Braves’ priority landing outfielder, but may not materialize at Winter Meetings

GM Alex Anthopoulos said the Braves have been in contact with the agent of Nick Markakis, whose wRC+ of 114 in 2018 was his highest in six seasons.
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — The Braves have defined needs as baseball depends upon Las Vegas — home of Penn & Teller, David Copperfield and the likes — for next week’s MLB Winter Meetings, and filling them all may be a magic act onto it self.

The reigning National League East champions are searching for a corner outfielder, a starting pitcher and bullpen help. They’re doing so with $25 million in payroll already dedicated to free-agent signings Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann, and in an environment where the division rival Mets, Nationals and Phillies have turned it into an arms race.

But given Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos’s past at baseball’s annual swap meet, don’t expect him to to feel a need to fire a shot in retaliation — at least in the coming days.

“I don’t think I’ve been very active at the meetings in the past,” Anthopoulos said Wednesday. “A lot of times you come out of the meetings and you feel like you’re getting close and you try to finalize something maybe a week or two after the fact.”

Unless the GM is already flashing his poker face, expect the Braves to slow play things as they prioritize their spending to filling the void left by Nick Markakis, who in the final season of his four-year deal hit 14 percent above league average and was an All-Star, Gold Glove winner and Silver Slugger recipient.

“Outfield, unless the market totally doesn’t emerge the way we think, I would expect us, by the time spring training rolls around we’ll have added an outfielder one way or the other,” he said. “I would be surprised if we didn’t. I don’t want to put myself in a corner, but I would expect someone would emerge.”

The Braves do have Adam Duvall, and while they surprised many in tendering him a contract after he hit just .132/.193/.151 with a minus-5 OPS+ in 33 games after being acquired from the Reds, there is hope he could return to the player who hit 30 home runs in back-to-back seasons for the Reds in 2016 and ’17.

But it would be surprising if Atlanta opened the season with Duvall as the starter, given the depth of players available this winter.

There has been speculation that the Mariners — their fire sale has included trading All-Star closer Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano to the Mets and shortstop Jean Segura to the Phillies, could move Mitch Hainger (138 wRC+) or that the Diamondbacks — they just sent franchise cornerstone Paul Goldschmidt to the Cardinals — might unload David Peralta (130 wRC+). But with Hainger under club control through 2023 and Peralta entering free agency in 2022, acquiring either one may be a stretch.

The Braves entered the offseason with around $60 million available, taking into account the players already under contract and arbitration costs, which probably sits closer to $35 million after the additions of Donaldson and McCann.

Anthopoulos has stated that he typically likes to hold onto payroll for in-season acquisitions, a la Kevin Gausman last season, which could knock that available salary below $30 million. Hence the potential that the Braves may not be able to add an outfielder, starting pitcher and bullpen without swing a deal for the controllable piece.

Unwilling to enter into long-term contracts or enter the derby for Bryce Harper’s services, the better fits given the believed available payroll may lie in free agency with the likes of Michael Brantley, Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Gonzalez, A.J. Pollock or the return of Markakis.

Per Spotrac, Brantley would be the most expensive of the free agents in the Braves’ believed range, with a market value of $18.9 million, followed by McCutchen ($18.9), Markakis ($14.9), Pollock ($11) and Gonzalez, who made $8 million last season, while hitting four percent below league average (96 wRC+) and could see that money drop in his age 33 season.

Anthopolous has been in contact with Markakis, who will be 36 next season and faded down the stretch with an 81 wRC+ in August and 83 in September, about a possible return. But he stresses that nothing is close on any outfielders.

“Keeping dialog open and I want to say more because I know fans and everybody wants to know, Anthopoulos said. “But I would just say we’re staying in contact.”

The GM’s approach to the Winter Meetings was evident last year in his first go-around at the proceedings at the helm of the Braves. Two days after returning from Orlando, the deal that sent Matt Kemp to the Dodgers and cleared the way for Ronald Acuña Jr. was consummated. The meetings themselves were just about planting the seeds.

Atlanta, in searching for value, is likely to wait for the market to set itself. That’s an approach that could make it observers again at next week’s meetings, and it’s one that can potentially take the outfielder hunt into the new year.

But the Braves are painting a picture of patience, regardless of what the teams chasing them in the NL East are doing.

“There’s some things we’d love to get done,” Anthopoulos said. “We can’t just line up on a trade or we can’t line up on a free-agent contract right now. So I’d say all we’re doing at this point is continuing to have conversations, but don’t feel like we’re close to anything yet.”

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His books, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ and ‘The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.’ are now available.