Braves’ Unconventional Offseason, Roster Strategy Clearly Has October In Mind


Image credit: (Photo by Paul Rutherford/Getty Images)

The Braves’ decision to trade their last remaining position player trade chip (Vaughn Grissom) to acquire lefthander Chris Sale from the Red Sox added further evidence of how the Braves are operating differently than almost anyone else.

Many teams would look at Sale’s recent injury history and view him as too risky to acquire. The Braves not only acquired him, they quickly reached a contract extension with him to keep him in Atlanta for 2025 with a team option for 2026.

Most teams would feel nervous about trading away the only position prospect who can logically be expected to contribute in 2024.

The subtext is this: the Braves aren’t focused on making the playoffs. They’re focused on being ready to win in the playoffs.

Sale is a significant risk for a team with the goal of simply getting to the playoffs. It’s hard to count on him taking his turn every five days over a 162-game season. Sale has had nine stints on the injured list since 2018. He’s thrown 151 innings since 2020.

But there’s an easy case to be made that you’d prefer Sale to start playoff games over Lucas Giolito. Sale has been an average or better pitcher in every single season of his MLB career. Last year he started slow, but he posted a 106 ERA+. His underlying metrics were even better than his ERA. 

Yes, Sale’s tenure in Boston after 2019 is rightfully considered disappointing by some because of his never-ending run of injuries. He was generally effective last year, though, and he still misses bats. In comparison, Giolito has had three full seasons where his ERA has been 20% or more better than league average, but he’s also had three where he’s been well below league average.

The Sale move was the Braves’ sixth trade this offseason. The Braves have traded away 14 players while adding Sale, LHP Ray Kerr, SS David Fletcher, OF Jarred Kelenic and LHP Aaron Bummer. They also signed RHP Reynaldo Lopez as a free agent.

The Braves now have 24 pitchers on their 40-man roster compared to only 11 hitters. After trading away Grissom in the Sale trade, the Braves have no backup infielders on the 40-man roster. Long-time minor leaguer Forrest Wall is the only backup outfielder. Travis d’Arnaud is back to serve as the backup catcher. 

The minor league rosters aren’t much help either. Baseball America currently does not rate any Braves position prospect with a grade better than 45/High. That means we don’t project any current Braves’ minor league position player prospect as a future big league regular. It also means we don’t see any Braves position prospect ranking among the top 350 prospects in baseball.

Braves 2024 Prospect Rankings

See the 10 best prospects in Atlanta’s system entering 2024, including a new scouting report and tool grades.

For almost any other team, this would seem to be a recipe for disaster. The Braves are not built like other teams.

Barring injury or ineffectiveness, the Braves know what their lineup will look like in 2024, 2025 and 2026. If you count the team options (which are generally at club-friendly rates), the Braves know how this team will largely look through 2027/2028.

Here’s how it shapes up:

Catcher: Sean Murphy (signed through 2028 with team option for 2029).

First base: Matt Olson (signed through 2029 with team option for 2030).

Second base: Ozzie Albies (signed through 2025 with team options for 2026 and 2027).

Shortstop: Orlando Arcia (signed through 2025 with a team option for 2026).

Third base: Austin Riley (signed through 2032 with a team option for 2033).

Left field: Jarred Kelenic (will reach free agency in 2029).

Center field: Michael Harris (signed through 2030 with team options for 2031 and 2032).

Right field: Ronald Acuña Jr. (signed through 2026 with team options for 2027 and 2028).

Other than designated hitter, where Marcel Ozuna is under contract only for 2024, the Braves have their starter set everywhere for years to come. 

And of that group, the recently acquired Kelenic and Arcia are the only two starters who aren’t established regulars with multiple years of big league success. Those two are also the pair that are on the least expensive contracts. Arcia is signed for $2 million per year for 2024 and 2025 and has a $2 million option for 2026. Kelenic will reach arbitration for the first time in 2025.

The Braves have six 2023 All-Stars among that lineup, including 2023 NL MVP Ronald Acuña. Olson, who will turn 30 the day after Opening Day, is the oldest of the group. In 2026, Olson will be 32 and Murphy and Arcia will be 31. Everyone else listed above will still be 30 or younger.

Take a breath to consider how rare that is. If we look at the 10 winningest teams from four seasons ago in 2020, all have turned over more than half of their lineups.

Braves (4): Ronald Acuna, Marcell Ozuna, Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies

Dodgers (3): Will Smith, Mookie Betts, Max Muncy.

Rays (2): Yandy Diaz, Brandon Lowe

Padres (3): Fernando Tatis Jr., Jake Cronenworth, Manny Machado

Twins (3): Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler

White Sox (3): Luis Robert, Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez

Cubs (2): Ian Happ, Nico Hoerner.

Guardians (1): Jose Ramirez

A’s (0).

The Braves have the most remaining regulars from their 2020 lineup, but they also should still have three of those 2020 regulars in their 2027 lineup as well. Not only are the Braves an outlier in keeping a lineup together, they are doing so with the best lineup in baseball. As a group, the Braves projected 2023 starting position players produced 40.4 bWAR last year. The Rays (35.5 bWAR) and Rangers (35.1 bWAR) are the only other teams whose position players produced more than 32 WAR as a team.

Even allowing for massive amounts of regression, the 2024 ZIPS projection has the Braves’ regulars posting 29.1 WAR. That would put them in the top tier of MLB offenses, even without counting the contributions of any backups.

This means the Braves can operate differently than anyone else. They don’t have anyone in the minors who is a logical future replacement for a current starting position player, but they also don’t necessarily need one for years to come. The Braves didn’t draft a position player until their fourth pick in 2023 and only two in the top 10 rounds. The Braves also drafted pitchers with their first four picks in 2022, their top three picks in 2021 and three of their four picks in the 2020 draft.

If everyone remains healthy, the Braves have an infield that doesn’t take many days off. Riley has played 159 or more games in each of the past three seasons. Olson has started every possible game since he became a Brave in 2022 and has led the league in games played four different times. Albies has started 145+ games in five of the past six 162-game seasons.

The Braves have already stocked the Triple-A Gwinnett roster with veteran infielders. In addition to Fletcher, Andrew Velazquez, Luke Williams, Phillip Evans and Alejo Lopez give the Stripers five infielders with MLB experience. The Braves also have the 40-man roster space to add a backup infielder (or two) off the free agent market. Hey, Charlie Culberson is still available.

Sure, there is some risk to this approach. Atlanta doesn’t have a homegrown answer to step in and replace a star. But the Braves’ lineup is so stacked that it’s equivalent to using the five-second rule if a french fry hits your kitchen floor.

If one starter misses some time, the Braves can simply plug in Fletcher or some other solid glove. Atlanta can live with no offense from one spot and wait for the injured player to return. And if someone does suffer a catastrophic injury, the Braves still have a number of intriguing pitchers in the system, led by Hurston Waldrep, A.J. Smith-Shawver and J.R. Ritchie, which gives them the ammunition for trades. 

Atlanta showed in 2021 that useful hitters (Eddie Rosario, Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson and Jorge Soler) can be acquired cheaply in deadline deals. The only player the Braves gave up in those trades who has played in the majors since was catcher Alex Jackson, who hit .157 for the Marlins before they then traded him away.

The moves the Braves have made this offseason, most notably the trade to acquire Sale, send a clear message. Bringing back almost everyone from a 104-win team has the Braves comfortably set to be a playoff team in 2024, even if winning a seventh-straight NL East title will be a challenge in a division that also has the Phillies.

These aren’t moves as much to help win the NL East as they are to try to win in the playoffs. Depth helps win in the regular season. Having starting pitchers who are durable are extremely important to help a team survive June, July and August. 

But come October, you want stars. Sale isn’t durable, but as a potential No. 3 or No. 4 starter behind Spencer Strider, Max Fried and/or Charlie Morton, he’s a very useful option. And Atlanta has plenty of reasons to expect that they’ll be playing in October.

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