Previewing Free Agent Names the Atlanta Braves Should Be Chasing This Offseason
Like the Red Sox, whose offseason free agent targets I previewed yesterday, the Braves are one of the best teams in baseball without too many weaknesses on their current roster. The difference is that the Sox have several key players headed for free agency while the Braves have just one—catcher Brian McCann. And they could choose to replace him internally.
So, barring a quick exit from the playoffs, which could intensify their pursuit of an impact player this winter, it could be a very quiet offseason in Atlanta. That doesn't mean they won't have their eye on several free agents who could help strengthen the roster and provide the much-needed depth to compete over a long season.
Here are some free agents they could pursue in four different areas of potential need.
In an offseason without very many alarming needs, the Braves could justify putting all of their eggs in one basket and re-signing Brian McCann at market value, which could be around five years and $70 million. They could also opt to let him walk and go with slugger Evan Gattis or defensive whiz Christian Bethancourt and maintain payroll flexibility for the next several years.
Or they can settle somewhere in the middle by adding one of several free agent catchers on the market who can handle the starting catching job in Atlanta. The next best option after McCann is Jarrod Saltalamacchia (pictured), a former first-round draft pick by the Braves.
The 28-year-old switch-hitter played in 47 games with the team as a rookie back in 2007 before being traded to the Rangers in the Mark Teixeira deal. After a few disappointing seasons in Texas, he's settled in as a very solid player in Boston, where he has a .757 OPS with an average of 18 homers and 58 runs batted in over the past three years.
Signing Saltalamacchia, who should be able to land a deal for at least three years and $24 million, would show that the Braves aren't big enough believers in Gattis' defense or Bethancourt's offense.
If they were to sign a shorter-term option, however, it would allow Gattis to continue in a utility role and Bethancourt to play a full season in Triple-A before they had to make a decision again.
A.J. Pierzynski could be the best one-year option while a few catchers who are probably in position to land two-year deals, including John Buck, Dioner Navarro, Carlos Ruiz and Kurt Suzuki, could move into a backup role in 2015 after making a majority of the starts next season.
The Braves were reportedly in pursuit of bench help earlier in the year. I'm not sure Elliot Johnson, who they claimed off of waivers from Kansas City last month, is what they had in mind. They'll likely revisit this need in the offseason, especially if the plan is to allow Evan Gattis to spend more time behind the plate.
Utilityman Jeff Baker, who is having a terrific season for Texas with a .905 OPS and 11 homers in 71 games while playing five different positions on the field, could be a popular free agent target, and he should be able to land a two-year deal for at least $6 million. This is the kind of salary Atlanta probably can't take on if they were to re-sign McCann.
Alternatives to Baker include Mark Reynolds and Michael Young, if they can't find starting jobs, with Alexi Casilla and Ramon Santiago as possible upgrades to Johnson and Paul Janish as backup middle infielders.
Jordan Schafer's solid season as the team's fourth outfielder, along with the team's ability to keep Reed Johnson for another season by exercising his $1.6 million club option, makes it unlikely that the team pursues outfield help.
With Tim Hudson (pictured) lost for the season after he fractured his ankle back in July, the Braves will enter the NLCS with a fairly inexperienced group of starters. If they're successful, there's a very good chance that the Braves stand pat in this area during the offseason, aside from a few minor league signings for Triple-A depth. An early exit combined with a couple of poor starts, however, and the need for a veteran rotation anchor becomes a possibility.
Bringing back Hudson, who hopes to be ready by the start of spring training, on a one-year, incentive-laden deal makes a lot of sense. The Braves have enough pitching to field a competitive team, obviously, but Hudson would give them some insurance behind a projected rotation of Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen, Alex Wood and Brandon Beachy.
The 38-year-old Hudson could also be eased back into action, which might not be the case on a team that isn't in as good of shape in the pitching department as Atlanta.
Another option would be to sign a pitcher with prior success as a starter and a reliever, giving the Braves some more versatility. Chad Gaudin, Roberto Hernandez and Phil Hughes would each fall into that category.
An already very strong Braves bullpen will only be better once lefty setup man Jonny Venters returns from Tommy John surgery, possibly as early as the first half of next season. But with the recovery time from Tommy John surgery as unpredictable as it is, veteran Scott Downs (pictured) headed for free agency and Alex Wood a good bet to pitch out of the rotation, adding another lefty to team with Luis Avilan seems like a good idea.
Re-signing the 37-year-old Downs, who has a 2.34 ERA and 26 holds on the season, could be the simple move, although there are several other lefty relief options on the free agent market. Mike Gonzalez, J.P. Howell, Javier Lopez, Manny Parra and Oliver Perez are all having solid seasons. Finding the best one-year fit could be Atlanta's priority.
Whether the team goes after another right-handed setup man could depend on Jordan Walden's performance down the stretch. He's had a solid season but allowed five earned runs, including two homers, in 1.2 innings over his last two appearances. If he can't bounce back and proves to be unreliable in the playoffs, the Braves could pursue Jesse Crain or Edward Mujica to take over the job next season.