Another offseason, another critical juncture for the Atlanta Braves baseball team.
A year after the Braves had to find a replacement in the middle of the lineup for Josh Donaldson and find a veteran presence for a young, but up-and-coming pitching staff, the Braves must pursue another power bat to put behind Freddie Freeman in the lineup.
Whether that's Marcell Ozuna, who put up MVP-type numbers this year, or someone else, Freeman needs protection, either batting in the No. 2 or No. 3 hole. Not only does Freeman benefit but the whole team thrives, which happened this year as the team sported its deepest and most potent lineup in years. Ozuna would be my preference, but he upped his value after signing just a one-year deal last offseason. He will command a generous contract, and rightfully so; he's earned it. But don't think the Braves will just open up the checkbook because of the threat of a batter leaving town.
They didn't last year with Donaldson and I imagine they would treat Ozuna the same way. The Braves might be better suited in finding someone else to ink to a one-year deal. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos has been masterful in thinking outside the box with those two signings.
The rest of the lineup is set, though, especially with the emergence of Cristian Pache in the outfield in the National League Championship Series (NLCS) against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
I do worry about Austin Riley at third base. He has the prototypical all-or-nothing swing and for the most part, it was nothing this year, especially in the postseason. In his two seasons, totaling 131 games, he has struck out 157 times but has managed 26 home runs. Riley struck out 10 times and managed just four hits in 28 at-bats in seven games in the NLCS.
It'll be interesting to see how Anthopoulos and manager Brian Snitker view his value moving forward.
The other part of the team that Anthopoulos needs to address is the bullpen. What might have been the strength of the team could once again be a question mark if a few significant pieces to the puzzle are allowed to walk.
Closer Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Josh Tomlin are all free agents. All are veterans which is huge come postseason time. Melancon is an effective closing option and is not going to blow many games. Greene also has closing experience. Tomlin is that long-man presence every bullpen needs.
On the flipside, the Braves will return a couple of solid lefties in Tyler Matzek and Will Smith. Matzek pitched in 21 games this year and posted a 2.79 ERA. Smith has closing experience and could be an option if Melancon leaves via free agency.
The Braves also have a team option on side-winder Darren O' Day, so I imagine he will return next season. O' Day pitched in 19 games this year and posted a 1.10 ERA with 22 strikeouts.
The Braves' bullpen ERA was 3.50 this year, fourth in the majors and is critical to the team's success moving forward.
The starting staff is in good shape after Max Fried and Ian Anderson provided a tough 1-2 punch in the playoffs. Hopefully, Mike Soroka can make a healthy return from a torn Achilles tendon and be ready by spring training. He remains the ace of the starting staff. That has the potential to be a formidable trio.
Then you have youngsters Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson who had sensational moments in the postseason, but are they ready for a full 162-game season?
I wouldn't be surprised if Anthopoulos pursues a veteran arm to provide experience and really get this team over the top. It'll just depend on how the money spreads over finding another bat in the lineup and piecing together the bullpen.
It'll be a tough chore, but at least the Braves have the foundational pieces to build around.
—Clint Thompson is a special contributor to The Union-Recorder.