Now that we're into December, they've only made one impactful signing, and things are starting to have a familiar feel in Atlanta... Players are too "expensive" to fit in their budget restraints.
Fan blogs like TalkingChop, who seem to do more PR work for the team than the official twitter account, spent the entire 2018 season pushing the narrative that the Braves would be in the mix for Harper, Machado, and even Clayton Kershaw (had he opted out). I found an article that stated they would roughly "have up to $72M to spend this off-season." Throughout the season, fans continued to state that Atlanta would sign all these big name players, but again, that does not fit the mold of the Braves' ownership.
Look back at the 2013 Atlanta Braves (a team that won 96 games and the National League East Title). Going into 2014, they had a modest payroll, but then GM Frank Wren was scrutinized for signing Melvin Upton Jr. (in 2012) to a five year deal worth about $75M. The local media acted as if that deal crippled the franchise and set them back years, when in reality, it was just a modest deal given to a player who was entering his prime. I mention this deal because it was the last high profile free agent contract given out by the team. I don't include Nick Markakis because he wasn't in his prime, nor did he make much on his contract (however, the Braves acted as if they had to penny pinch to get him.)
Back during that era, the Frank Wren era, the Braves never spent on free agents. Most of the big name players were acquired in trades or prospects that graduated to the Major League roster. The biggest signings the Braves made in recent history were Ervin Santana (1-year $14M), Nick Markakis (4-years $44M), Melvin Upton Jr. (5-year $75M), and that's about it. The Ervin Santana deal had to be specially approved because of the Braves budget restraints. That's right the GM of a 96-win team essentially had to beg to sign a pitcher after the rotation suffered numerous injuries in Spring Training of 2014. The 2013 Braves were in a similar situation as this current Braves team and they choose to not improve the team and then, they blew up the roster right as the players on that roster were about to enter free agency. They kept Freeman and Teheran, but the rest of the roster moved onto other teams via trades or they were essentially let go. (It's worth noting that Heyward, McCann, Kimbrel, Medlen, Hudson, etc. all won the World Series on their new teams following their exits from Atlanta and numerous others like Alex Wood and Luis Avilan have appeared in the World Series, albeit, not winning.) You could argue that the 2009-14 teams were even more talented than the 2018 Braves roster, but their refusal to spend and improve the roster kept them from seriously contending for a title.
For years, the Braves have operated like a small-to-mid market team. Part of the reason why they wanted to move into a new stadium was so they could "spend more" with the increased revenue generated by the new ballpark. There's other factors that played into this, but essentially, the promise was that a new stadium would generate so much added revenue that the franchise wouldn't have to be as conservative during free agency. However, this doesn't seem like the truth.
In terms of media markets, Atlanta is currently the ninth largest media market in America (via City-Data.com). They're between Houston and Boston in terms of market size, yet, those are two teams who are willing to spend at will to improve their rosters. Atlanta's payroll in 2018 was 18th in Major League Baseball (according to Spotrac). The Braves' modest television deal was supposed to be alleviated by the move to the new ballpark in Cobb County, but that apparently isn't the case. They're still spending like a small-to-mid market team.
This brings me to my original question: If not now, when?
The Braves rebuild was essentially completed last season. They won the division and have the talent in place to be a very good team in 2019. Division rivals like the Mets, Nationals, and Phillies have already spent big this off-season and look to continue spending to field competitive teams in 2019. Yes, the Nationals aren't bringing back Bryce Harper, but they did sign the top free agent pitcher Patrick Corbin. The Phillies have already added Jean Segura and look poised to sign one of (or perhaps both of) Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. The Mets have added to their bullpen (Familia) and traded for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz. Yes, even the Mets are being aggressive this off-season. I attribute the aggressive nature of the division squarely on the fact that the National League East just wasn't that good last season. The other teams feel as if they're not too far off from Atlanta and with the Braves mostly standing pat, they're being aggressive and positioning themselves to have a shot to take the division title in 2019.
If now isn't the time to spend, when will that time come?
The Braves have real holes on the roster and they cannot continue to patch them with past prime veterans like Nick Markakis or even Josh Donaldson. Donaldson may have a fine season, but he's also turning 33-years old in 2019 and only signed to a one-year deal. The franchise is either banking on Austin Riley being the real deal or they think Johan Camargo can be an everyday third baseman in the future. I think Camargo is best in the middle infield given his offensive production. When you have a young team in place, you're not trying to build an entire roster full of free agents (think of the Marlins when they moved into their new ballpark a few years back.)
Let me ask other fans this... Do you seriously think this team can compete for a World Series Title?
This team was greatly exposed by the Dodgers in the post-season and they need hitters who can actually hit the ball out of the park. This team is built for stringing together singles and not striking out (you need walks and home runs, something the 2013 team excelled at doing) and that style just doesn't work in the playoffs. Acuña and Freeman are the only power threats in the line-up and they're still without a starting quality right fielder. Free agents like Michael Brantley seem to be too expensive for the Braves and they're not in the mix for Harper either. So, where do they go from here? It appears that they're looking to trade for an impact hitter, but why give up prospects when there's adequate players available in the free agent market? The farm system may be full of pitching, but they still lag behind other rebuilds due to the lack of impact hitters. Yes, Acuña looks to be a great player for the foreseeable future, but there's not much besides him to look forward to. Ozzie Albies has promise, but he's still inconsistent at the plate and doesn't look like he can be counted on for offensive production (no walks and streaky power). This team also needs a few pieces in the bullpen, but I'm sure they'll look at internal options to fill that void (however, that won't solve the bullpen management issues exhibited by manager, Brian Snitker.) Cristian Pache, Austin Riley, and William Contreras look to be the next hitters to come up in the system, but Riley has contact issues while Pache and Contreras are both 19 and 20 years old respectively. These players also look like potential trade pieces, but I doubt they're moved unless they can bring back an All-Star caliber player.
Once again, this team has a young roster in place with no real salary obligations and they're still not spending. This is the best free agent class in recent memory and they're still not in the mix for a big name player.
So, with a division winning team full of young players who may take the next step... why wouldn't you try to add at least ONE big name free agent to mix and take the next step? If they don't try to improve the roster to take the next step, this team MAY be dismantled in a few years and thus, in a state of a constant rebuild. Once the young players on the roster are deemed "too expensive" they'll be shipped off and suddenly, the local media will push narratives about how "they weren't that good anyway" and how "this team wasn't winning the World Series anyway!" I say this because that's basically what happened to the 2013 team. I've been critical of the front office in the past, but it's clear that cheap ownership is the real reason why this team is constantly held back from taking the next step.
If now isn't the time for Atlanta to spend on a big name free agent, when will it be?
Noted Braves' target Michael Brantley, according to multiple reports, has signed a free agent deal with the Houston Astros. While all the details haven't been released, it's looking like a 2-year/$32M deal. A player of his caliber signing a deal at that price looks like a perfect fit for what Atlanta was looking for. Sure, he may have preferred the Astros and the chance to DH and possibly play 1B, but multiple reports by Atlanta media outlets claimed that Brantley would be "too expensive for the Braves" and that he would be looking for a massive "five year deal worth around $100M."
Again, was he too expensive? Did the Braves try to offer him a deal? Seems odd to let a hitter who would be the perfect fit in Atlanta go for well below his market value (and on such a team friendly deal.)
If Atlanta had worries about his injury history, I cannot see them pursuing A.J. Pollack, when he has even worse injury history than Brantley (and will probably cost much more in terms of years and money.)