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Braves mailbag: Free Agent outfield targets, catcher options

Earlier this week we asked you for your Braves questions for a new mailbag. We received a ton of questions and more than we could really hope to answer in one article. Some of those will show up as regular articles on the site but for now we picked out a few to discuss.

What do you think the most likely free agent signing will be?

I think the most likely free agent signing will be for an outfielder. Someone along the lines of ex-Indians outfielder Michael Brantley although the buzz around him and the Braves seems to have cooled somewhat. An outfielder could always be obtained as part of a trade but I feel like there are enough good possibilities available (Brantley, A.J. Pollock, Andrew McCutchen) that they will fill vacancy in the outfield through free agency.

There is an injury risk that comes with Pollock and Brantley although the latter did appear in 143 games last season. McCutchen would be the most durable option having played in at least 153 games in each of the last four seasons. If healthy, I think Brantley fits but McCutchen would as well. Pollock figures to be the most expensive of the group and is probably unlikely. -Kris

Let’s assume we don’t land Harper, Pollock, Brantley, or McCutchen via FA….Do the Braves trade for an everyday, really good corner outfielder? Or do they get creative and use Adam Duvall in a platoon and then trade for a piece that will compliment Duvall without costing much in prospect capital?

I answered part of this above but let us talk about Duvall for a moment. We will find out this week if he will be part of the equation as the non-tender deadline is coming up on Friday. There is two sides of this equation to really consider. Duvall’s track record as a source of right-handed power along with his plus defensive ability in the outfield suggest he should be worth a look. However, his struggles before and after the trade raise enough red flags that his projected $3.1 million salary in arbitration may be too much to swallow.

To answer the question, if they don’t sign a free agent outfielder then I think that is a spot that will be filled via trade. I think it is doubtful that they would go into next season counting on Duvall to fill a spot other than a fourth outfielder/bench role. -Kris

I’d like someone to imagine a path to the Braves having 50 team fWAR. I love guys like Swanson, Carmargo, and Inciarte, but too many guys in the 2-3 WAR range and it will be difficult to get there. Where do we start to consolidate talent to get to a championship caliber team?

Unfortunately, I don’t think the Braves are quite in a place where they can really “consolidate” towards 50 team WAR, exactly for the reason noted. There are indeed a lot of guys on the roster in that range. For some teams, consolidation indeed makes sense: they have too many 2-3 (really probably closer to 2; there aren’t many 3 WAR guys in the majors, period) guys to even play, so they can package them to get a bonafide upgrade somewhere.

But, look at the Braves, up and down the roster. Catcher still needs a partner for Flowers. One of the corner outfield spots currently has no one. The rotation has two spots that resemble Matthew Lesko in a suit adorned with question marks, that guy that used go around selling books promising that readers would learn how to get free money. Is Dansby Swanson actually going to be at least average this year? The bench is a few Hazard Ranking System points short of being declared a Superfund site. There’s no real way to know how the bullpen is going to perform in 2019, but it’s mostly a crew of convenience than one carefully crafted.

What I’m saying is that before the Braves can consolidate, they need actual baseball humans up and down the roster. Consolidating makes sense when you have more average-or-better players than you can spare PAs or IPs. That is definitely not the case for the Braves right now.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s no path to the Braves having 50 team fWAR right now. If you look at recent teams that cleared that threshold, there have really been three paths:

  1. One or two superstars (MVP-caliber, i.e., 7-8+ WAR) combined with a solid roster.
  2. About a third of the starting positions being All-Star caliber (4-6 WAR) combined with at least decent stuff elsewhere.
  3. A roster with essentially no holes, where all the bench guys, backups, and relievers can put up average-to-above production, and are put into positions to succeed.

The Braves probably can’t do the second or third options. From the current roster or any upgrades, it’s hard to see any outcome where they have sufficient resources to upgrade their entire bench+bullpen+needed starting positions+rotation to get there. But it’s also hard to see an outcome where four players basically double their 2018 production without anyone else dropping off.

But, the first one. Well, it’s not likely. It’s not even close to do that. The Braves finished with about 41 WAR last year, and we’ll just set aside that Steamer only projects them for 32 right now because it literally has Charlie Culberson getting 400 PAs next year. Say that the 2019 Braves look a lot like the 2018 Braves, but two players have MVP-type campaigns, adding 4-5 WAR over their prior marks. Maybe Ozzie Albies abandons his troublesome weak swings and approach and keeps a tear up all season while playing best-in-class defense at second base and ends up with 8 WAR. Maybe Ronald Acuña Jr. maintains a level of punishment on pitching not seen since the days of Torquemada or Atilla the Hun. Maybe Freddie Freeman finally shows the universe that he too can get an MVP by going from 5 WAR to 10 WAR in a glorious season. Again, none of these things are likely outcomes. But if I had to draw a roadmap to 50 WAR for 2019, I’d start there, as outlandish as that roadmap might seem — because the other alternatives, which require more players to have improvements and fewer to decline, seem even less likely. -Ivan

I know AA has gone on record stating he is happy with the infield, does that make Austin Riley the first prospect offered in any trade package, or does he actually have a future with the club?

We have heard Riley’s name mentioned in several trade rumors over the last few months but up until this point the Braves have yet to pull the trigger on such a deal. As a Top 100 prospect, Riley is going to garner interest from other clubs and that is before Johan Camargo’s emergence as the team’s everyday third baseman is factored in.

It is a tough question to answer honestly because we don’t know what the organization is considering internally but here is a thought. Camargo has performed well as the starting third baseman but his versatility makes him an option at shortstop as well as a utility player. Alex Anthopoulos may be happy with the makeup of the infield and may not be actively looking for upgrades outside the organization but he likely wouldn’t turn away from an internal candidate if Riley continues to improve.

With that said, the Braves have several areas that they are looking to improve and it appears they are going to be active in the trade market. I think they would consider moving Riley in a package perhaps for a top of the rotation arm but I don’t get the sense that they would move him just because Camargo is currently penciled in as the starter at third base. -Kris

Assuming Realmuto gets traded outside the NL East and Grandal resigns with LA. What are the realistic options that would improve or maintain our C performance from last year? What is the approximate resource cost to obtain those options?

Wilson Ramos is a free agent that comes to mind and would represent somewhat of an upgrade over Suzuki. He hit .306/.358/.487 last season with 15 home runs and is a better pitch framer than Suzuki per Baseball Prospectus. There is some downside though in that there is some injury risk with Ramos and that could lead him to sign with an American League club.

Another name to consider is Martin Maldonado who would represent a defensive upgrade but isn’t nearly the offensive player that Suzuki is. -Kris

What kind of package is needed to trade for Sonny Gray?

Answer: Nothing too exciting. Even if we leave aside all the chatter about how the Yankees are basically cratering Gray’s trade value and abandoning any leverage they may have had by expounding on their need to trade him, it’s hard to see valuations treating him much above something like a 1.7 WAR/season player, as a combination of injury and ineffectiveness has really eaten into expectations for anything higher. Gray hasn’t pitched a full season since 2015, and he’s been notably below average in two of his last three years. That’s not exactly an expensive acquisition.

With only one year of control left, Gray’s value can, in shorthand, be thought of as 1.7 WAR multiplied by a factor of $9 million per WAR, or $15 million, less his estimated salary of $9 million. At a surplus value of $6 million or so, that’s basically a single 45 FV position player, or perhaps a pitcher caught in between the 45 and 50 FV tiers. The Yankees could try to get a better prospect by sending cash to cover part of his salary, but that probably gets them more prospects rather than better prospects. So, my thinking is either a single fringy prospect, or a grab bag of lottery tickets should be enough.

The bigger question for the Braves is why they want to use resources to acquire Sonny Gray, specifically. It’s a 2019-only move that carries notable risk: if Gray starts out in the rotation and performs poorly, the Braves will need to decide how long they can tolerate this, and for every additional inning that doesn’t go great, that’s missed production they’re not going to get back despite having able replacements in-house. -Ivan

What would your most radical change to the pitching staff look like if we did away with a rotation? And is it any good? For example, can we keep all the prospects, pair them off, have each go once through the lineup, and then go to the pen? Is there a better way to use our multitude of young guns that isn’t a standard start 5, pen 7ish staff?

These are largely the sorts of questions that are probably best answered somewhat empirically, rather than purely theoretically. Unfortunately, with the Braves having won a division title last year, it’s not clear how much they’ll be willing to gamble and push the envelope on “this one weird trick let them get the most of our their plethora of pitching prospects” schemes.

The reality is that teams need to cover around 1,450 innings in a season. Currently, they do so by giving 900 to the rotation and around 550 to the bullpen. With a set-in-stone rotation, that’s a reasonable 180 innings per starting quintet member, and around 65-70 innings to each reliever (even though in reality relievers get swapped out a lot).

On a straight math basis, if you took those 1,450 innings and diced them up across 13 players, you’d have about 110 innings for each. That doesn’t seem likely, as there’s no reason to limit better pitchers’ innings that much, nor give that many innings to the worst pitchers on the roster. But if we just think about a perfectly theoretical rotation as something like:

  • Best pitcher: 180 innings, because he’s allowed to go third time through the order, even in close-ish games
  • Remaining non-pure-relief pitchers x 8: 120 innings x 8 = 960 innings. These players would tandem, mixing and matching different styles, and limiting exposure to the TTO penalty. In close games, you could see perhaps one pitcher only get nine outs while his tandem-mate gets 18; they could also each get 15 or so depending on handedness and score. It basically requires fluidity.
  • Remaining relievers: At any given time, just for roster constraint purposes, only four of these would be around, though they could swap in an out. A total of 1,450 innings less the totals above yields 310 remaining frames, and 310 divided by 4 yields 78, which is a bit much for a traditional high-leverage reliever. So this would probably be a mix of a couple of firemen that could go 80-90 innings each and a couple of a-few-batters-that-hopefully-match-handedness types going around 60 innings each.

Of course, this is all purely hypothetical. In order to put this into practice, you need both the right pieces and the right organizational structure. Do the Braves have eight pitchers that could legitimately go one or two TTO at an above-average clip? Maybe: Newcomb, Gausman, Soroka, Fried, Toussaint, Wilson, Wright, scrapheap signing/etc. Do the Braves have extra firemen on top of that? Ehhhhhhhhh not really. Do they have pretty good high leverage relief options? Maybe Minter and Winkler could suffice. Perhaps more importantly, though, do they have the right organization? Have pitchers been coached to be flexible and able to think of their role as “man wots gets outs when needed” rather than “man wot pitches seven innings every five days?” Are their arsenals and pitching routines sufficient to get them that boost from throwing shorter outings with higher intensity rather than longer ones where they’re going to be allowed to continue regardless of score and leverage in most cases? Are there just physical limitations to them being able to pitch somewhat more often if they’re pitching fewer innings per outing? What happens if the “best pitcher” gets hurt? How will all of the tandem pitchers react if one of their teammates pitches so well that he becomes a “best pitcher” too? What happens if the experiment has a rocky start, will players lose confidence in continuing it?

To really answer the first question, I’d say that the most radical change would be re-shaping the organization from the ground up to think of pitchers as “guys wot get outs” rather than “guys wot throw an expected number of innings.” That’s not a 2019 thing or a 2020 thing, that’s an overall reshaping of the organization. It’s the sort of thing that could have been done during the low-pressure rebuild years. I don’t know that we’re going to start seeing it now, when the stakes are higher. -Ivan

That is it for this week. Thanks everyone!

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