Over the last couple of days, I published two different roster projections for the 2018 season. The first, referred to as the Realistic Model, tried to use conservative projections for successful campaigns. The result was a 77 or 78-win Braves squad. Essentially, there would be an improvement but only marginal. The second roster was the Optimistic Model. It was a fun look at the 2018 Braves if pretty much everything went right.
We’ll leave the second roster alone for right now, but let’s go back to that first roster. Today, we are going to try to add to it and turn it into a true contender. Just yesterday, Fangraphs’ Craig Edwards published an article titled, “The Braves’ Time to Spend Could Be Now.” It kind of takes the wind out of my sails because Edwards looked at basically the same thing I am about to. Fangraphs projects the Braves to be a 74-win team, early ZIPs projections suggested 80, and if you land in the middle, you arrive at my projection. Depending on your starting point, the Braves could become a contender with the right moves should they open the wallet and make them right now.
There are many reasons to doubt that they will, for what it’s worth. First, Atlanta added a lot of salary to the 2018 roster with the Matt Kemp deal earlier this winter. With just the Mike Foltynewicz arbitration case pending, the Braves are looking at about a $116 million payroll right now. If you assume a $125-$130 million payroll cap, which Atlanta has basically lived at over the last couple of seasons, that doesn’t leave a lot of money. For what it’s worth, you could add roughly $3 million back into the general fund that otherwise would have been spent on international talent. Let’s stick to round numbers and assume a $135 million cap. That leaves the Braves at about $20 million or so of available funds. Making a splash on limited funds is not impossible, but difficult.
Another big reason, as Edwards pointed out, is that the Braves have been gearing up to be players for the historic 2018-19 free agent market. A number of top players in the game will become free agents next winter unless they sign extensions. It will lead to a lot of money being thrown around and general manager Alex Anthopoulos wants to be part of it. Further, waiting a year gives the new GM a chance to watch this young franchise in action and make decisions based not just on what he’s been told, but what the former scout has also seen.
But…the slow free agent market this winter certainly is enticing. Should the Braves reverse course and go for the playoffs in 2018? Let’s see what a possible roster might look like.
Like I said, I’ll be reverting back to Wednesday’s “Realistic Model” roster. All told, the roster produced 31.6 fWAR. That was an improvement of about 5 wins over the 2017 roster and that was reflected in the expected win total of 77 to 78 wins. The hard part is adding 12.4 fWAR to get to 44 – or 90 wins. Getting there would give the Braves a better-than-average shot of landing a spot in the playoffs as, at worst, a Wild Card team.
The big problem with adding to the previous roster is that it’s not so simple to just add projected wins. You have to take into account the player that is being replaced. For instance, if the replaced player had a projected 2 fWAR and the new player has a projected 4 fWAR, you have a net gain of, at most, 2 wins. It could be less depending on if the replaced player is reassigned to another position – for example, the bench.
Okay, where do we start? The simplest approach is to improve a weakness. To do that, we will look at the projected win-totals and compare them to last year’s average production for each position. That will give us the weaknesses that can possibly be improved. “RM” stands for Realistic Model, the projected roster from Wednesday.
Catcher: MLB avg – 2.2 fWAR, 2018 RM – 3 fWAR
First Base: MLB avg – 2.7 fWAR, 2018 RM – 4.5 fWAR
Second Base: MLB avg – 2.7 fWAR, 2018 RM – 2.6 fWAR
Shortstop: MLB avg – 2.4 fWAR, 2018 RM – 1.5 fWAR
Third Base: MLB avg – 3.1 fWAR, 2018 RM – 2 fWAR
Left Field: MLB avg – 2.9 fWAR, 2018 RM – 1 fWAR
Center Field: MLB avg – 3.9 fWAR, 2018 RM – 3 fWAR
Right Field: MLB avg – 2.4 fWAR, 2018 RM – 2 fWAR
Starting Rotation: MLB avg – 10.6 fWAR, 2018 RM – 10 fWAR
Bullpen: MLB avg – 3.8 fWAR, 2018 RM – 4 fWAR
Total: MLB avg – 36.7 fWAR, 2018 RM – 31.6 fWAR
So, we have two things at play here. One – the obvious – a 0.9 or bigger difference at shortstop, third base, left field, and center field. The second thing is even if the Braves did meet all the averages, they are still 7.3 fWAR short of our goal of 44.
By the way, I will remove center field from the discussion. The curve is a bit unfair at the position because of Mike Trout, Charlie Blackmon, and the shockingly good Tommy Pham. Eleven hitters had a fWAR above 5.8 last season. Three played center field. So, let’s take that right out. That leaves shortstop, third base, and left field. We also have the starting rotation which needs help. That’s a lot to try to make up for with roughly $20 million in the bank while seeking a net gain of 12.4 fWAR.
Let’s get started.
First things first – presumably, the Braves would need to find a taker for Nick Markakis. Chances are that even if you do, to facilitate a trade, you’ll need to send some cash. Because of that, let’s assume that you save $5 million in the trade. What can be done in left field? There are three options that stand out – Lorenzo Cain, J.D. Martinez, and Christian Yelich.Cain, a soon to be 32-year-old defensive marvel would appear like a good fit if not for two problems. I’ve already mentioned his age – how many years do you truly want to invest in a player like Cain? The other problem – injuries. Since arriving in the majors to stay in 2012, Cain has avoided the D.L. just once – last season.
One last issue – Cain rejected a qualifying offer earlier this winter and the Braves, who are getting precious little from the international market, might not want to give up a top draft choice. If they were, Cain’s a great buy if the goal is to get the Braves to the playoffs in 2018. In three of the last four years, he’s been between a 4.1 fWAR and 6.5 fWAR player. While Steamer conservatively estimates a 3.3 fWAR for 2018, I think it’s fair to suggest that Cain has a good shot at delivering a 4-win season in 2018 especially considering his glove and offensive capabilities. That would be a net-gain over Markakis and Lane Adams of 3-wins.
Martinez is a great story as a failed Astros prospect who found himself in 2014 with the Tigers. Since then, he’s hit the 3.8 fWAR mark three times in four years. He also brings big-time power to a lineup without much of it. Could you imagine a Braves team with Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna, Freddie Freeman, and Martinez at the top of it? The problems, though, are considerable. First, the price seems impossible to fit into the picture without winning the lottery. Martinez is reportedly not too impressed with as much as $125 million from the Red Sox. Further, defensively, he’s a liability. As in, a Kemp-like liability. To be fair, he’s got the bat to put up 4-win seasons and a 3-win net gain.
Yelich has been linked to the Braves so often that it’s almost a surprise he isn’t a Brave. The Marlins seem only interested if the Braves are willing to consider adding Ronald Acuna to the deal. That has about as much of a shot of happening as me marrying Anna Kendrick and Allison Brie. At the same time. On ponies. In a rocket ship. With The Beatles providing music and Gordon Ramsey doing the catering.
Whoa…where did I go? Anyway, if the Braves can hammer out a deal for Yelich without Acuna (or Albies (or even Luiz Gohara)), Yelich might be the best fit. The problem with Cain and Martinez is that they will take up much, if not all, of the projected payroll space. Yelich, who is controlled through the 2022 season, is due just $7 million for 2018. He’s also just 26 and should only improve while older players like Cain and Martinez likely regress over the next three years. Further, Yelich has three 4.5 fWAR seasons over the last four years and could actually give this roster a 4-win net gain.
Sticking with Johan Camargo and giving Rio Ruiz another shot is certainly a possibility as Atlanta awaits the arrival of Austin Riley. However, if they want to win next season, improving at third base would be the better play. There are three options available that could provide an improvement over Camargo. A net gain here, though, could be presumably smaller because Camargo would still be in the mix as a super utility option. With that in mind, let’s downgrade him to a 1-win player unless you move him to second base full-time.Mike Moustakas provides the potential greatest addition at third base. Steamer actually had him the fifth-best free agent according to a projected 2018 fWAR of 2.8. Like Cain, he rejected a qualifying offer from the Royals. At 29, Moustakas is a good bet to avoid a decline over the next couple of seasons. On the other hand, how much more production can you expect out of him? His 3.4 fWAR season of 2012 was defensively inflated while his career-best 3.7 fWAR 2015 season could be reachable if you assume his defensive metrics will rebound and his offense will stick in the .345-.355 wOBA range. The Steamer projection is likely the best to hope for, though.
Todd Frazier is just three years older, though it seems like he’s ancient by comparison. His career has often been dissected because it’s just plain weird. Until 2016, he was a swing-happy, defensively talented player with pop. He went to the White Sox and swung less, continued to pop homers, and walked more. From an adjustment standpoint, it worked out well. Steamer projects a 2.3 fWAR for Frazier next year, which would be his worst season in seven years. However, he does turn 32 around Valentine’s Day so regression is to be expected. On the bright side, he would be cheaper and likely requires less of an investment on future payrolls than Moustakas.
Again, from a financial aspect, the best approach could be to trade for talent rather than sign it. Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez, who is 26, might be a good fit here. He excelled last year in his second attempt at being a full-time MLBer. With a .356 wOBA and good defensive metrics, Suarez ranked just outside the Top 5 in 3B fWAR at 4.1. He’s found a home at third base after being a range-limited shortstop. He filed for $4.2M in arbitration as a first timer this offseason and would cost a good penny to acquire in talent. That said, if he has a season closer to his 2017 level versus his Steamer projection (2.3 fWAR), getting him would be the better move than signing a third baseman.
I’m mentioning shortstop, but under this premise, the Braves already have their shortstop replacement – Mr. Albies. I’m not arguing for this approach, by the way. Theoretically, the Braves would either move Camargo to second and utilize Dansby Swanson in a trade or sign a second baseman and move Albies to short while, again, trading Swanson.
One possibility for this would be to sign Neil Walker. Stephen has mentioned him as a third base option before. Certainly, that’s another possibility while keeping Swanson. However, Walker is probably a better bet to produce without being moved over to third. He is projected to be a 2.6 fWAR second baseman in 2018. He’s been a 3.6 fWAR player in two of the last four years but will be 32 for most of 2018. It would be hard to have a reasonable expectation of reaching that level again.
Atlanta could inquire on the availability of Jonathan Schoop or Whit Merrifield, but I doubt they will be available without a serious overpay. Josh Harrison is a popular name, though I’m not crazy about him. He had a nice season last year with a 2.6 fWAR, but that also matched his total from the two previous years combined. I just don’t see him close to the five-win player he was in 2014 as he heads into his early 30’s.
Could the Braves try to upgrade their rotation? There are definitely some interesting options here who remain available in Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta.
No player on the market today brings a bigger impact than Darvish. At 31 years-old, his best days are likely behind him, though. Steamer believes he’ll again put up a season close to his 2017 3.5 fWAR total. Adding Darvish, who was not eligible for a qualifying offer, would also allow Atlanta the opportunity to trade a projected rotation member for help elsewhere. The problem is the price. Not only would you be paying Darvish most of your available money, you likely would be doing so as Darvish hits his mid-30’s.
Same idea with Arrieta, who turns 32 in just over a month. You’ll also lose a draft choice and there are legitimate concerns that you aren’t getting an impact pitcher, but one on the decline who has seen his FIP go from Cy Young-worthy 2.35 to 3.52 in 2016 and 4.16 last year. You talk to Arrieta, but the risk is just too great here.
You could try to play the pitching depth angle with Jaime Garcia, Alex Cobb, or Lance Lynn. Of the three, Garcia might be the best get for Atlanta because he wouldn’t cost them a draft choice. Steamer thought he was the third best pitcher on the market to begin with, by the way. You’d also expect a reduction from the $38 million Tyler Chatwood received if you signed Garcia. All that said, does Garcia actually provide enough of a boost?
Like I’ve done throughout this, the trade market is another angle to investigate. After all, Gerrit Cole was recently acquired for a package many were underwhelmed by. Could Atlanta add a starter in a similar manner? Chris Archer has often been discussed and the Braves have been rumored to be in on Michael Fulmer. Both would present a Darvish-like impact without killing the budget.
To Sum Up…
I provided a lot of names, but here is a more general approach. To get the 12 or so wins the Braves need on roughly $20 million, it’s going to be nearly impossible to do it with this free agent cycle – especially now. To get there, you need to make four more signings – say Darvish, Garcia, Cain, and Frazier. You’d likely gain some degree of financial flexibility by trading away guys like Nick Markakis and Julio Teheran, but it will take some creativity in the front office to make such a situation work.
On the other hand, if Atlanta talks the Reds into trading Suarez to the Braves and gets the Marlins to move away from Acuna to acquire Yelich, Atlanta could make a splash by signing Darvish to go with that duo. That would upset some fans who would prefer to wait for the 2019 market and also those that don’t want to sell the farm for “short-term” gain. Back to the net-win discussion, though. These three moves – which require a lot of potential investment and prospects – will still leave us shot of the twelve or so wins we needed. However, they certainly do give Atlanta the talent to surprise a number of people in 2018.
In the end, that’s the best approach I could take to build the roster that adds outside talent and produces a winner. What do you think? Are you ready to make the moves that need to be made to open the window in 2018 toward a competitive Braves’ club? Or should Atlanta wait it out, see what happens, and if they are close come June or July, try to acquire a bat and an arm (or two) to get them over the hump? Or am I just completely wrong about my projections? As always, I look forward to your thoughts.
I just want to point out that I am not suggesting the Braves should take this approach. As I said from the beginning, these three articles were a thought exercise focusing on (1) trying to figure out how far away the team was reasonably from contending without making several trades or signings and (2) previewing what the roster might look like. Keep that in mind as you comment. Thanks for reading!