For the Braves, adding an outfielder has some layers to it

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Some questions need to be answered first.

The Braves need an outfielder. That sums up the situation pretty succinctly. Their current talent level at that position is below what is needed for a team trying to win a World Series and internal options are only going to get them so far.

This wasn’t how things were supposed to go, of course. Back in Spring Training, there was strong argument to be made the Braves had the best outfield in baseball. In right-field they had Ronald Acuńa Jr, the reigning National League MVP, a 26-year-old superstar coming off an 8-Win season. In center-field they had Michael Harris II, a 22-year-old former Rookie of the Year, a budding star in his own right with elite defensive chops and tons of offensive potential. And in left, a combination of the young, high-upside talent of Jarred Kelenic along side the more established, veteran Adam Duvall. If all went to plan, the outfield could’ve been the strength of the team. But the best-laid plans of mice and men.

A torn ACL and grade 2 hamstring strain has thrown a giant wrench into the plan, along with the fact that Adam Duvall is having a substantially worse season than anyone could’ve predicted. Jarred Kelenic has been awesome and everything the Braves could’ve reasonably hoped for when that trade was made, but outside of him, the rest has gone about as bad as possible. And so this where the Braves find themselves most nights. With one good outfielder and questions everywhere else.

The logical conclusion is, much like 2021, Alex Anthopoulos will make some additions and hope they work out. That sounds good but it’s going to be slightly more complicated than that. The rub there is the Braves do have some things they’re going to have to consider when deciding who exactly to target over the next 3 weeks.

For one, while Acuńa is out for the season, Harris isn’t. So while the Braves have needs for multiple outfielders right now, they may not in a few weeks. Hamstring injuries are tricky and easily reaggravated, especially when the player in questions relies so heavily on his legs to do his job. So if you’re Anthopoulos, do you trust Harris will be back and productive later this month and only focus on acquiring one outfielder? Do you go get an insurance policy? It’s important to remember there is no more waiver trade deadline after the actual trade deadline. The July 30th trade deadline is it for adding anything of note to your franchise. And the Braves know first-hand how quickly a strength can turn into a weakness. The Braves did add Eddie Rosario as a minor league free agent after he was released from Washington, but it’s likely that’s a stopgap move to bide time until more significant moves can be made.

Another consideration here is all three of Acuńa, Harris and Kelenic are locked up for multiple years after this season. If you plan on those 3 being your outfield in 2025, then acquiring someone who has multiple years of team control now is much trickier. A logical rebuttal to that point could be that Acuńa will be coming off his second knee reconstruction in three years and it may be more prudent to have him serve as the team’s DH in 2025 until he gets another year removed from his surgery. In that case an outfielder with some team control would not only work but may be preferable.

That plan sounds good in theory but then what are you going to do with Marcell Ozuna? The guaranteed portion of his contract ends after this season but the team does hold a club option on him in 2025 for $16M. There’s also that little detail that he’s easily been the team’s best hitter in 2024 and is the only guy from their position player group to make the All-Star team. Can you really just let him walk when you have such a reasonable option on him for next season?

If the answer to that is no and you absolutely want him back in 2025, then your DH spot is spoken for and you’re back to the same problem. This all leads to the simple fact that you may best be served focusing on 3-month rentals at the trade deadline.

There is the argument that you could have 4 full-time outfielders all share the playing time in 2025 but those thing always look better on paper than in actual practice. You’re never sitting a healthy Acuńa, you’re not sitting a healthy Harris, and Kelenic has proven this year he does better playing everyday vs a platoon role. The fact of the matter is the hole, or holes, in the outfield are temporary and the best solutions might be temporary ones as well. Rental outfielders also have the added benefit of being much cheaper to acquire, a notable point for a team with one of the weaker farm systems in the sport. So while Luis Robert or JJ Bleday sound like fun names, given the roster construction in 2025 and beyond, the 3-month rental guys probably fit better.

There’s also the financial component to consider. The Braves are currently projected to be right up against the third-tier of the luxury tax with only a few million to spare before facing the extra penalties. Any team that moves into that third tier has their first round pick in next year’s draft moved down 10 spots. It’s not the most devastating cost in the world but it does affect your whole draft once you consider the loss in bonus pool money that comes with a lower selection.

How much of a deterrent that actually is remains to be seen but so far Anthopoulos and President Terry McGuirk have been willing to take Atlanta’s payroll to places it’s never been before, and therefore may not view the penalties as a meaningful obstruction. But obviously if they do, then Atlanta will be able to take on very little in extra salary and still stay out the penalty.

It is worth nothing that adding players in late July is not taking on their entire yearly salary but just the ~30% or so that still needs to be paid for the rest of the season. And teams often negotiate cash being sent over in a trade to cover the additional salary, so there’s ways around financial constraints. But taking on any significant salary may be a non-starter for Anthopoulos and therefore once again, restricts your list of targets.

But Atlanta is in a fascinating spot. Who they target over the next 3 weeks has ripple effects past just this season, depending on who it is, and a few questions need to be answered before a list of names is finalized. How many outfielders do they think is needed? Do they focus on just rentals or can something more work? Do they have the financial space for not only an outfielder, or outfielders, but all the other moves they’re considering?

We’ll get our answers soon enough.

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Title: For the Braves, adding an outfielder has some layers to it
Author: Stephen Tolbert

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