The Braves have had more success in extending young, core players than any team in recent memory, but for a second straight offseason they’re facing the potential departure of a longtime regular who’s helped to anchor the infield. Dansby Swanson, like Freddie Freeman before him, reached the open market without signing an extension, has rejected a qualifying offer and is now free to field interest from the game’s other 29 teams.
Atlanta reportedly offered Swanson an extension in the neighborhood of $100MM at some point over the course of the season, but the widespread expectation is for him to outpace that guarantee by a comfortable margin. (MLBTR predicted a seven-year, $154MM contract on last week’s Top 50 free agent list.) One of the biggest questions on the minds of Braves fans is just what the team will do at shortstop. Can Swanson be retained? And, if not, where does the team turn? The market offers a trio of high-end alternatives in the form of Trea Turner, Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts.
As Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports, however, it’s unlikely that the Braves will make a legitimate play to sign any of the big free-agent shortstops other than Swanson. President of baseball ops Alex Anthopoulos went out of his way to mention Vaughn Grissom and Orlando Arcia as in-house alternatives at last week’s GM Meetings, and Rosenthal adds that the Braves are generally reluctant to add a major salary that “takes up too high a percentage of their payroll” — including oft-speculated fit Jacob deGrom.
Braves fans were understandably heartened by CEO Terry McGuirk’s comments about Atlanta growing to have one of the game’s five largest payrolls, but what McGuirk didn’t stress was just how close the Braves already are to reaching that territory before making a single addition. Last month at MLBTR, I pointed out that for the Braves to make even one high-priced acquisition, they’d need to exceed the luxury-tax threshold; making a pair of big-name additions — or signing one premier free agent and, say, extending Max Fried — could shatter the threshold and send the team barreling into at least the second tier of luxury penalization.
As things currently stand, Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez projects the Braves to be less than $5MM away from tier one of the luxury tax . They’d be a first-time luxury payor, so the penalty on the first $20MM by which they cross that threshold would “only” be 20%. The penalty on the next $20MM would jump to a 32% tax.
We’ll get back to the shortstop quandary, but it’s worth digressing and taking a deeper look at just what the luxury tax realities might look like for the Braves.
To put this into more specific context, we can use deGrom as an example. Many believe that the four-time All-Star and two-time Cy Young winner could secure an average annual value of $40MM or more this winter. A $40MM AAV on deGrom would push the Braves’ luxury-tax bill up into the $268MM range — an overage of roughly $35MM. The 20% tax on that first $20MM would come out to $4MM, and the 32% tax they’d be paying on the next $15MM would be another $4.8MM. So to sign deGrom for a $40MM AAV, the Braves would effectively need to be willing to pay $48.8MM in total — at least for the upcoming season. With Justin Verlander seeking a deal comparable to that of Max Scherzer, this can all be applied to him as well.
It’s a similar, but not quite so extreme case with Swanson. Using the $22MM AAV on MLBTR’s predicted contract as an example, Swanson would push the Braves a bit more than $17MM over the luxury tax on his own. That’d make our predicted $22MM AAV more akin to paying $25.4MM this season. And, of course, signing Swanson at that rate would mean that any subsequent salary additions of note would then push the Braves into the second tier of penalization, subjecting them to the same 32% rate mentioned in the deGrom example.
The other wrinkle is that any such signing would further cause the team’s luxury bill to balloon in future seasons. The Braves already have about $135MM of luxury obligations on their 2024 payroll, two years down the road, and that doesn’t include potential club option pickups for veterans like Charlie Morton, Kirby Yates and Collin McHugh — nor does it include arbitration salaries for Fried, A.J. Minter and Kyle Wright. Paying the luxury tax for consecutive seasons would cause those rates of penalization also increase (30% in tier one, 42% in tier two, etc.).
Certainly, there are ways for the Braves to lower their current luxury tab and provide further breathing room, though the path to doing so is not an easy one. There’s little hope of finding a team willing to cover even a small portion of the $36MM still owed to Marcell Ozuna through 2024. Atlanta would probably welcome the opportunity to shed the $9MM owed to Eddie Rosario in 2023, but that’s also far easier said than done after he hit .212/.259/.328 in the first season of a two-year, $18MM contract. One recent source of Twitter speculation among fans — a possible trade of Ronald Acuna Jr. — is not something the Braves are considering, per Rosenthal.
Lengthy digression aside, let’s get back to the shortstop question. If, as Rosenthal suggests, the team is likely to be “out of the picture” for any of Correa, Turner or Bogaerts in the event of a Swanson departure, what might that mean for their 2023 outlook at shortstop?
Grissom and Arcia are in-house candidates, as alluded to by Anthopoulos, but Grissom’s bat wilted after a torrid start to his rookie season in 2022. He still finished with a terrific .291/.353/.440 batting line in 156 plate appearances, but Grissom slashed .420/.463/.660 in his first 54 plate appearances and just .220/.294/.319 over his final 102 trips to the plate. He also skipped Triple-A entirely on his way to the Majors, and scouting opinions on his long-term outlook at shortstop vary. Arcia, once one of the game’s top-ranked prospects, was a roughly league-average hitter in a part-time role last year but carries a .233/.288/.356 slash (70 wRC+) over the past five years.
The free-agent market has some modest stopgaps who could help ease Grissom into the full-time role at shortstop. Elvis Andrus was released by the A’s over the summer, but that was more about preventing his 2023 vesting option from kicking in than about his play. He had a strong finish after signing with the White Sox and hit a combined .249/.303/.404 with 17 homers and 18 steals between the two clubs. Jose Iglesias keeps hitting for average and rarely striking out — .291/.325/.408, 13.1% strikeout rate since 2019 — but defensive metrics have soured on the soon-to-be 33-year-old over the past two seasons. Old friend Andrelton Simmons is a free agent, too, but he’s batted just .216/.277/.261 in 536 plate appearances since Opening Day 2021.
None of those free-agent options are going to inspire Braves fans much — save for the possible nostalgia of a Simmons reunion — but they highlight the fact that it’s a thin crop beyond the “Big Four.” The trade market, then, could be a more palatable approach for Anthopoulos to explore. Cleveland’s Amed Rosario is a clear trade candidate with just a year to go before free agency and a mounting (by the Guardians’ standards) price tag. He’s projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz to earn $9MM next year, and a low-payroll Guardians club that’s deep in MLB-ready middle infield prospects could look to cash in on the 27-year-old, as I recently explored at greater length.
The Yankees figure to be open to moving on from Isiah Kiner-Falefa now that Oswald Peraza is ready for a look in the Majors. The Reds would likely be open to dealing Kyle Farmer, with whom Anthopoulos is surely familiar dating back to his Dodgers days. Arizona’s Nick Ahmed and St. Louis’ Paul DeJong are veteran alternatives who could be had for pennies on the dollar, as the D-backs and Cardinals would surely welcome the chance to just shed some of the respective $10MM and $11MM remaining on their contracts. Both are buy-low options, at best, coming off poor showings in recent seasons. Any of Kevin Newman (Pirates), Nicky Lopez (Royals) or the oft-injured Adalberto Mondesi (Royals) could likely be had in a deal, but each has some obvious red flags.
To be clear, there’s no indication that the Braves plan to simply stand pat this winter. A reunion with Swanson remains eminently plausible, even if previous extension attempts with his representatives — the same agents who represent Freeman, for what it’s worth — have yet to bear fruit. It’d push the Braves into luxury territory for the first time in franchise history, but based on McGuirk’s comments about a potential top-five payroll club, that’s something on which the front office will have a green light, at least with regard to Swanson.
What does seems far less likely is a lavish spending spree that sees the Braves make multiple marquee splashes on the free-agent market. If Swanson does sign elsewhere, it’s the bulk of the Braves’ heavy lifting may very well come via the trade market and the middle tiers of the free-agent market.