SAN DIEGO —
We’re in beautiful Carlsbad, California, for the MLB general manager meetings. It’s unlikely the Braves will consummate a deal in the coming days, but the groundwork for potential moves will be set.
For the Braves, the red carpet is out. The organization has spent years gearing toward the 2018-19 offseason, with financially flexibility abound and enough prospects to smoke any competing offers. Their success last season – 90 wins and a division title – just feeds the lust.
Remember: The Braves aren’t the surprise story anymore. They’re already being projected as a top two or three team in the National League. No more talking about “down the road.” This team will be judged on results.
Expectations are back, but they are still a few pieces away. There’s been dialogue plentiful about whom the team could target. I’ve been asked who I personally like, and I go back and forth on the usual names.
The most popular speculated target is Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto. I’m more interested in Indians starter Corey Kluber, who’s surprisingly on the table.
I get the argument for Realmuto, whom the team’s liked for quite some time. I don’t love investing what that’ll cost, aside from sending prized prospects to a division rival, because it’s not a glaring hole in the present or future.
Realmuto might be baseball’s best backstop, but are those prospects and (eventually) funds better spent elsewhere? Catching hasn’t held the Braves back. They’ve been solid with Tyler Flowers and now free-agent Kurt Suzuki. William Contreras is a couple years away, but he’s one of the higher regarded catchers in the minors.
Flowers is signed. They could re-sign Suzuki or add a similar veteran. The case against Realmuto is more about combination than the All-Star himself: The Braves could add a battery mate for Flowers while grooming Contreras in Double-A. The prospects saved could be cashed in for a starter or outfielder, two bigger needs than catcher as I see it. The money for a Realmuto extension, which will be rich, could be spread out of used for internal extensions.
They’d obviously upgrade with Realmuto. The goal should be just increasing the talent level and, in that respect, he’d be an absolute home run. Perhaps he tops their wish list, but the Braves won’t be the only bidder.
Kluber is the most intriguing name to me. If he’s available, barring another team making a ridiculous proposal (always possible), it’s hard to find a more perfect fit for franchise and player.
The Braves’ rotation wasn’t a weakness. Mike Foltynewicz is worthy of front-line distinction. You could tell me Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint and Kyle Wright all become ace or No. 2 starters, and I’d believe you.
But right now the Braves need another guy. Windows can close sooner than anyone anticipates. Development isn’t linear – one can’t expect Toussaint to blossom into that tier 1 guy next year.
Kluber has provided over 200 innings in five consecutive seasons, earning All-Star honors in the past three. He’s struck out at least 222 hitters each season over that span. Moving to the National League could only help, not that he needs it.
Rebuilding is over. The Braves need to assess themselves against the Dodgers, Brewers and Cubs. Philadelphia is expected to improve and with or without Harper, it’s conceivable Washington bounces back.
So if they have the chance to add a bonafide ace and perennial Cy Young competitor, that’s the move. Cleveland will reportedly listen to offers for the 32-year-old due to financial restraints – a downfall that won’t behoove the Braves anytime soon.
Kluber is controllable for the next three seasons at a cheap rate. He earns $15 million in 2019, with two ensuing team options worth $15.5 and $16 million respectively. It’s borderline absurd to see a veteran starter of his caliber with such a team-friendly deal.
The hope here is Kluber gives you two elite seasons, and by the time he hits the market, you’ll have your rotation sorted out. As for the prospects you relinquished in the deal, it’s unlikely any reaches close to Kluber’s level. Just how the sport works.
It’s an ideal balance between winning today and preparing for tomorrow. He’s not going to tie you up on a bad deal. You’ll enter a three-year window with Kluber and Foltynewicz topping your rotation.
You make the trade if you believe the Braves can win a pennant in the next couple seasons. And I do.
The Braves would boast a rotation of Kluber, Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Kevin Gausman and limitless options for the final spot. Obviously, Julio Teheran is even more expendable if a Kluber-type joins the fray.
Now the risk: The Braves would part with guys you’ll hate to see go. Unless the Mets entertain Jacob deGrom deals, Kluber would be the apple of the market’s eye.
It’s unclear what the Indians want in return, but considering they’re very much in contention, I suspect they’ll favor more immediate contributors. The Braves might prefer dealing from the lower levels, since they’ll be contending now.
Kluber has miles on his arm. Maybe his decline begins in 2019 and you’re left with egg on your face. General manager Alex Anthopoulos would need confidence that the Alabama native doesn’t hit a steep decline within the next two seasons for him to be worth such a drastic move.
It’s difficult to compare Realmuto and Kluber. Trading for Realmuto is acquiring an every-day player. Kluber can only make a difference once every five days. Realmuto would also heavily influence prospect development on the field, whereas we can only speculate about Kluber’s off-field assets.
Given contract and age, Kluber is a three-year investment. Realmuto is under control for another two seasons, but an extension probably follows a trade. You’ll theoretically have more than three years of Realmuto, but only the first two would be below market rate.
Either preference is understandable. And it’s not as though they’re the only two players on the market. But if it’s one or the other, I’ll insert Kluber atop the rotation and sign one of the several stop-gap catchers available.
The Braves can create a solid catching situation, with a prime prospect on the way. Despite their wealth of arms, they still need a true ace to compete in the postseason, and Kluber just might be their guy.