In The Art of War, the famed military general Sun Tzu wrote, “To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.” With this in mind, we take a look at the offseason strategies of all the teams in the National League; which players they are losing, which players they intend to pursue, and what their long-term plan is to either make the team a contender or keep the team in contention well into the future. Over the next several days, we will take a closer look at the teams of the NL East, starting with the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves rolled through the regular season, dominating the National League on their way to their first division title since 2005, when their run of 14 straight came to an end. They led the NL East for all but one day of the season, feasting on what proved to be a weak division to the tune of a 47-29 record (against the rest of the NL, they played to a .500 record). But the team once again lost in the first round of the playoffs (they have not won a playoff series since 2001, despite going to the playoffs seven times), and a promising year quickly became yet another disappointing one. So will the Braves make wholesale changes this year in an attempt to finally get to the World Series? Unlikely. The core of the team, barring a shocking trade, will be returning next year. Jason Heyward is under control for the next two years, and the Braves may look to sign him to a long-term extension. Craig Kimbrel and Freddie Freeman are under contract for the next three years. And Andrelton Simmons, who had what looks statistically like the best defensive season in baseball history, will be a Brave until at least 2017, again barring a shocking trade.
But despite their success, the Braves do have some holes, holes they will need to patch in order to contend again next year. Franchise catcher Brian McCann is now a free agent, and the Braves, who are limited fiscally by a bad television contract that nets them only $20 million annually, have neither the means nor the desire to sign McCann to the contract he is looking for. More than likely, the replacement for McCann will come internally. Evan Gattis, a natural catcher who moved to left field last year, where he was a poor defender, in order to keep his bat in the lineup, will likely shift back behind the backstop, and will be backed up by the more-than-capable Gerald Laird. While it remains to be seen whether or not Gattis can repeat his success (21 HRs, .480 SLG, 106 OPS+) in his sophomore season, anyone who watched Gattis hit last year knows that the power is legitimate.
Second base is a more difficult issue for the Braves. In December 2010, they traded for Dan Uggla, and signed him to a 5-year, $62 million deal. Uggla has two years and $26 million left on that deal, but has fallen out of favor in Atlanta after a 2013 that saw him hit .179 with poor defense at the keystone position, racking up -1.3 bWAR. The Braves seem willing to eat a portion of the contract to unload Uggla, then let internal options Tyler Pastornicky (who has a career 67 OPS+ in 90 MLB games) and prospect Tommy La Stella.
The Braves also need to add to their starting rotation in order to stay in contention. Currently, they have four viable, experienced major league starters under contract: Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, and Brandon Beachy. A great deal of the Braves’ success in 2013 was due to the emergence of both Minor and Teheran, the latter of whom had previously struggled to live up to his top prospect billing. But Beachy hasn’t been healthy in two years; he returned from Tommy John surgery this year and made only four starts before feeling pain in his surgically-repaired elbow, pain which prematurely ended his season. So ideally, the Braves would like to add another starter. They had been in contact with Tim Hudson, but according to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports, Hudson has just signed with the San Francisco Giants. Thus, the Braves will have to look elsewhere. However, Hudson’s deal (at around $23 million for 2 years) has set the market for veteran starters like Bronson Arroyo and A.J. Burnett, a price that may be too steep for the Braves. So the Braves may have to sign several reclamation projects — veterans coming off injuries like Roy Halladay or Josh Johnson — and hope that one pans out.
Factoring in arbitration eligible players, the Braves have already committed $85.8 million to the players they already have. According to Dave O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the team can support a payroll this year of around $100 million. The Braves have limited payroll flexibility to make wholesale changes; they will likely have to stick with what they’ve got. And for a team that won 96 games last year, that isn’t a bad thing.