Archive for October, 2022

203: Tagged Out at the Plate; Now What?

By: Vox O’Reasoñ

Northeast GA (God’s Country) – In case you missed it, and I doubt anyone reading this did, the Braves went quietly last Saturday in the National League Division Series, falling to the Phillies in four games and capping what was a very weird season from it’s very beginning.

First, said beginning was late thanks to the seemingly perpetual inability of Major League Baseball and Major League Baseball Players Association to ever agree on anything. Such was the severity of the labor dispute that all of the preseason roster work was disrupted until a mere couple of days before a delayed start to Spring Training and an abbreviated camp. Second, once the roster building resumed, the one sure thing we all felt was a slam dunk turned into a slammed door as team stalwart Freddie Freeman and his camp turned the late negotiations into a high stakes game of poker at which time Braves GM Alex Anthopolous called their bluff and opted for a game with better odds in trading for Matt Olson instead… and that’s how the season began.

The Braves also commenced without superstar Ronald Acuña, Jr. who was still rehabbing a reconstructed knee, something that would continue to be an aggravation after he returned in late April and throughout the hastened campaign

One-third of the fabled Night Shift didn’t even make it out of camp as Luke Jackson required Tommy John surgery to his pitching elbow barely after reporting to North Port. Another third of the feared trio, Tyler Matzek, would suffer most of the season from shoulder discomfort and later himself would undergo TJ surgery right as the post-season started. And the final member of the group, Will Smith, was so bad in 2022 that he was traded away mid-season for an equally bad starting pitcher in Jake Odorizzi.

They lost returning hero Eddie Rosario to an eye condition just after the season started in April, and Eddie never really hit his 2022 stride upon his mid-season return. Backup catcher and free agent signee Manny Piña broke his wrist in May and was never seen again. They lost infield sparkplug Ozzie Albies to a broken foot in June, only to lose him again for rest of the season to a broken finger less than 24 hours after he had made it back to the active roster.

They lost another OF in Adam Duvall to a season ending wrist injury in July, just after he had started to hit again after returning to his more natural corner OF spot after holding down CF for the first couple of months. He seems to have been forgotten as the season carried on, but he was a very necessary member of this team to start the year, and he’s likely played his last game in an Atlanta uni.

Maybe the worst injury of the whole season happened in the regular season’s final week when sensational rookie Spencer Strider incurred an oblique strain, which would have dire playoff consequences a mere couple of weeks later.

But there were also some very inspiring surprises. Young catcher William Contreras replaced Piña on the roster and became an All-Star. Young CF Michael Harris II was called up from AA Mississippi to shore up the OF defense, and batted his way into NL ROY contention with an exceptional offensive season to go along with his Gold Glove caliber defense. The aforementioned Strider had a year to remember as he set several rookie pitching records and cemented himself as the co-favorite for NL ROY with teammate Harris. Young IF Vaughn Grissom gave us a glimpse of the promise he brings to an already young roster. Max Fried took firm grasp of the team’s “ace” mantle, even being called “the best LH starting pitcher in the NL” by Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts. Kyle Wright led the league in W’s and became the team’s first 20-game-winner since Russ Ortiz. 3B Austin Riley played like an MVP for the vast majority of the season. Dansby Swanson became the team’s new Sheriff and played like his hair was on fire every time he stepped between the white lines. And polarizing 1B Matt Olson overcame a late season slump to finish with a very solid year while stepping into a pair of somewhat impossible shoes to fill.

I know I failed to mention other players and other occurrences, but I’ve spent enough characters and words on what was. It’s time to turn our attention to what’s to come.

Interestingly, the 2022-2023 offseason will be somewhat unique for the Braves, and indeed for most teams. While most teams have a General Manager or a President of Baseball Operations, the Braves instead employ a magician. Anthopolous has somehow managed to already wrap up the vast majority of the team’s core for multiple years ahead. Along with the previous deals he had in place with Acuña and Albies, he managed to acquire and then lock up new 1B Olson. He rewarded the mighty Riley with a new deal, then inked both co-ROY candidates to lengthy pacts. He even traded a couple of spare parts to the Angels for closer Rafael Iglesias, who is also under contract for the next few years. Thus, there isn’t really too much heavy lifting to still be done.

So exactly what is left?

Well, the most glaring task ahead for The Great Alex is bringing back Sheriff Swanson. Dansby has gone through a lot in his time here in Atlanta, and has overcome a truncated development period, injuries, and hometown pressures to finally justify being the #1 pick in the draft. He is now easily in the upper echelon of SS in the league just as he begins his first foray into free agency. Jon Heyman reported back in August that the Braves and Dansby had already had discussions on a new long term deal, but nothing became of that. Both Alex and Dansby have expressed the dreaded “mutual interest in returning”, which I suppose is better than no interest. But we here in Braves Country have learned not to take “mutual interest in returning” to mean a deal is imminent. We learned it the hard way. So this is job #1 for Alex, and nothing… repeat NOTHING is taken for granted.

Second, the old axiom always rings true. You can never have too much starting pitching. While the team has Fried, Wright, Strider, and grizzled veteran Charlie Morton back for 2023, the last spot in the rotation is up for grabs. Alex can go one of several ways with this slot. He can leave it up for competition among youngsters Bryce Elder, Ian Anderson, Kyle Muller, and the ever hopeful Mike Soroka. There’s also Odorizzi, but I am loathe to consider him a serious contender. Each of those candidates carries a big question mark. Alex could seek out a FA pitcher like Jacob deGrom, who grew up being a Braves fan and is reported to have interest in coming here. But can Alex afford something like that and afford Dansby too? The Braves ranked 8th in payroll in 2022 with a payroll around $188M after chairman Terry McGuirk’s earlier assertion that the Braves wanted to have a top-10 payroll. AJC beat writer Justin Toscano has recently quoted McGuirk saying “My goal now is to get to be a top-5 (payroll team).” If the Braves want to afford both, they can afford both. But Alex’s tendency over the years has not been to spend heavy on pitchers in FA, but to trade for them instead. And while the pipeline was depleted last season in trades for Olson and Raisel Iglesias, there is still ample talent available to use. While his stock has dropped, Anderson could be dealt if he’s no longer in the long term plans. Muller, whom I see more as a reliever for this team, has good value. SP/RP Freddy Tarnok has value. And of course, the elephant in the room… young hitter Grissom has great value. If Dansby is resigned, then shopping Grissom for starting pitching should at least be considered. If Dansby is not resigned, then perhaps this is the year Alex makes a big splash in the FA pitching market, eh Mr. deGrom? Likeliest scenario: Elder wins the job. But don’t discount the tenacity of Soroka. I won’t count that guy out until he physically cannot compete anymore.

We need to note that Fried is entering his final year of arbitration. If anyone deserves to be locked up long term, it’s Maxie. I’d like to see a deal get done, but maybe Max wants to dip his toe into the FA waters. Who knows? I suppose since he’s still under team control for at least 2023, he shouldn’t be considered a high priority. But he should still be considered.

The acquisition of Iglesias probably signals the departure of Kenley Jansen to FA, but one never knows. When Jansen’s cutter is on, he’s one of the best in the game. And Alex has said on the record that he’d like to bring Kenley back. Still, Iglesias is more likely the closer of the future. “Sliderman” Jackson, who was a hero in 2021, is throwing again in his rehab from TJ, but he’s also a FA. Will he be back? Will Matzek, who is a possible non-tender candidate? Closer is settled, but the other late inning spots are not. Alex will have to address the pen again.

As for the regular lineup, it’s close to being set for some time to come, with the possible exception of SS as has been noted. What about LF? I know that Rosario is still under contract for 2022, but which Eddie will we see? The 2021 playoff hero or the 2022 shadow of his former self? There is no young heir apparent unless Grissom is converted to LF, which could be the best thing for his long term prospects and for the Braves. Contreras was an All-Star at DH, but can the Braves hope to pull off that double duty stunt again? Personally, I don’t see why not. And maybe… just maybe Marcell Ozuna will take his off-season seriously and come back to the team in 2023 as a viable hitter once again.

The bench? Meh… GM’s annually rebuild their benches, so this is just a part of the process. We know Contreras will be there. Orlando Arcia is probably there as well. MLBTR projects Guillermo Heredia to make $1.1M in arb. Will the Braves pay that much for a late game defensive replacement and sword handler? I’m thinking he’s a strong non-tender candidate so a backup for CF will be needed. What about old friend Jason Heyward? Since the Cubs have already given him his walking papers, he would only cost the league minimum to come be a veteran presence and strong mentor to our young players, including fellow Henry County native Harris. I think he brings more to the table than Heredia at least.

Finally, since we’ve brought up the topic of arb, the Braves currently have 6 players eligible. We’ve noted Fried, Matzek, and Heredia already. They also must make decisions on A.J. Minter, Soroka, and reliever Silvino Bracho. A.J. is a lock and a candidate for at least a 2-year of not 3-year deal. I think Soroka will be back on a 1-year deal. Bracho is merely system depth and could easily be non-tendered if they need the 40-man roster spot, but he would also likely be cheap enough to keep around if they so chose, so who knows?

All of this roster wrangling will take place with the knowledge of several rule changes ahead for 2023, including a pitch timer, defensive shift limits, and bigger bases. Yes, the team is now idle for a short while, but the front office is just getting warmed up. Braves organizational meetings will be happening very soon, followed by the Baseball Owners Meetings, and then the real in-person Baseball Winter Meetings (Dec. 4-7). So there’s no time to rest, Alex. Get that magic wand back out and get to work. We’ve got to get ready to battle the Mets and Phillies for the NL East in 2023, and there’s no time to waste.


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