After winning just one NL East crown in their first 12 seasons after their record-breaking division streak from 1991 to 2005, the Atlanta Braves have won four in a row. What can they do to make sure they tack on a fifth straight?
For as much success as the Braves have had in 2021, especially after the trade deadline, they must acknowledge that they were not supposed to be here. They have been without the services of Ronald Acuna Jr. since the All-Star break, and he is unlikely to return until early in the 2022 season. Mike Soroka tore his Achilles in the 2020 season, and he has yet to return to the field. Despite being undermanned, the Braves were able to persevere and make it to the World Series. While the front office and Brian Snitker deserve tremendous credit, the organization needs to realize that this is the start of a window, not the end. Sure, they went for it with big additions at the deadline, but the team has tremendous youth already at the MLB level.
For the Braves to have the best shot of adding yet another NL East crown, they need to keep the boat steady. They have several key free agents who they need to re-sign in the offseason.
Re-sign Freddie Freeman at All Costs
This is a no-brainer for the organization to keep its foundational piece, but let’s play devil’s advocate for a minute. Freddie Freeman just turned 32. He had his lowest OPS+ since 2015. He has a sub-.700 OPS through four games of the World Series.
Now that that’s out of our systems, let’s look at the positives. Freeman has eight straight seasons with an OPS+ of at least 130. His 2021 season was disproportionately affected by a poor (by Freeman’s standards) April and early May. From the middle of May through the rest of the season, Freeman was one of the best hitters in baseball.
Even the playoff “woes” are a bit strange. In the first two rounds, Freeman had an OPS of 1.086 against Milwaukee and 1.063 against Los Angeles. He has hit well in the Houston series, but he has been a bit unlikely to not have an extra-base hit, so his .286/.353/.286 slash line is clunky. Across 14 games in the playoffs, Freeman has a .947 OPS with an elite .426 on-base percentage.
Freeman is 32, so the Braves should look to lock up their superstar with a relatively short, but lucrative, contract. Atlanta was able to lock up both Ozzie Albies and Acuna on long, team-friendly contracts, so freeing up money for a Braves legend on a shorter deal should be in the cards. Tying up eight or 10 years to Freeman in one extension might be the wrong move, but if the Braves can agree to funds, they could re-sign Freeman for segments at a time. Freeman could be lured by a long-term deal elsewhere, but Atlanta should try to shell out every available penny to beat other offers on a per-year basis.
Even if the Braves believe Freeman will decline, they do not have a contingency plan behind Freeman. Of Atlanta’s top-30 prospects, none play even a corner infield slot. Atlanta would have to go from outside the organization to find a corner infielder to replace Freeman’s name in the lineup.
Re-sign Midseason Acquisitions
At the trade deadline, Atlanta acquired four outfielders: Jorge Soler, Eddie Rosario, Joc Pederson, and Adam Duvall. Each one brings a different profile to the plate. Soler and Pederson are traditional power hitters, but Soler bats right-handed and Pederson bats left-handed. Rosario has plenty of power, evidenced by his scintillating display in the 2021 NLCS, but his profile is more well-rounded. He is a solid defender, and he can steal bases. Duvall could win a Gold Glove, and he has tremendous power.
So, why should the Braves bring back all four, if possible?
Practically speaking, it is likely that MLB adopts a universal designated hitter policy. This would permit all four to play simultaneously with Soler stepping in as a designated hitter and Duvall playing centerfield. Even when Acuna returns from injury, retaining all four would give lineup flexibility depending on opposing pitcher handedness and would add an extra bench bat.
Marcell Ozuna should be mentioned here, but his future with the team is uncertain as he deals with off-the-field issues. He could be in the fray, and he is under contract with the Braves, but his off-the-field issues need to be settled first. Either way, all four of Atlanta’s additions would likely be perceived in a better light than Ozuna.
Atlanta has a fairly simple pitch to all four players. If they stay, they have a great shot at making the playoffs, winning the pennant, and winning the World Series. Atlanta would also be adding pieces (like Acuna) back into the team, strengthening the team for another pennant chase.
There is certainly financial downside to trying to re-sign all four players (not even factoring in Freeman), but the Braves should float offers to them.
Down on the Farm
It was a rather unspectacular year for the highly-touted Braves prospects. Neither Cristian Pache or Drew Waters were able to make any MLB impact in 2021. Heading into the 2021 season, the ideal outlook for 2022 would have been an oufield with Waters and Acuna in the corners and Pache in center (with Ozuna as a designated hitter), but neither Pache or Waters are guaranteed to be with the big-league club come Opening Day. The highest-riser of the farm system is Michael Harris. Harris has long-term upside, but he is just in high-A ball as of writing. He is a 2023 option in all likelihood.
Most of Atlanta is locked up for 2022. The rotation and bullpen are set contract-wise with the exception of Jesse Chavez. Chavez could return on a cheap one-year deal if the Braves do not want to rush any of their minor league pitching prospects. Drew Smyly served valiantly as a spot starter in 2021, but the likes of Kyle Muller and Tucker Davidson should be ready on Opening Day.
Ehire Adrianza is Atlanta’s do-it-all bench player, so he could return on a cheap contract. Trying to retain Adrianza could be difficult if Atlanta brings back all four of the outfielders, but Atlanta does need something in the way of an infield contingency plan. Adrianza appeared in every non-catcher position besides first base, so few players in the organization bring his versatility.
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