The Atlanta Braves signed injured relief pitcher Jacob Lindgren on Sunday, showing they are still focused on the future despite recent acquisitions.
The Atlanta Braves have had an incredibly active offseason thus far, and the Winter Meetings have barely begun. While each move taken on its own seems fairly inconsequential, when one looks at the past month as a whole, the picture becomes clear: the Braves might actually know what they’re doing.
Atlanta signed R.A. Dickey on November 10 and Bartolo Colon shortly thereafter to one-year contracts, with Dickey’s deal including a team option for 2018. Last week, Sean Rodriguez was inked to a two-year deal to handle second base while Ozzie Albies spends a couple of months in the minors waiting for the Super Two deadline to pass. The next day, Jaime Garcia was brought into the fold, coming over from St. Louis in exchange for a few useful spare parts. All of these appear to be moves made to position a team to win now. Only Rodriguez is guaranteed a contract beyond the upcoming season, and he has proven to be a tremendous asset when deployed as a utility player.
Perhaps the best indication of where the Braves might be most focused came on Sunday, however, as Atlanta signed left-handed relief pitcher Jacob Lindgren to a major league contract. Lindgren is not expected to pitch in 2017 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in August, and he missed much of the 2015 season as well following surgery to remove a bone spur from his left elbow. He has pitched all of seven innings across seven appearances in the big leagues, all for the Yankees in 2015.
Lindgren profiles strictly as a reliever, as he was moved to the bullpen for his Junior season at Mississippi State. He filled an Andrew Miller-type role that year, garnering first-team All-American honors due in large part to his astonishing strikeout rate, leading the country with 16.3 strikeouts per nine innings. He averaged more than two innings across his 26 appearances, all out of the pen, and gave up just one extra base hit the entire season. Not often do teams draft amateur middle relievers in the second round of the MLB draft, but that’s what the Yankees did in 2014, selecting Lindgren with the 55th overall pick.
The injuries proved to be too much for the Yankees, who did not tender a 2017 contract to Lindgren. The Braves decided that the potential of Lindgren’s low-90s fastball and wipeout slider was worth using a 40-man roster slot on a player who will likely not pitch until 2018. By doing so, the Braves are adding a pitcher who has the potential to be a solid lefty setup man, with upside beyond that should his command improve. More importantly, Lindgren will not be arbitration eligible until 2020, and will remain under team control for five seasons in total following this lost campaign.
The recent acquisitions of Dickey, Colon, Rodriguez and Garcia are the type of moves usually associated with a team trying to make it over the hump after falling just short of the playoffs the season before. Atlanta is not that type of team. The Braves are coming off their two worst seasons since the end of the Dale Murphy era. The organization has quickly built up what has become one of the best farm systems in baseball.
The major league squad will be vastly improved over what we saw from the 2015-16 offerings. Julio Teheran has quietly blossomed into something resembling a star as he enters his age-26 season, and Mike Foltynewicz will slot in just fine between Teheran and the three new faces in the rotation. The bullpen, anchored by Jim Johnson, should be more than adequate. There are enough decent position players, such as Freddie Freeman and the ghost of Matt Kemp, to keep the team competitive on most nights, though defense outside of Ender Inciarte in center field could become a problem. Dansby Swanson, who has been in the spotlight since helping lead Vanderbilt to the College World Series title in 2014, somehow maintained his prospect status by one at bat, and could spend the summer running away with the Rookie of the Year award.
Having said all that, the Braves are not ready to compete with the likes of the Nationals and Mets quite yet. The rebuilding process isn’t complete. Even if Atlanta swings a blockbuster deal for Chris Sale or Chris Archer – both under team-friendly contracts with option years attached – the focus should be on making a push to be competitive in 2018. The Braves are good enough right now to flirt with .500. That will be enough improvement to keep the fans somewhat pleased as the team moves into brand new SunTrust Park this year.
The best-case scenario would be for the Braves to field a competitive team for the first half of the season, yet remain just enough out of contention to allow the organization to flip the recently acquired starting pitchers for even more prospects at the trade deadline. The worst-case scenario would see the Braves close enough to contention to try to utilize their prospects to make a push for the Wild Card and fall just short. Each scenario is well within the realm of possibility, and only a few games difference in the standings over a period of four months could swing the pendulum one way or the other.
The signing of Lindgren inspires confidence in the Atlanta front office, showing that the organization is willing to maintain an eye to the future even as the team transitions to a new ballpark. 2017 looks promising for the Braves compared to the last two seasons. Real, appreciable success won’t be far behind.