Earlier this offseason, the Braves and Dodgers conducted a trade that is likely to have little bearing on the 2018 season in terms of on-field results. Los Angeles sent Charlie Culberson, Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, and Brandon McCarthy to Atlanta; Atlanta sent Matt Kemp the other way. There was a little money involved, too.
It wasn’t so much the precise identities of the players that were relevant to the deal, however, but rather the manner in which it allowed the clubs to curate their payrolls over the next couple years. The trade permitted the Braves to concentrate more of the salary in just the 2018 season while allowing the Dodgers to spread the money out over the next two years, thus avoiding the luxury tax. For taking on the brunt of the payments now, the Braves received whatever production McCarthy will provide this season and whatever production Culberson will provide over the next few. More importantly, however, they relieved themselves of a large financial obligation in 2019.
It’s hard not to look at that trade and see that the Braves are positioning themselves for a contending run starting in 2019. Perhaps that’s the case. There’s a pretty good argument, however, that they should consider accelerating their timeline. It’s possible, with the right moves, that Atlanta could assemble a winning team a year earlier than expected.
Waiting a year to truly contend makes some sense for the Braves. Former No. 1 pick Dansby Swanson was disappointing last season, while Ozzie Albies only got his feet wet. One of the top prospects in all of baseball, Ronald Acuna, is only 20 years old and has yet to take an at-bat in majors. Give those three another year to develop, pair them Freddie Freeman and Ender Inciarte, make a big splash in free agency, and the Braves could be contenders — maybe even in favorites — in the National League East.
With Julio Teheran, Luiz Gohara, Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz, and Max Fried, the club has the basis for a solid rotation, with five other pitching prospects having appeared on FanGraphs’ midseason top-100 list this past summer. With the Nationals possibly losing Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Gio Gonzalez to free agency next season, Atlanta could take a step forward just as Washington takes one back.
In addition to a potentially great young core of players, the Braves now possess almost no salary commitments for the 2019 season. With Kemp’s obligations now the responsibility of the Dodgers and Nick Markakis contract set to expire after this season, Atlanta has less $40 million on the books for next year, per Cot’s Contracts. Even after accounting for some extra salary for arbitration-eligible players, that number is unlikely to surpass $50 million by much. Given that payroll at the beginning of last season was at $122 million and 2.5 million fans showed up to see a losing team in a new ballpark, the Braves should be able to exceed that payroll figure in future seasons, especially if they are fielding a winner.
FanGraphs’ current projections call for Atlanta to win 74 games in 2018. Not an obvious candidate for contention, in other words. Almost everything is pointing to 2019 for the Braves. With a few reasonable assumptions, however — that the projections are slightly bearish, that the club capitalizes on an advantageous trade and free-agent market — it’s possible to identify a means for Atlanta to contend now.
Regarding that first point, the possibility that FanGraphs’ projections are a bit pessimistic at the moment, consider: Dan Szymborski released some ZiPS forecasts early in the offseason and found the Braves to be a roughly 80-win team at that point. There has, of course, been some movement in the NL East since then — the Phillies have gotten a little better, the Marlins much worse — but not enough to move the needle substantially. If we regard the Braves as an 80-win team, or even a 77-win team, their path to the postseason becomes a bit more clear.
So if that’s the point at which the club begins, how do they improve on it? A look at the Braves’ depth chart reveals three clear positional holes: one in left field, where Acuna and some below-replacement players are situated; one in right field, where Nick Markakis plays; and one at third base, where Rio Ruiz is expected to get most of his appearances. The Braves probably only need to fill one of those outfield holes, and then let Nick Markakis eventually cede time to Acuna when the latter is ready for the majors. Add one outfielder and one third baseman, and the Braves are in the Wild Card mix with a fighting chance for an upset of the Nationals.
The Braves could sign Lorenzo Cain or J.D. Martinez to fill that outfield hole, but there is an even better outfielder on the market — namely, Christian Yelich. Unlike Cain or Martinez, the means to acquiring Yelich isn’t through the best contract offer to the player, but rather the best package of prospects to his employer.
Fortunately, the Atlanta Braves have a good farm system, even after getting hit hard by penalties. Yelich, meanwhile, is probably the best outfielder currently available, either in trade or in free agency. Owed just $50 million for the next five seasons, Yelich’s contract would be no problem for Atlanta, who could surely provide Miami with enough talent to make a deal worthwhile. Even if Acuna, Albies, and Swanson and are off the table — and they might not be — the Braves could offer two top pitching prospects while supplementing the deal with some of their depth. Yelich would immediately add four wins to the Braves this season without significantly harming the team’s future outlook given his favorable contract.
As for third base, Mike Moustakas is just too obvious. The lefty slugger would provide a great fit in Atlanta’s home park where home runs are much easier to come by than they were in Kansas City. As I mentioned over at ESPN, Moustakas hit 24 of his 38 homers on the road last season and, over the last three years, has a 122 wRC+ on the road compared to 113 at home. Even with just the 113 wRC+ for which he’s currently projected for, he’d be something close to a three-win upgrade for the Braves.
If the Braves are concerned about cash flow problems in 2018, they could pretty easily backload Moustakas’s deal to pay him something like $5 million in 2018 with $20-$25 million guarantees for the few years after, when the Braves will have incredible financial wiggle room. Atlanta wouldn’t necessarily have to stop there if they wanted to provide a little more certainty to their pitching staff, but Yelich, or even Cain, plus Moustakas would be enough to make the Braves contenders without sacrificing much in terms of money, and they’ve got the prospect depth for Yelich. Going for J.T. Realmuto right now has some appeal, as well, but that shouldn’t be a hold-up in a potential deal for Yelich.
Maybe the Braves think waiting another year is the prudent choice given the uncertainty surrounding their young players, but they shouldn’t ignore the incredible opportunity that they have right now. They could make these moves and still make a splash next offseason if they wanted to. They’ve got payroll room and the prospects to contend this season. Teams often see drops in attendance after opening a new ballpark, but the Braves could easily fight against that now and begin building a consistent winner that has the potential to draw even more fans. A lot of teams appear to be sitting this offseason out. The Braves shouldn’t be one of them.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.