Even before the Atlanta Braves opened the 2021 National League Championship Series at Truist Park Saturday, many fans who filled the Cobb County ballpark wondered whether this series might be the last hurrah for the NL East champions.
The lineup figures to be considerably different next year – even if star first baseman Freddie Freeman signs a contract extension rich in dollars and years.
Freeman, the league’s defending Most Valuable Player, hit the most significant home run of Atlanta’s current post-season run – a two-out, eighth-inning blast against star Milwaukee closer Josh Hader Oct. 12 – but even he must have wondered if the curtain call he made might be his last in the Atlanta ballpark.
Although the Braves have re-signed two other significant veterans in starting pitcher Charlie Morton and catcher Travis d’Arnaud, Freeman could become a free agent five days after the World Series ends. He would immediately become the most attractive player on the market.
Both he and the Braves say they want to maintain the status quo but Freeman, at 32, allegedly wants more years than the team is willing to give. The answer could be a contract lesser in years but packed with both incentives and mutual options.
It would certainly be the largest in club history, certainly exceeding the five-year, $130 million the St. Louis Cardinals gave Paul Goldschmidt after acquiring him from Arizona before the 2020 season.
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Because of his durability, there’s no heir apparent to Freeman in the Atlanta farm system. If he doesn’t sign, however, the team could pursue other free-agent first basemen, including long-time Cubs standout Anthony Rizzo, who finished this season with the Yankees.
In addition to figuring out the Freeman finances, the Braves must decide what to do about their excess of outfielders. They acquired four via trade during the 2021 season after injuries idled Ronald Acuna Jr. and Marcell Ozuna and big-league pitching proved too tough for blue-chip defensive whiz Cristian Pache.
General manager Anthony Anthopoulos, refusing to throw in the towel when injuries kept his team under .500, added Eddie Rosario, Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler, and ex-Brave Adam Duvall before the July 30 deadline and watched his team take off in the NL East race, passing both the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies to win their fourth straight divisional title.
Although Acuna might miss a month or two at the start of 2022, Ozuna remains a giant question-mark because of a possible MLB suspension following his arrest in May for alleged domestic violence. Atlanta doesn’t want a repeat of last winter, when Duvall was non-tendered to avoid arbitration and signed instead with Miami.
After leading the National League in runs batted in, Duvall will almost certainly receive a multi-year contract offer if he declined the mutual option in his contract.
There’s also a $10 million club option in Joc Pederson’s pact but the Braves must decide whether he’s a platoon player and pinch-hitter or an anomaly who does his Babe Ruth imitation whenever the curtain rises on postseason play. He went 3-for-3, with two home runs, in his first three pinch-hitting appearances against the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Division Series.
As the only regular left-handed hitter in Atlanta’s lineup beyond Freeman and switch-hitting second baseman Ozzie Albies, Eddie Rosario will almost certainly win a new contract offer from the Braves. So may Jorge Soler, a former American League home run king who thrived as Atlanta’s unlikely lead-off man down the stretch.
Unfortunately for the Braves, the hard-swinging Soler missed the last game of Atlanta’s NLDS when he tested positive for COVID-19 and may not be cleared in time to return before the current best-of-seven series ends. But he earned a new deal – from the Braves or someone else – with his performance while still active.
With Acuna making good progress in his recovery from the torn ACL he suffered in July, and with the defensively-gifted Pache virtually certain to get another shot in center field, it’s not likely that the Braves can – or should – keep all four of their mid-season acquisitions.
So the betting is on Duvall, who can play any of the three outfield spots, to be the best bet for a new contract, followed by Pederson because of his postseason pedigree, pinch-hitting prowess, left-handed bat, and relatively inexpensive option.
If the universal designated hitter returns next year, the Braves will need someone to fill that role – presumably Soler or Rosario unless Ozuna beats the odds and returns to the team. But both Soler and Rosario will be unrestricted free agents who might find greener grass – and more playing time – elsewhere.
There could be changes on the pitching staff too, especially since veteran left-hander Drew Smyly failed to deliver dividends on a one-year, $11 million contract. He was hardly used after Labor Day.
The jury is also out on Huascar Ynoa, who began 2021 as a breakout starter but then broke his pitching hand smashing the dugout bench in frustration after a bad game. Never the same after missing three months, he pitched poorly in the NLDS and was omitted from the NLCS roster.
Atlanta will need to settle on a backup catcher, with William Contreras the favorite, and infield subs, especially if versatile Ehire Adrianza offers his services elsewhere after playing the season on a one-year contract earned in spring training.
No matter how long the Braves survive in the playoffs, speculation over what’s next is sure to increase as the calendar inches toward Halloween.
Hovering over everything is the Basic Agreement between owners and players. Failure to hash out a new one by Dec. 1, when the old one expires, could result in the first work stoppage since the 232-day player strike of 1994-95.