Winter Checklist: 5 questions for Braves entering Winter Meetings
One year ago, the Atlanta Braves front office brass walked out of the Gaylord Opryland Hotel as unequivocal winners. Even before Shelby Miller’s decline in the desert and Ender Inciarte’s Gold Glove and Dansby Swanson’s stage-setting performance for a 2017 Rookie of the Year run, John Hart and John Coppolella was lauded was value-seeking rebuild savants, capable of flipping one season of Jason Heyward into an All-Star pitching campaign and 23 combined seasons of control in Inciarte, Swanson, Aaron Blair and Tyrell Jenkins. Any encore will likely seem anticlimactic.
The Braves enter the 2016 Winter Meetings in National Harbor, Md., with a more defined shopping list as their rebuild rounds into form. Coppolella has never been one to deny pure value, but the franchise has publicly stated the days of flipping MLB standouts for prospects are over. The team started its offseason shopping early with the signings of Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Josh Collmenter and by trading for Jaime Garcia, which should free them up to look elsewhere other than the free-agent pitching market over the next few days. Here are five key storylines to watch for next week.
USA TODAY SportsBrett Davis
Do the Braves have another blockbuster up their sleeves?
Place a hyper-competitive, oft-anxious group of general managers, agents and baseball minds in the same vicinity and there are usually breaking points. Set aside the Braves-Diamondbacks mega-deal 12 months prior and the past two Winter Meetings have featured the signing of a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist), a blockbuster involving an eventual AL Cy Young winner (Rick Porcello) and NL MVP candidate (Yoenis Cespedes), a batting champ (Dee Gordon) and a trade for a top reliever (Ken Giles) that altered the ceiling of a young rotation (Phillies). The list goes on. Fortunes and franchise trajectories change often during the first week of December.
Atlanta finds itself at such a crossroad. The franchise salvaged a dismal season with an offensive outburst and a strong finish from a promising bullpen, winning its final five series to close Turner Field for good. The final sprint bred optimism. The front office moved quickly to address its most glaring weakness through the Dickey, Colon and Garcia acquisitions, but the exact spirit of those deals — whether the 40-somethings and the new lefty, each of whom is essentially operating on a one-year deal, are kept around to gobble up innings or dangled as midseason trade bait in trademark Coppolella fashion — might depend on what comes next. The franchise is reportedly exploring trade options for aces, such as White Sox left-hander Chris Sale or Rays star Chris Archer, in a historically weak pitching market. The price would franchise- and, perhaps, timeline-altering.
(As a basic, non-specific thought exercise, take any top-10 prospect list of the Braves’ celebrated system and cut it in half, including an elite name or two, or pick a few of the top names and include a good, young MLB piece. That’s the approximate cost required in a market where 36-year-old Rich Hill is arguably the top free-agent pitcher, and Atlanta claims one of the few farm systems deep enough to raise the possibility. The Braves front office could very well bargain that price down, but that’s a starting point.)
In their hotel war room, the Braves will likely come across this question time and again: Where are we in this rebuild? Pushing their chips into the center not only functions as another significant pivot, it requires the confidence that a pitcher like Sale or Archer or A's ace Sonny Gray pushes them back into the National League East race in the immediate future. Each of these three names come equipped with extra-affordable club control, of course, but it will require a king’s ransom that, depending on which prospects are moved — whether it be the likes of those knocking on the door (Ozzie Albies, Sean Newcomb) or younger assets (Kolby Allard, Kevin Maitan) — could place added pressure on the current MLB roster to live up to its end-of-season performance. It’d be a move from possibility to certainty, though jumping the gun on rebuilds can prove disastrous.
The ultimate tipping point comes down to what the Braves’ organization sees when it looks in the mirror.
USA TODAY SportsShanna Lockwood
Will the front office address the catching conundrum?
In the second half of the 2016 season, Tyler Flowers and Anthony Recker combined to post a 1.2 WAR, roughly top-10 value at the catching position down the stretch. Still, the organization has targeted help behind the plate for months, and while the possibility of a Flowers-Recker pairing in 2017 still exists, catcher remains near the top of the agenda. In terms of finding definitive upgrades, the options are limited. With former Astros catcher Jason Castro signing with the Twins — a player that fit the offensive platoon bill for Flowers — three defining paths remain: Make a big move (Matt Wieters, Wilson Ramos), find a potential starter/stopgap/platoon option (Alex Avila, Nick Hundley and Jared Saltalamacchia, to name just a few) or keep it in-house.
If the franchise does make a move to land a starter, Ramos (124 wRC+, 3.4 WAR in 2016) was considered the top name available before tearing his ACL in September. Wieters is a power-hitting local product, though his numbers have declined substantially since his 2010-2013 peak. One last note to keep in mind: Atlanta expressed trade interest in the left-handed Avila back in 2014, and after a solid season shortened by injury (104 wRC+, 1.1 WAR) for the White Sox he could be an affordable option.
USA TODAY SportsBrett Davis
Is John Schuerholz headed to Cooperstown?
The longtime executive behind many of the key personnel moves that spearheaded the organization’s dynasty, culminating in the 1995 World Series title, could be the next Braves staple headed to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Schuerholz, the franchise’s current vice chairman, is on the Game Era ballot, which will hold its vote on Dec. 5, for his contributions to the Braves and Royals organizations. (The Royals won the 1985 World Series on Schuerholz’s watch.) He is joined by former MLB executives George Steinbrenner and Bud Selig, managers Davey Johnson and Lou Piniella and players Harold Baines, Albert Belle, Will Clark, Orel Hershiser and Mark McGwire.
Schuerholz joined the Braves organization in 1991 when Bobby Cox returned to the dugout, inheriting a young and talented core that he continued to build upon by adding the likes of elite talents Greg Maddux and Andruw Jones to rattle off a record 14 consecutive division titles. He became the first GM to win a world championship in both leagues. If he gets the call, he will be the fifth member of the Braves dynasty to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in the past four years, joining Maddux, Cox, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. His former third baseman, Chipper Jones, is expected to join that group in 2018. Quite a run.
USA Today SportsBrett Davis
Will Atlanta get involved in the Rule 5 Draft?
The Braves have taken bullpen fliers in the past two Rule 5 Drafts, but their relief spots are beginning to fill up. In 2014, Atlanta select Daniel Winkler from the Rockies organization and gave him a chance to recover from Tommy John surgery in their system. The early returns were promising. Winkler dominated in spring ball and opened the 2016 season in the Braves bullpen putting up high-strikeout numbers. That was before fracturing his elbow in his third appearance and missing the rest of the campaign. The organization looked for more a immediate payoff with Evan Rutckyj, a lefty reliever from the Yankees organization, when they selected him No. 3 overall in last season’s draft, but he was shipped back to New York before spring training ended and missed most of the campaign with elbow issues.
With the No. 5 overall pick and an apparent willingness to spend money, the Braves could take a chance on another bullpen or bench option if the right name falls.
USA TODAY SportsReinhold Matay
Will Atlanta pursue another bat?
Regardless of position or future role, the Braves' signing of Sean Rodrguez looks like a steal. For less than $6 million annually, Atlanta locked up a versatile player who posted 129 weighted runs created plus and 1.9 wins above replacement last season, according to FanGraphs. If the 31-year-old produces anywhere near those marks in 2017, he'll be in Brian Snitker's everyday lineup, either at third or second base or elsewhere.
The Braves seemed pleased with their offensive output down the stretch — and for good reason. After trading for outfielder Matt Kemp, the team ranked fourth in second-half offensive production by hitting a collective .277/.346/.428 with 67 home runs. The question comes down to sustainability. The likes of Freddie Freeman, Ender Inciarte, Tyler Flowers and Anthony Recker hit at or near career-high levels down the stretch, while Kemp, Nick Markakis and Adonis Garcia rebounded from slow starts. Rodriguez provides insurance for multiple positions, but assuming the team does not swing for a big-time bat, it will be interesting to see how Coppolella and Hart choose to fill out their bench.