Thursday, January 5, 2017

Will January Bring a Big Piece for the Braves?

K. Johnson, Spring 2016 By Arturo Pardavila III [CC BY 2.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
January is typically a time where baseball teams are thinking depth. Last January, Atlanta signed Jhoulys Chacin, Kyle Kendrick, Alexi Ogando, and Kelly Johnson in January. The year before, they traded for Manny Banuelos, Ricardo Sanchez, and signed Kelly Johnson. I'm just saying there is a theme and it includes signing Kelly Johnson. Who is currently a free agent. Again, I'm just saying.

Moving along, January of 2015 also had a big move - the Mike Foltynewicz/Rio Ruiz for Evan Gattis trade. Such a big deal relatively late in the process made me wonder - how rare is it to have a potentially franchise-altering move in January?

Well, two years before the Gattis move, the Braves put the finishing touches on the seven-player mega deal that brought Justin Upton to the Braves in January of 2013. In 2009, the Braves signed both Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami to large free agent failures contracts in the first month of the new year. And in 2007, Atlanta traded Adam LaRoche to the Pirates for Mike Gonzalez. Finally, January of 2002 was a big one and not just because the Braves traded for Kevin Gryboski. Three days before that, they acquired Gary Sheffield.

Most of the time, however, January is a month for finishing touches to the roster. It's a month where you sign George Sherrill to shore up your bullpen or add a stopgap first baseman like Robert Fick or Troy Glaus. When the aforementioned franchise-altering move does happen, it generally is a result of a long negotiation that finally ended in January.

Will this be a quiet January or a surprising one with a big free agent signing or trade acquisition? I must lean toward the former. While a formal budget is not public, Cot's Baseball Contracts estimates that the Braves have committed $110M toward this year's roster. After you add in non-arbitration players, you are looking at around $120 million in payroll. That would be a significant climb over last year's opening day roster ($87M according to Cot's) and around $8 million more than their previous opening day high set in 2014.

Of course, the new ballpark plays a big role here. In 2010, the aptly named newballpark.org found that a new stadium gives a team, on average, the ability to increase payroll by 14% hike. The Braves will blow past that finding if they open the year with a $120 million opening day roster. That would come out to about a 38% increase in payroll from 2016 (according to Cot's). Of course, many have made the convincing argument that the opening day roster in 2016 was intentionally low to spend more richly on amateurs via the draft ($15M or so) and international market (another $15M or so).

Also likely to keep the Braves from spending richly this January is the fact that it's tough to find room for added talent. In mid-December, after the winter meetings concluded, I previewed the 25-man roster. What became very clear was how packed this roster is with options at nearly every position. Aside from catcher, where there is a clear battle between two players to become next year's backup, it's tough to find a potential roster battle where they isn't already five or more players competing for a spot. To add more talent to the mix would only make it even more difficult for the team to award a player with a spot on the roster following a big spring.

Further, considering the hefty prices teams have paid this offseason in trades and for free agents, should the Braves be targeting a big addition anyway?

Nevertheless, here I am - looking at Matt Wieters again. It's been a long offseason for the former Orioles backstop. Baltimore not only passed on giving Wieters a qualifying offer for a second consecutive year, they decided to move on. The Minnesota Twins opted for Jason Castro for $24.5 million rather than show interest in Wieters. Wilson Ramos received a make-good $12.5 million contract. The Nationals traded for Derek Norris.

Other teams seem like potential fits for the catcher, including the Rockies and Diamondbacks, but the one team that has seemed like the logical spot for Wieters during the whole process has been Atlanta. As an up-and-coming team with a less-than-ideal catching situation, the Braves seem like the perfect squad to buy a Wieters lottery ticket.

Of course, much of that is due to Wieters being a southeast guy. He was born in South Carolina and became a star at Georgia Tech. So, theoretically, that makes him destined to play for the Braves at some point. Could that some point be in 2017? It's certainly possible, but realistically, a lot will have to happen to get to that point.

The Braves will essentially need a major bargain with a short-term commitment, possibly just one year. Put yourself in Wieters' shoes for a second. Ignoring everything about how you think Atlanta might finish in 2017, there is a one major problem that might make you shy away from playing in Atlanta. This season will be the first year of SunTrust Park. While there are many theories about how the park will play for hitters, do we really know? Even with the geographic advantages of playing closer to his childhood home and his old college stomping grounds, the thought of an unknown variable like how SunTrust will play has to weigh on Wieters' mind.

In addition, the Braves will have to look at the cons that come with Wieters. Since returning from Tommy John surgery, Wieters has slashed .253/.309/.414 with a .312 wOBA and 93 wRC+. This is particularly troublesome when you consider his defense - once a calling card - has eroded considerably.

Wieters was once one of the top figures in rSB, or Stolen Base Runs Above Average. That's a long-winded way of saying that rSB looks at how successful the catcher was, compared to the average, at preventing stolen bases. Tyler Flowers was a -7 last year. Wieters was a 0 - or straight up average. That's exactly where he was in 2015 when he came back from injury. To be fair, his numbers started to fall in 2013 and cratered in 2014 before he went under the knife. In terms of DRS, we see a similar fall from grace. Between 2010-12, Weiters had 40 DRS. Since? -8.

And then, there is pitch framing. Since 2012, Wieters has finished below average in each year. Last year, among catchers who received at least 3000 pitches, Wieters finished 38th - right behind A.J. Pierzynski. Teams have gotten the memo over the last few years and now believe that catching defense and pitch framing metrics have a lot of value. Castro didn't get $25 million because of his bat after all.

Despite all of his cons, could the Braves and Wieters match up and could Atlanta go for the rare big January deal? Certainly, but Wieters (and his super agent Scott Boras) will have to accept that the team will be getting what they want more so than the player. He's going to have to take a considerable pay cut to come to Atlanta. When I say considerable, I do mean considerable. Wieters played for nearly $16 million last year. He'll likely have to accept about half of that. Meanwhile, Wieters will have to know that the Braves already have a catcher they like in Flowers and were only signing Wieters because he fell into their lap at the last second. That means the Braves will likely give Flowers a good deal of playing time and with the latter's defensive metrics, the time share may resemble a platoon.

So why sign Wieters at all, you might ask? Because there is a chance in the right situation that his bat plays up once again. While Wieters never reached the hype he had when he reached the majors, he still slashed .265/.319/.420 his first 657 games in the majors - a good slash for any catcher. That includes a .322 wOBA and 97 wRC+. In 514 career games, Flowers has a .232/.302/.384 triple slash with a .303 wOBA and 88 wRC+. Of course, since 2013, Flowers has been better than Wieters at the plate, but the latter still has some promise.

In the end, a love connection between the Braves and Wieters doesn't seem likely. One has to think that the Rockies, Diamondbacks, or another squad I haven't mentioned will send Wieters a better one-year offer than the Braves would be comfortable with. But as the Braves move through the first month, if they are going to strike it big, the smart money is on gambling on Wieters right now.

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