The 2020 MLB offseason is right around the corner and free agency promises to shake up the competitive balance yet again. A shortened 2020 campaign helped many players improve their numbers due to having a smaller workload. Therefore, their profiles also became more impressive while their value increased. Similarly, some players suffered, which will lead some teams to complete almost bargain deals with productive players.
There’s little doubt who the premier pitching name on the mound is in free agency. After dominating the National League in eleven starts, Trevor Bauer stood out as a top candidate for the NL Cy Young award with the Cincinnati Reds. The former Indians starter had his best season on the major-league level. Now, his market value is sky-high as he enters free agency for the first time in his six-year MLB career.
Through 11 starts with the Reds, his 1.73 ERA led the NL and ranked as the second-best in the league. Moreover, he saw beyond significant improvement when it comes to the three true outcomes – walks, homeruns, and strikeouts. Bauer struck out an average of 12.3 batters per nine innings, third-most among qualified starting pitchers in either of the two leagues. The average BB/9 fell almost twice to 2.1 while HR/9 dropped to 1.1 from his previous near career-worst values.
The demand for Bauer is high and he has the leverage to negotiate a long-term, $150-million-plus deal with his suitors this year. Spotrac estimates his next contract at nearly $22 million per year.
Bauer is projected as one of the most expensive assets on this year’s market. This means that his most likely candidates are likely to be either contenders or big-market teams that could meet his demands. More importantly, contenders who have serious needs regarding their rotation should be active in inquiring. The numbers clearly prove that the Braves need to sign the 29-year-old starter more desperately than perhaps any other team in MLB.
Atlanta has been one of the most consistent teams in the last few years in the NL. In 2020, the Braves won their third straight NL East title and were able to do it in a dominant fashion. For the first time since 2001, they broke through in the postseason, losing to the Dodgers in seven games. They have done a tremendous job in the last two offseasons to improve the team’s lineup and bullpen, which are now amongst the best in the league. They will face a tough challenge to retain core players like Marcell Ozuna, Mark Melancon, and Shane Greene.
However, their need to add a piece to the rotation might be even more crucial. The Braves had one of the most disappointing starting rotations amidst a lengthy injury for their ace Mike Soroka. Atlanta finished with a starters ERA of 5.51, the third-worst in baseball.
Despite Soroka coming back for a full season and Mike Fried’s breakthrough second-year campaign, the Braves still lack depth. Ian Anderson was a very pleasant surprise with an ERA of under 2.00. However, he only accomplished that in six starts. Him being the unit’s No. 3 starter just sums up how vulnerable the rotation would be in a 162-game season.
A full season brings a significant regression to the mean to the numbers of all members of the rotation. Even if Soroka and Fried keep up their terrific pitching level next year, the Braves have nobody to rely on beyond them. Anderson is a huge question mark over a full campaign while Kyle Wright showed he is not ready to be a major-league starting pitcher.
In normal circumstances, this would be a no-brainer. In fact, the Braves inquired for an extra starter as recently as last year. They were in the race for Madison Bumgarner, who eventually signed with Arizona. Perhaps they could now be feeling lucky to have passed on the former San Francisco Giants legend. However, there’s no question whether they’ll invest in starters this winter. Clearly, it’s rather about how much they are ready to invest.
The Braves have a payroll figure of about $88 million, which is near the average team payroll in MLB. They shouldn’t have much trouble retaining important names like Ozuna and one reliever while adding a good starting pitcher.
Of course, they would like to do good business and get the needed return on as little investment as possible. Furthermore, evaluation is very difficult this offseason. This is because of the limited workload leading front offices to make disillusioned and uninformed decisions. It’s not out of the equation that Trevor Bauer ends up not matching the expectations. However, having in mind his beyond solid career and two other seasons with sub-3.00 ERA, it seems like his 2020 success won’t turn out to be a fluke.
Atlanta has alternatives – they could go for two lower-profile starters instead of an expensive Bauer. Free agents like Jake Odorizzi, Charlie Morton, and Mike Minor might come closer to bringing great value at a cheap price. Yet, the Braves have many investment opportunities in front of them payroll-wise. Going for quality over quantity might be the better option to solidify a hopeful NL contender.
The demand for Bauer isn’t as big as it would be during a normal offseason. Therefore, his price might not go up above $20 million-$22 million. General manager Alex Anthopoulos has proved to sign big-name stars to short but expensive deals to avoid getting stuck if expectations are not met.
The best example would be Josh Donaldson but this has turned into an efficient management strategy. Nobody, except for the team’s two young stars Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, is signed beyond 2023. In addition, no one but these two and Freddie Freeman has a deal longer than three years. As long as Atlanta doesn’t work out a long deal they could regret, it might even be worth spending up to $25 million a year.
Negotiations with free-agent outfielder Ozuna could determine what direction the Braves adopt as regards their rotation. However, whatever Ozuna’s asking price is, they would be able to sign a Cy Young-caliber starter like Bauer on a short, lower-risk contract. A Trevor Bauer acquisition would address Atlanta’s biggest weakness and ensure a balance between the team’s components. That would make them top contenders to replicate their 2020 run or go even further in the 2021 MLB postseason.