In conjunction with this post, Anthony Franco will hold a Braves-centric chat on 10-18-23 at 1:15 pm Central. Click here to leave a question in advance.
MLB’s best regular season team, the Braves were knocked out by the Phillies in a disappointing Division Series. They’ll bring back the majority of the roster to give things another go in 2024, although they could have a few changes outside the core.
- Austin Riley, 3B: $197MM through 2032 (deal includes ’33 club option)
- Matt Olson, 1B: $132MM through 2029
- Spencer Strider, RHP: $74MM through 2028 (including buyout of ’29 club option)
- Sean Murphy, C: $69MM through 2028 (deal includes ’29 club option)
- Michael Harris II, CF: $67MM through 2030 (including buyout of ’31 club option; deal includes ’32 club option)
- Ronald Acuña Jr., RF: $61MM through 2026 (including buyout of ’27 club option; deal includes ’28 club option)
- Raisel Iglesias, RHP: $32MM through 2025
- Marcell Ozuna, DH: $19MM through 2024 (including buyout of ’25 club option)
- Ozzie Albies, 2B: $18MM through 2025 (including buyout of ’26 club option; deal includes ’27 club option)
- Travis d’Arnaud, C: $8MM through 2024 (deal includes ’25 club option)
- Orlando Arcia, SS: $5MM through 2025 (including buyout of ’26 club option)
- Tyler Matzek, LHP: $1.9MM through 2024 (deal includes ’25 club option)
2024 financial commitments: $130.65MM
Total future commitments: $686.65MM
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
Non-tender candidates: Chirinos, Soroka, Lopez, Allard, Heller, Hilliard, Tonkin, Velazquez, Ynoa
For the second straight year, a Braves team that won 100+ games was vanquished by the Phillies in a four-game Division Series. While surely a frustrating endpoint for the organization and its fanbase, they’ll have another crack with the same key group of players that comprised this year’s most dominant regular season team.
In each of the past two winters, the Braves had a marquee impending free agent. There’s no one close to the level of Freddie Freeman or Dansby Swanson this winter, though they’re now just a year away from the potential departure of star southpaw Max Fried.
The most notable potential free agents among this year’s class fall into one of two categories: veterans whose contracts contain a club option or non-closing relievers. Charlie Morton is the biggest name in the former group. The Braves hold a $20MM option on the righty, who worked to a 3.64 ERA across 30 starts.
Morton turns 40 next month and has been noncommittal about his future for a few seasons. He’s clearly comfortable in Atlanta, signing successive one-year contracts going back to 2021. Morton has been reasonably effective that entire time, combining for a 3.77 ERA while taking the ball for 94 starts.
This past season didn’t end as Morton envisioned. He carried a 3.29 ERA into the final month but allowed nearly seven earned runs per nine in September. A minor injury to the index finger on his throwing hand ended his season, although he likely could’ve made it back had the Braves gotten to the NLCS.
The down finish might make the Braves reluctant to commit a $20MM salary. Even if Atlanta balks at that asking price, it stands to reason the sides would have interest in a slightly lesser figure if Morton wants to continue playing. Perhaps negotiating a new deal in the $15MM range could be mutually agreeable.
If Morton retires or signs elsewhere, Atlanta’s rotation depth would become a real question. Spencer Strider and Fried are an elite 1-2 combination. It tails off quickly. While Bryce Elder had a solid rookie season overall, the risk of his pitch-to-contact approach was demonstrated with a 5.11 ERA in the second half. Kyle Wright underwent shoulder surgery and will miss the entire season. Ian Anderson and Huascar Ynoa could return from Tommy John rehabs in the season’s first half; both right-handers had struggled before going under the knife. Allan Winans and Darius Vines seem better suited for depth roles.
Jared Shuster and Dylan Dodd landed season-opening rotation spots this year. Both were hit hard and quickly lost their starting jobs. Michael Soroka pitched well in Triple-A but was tagged for a 6.40 ERA in seven big league appearances. His season ended in early September due to forearm inflammation. With a projected $3MM arbitration salary and enough service time that he can no longer be optioned to the minor leagues without his consent, he may not be tendered a contract. Late-season waiver claim Yonny Chirinos and trade returnee Kolby Allard could be non-tendered as well.
Among the in-house options, 20-year-old righty AJ Smith-Shawver is the most intriguing. He struck out over 31% of minor league opponents and earned his first major league call in May. He had an unspectacular 20:11 strikeout-to-walk ratio over six MLB contests. That shouldn’t stake a firm claim to a rotation spot, but the Braves had sufficient faith to carry him on their playoff roster. Atlanta is aggressive enough in promoting young players that they could give Smith-Shawver a look early in the year.
That may also be true of 2023 first-round pick Hurston Waldrep. The Florida product made it as high as Triple-A Gwinnett in his draft year. He fanned a third of opponents with a 1.53 ERA in his first eight professional starts. In many organizations, Waldrep would’ve closed out the season in the low minors. The Braves move their top talents quickly, and while both Smith-Shawver and Waldrep presently have below-average control, they have strong enough arsenals that they could get on the radar.
Even if the Braves are confident in Smith-Shawver and/or Waldrep factoring in early in the season, they’ll need to bring in starting pitching. Atlanta has shied away from free agency in recent years, preferring to make their big strikes via trade and subsequent contract extensions.
The aren’t a ton of clear rotation trade targets. There’d been speculation about the Brewers trading one of Brandon Woodruff or Corbin Burnes. With Woodruff potentially missing all of next season following shoulder surgery, he’s no longer a possibility. That might take Burnes off the table as well, since Milwaukee would take a major step back if they lose both of their top starters. The Guardians could move Shane Bieber, who’s projected for a $12.2MM salary in his final year of club control and missed most of the second half with forearm inflammation.
Teams will inquire with the White Sox about Dylan Cease, though it’s unclear if Chicago has the appetite for that kind of move. It’s a similar story with the Rays and Tyler Glasnow. Boston’s Nick Pivetta and Cleveland’s Cal Quantrill are potential targets among arbitration-eligible starters.
If the Braves can’t line up a trade, they should have room to go into free agency. They have just under $131MM committed to next year’s roster. The arbitration class should tack on around $25MM pending non-tenders. Exercising Morton’s option or negotiating a slightly lower salary could bring their expenditures to the $170-175MM range.
Atlanta carried an Opening Day payroll just above $203MM this year, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts. That’d leave around $25-30MM in spending room if they’re willing to repeat that level. It’s a similar story regarding the luxury tax threshold. The Braves exceeded the base threshold this year. Should they go past next year’s threshold — which begins at $237MM — they’d pay escalating penalties as a repeat payor.
Atlanta’s current CBT estimate sits somewhere in the $190-200MM range. (It’s higher than the actual payroll figure because the CBT calculation includes player benefits and is based off contracts’ average annual values.) The option price or a new deal for Morton could leave them between $20-30MM shy of the base threshold to begin the offseason. There’s nothing to suggest the $237MM CBT number represents a hard barrier for the organization, but it’ll likely be a factor in the front office’s decision-making.
A strike for Blake Snell or Yoshinobu Yamamoto isn’t the Braves’ typical operating procedure. Going into the middle tier of the market for someone like Jack Flaherty, Seth Lugo or Michael Wacha should be viable. If Morton doesn’t return, that’d leave more payroll room if they wanted to make a run at Sonny Gray or Eduardo Rodriguez.
The front office figures to engage Fried’s camp in extension talks. The 2022 Cy Young runner-up is projected for a salary around $14.4MM in his final season of arbitration. He’s on track to reach free agency in advance of his age-31 campaign. Fried should top the six-year, $162MM guarantee that Carlos Rodón received last winter. The contract that Snell lands this offseason could set a new standard for Fried’s camp. The Braves have been the league’s most aggressive team in signing key players to extensions. The Freeman and Swanson scenarios demonstrate they’re not keen to throw top-of-the-market money at all their players, though.
Atlanta also figures to go into free agency for relief help. Joe Jiménez and deadline pickup Pierce Johnson are both headed to free agency. Jiménez had an excellent season and could find a three-year deal. The Braves never entrusted him with high-leverage work, so they seem unlikely to match that kind of commitment. Johnson was utterly dominant after coming off from the Rockies. Retaining him on a two-year pact could be viable.
The Braves could also re-sign Jesse Chavez, who consistently provides them with quality low-leverage innings on salaries barely above the league minimum. They have a pair of option decisions on Collin McHugh and Kirby Yates. The former is likely to be bought out after his strikeout rate plummeted this past season. They could retain Yates, who still has huge strikeout stuff, for an extra $4.5MM after accounting for the option buyout. Atlanta will decline its end of a $7MM mutual option on Brad Hand.
Raisel Iglesias is under contract for another two seasons as the closer. A.J. Minter is a high-leverage lefty. Tyler Matzek should be back after undergoing Tommy John surgery during the 2022 postseason. Yates, Nick Anderson and long man Michael Tonkin could all be retained. Rookie Daysbel Hernández made the playoff roster and offers a high-strikeout, high-walk option.
Even if they can re-sign Johnson, the Braves should add one or two arms to the late innings. A nine-figure strike for Josh Hader seems unlikely, but anyone else in the class could fit. Robert Stephenson, Jordan Hicks and Reynaldo López are among the higher-upside arms in the free agent group. Trade possibilities include Scott Barlow and Kyle Finnegan.
The lone option decision on the position player side is a $9MM provision for Eddie Rosario. It’s a borderline price for the streaky left fielder, who had a .255/.305/.450 showing with 21 home runs in 516 plate appearances this year. While his overall production was average, Rosario’s in-season performance was extremely volatile. He was one of the best hitters on the planet in June, excellent in August, and well below-average in every other month.
If the Braves move on, Tommy Pham, Michael Conforto (if he opts out of his deal with the Giants) and Mark Canha (pending a club option with Milwaukee) could be free agent targets. Alex Verdugo and Ramón Laureano could be on the trade market.
Aside from the Rosario decision, the starting lineup is in place. Michael Harris II and Ronald Acuña Jr. will hold the other outfield spots. Matt Olson, Ozzie Albies, Orlando Arcia and Austin Riley are locked in around the infield. Marcell Ozuna mashed from May onwards and silenced early-season speculation about his future at designated hitter. Sean Murphy and Travis d’Arnaud make for an excellent catching tandem, Murphy’s late-season offensive swoon notwithstanding.
No one would’ve pegged the Braves as a suitor for Murphy going into last winter, so a trade to add to the lineup can’t be entirely ruled out. Acquiring a notable starting pitcher feels more likely given the offense’s strength, however. Should they try to bring in a starter with multiple seasons of club control — thereby providing some cover if Fried walks next offseason — they could dangle middle infielder Vaughn Grissom.
Arcia’s emergence at shortstop kept Grissom mostly in Triple-A this year (although he did make the playoff roster and was improbably called off the bench to take their final at-bat against Matt Strahm). He had an excellent year in Gwinnett, hitting .330/.419/.501 with a 12% walk rate while striking out just 14.1% of the time. The biggest question is where he best fits defensively.
There’s no room for him on the Atlanta infield. The Braves could get Grissom some outfield work as a possible Rosario replacement. If another team feels the 22-year-old (23 in January) projects as a big league ready shortstop or second baseman, he might be more valuable to the Braves as a trade chip. The Mariners (Bryce Miller, Bryan Woo) and Tigers (Reese Olson, Sawyer Gipson-Long) have questions at one or both middle infield spots and could dangle a controllable starter who has shown promise at the major league level. That kind of young player swap is rare but can’t be ruled out, particularly with teams having very little opportunity to add middle infield talent in free agency.
As tends to be the case for president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos and his staff, there’s the potential for a notable move or two. Yet the broad theme of the winter should again be continuity. Brian Snitker will be back for an eighth full season as manager. The most important players are all under contract, with everyone aside from Fried signed for multiple years. The Braves should be a top five team in 2024. Whether that results in a commensurate playoff run won’t be known until October.