As an admitted baseball nerd, I love the film Moneyball. Despite its many – and I do mean many – inaccuracies, it’s just a great baseball movie about the front office of the Oakland A’s as it competed against the Yankees and other high-spending clubs. One of the coolest parts to me is when Peter Brand, Jonah Hill’s composite character of a few different A’s executives, goes over Chad Bradford. While the movie glossies over the fact that Bradford was already a member of the A’s, Brand mentions how Bradford should cost $3 million a year because of how effective he is, but the A’s will pay him the then-minimum of $237,000.
Okay, there is a little Hollywood magic there that ignores things like Bradford, again, being a member of the A’s already and how he was pre-arbitration. Barry Zito won a Cy Young that same season and cost $240,000. But the bigger picture here is the idea of finding value to build a 25-man roster than can both compete and stay under budget.
That brings me to the Braves. The 2019 version of the team won’t be as hamstrung by financial limitations as the 2002 A’s were. After all, the Braves have added Josh Donaldson on the most expensive one-year contract for a free agent shifting teams in history. But the Braves also don’t have an endless blank check. They have to work within the confines of a budget and while we don’t know what exactly that budget may be, we can assume a few things. With an estimated payroll of around $110 million currently for 2019 and recent end-of-the-year payrolls of about $130 million, the Braves have at least $20 million left in their budget. General manager Alex Anthopoulos confirmed that payroll will get a boost, but was short on details. Let’s suppose, conservatively, that Anthopoulos will have an additional $10 million added on to play with. That brings us up to $140 million and $30 million of payroll space. From that, we’ll put aside that $10 million we just added to give the Braves some wiggle room to add salary during the season via trades.
That’s how much the Braves have left to spend. Now, we can add to that number by trading Julio Teheran and his $11 million, but for this exercise, let’s just look at what the Braves have and what they still want to do this winter. With just $20 million, the Braves need a right fielder, a high-leverage reliever, and a starter.
How does being a major league general manager sound to ya now?
As Brand says the A’s must do in Moneyball, the Braves must find a collection of “misfit toys” to fill in these last few spots. So, let’s get to work.
Like the other two spots on the team, the Braves may not “need” an outfielder. They have Adam Duvall, who you have to believe will bounce back in 2019 to some degree. They also have Johan Camargo and Austin Riley, though neither has played much outfield if at all. Charlie Culberson is also in the mix after playing a good deal of left field last season for the Braves.
Conventional wisdom is that the Braves should bring back Nick Markakis, who they know, love, and would likely be willing to return at a reasonable rate. However, this wisdom doesn’t make the best use of what the Braves already have. Duvall isn’t a perfect player, but he’s a plus on defense with 70-grade power. And while not a typical platoon option – his career wRC+ against southpaws is an average 98 – if you are going to bring back Duvall, it’s best to maximize what he does bring to the table. And for what it’s worth, during Duvall’s two best seasons of 2016-17, he carried a 120 wRC+ and .360 wOBA against left-hand pitching.
The Braves need a platoon option to stick with Duvall and there are two pretty intriguing ones that rank 7th and 11th among the 2018 crop of free agents in wRC+ versus right-hand pitching over the last three seasons. First, there’s Matt Joyce. A 34-year-old with 138 career homers, Joyce has long been a platoon hitter – notably during the first part of this decade with the Rays and more recently with the A’s. He’s coming off a tough season where his BABIP was 30 points below his career norm, which limited his effectiveness against right-hand pitching. His exit velocity was also a bit lower, falling under the league average for the first time since 2015. Joyce has handled righties throughout his career, but there are concerns here.
That’s why the Braves should go after Curtis Granderson instead. Though older than Joyce, Granderson’s exit velocity actually climbed in 2018. He has a 119 wRC+ against right-hand pitching over the last three years, eleven points higher than Markakis. Granderson is certainly not the same guy he once was while a member of the Tigers, Yankees, and Mets. But he’s a productive player who still hits the ball with authority and gets on base at a decent clip – especially when you shield him from southpaws. He played for $5 million last year and would love to get a ring in his Age-38 season. I think the Braves can get him for $4 million.
If we’re bargain hunting, guys like Andrew Miller, David Robertson, Adam Ottavino, and certainly Craig Kimbrel are not happening here. We’re going to have to take a chance here and cross our fingers.
Enter David Phelps. If Phelps hit free agency at the end of 2016, he would have signed a big-time contract that the Braves couldn’t afford. That season, his second with the Marlins and first as a full-time reliever, Phelps had a 2.28 ERA and a 2.80 FIP to go along with a 1.9 fWAR. The next season, he earned $4.6 million and while his numbers did slip, he was still productive in a campaign that included a trade to the Mariners. He was on his way to pitching his final year before free agency when he went under the knife for Tommy John last spring.
Phelps was making good headway in his rehab, throwing last August less than five months after the surgery and, while he didn’t pitch in 2018, everything seems a go for Phelps heading into 2019. If the medical reports check out, Phelps could be a great candidate for an one-year deal where he can re-establish his value in a bullpen that looks wide open and pitch for a contender along the way. That’ll allow Phelps to re-enter the free agent market with, hopefully, a healthy-and-productive season and a crop of relievers that won’t be as robust as the current one.
Before his injury, Phelps was your rare reliever with four distinct pitches – a callback to his previous life as a starter. He relies mostly on a mid-90’s four-seamer and a low-90’s cutter. The cutter is especially good and as his curveball. He also has a sinker he can go to – mostly against left-handed hitters. He began to prefer the cutter against southpaws more than the sinker in 2017.
As a buy-low candidate, I think the Braves can get Phelps on an one-year deal worth $5 million.
I’ve spent nearly half of my $20 million and now focus on a starter, which is easily the toughest fit here. Buying value with Granderson and Phelps is easy. The market is saturated with these types and you can get them on quick one-year contracts. But the starting pitching market is a bit more active with Patrick Corbin and Lance Lynn signed to long-term extensions of three years or more while J.A. Happ and Charlie Morton have come off the board with two-year contracts. Dallas Keuchel remains available, but is likely going to land a three-year or longer contract of his own. Besides, with just $11 million to spend, fitting Keuchel is probably impossible.
That’s not to say there are no other options on the free agent market. Gio Gonzalez is durable, though his fastball has declined from 92.8 mph in 2015 to 90.1 mph last season and the 33-year-old isn’t getting any younger. Alex Anthopoulos once had success acquiring Marco Estrada from the Brewers, but the righty really struggled the last two years. Unfortunately, the best fit for value from a starting pitcher on this free agent market might come from Trevor Cahill, who briefly played for the Braves back in 2015. Cahill had a 3.54 FIP last year along with a 3.76 ERA as a groundball artist with the A’s terrific defense. While he could do that again in 2019 with another elite infield defense that uses analytics well like the Braves, I think we can do better.
One option that stands out the most is Giants’ right-hander Madison Bumgarner. We need the Giants to kick in an extra million because he’s due $12 million in the final year of his contract, but that’s not the biggest issue here. If the Giants hold out for a good haul that includes multiple great prospects, Bumgarner’s value over one season may not be there. As I pointed out recently, the Bumgarner of the last 38 starts since 2017 isn’t the same Bumgarner as the scores of starts that came before it.
Another option to consider could be Rick Porcello, who is a dependable middle-of-the-rotation arm and possibly on the market. The problem there is salary. Procello will earn $21 million in 2019. The Braves could make this deal happen by attaching Julio Teheran – essentially giving the Red Sox some salary relief with a prospect. That said, the Red Sox may not be interested in such a swap unless the Braves offered an intriguing prospect that the Red Sox couldn’t say, “no” to.
Instead, I’ll go back to an old friend though he does come with his own set of problems – Alex Wood. The Dodgers are looking to deal from their starting pitching depth while also cutting salary. Doing so allows them to add a prospect or two while also opening room to make a splash for perhaps Bryce Harper. Destined to earn at least $9 million in the final year of arbitration, Wood is a dependable source for production who has averaged over 2 fWAR since coming to the majors with a FIP of 3.36. He’s done nothing but improve since Atlanta’s ill-advised deal for Hector Olivera back in 2015 and the former Georgia Bulldog would make for a great veteran addition to the rotation.
There are some issues. Notably, Wood has durability issues and would have to be monitored to make sure he stays healthy for an entire season. That said, the Braves and Wood make for a good pairing that is within our budget. What would he cost? With the Dodgers motivated to trade and Wood a year away from free agency, the price tag shouldn’t be significant. Perhaps a lottery ticket like Alex Jackson with a good relief prospect like Corbin Clouse or Thomas Burrows would be enough to interest the Dodgers. The Braves could get deeper into the weeds and try to attach an outfielder like Yasiel Puig, but such hypotheticals aren’t really part of this experiment.
How Did I Do?
I wanted to take $20 million and turn that into three options for the positions the Braves are seeking to improve. I spent about $18 million and added Alex Wood, David Phelps, and Curtis Granderson. From a value standpoint, I think on the conservative end, I added about 4 fWAR if I get a little lucky health-wise. If you accept that one win in fWAR equals about $8 million in value, I am getting roughly $32 million of value while paying a little more than half that. That’s pretty good.
This is not an easy task. Certainly, things do not exist in a vacuum like I attempted to create here. The Braves could move Teheran and/or release arbitration-eligible players like Duvall while owing them very little as arbitration contracts don’t become fully guaranteed until opening day. Doing so opens up payroll. In addition, the Braves payroll could be more than I suggested, which was about $140 million with $10 million set aside for in-season moves.
What do you guys think? Did I make any mistakes along the way? Did I undervalue certain contracts? And feel free to give this experiment a shot. Find options in right field, in the the pen, and in the rotation for $20 million or less. You’ll find it’s pretty darn hard.