Offseason Outlook: Atlanta Braves – MLB Trade Rumors

The Braves’ efforts to repeat as World Series champions fell short with a four-game Division Series loss to the Phillies. While it was a disappointing finish, there’s plenty of reason for optimism carrying into next season. The Braves won 101 games and were scorching hot from June onwards to claim a fifth straight NL East title. Much of that roster will be back, although they are facing the potential departure of their All-Star shortstop.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Austin Riley, 3B: $212MM through 2032 (deal also includes 2033 club option)
  • Matt Olson, 1B: $153MM through 2029 (deal also includes 2030 club option)
  • Ronald Acuña Jr., RF: $78MM through 2026 (including buyout of 2027 club option; deal also contains 2028 club option)
  • Spencer Strider, RHP: $75MM through 2028 (including buyout of 2029 club option)
  • Michael Harris II, CF: $72MM through 2030 (including buyout of 2031 club option; deal also contains 2032 club option)
  • Raisel Iglesias, RHP: $48MM through 2025
  • Marcell Ozuna, DH: $37MM through 2024 (including buyout of 2025 club option)
  • Ozzie Albies, 2B: $25MM through 2025 (including buyout of 2026 club option; deal also contains 2027 club option)
  • Charlie Morton: RHP: $20MM through 2023 (deal also includes 2024 club option)
  • Eddie Rosario, LF: $9MM through 2023 (deal also includes 2024 club option)
  • Travis d’Arnaud, C: $8MM through 2023 (deal also includes 2024 club option)
  • Kirby Yates, RHP: $7.25MM through 2023 (including buyout of 2024 club option)
  • Collin McHugh, RHP: $6MM through 2023 (including buyout of 2024 club option)
  • Manny Piña, C: $4.5MM through 2023 (deal also includes 2024 club option)
  • Orlando Arcia, 2B: $1.4MM through 2023 (deal also includes 2024 club option)
  • Nick Anderson, RHP: $875K through 2023 (arbitration-eligible through 2025)

Other financial commitments: Owe Rangers $10MM in 2023 as part of Jake Odorizzi trade

Total 2023 commitments: $164.675MM
Total future commitments: $767.025MM

Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parenthesis, projections via Matt Swartz)

Total arbitration projection: $22.9MM

Non-tender candidate: Matzek

Free Agents

The Braves stormed back from a deficit that had been as high as 10 1/2 games to claim another division title. One could argue their 2022 team was the best they’ve had in this past half-decade of immense success, but they couldn’t repeat as World Series champions. Now they head into a second straight offseason with the potential departure of one of the winter’s top free agents.

After allowing Freddie Freeman to walk to the Dodgers last offseason, Atlanta has to decide how to proceed with Dansby Swanson. Like Freeman, Swanson has played his entire big league career in Atlanta (although he was originally drafted by the Diamondbacks). He’s an incredibly durable player who has reliably been in the Braves lineup almost every day for six-plus years. After some early-career offensive struggles, he’s turned a corner at the dish to pair with consistently strong shortstop defense.

Swanson has been an average or better hitter three years running. He’s coming off a .277/.329/.447 showing and reached the 25 home run mark for the second straight season. Swanson strikes out a bit more than average and doesn’t draw a ton of walks, but it’s rare to find plus defensive middle infielders with above-average power. The former #1 overall pick earned his first All-Star nod this past season and fits right alongside Javier Báez and Trevor Story — each of whom secured $140MM guarantees with opt-out clauses last winter — as free agent shortstops heading into their age-29 seasons. Swanson’s not elite, but he’s very good, and there’s no question the Braves would prefer to keep him around.

A Georgia native, Swanson has spoken in the past about his desire to return. While there’s clearly mutual interest, financials will needless to say play a big part in deciding whether he’s back in their lineup on Opening Day. Swanson hasn’t given any public indication he’s willing to take a massive discount to stick around, and he reportedly declined an offer in the $100MM range at some point during the season. Given how easily Báez and Story each topped that figure, it stands to reason Atlanta will have to raise their proposal significantly at this point — although, to be clear, a $100MM offer midway through what proved a career-best season to date may not have been all that unreasonable when the team first made it.

If Swanson does end up elsewhere, the Braves would recoup a compensatory pick between Competitive Balance Round B and the third round in next year’s draft, since he rejected a qualifying offer. That’d soften the blow a bit, but it’d leave the win-now club with a major question at shortstop. Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic wrote earlier this week the Braves are unlikely to sign any of Carlos CorreaTrea Turner or Xander Bogaerts — each of whom is expected to command a loftier deal than Swanson. There’s a massive drop-off from Swanson to the fifth-best free agent shortstop, Elvis Andrus.

As MLBTR’s Steve Adams recently explored, the lack of mid-tier free agent shortstops this winter could lead president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos and his staff to turn to the trade market if they don’t succeed in re-upping Swanson. The Guardians’ Amed Rosario, Yankees’ Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Reds’ Kyle Farmer are among a handful of speculative possibilities who could provide adequate production as a stopgap, but each would be a marked downgrade from the defending Gold Glove winner.

There’s a chance Atlanta decides against diving into the free agent or trade markets. Orlando Arcia isn’t a great fit as an everyday player on a contender, but he’s coming off a reasonable 2022 showing that saw him help fill-in at second base when Ozzie Albies was injured. More interesting is the possibility of allowing top prospect Vaughn Grissom to take the reins.

Grissom, 22 in January, put himself firmly on the radar with a massive showing in High-A to start the season. He was bumped to Double-A and appeared in only 22 games there before the Braves surprisingly jumped him straight to the big leagues as part of a revolving door at second base with Albies out. He got out to a blistering start before his production tailed off, but a .291/.353/.440 line through his first 41 MLB games is impressive enough to at least put him in the conversation for an everyday job out of the gate.

Certainly, turning things over to Grissom would be a risky play. He has zero Triple-A experience, and he showed a very aggressive offensive approach in his early big league look which he’ll probably have to dial back. A shortstop for much of his minor league tenure, he played almost exclusively second base in the majors and didn’t rate well there in his brief debut. Prospect outlets have expressed some concern about whether he’s athletic enough to play an effective shortstop, and it’s possible the Braves are wary of handing him such a key responsibility. They’re not completely averse to the idea, though, as David O’Brien of the Athletic writes that Grissom has been working one-on-one with renowned infield coach Ron Washington to try to hone his shortstop skills.

The Anthopoulos front office hasn’t been afraid to trust its top young talents, even in the absence of much upper minors experience. Re-signing Swanson would certainly raise the team’s floor, but it’d also require adding another massive contract to an increasingly cluttered payroll ledger. Roster Resource projects the team’s Opening Day payroll in the $196MM range, and only Tyler Matzek (who has a modest $1.8MM arbitration projection) stands out as a potential non-tender candidate. Before considering a new Swanson deal or any external upgrades, the Braves are projected for a payroll almost $20MM above this past season’s approximate $178MM Opening Day mark, itself the highest in team history.

The Liberty Media ownership group is clearly comfortable with a franchise-record payroll, which isn’t surprising considering the amount of playoff revenue they’ve banked over the past five seasons. CEO Greg Maffei reiterated recently the team is willing to open next year in the top five spenders (via Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution). That doesn’t inherently mean they’re pushing spending dramatically above where things already stand, however.

In the estimation of Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Braves already rank fifth in projected 2023 payroll. Their luxury tax number is projected by both Cot’s and Roster Resource between $222MM and $228MM, with Cot’s pegging that third-highest in the majors. Bringing back Swanson would send the franchise soaring past next year’s $233MM base tax threshold. The Braves already are one of the sport’s top spenders, regardless of whether they make any more notable investments.

While that kind of stacked payroll ledger can sometimes reflect a number of undesirable contracts a team wishes it could shed, that’s not the case for the Braves. Their investments, by and large, are ones with which the front office is unquestionably happy. Atlanta has had more success than any other team in extending its long-term core.

Much of the offseason attention for the Braves being focused on shortstop is a testament to the strength of the roster that’s otherwise in place. It’s arguably the most complete in the majors, with the heavy lifting already done in most areas. Atlanta has one of the top catching groups, with Travis d’Arnaud under contract for just $8MM. He’s likely to split time with William Contreras, who broke out with a monster .278/.354/.506 showing over 97 games this year. Contreras could also see some action at designated hitter and in left field, particularly if the Braves carry three backstops on the active roster. Veteran Manny Piña will make $4.5MM in the second season of a two-year free agent deal; he lost almost all of this past season to left wrist surgery, and the Braves could look to offload some or all of his salary to a team with less catching depth.

The infield aside from shortstop is set. Matt Olson and Austin Riley will probably be the corner tandem for the entire decade. Albies will be the second baseman, hopefully with better injury luck than he experienced this past season. Arcia can bounce around as a depth piece off the bench.

Two outfield spots are also locked down. Ronald Acuña Jr. will be the right fielder, with Rosenthal quashing any nonsensical trade speculation involving one of the sport’s best young talents. Michael Harris II is in center field, fresh off a Rookie of the Year-winning season. Like Olson, Riley, and Albies, Acuña and Harris have already signed long-term extensions that’ll keep them around for the foreseeable future.

The only other question mark on the position player side is in left field. Adam Duvall is a free agent and didn’t play well anyhow. Eddie Rosario had a rough 2022 campaign even after undergoing surgery to correct the vision in his right eye. Marcell Ozuna returned to the roster after last year’s domestic violence arrest and suspension. He didn’t play well on either side of the ball and was charged with a DUI in August. Atlanta acquired Sam Hilliard from the Rockies to kick off the offseason, but he has huge strikeout issues and a career .294 on-base percentage despite spending his career to date in Colorado.

It’s not a great group, and the Braves could certainly look for upgrades. Mitch HanigerJurickson ProfarMichael Conforto and Michael Brantley are among the free agent corner outfielders available, while Andrew Benintendi figures to be a bit more expensive than the rest of that group. On the trade market, players like Max KeplerLourdes Gurriel Jr. and Jesse Winker could be shopped by their current clubs. The Braves could also give Contreras regular run in left field, but he played just one game there this past season.

Atlanta would surely welcome the possibility of parting with Rosario or Ozuna, but neither is going to have much trade appeal. Finding a taker for a fraction of the $8MM due to Rosario next season could be viable, but the Braves may just prefer to hold him and hope for a bounceback. It’s hard to envision another team engineering even a swap of underwater deals to take on Ozuna, who’s due $37MM for the final two years of a contract that proved a rare misstep for the organization. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the Braves release him entirely if he gets off to a slow start.

Just as there’s not much to quibble on the position player side, the pitching staff projects as one of the league’s best. Atlanta has a front four of Cy Young finalist Max Fried, Rookie of the Year runner-up Spencer StriderKyle Wright and Charlie Morton. Few teams can match that kind of 1-4, and there’s a chance the Braves try to work out long-term deals with either Fried or Wright. The former is already projected for a $12.2MM arbitration salary and just two years from the open market, so a Fried extension would be a much heftier investment. Wright is still a year from arbitration and under control for four seasons overall.

There’s a bit of uncertainty in the fifth spot, which Jake Odorizzi failed to effectively seize after being acquired from the Astros at the trade deadline. Atlanta felt comfortable enough with its in-house depth to ship away Odorizzi days after he exercised his $12.5MM option, paying down $10MM of the deal and receiving depth arm Kolby Allard from the Rangers in return.

It was a vote of confidence some younger arms in the system can outperform Odorizzi, as Atlanta only saved $2.5MM. Anthopoulos pointed to Bryce ElderMike SorokaIan Anderson and Kyle Muller as pitchers who could battle for the final spot. Anderson and Soroka each looked like core pieces of the future not too long ago. The former had a rough 2022 season, while the latter has had a nightmarish stretch of Achilles injuries that have cost him two-plus years. That duo has shown plenty of talent, however, and they pair with Elder — a well-regarded prospect who made his first 10 MLB appearances this past season — as depth options with some upside. Righty Freddy Tarnok could eventually get a look as well after a strong showing in the upper minors that briefly earned him his big league debut.

The Braves could scour the market for a depth starter, but they don’t have to force any additions considering the volume of in-house arms. Elder, Muller and Tarnok could trickle into a bullpen that also looks like one of the game’s best units. A.J. Minter broke out as an elite arm from the left side, backed up by the more quietly excellent Dylan Lee. The Braves agreed to take on the last three years of Raisel Iglesias’ contract in a deadline swap with the Angels, giving them a ready-made closing replacement if Kenley Jansen walks in free agency. Collin McHugh gives them a high-leverage setup type from the right side, and the Braves have rolled the dice on former stars Kirby Yates and Nick Anderson, each of whom are trying to regain their footing after lengthy injury rehabs. Atlanta could be a fit for a stable middle innings type — particularly one who throws right-handed — but that’s more of a luxury buy than a pressing concern.

That’s true of much of the roster, one which looks poised to remain among the sport’s best for a number of seasons. So much of the offseason attention will be focused on the shortstop uncertainty, but the Braves will enter the year as one of the likeliest teams to compete for a World Series if Swanson returns or not. Anthopoulos and his group won’t be complacent in a division that also features another 100-win team and the defending NL pennant winners, but the Braves are in excellent shape for this offseason and many beyond.

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