Headlines around here usually follow a loose template. Get the name of the team or player in there. Give the reader a sense of the thesis or question to be answered. Don’t make it too long. They’re important, but don’t pretend like you’re making art.
Which is why this headline from last May was something of a departure:
If the Braves were a frozen hamburger patty, they would be recalled
So cheeky. But, at the time, the only way to discuss the Braves was with hyperbole. That was written in May, when they ranked eighth in wins at Turner Field. That factlet still makes me giggle-sob, months later. The headline also said something about hope, but that was me being polite. The Braves were awful.
The Braves want you to watch them next year. That was probably the plan all along, considering there’s a new ballpark to sell (the old one was almost as old as Bartolo Colon’s career, so it had to go). The goal was to be something more than a recalled hamburger patty. Perhaps just a frozen hamburger patty without the E. coli? Yes, that’s about right. Some nights of indigestion. Long-term ramifications. Generally easy to consume, though, and something you might even consume on purpose.
A funny thing happened on the way to respectability last season: The Braves started hitting. And now they’re one of the most compelling teams of the offseason.
Why are they compelling?
After starting the season hitting like a roster filled with blindfolded Jeff Francoeurs, the runs arrived. The Braves were over .500 in the second half, and they scored nearly 300 runs after Aug. 1. Freddie Freeman hit like Lou Gehrig for the last four months of the season. Professional whomper Matt Kemp joined the team and whomped. Dansby Swanson arrived nearly a year after being in college, and he hit like a 10-year veteran. Ender Inciarte looked like a dynamic leadoff hitter, not just an average-dependent glovesmith.
This wasn’t just a team clambering toward respectability, all of a sudden. They had the bones of a team that might surprise. Let me just sip this glass of water theatrically, and ...
Pffbbbbrffft. My stars! A front two of Julio Teheran and Chris Sale, with a pair of competent 40-somethings behind them? With the best farm system in baseball (maybe even after a possible trade for Sale) spitting out rookies, one after the other? You can understand the attraction.
You can also understand that Adonis Garcia, Tyler Flowers, and Nick Markakis are all on the wrong side of 30 and hardly All-Stars. Then you remember that Kemp fields like he’s wearing a barrel with straps. This isn’t a team that suddenly morphed into a juggernaut last September. It’s still a team with a patchwork roster and a lot of work left.
What could they do?
They could continue hoarding prospects, for one. If there isn’t a new stadium, this might have been the default. In a regular market Teheran might be just one (f)ace in the crowd. In this market, he’s a barrel of water after society collapses. There would be a fight for him. Blood would be spilled.
Or they could fill out the roster and go for it. They’ve already moved faster than anyone else this offseason, locking up R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon, becoming functional and irritating Mets fans in the process. Those two pitchers work in a variety of contexts, from "We just don’t want the fans to throw rotten meat on the field after the 110th loss" to "We think we can contend." The Braves have options.
They’re already close to $100 million in payroll, so before we go on a spending spree for them, we should check in with what their payroll usually is:
2000: $86 million, 3rd (of 30)
2001: $92M, 6th
2002: $93M, 7th
2003: $106M, 3rd
2004: $88M, 8th
2005: $85M, 10th
2006: $90M, 9th
2007: $87M, 15th
2008: $102M, 10th
2009: $97M, 11th
2010: $84M, 15th
2011: $87M, 15th
2012: $83M, 16th
2013: $90M, 16th
2014: $111M, 14th
2015: $98M, 23rd
2016: $88M, 23rd
It’s been a long time since they were a top-10 payroll team, and even in their recent prime, they didn’t crack $100 million too often. That has a lot (everything?) to do with the Braves’ unfavorable TV deal, which puts them at a disadvantage compared to the Phillies, Nationals, and Mets, and will for a long time. There might be a bump in spending with the new stadium. But don’t expect a flurry of nine-figure contracts this year.
That’s why it’s a little curious to hear to the Sale rumors because he would take allllll of the prospects. Remember that the Braves built a large part of their current dreams on Shelby Miller alone. The White Sox saw that. And they’re going to be just as greedy. Assume that the Braves swallow hard and make that deal. How can they build around Teheran, Sale, Mike Foltynewicz, Colon, and Dickey?
Let’s be incredibly generous and suggest that they’re going to add $30 million this offseason. That might lead to a lineup like ...
- Ender Inciarte - CF
- Justin Turner - 3B
- Freddie Freeman - 1B
- Matt Kemp - LF
- Dansby Swanson - SS
- Jace Peterson - 2B
- Nick Markakis - RF
- Tyler Flowers/Jason Castro - C
Spread that $30 million around however you want. Spend it on Matt Wieters and Ian Desmond, or Wilson Ramos and Luis Valbuena. It’s extraordinarily hard to build a lineup that would make you feel anything more than reasonably confident, even with a hypothetical pair of aces at the top of the rotation.
Still, the Braves are acting like they have options. And they have the prospects to be as creative as they want, bypassing the free agent market altogether.
What should they do?
Wait. Teheran is cheap enough to be a part of the future if the present isn’t ideal, so they might keep him around, and that’s fine. I just don’t see how this is a roster that’s just a few blockbuster trades away from divisional dominance. They would have to unload way too much of the minor-league depth they’ve patiently built up. If they’re not going to be a $160 million team, they’ll need that depth.
The Braves would be far better served finding their own aces than trading for them. They’re never going to be a franchise that bumps up against the luxury tax, so the real value is in having young pitchers potentially stick around for six or seven years, not established pitchers to win now, now, now, even Cy Young candidates like Sale.
The Braves would have to make all sorts of moves if they’re all in, and the last team that tried the 15-transaction parlay also happened to rely on Kemp playing in the outfield. It didn’t work out.
Chances of winning the offseason?
That’s the cautionary tale for the Braves, too: the team that flew too close to the hot stove on wax wings. The Padres were aggressive, and it was a mistake. Now they’re back to where the Braves are now, making smart deals and hoarding prospects. The Braves should probably just skip the step with the aggressive mistakes.
They could certainly melt faces this offseason, though. They have the prospects. They have a good reason for the urgency. It’s just a matter of having the derring-do and/or lack of caution. The Braves are a team that’s a lot closer than we could have possibly imagined last May. We’ll see which path they go down because there sure are a lot of them available.
This is a series of unknown duration, and it’s based on the premise that not all offseasons are created equal. Some teams will acquire a player or two, and some teams have the potential to melt our faces off. This is an exploration of the face-melters. If you would like to read about the first team in this series, the Phillies, you can do that here. The second team, the Dodgers, was written up here.