Tuesday, March 22, 2022
Who would’ve ever imagined that, with the exit of its franchise player, the Braves would be in the running for best offseason so far. Sure, letting Freddie Freeman walk was far from ideal. Given what he ended up signing for with the Dodgers, it’s rather evident that, if he truly wanted to, he could’ve returned to Atlanta. But there’s no hard feelings from this guy. Whether you agree with the Braves’ moves this offseason or not, Freeman has earned the right to choose where he wants to finish his career. And judging by the outcome of GM Alex Anthopoulos’ decisions thus far, I’m willing to trust the man.
So with that being said, and with reports indicating that the Braves are likely done making major moves this offseason, perhaps it’s time to grade the team’s transactions so far.
Below I’ve given a grade to each of the Braves’ major league transactions (signings & trades), in order by the date they were made:
Signing Manny Pina (C)
Date of signing: Nov. 15
Details: 2 years, $8 million ($4M club option for 2024 season)
I wrote as much back when it happened, but signing Manny Pina was a smart move by GM Alex Anthopoulos, even if at the time there didn’t necessarily appear to be a need. Despite with him locked up for the next two seasons, we know all too well how much an injured Travis d’Arnaud can hurt the team, and the Braves dealt with just that when d’Arnaud went down with a thumb injury during the first week of May and wound up missing nearly three months of the regular season in 2021. And to add insult to injury, back-up William Contreras missed some time in there as well, thanks to a hamstring strain. The morale of the story: catcher depth is pretty important.
Especially now that a certain top-tier prospect has been traded (more about that below), Pina will be a critical bridge between d’Arnaud and Contreras as the latter struggled a bit during his first taste of the big leagues last year, hitting just .215 and posting a 29.2% K rate in 52 games in 2021. A former highly-ranked prospect, Contreras showed us his power can translate to the majors, but it’s probably safe to assume that he’ll need another season or so to get more comfortable. And that’s where Pina can help.
With the Brewers, last season Pina put together one of the best campaigns of his career. His .183 AVG wasn’t necessarily ideal, but the 34-year-old slugged 13 home runs in 75 games and finished with very strong plate discipline rates, striking out just 18.3% of the time, to go with a 10.6% walk rate. The career-bests didn’t end with the bat, either, as Pina also posted some of his best defensive metrics as a major leaguer, tally 9.8 Def WAR to go with 7 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), per FanGraphs.
Sure, it’s not a flashy signing, especially considering what Anthopoulos managed to pull off after Pina. But make no mistake, reinforcing the team’s catcher position is just as impactful as adding an All-Star regular. Depth is something the Braves have seemed to always lack, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to be an issue anymore going forward.
Trading for Jay Jackson (RHP)
Date of trade: Nov. 22
Details: acquired Jackson from SFG in exchange for cash and a PTBNL
This is certainly a depth piece, and one that will most likely spend his time in Triple-A Gwinnett in 2022. However, with so many lefties in the Braves bullpen, and the fact that both Chris Martin and Jesse Chavez (both righties) are now with other teams, acquiring Jackson does balance things a bit.
The long-term numbers aren’t too exciting, though Jackson did manage to post a 3.74 ERA in 21 2/3 innings with the Giants last season, accompanied by 11.6 strikeouts per nine. He was even more dominate in the minors in 2021, averaging 15.4 K/9 while pitching to a 1.29 ERA in 14 frames with Triple-A Sacramento.
I like the trade, even if I don’t believe Jackson will make much of an impact in Atlanta this coming season.
UPDATE: Jackson was placed on the 60-day IL (right lat strain) following the signing of reliever Kenley Jansen on Friday night
Signing Kirby Yates (RHP)
Date of signing: Nov. 29
Details: 2 years, $8.25 million ($5.75M club option for 2024 season)
Back in November, the Braves added what used to be one of the top relievers in baseball, in Kirby Yates. In 2019 with San Diego (his breakout year) , the right-handed Yates went on to make his first All-Star appearance, finish ninth in the NL Cy Young running, and end the season with absolutely ridiculous numbers:
Yates in 2019: 60 2/3 IP, 1.19 ERA, 41 SV, 14.9 K/9, `1.9 BB/9, 3.4 fWAR
The only negative is that Yates hasn’t been active much over the last two seasons. The 2020 campaign featured an injury and a of course a COVID epidemic, allowing him only 4 1/3 innings, and last year was ruined completely because of a flexor strain that required Tommy John surgery.
Yates isn’t expected to contribute for the Braves until around August this year, which is why the team backloaded his contract, paying him $1 million in salary for the 2022 season, $6 million in 2023; and then he’ll earn, at the very least, a $1.25 million buyout prior to the 2024 season (if the team declines to take on his $5.75-million club option). Given Yates will be entering his age-37 season in ’24, I doubt he’ll be retained after next season, but you never know.
I like the deal. It’s a top-tier right-handed reliever, which the Braves could always use. And it’s not a contract that’ll impact the Braves too much right now. Let’s just hope Yates can come back and provide at least 50% of the value he was able to give with the Padres a few years ago.
Trading for Matt Olson (1B)
Date of trade: March 14
Details: acquired from OAK in exchange for Cristian Pache, Shea Langeliers, Joey Estes & Ryan Cusick
With the news today from ESPN‘s Buster Olney, regarding just how close the Braves’ offers were to the Dodgers, the Olson trade makes Anthopoulos look even better. It seems pretty simple now: Freddie really didn’t want to return to Atlanta. And while I’m certainly not going to hold a grudge, at least now we know the actual truth.
But to the Olson trade: AA needed to do what’s best for the Braves, and now that we’re aware that he knew Freddie wasn’t interested in coming back, the Atlanta GM did the best he could to replace the former MVP. Olson, who’s just now entering his age-28 season, provides the Braves with Freeman-like production (or even more) at a cheaper price and for a longer period of time. It cost four damn good prospects to get him, in Pache, Langeliers, Estes and Cusick, but that’s the way the game goes. Atlanta’s window is now, and regardless of whether those traded away prospects prosper in Oakland, the Braves are setup much better to possibly win one or two more World Series over the next 4-5 years.
Signing Collin McHugh (RHP)
Date of signing: March 15
Details: 2 years, $10 million
Pitching will once again be a strong suit for the Braves in 2022, thanks to the return of the top-half of the starting rotation (Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson), as well as several dominant bullpen arms (like Will Smith and Luke Jackson, as well as some valuable additions recently). McHugh simply adds to that surplus as a veteran guy that can handle several different responsibilities, both as a starter and a reliever. So at just $10 million over two seasons, bringing in a solid righty only makes sense.
Following a rather middling shortened 2020 season, McHugh had a resurgence last year with the Rays, becoming one of the team’s top relievers as he posted a 1.55 ERA in 64 innings (spanning 30 games out of the bullpen and seven as a starter). At 34-years-old, he appears to be yet another pitcher-past-his-prime that seems to have found a different way to get opposing batters out. And his batted-ball improvements were obvious in 2021, shown by a career-best in Barrel% (2.5%) and xERA (2.26). At times last year, McHugh was nearly unhittable; from May 27 to August 21 (a span of 33 2/3 innings, or 17-straight appearances), the righty didn’t allow a single run as he managed to average 12 strikeouts per nine, which resulted in just a .145 AVG for the opposition in that span. That type of dominance and consistency could help make Atlanta’s bullpen one of the best in the sport, and with McHugh’s experience as a starter (a role he maintained during the first six seasons of his MLB career), he can also be a spot-starter when needed.
Signing Tyler Thornburg (RHP)
Date of signing: March 16
Details: 1 year, $900K (non-guaranteed contract)
I know this is just a depth piece, but Thornburg hasn’t pitched real innings in the majors in several years because of injuries, topping 24 frames all the way back in 2016 when he tallied 67 on his way to a career-best performance with the Brewers. The most recent ailment was Tommy John surgery, which forced him to miss all of 2021, and before accumulating only seven innings in 2020, the righty missed most of 2018 (thoracic outlet syndrome) and all of 2017. Overall, Thornburg has pitched in just 48 games over the last five seasons, so there’s not really much to go by.
Signing Alex Dickerson (OF)
Date of signing: March 16
Details: 1 year, $1 million (non-guaranteed contract)
This is one of those easy, no-risk signings that should, at the very least, give the Braves some competition this spring in the outfield. With the starting three (Ozuna, Duvall and Rosario) already set, it’ll be beneficial to give Guillermo Heredia, Travis Demeritte and Drew Waters some additional inspiration as the team looks for its fourth outfielder for the 2022 season.
Dickerson is no slouch either. He’s coming off an 111-game 2021 campaign with the Giants, in which he hit .233 with 13 home runs and ten doubles — good for an around-average 97 wRC+ and 0.2 fWAR, and that’s after managing a solid .298 AVG and ten homers in 52 games in San Francisco in 2020 too (151 wRC+ / 0.8 WAR). This could be a sneaky-good signing for the Braves for sure.
Signing Kenley Jansen (RHP)
Date of signing: March 18
Details: 1 year, $16 million
WAR wise, the Braves bullpen was about middle-of-the-road last season, though in the playoffs it was one of the main reasons they won the World Series. So there’s no doubt Anthopoulos wants to make that group even better for this coming season. And he certainly did just that last week when he added Jansen.
I like the player, the contract… everything. Jansen may not be the same guy he was back in 2016-17 with LA, when he posted a 1.58 ERA and tallied 88 saves in 137 innings combined during those two seasons (good for a collective total of 6.5 fWAR), but you can bet he’s still an impressive upgrade to Atlanta’s bullpen. Don’t get me wrong, the left-handed Will Smith was sharp in 2021. But despite Smith’s consistency to pick up saves (a career-high 37), the then-31-year-old allowed nearly 1.5 homers per nine innings over the course of the season, which for a closer, isn’t very ideal. Yeah, this way, the Braves bullpen can be lengthened a bit, and with Jansen now in the mix, Smith can take over set-up duties — which is probably a role that suits him best anyways.