manager John Coppolella tried last winter. Those moves failed and why wouldn’t mine as well? It’s a question I can’t ignore and it gets us back to the root of the issue here.
As a fan, do you want to compete in 2018? Or do you want to keep all of the best Braves’ prospects? It’s possible to do both, but it’s going to take a lot going right. The more likely option is if the answer to one question is “yes,” the other question is a “no.”
Am I wrong? Do you believe I played it too conservative? Let me know below or on Twitter.