ATLANTA — When the Braves lost 4-1 to the Los Angeles Angels on July 31, they faced a reliever who threw 37 pitches and recorded a five-out save, including 23 pitches that buzzed at more than 99 mph.
On Monday, the busy Braves signed that pitcher, right-hander Reynaldo López, to a three-year, $30 million free agent contract that includes a fourth-year option.
As dominant as he was as a reliever over the final four and a half months of the season with the Chicago White Sox, Angels and Cleveland Guardians (who claimed him off waivers in August), López could being used as a starter by the Braves, his original role with the White Sox and the one he held until the end of the 2021 season.
The powerful Dominican pitcher will practice this winter as a starter and will be stretched out in spring training to start, although the Braves say they will wait to decide where they want to use him. Lopez, 29, relies on a fastball and hard slider as a reliever, but he has a changeup and curveball that are added to the mix if he starts. Teams were interested in him for both roles, and he’s just excited to field a team that he believes is focused on winning.
“I always watched (the Braves) and I knew there was a competitiveness, a good vibe and an atmosphere of wanting to win,” López said Monday through a translator. “The people I talked to, my entourage and my friends, everyone praised the organization, and when my agent told me there was an opportunity, I said: “Let’s do it.” »
It’s a deferred deal with a $4 million salary in 2024, $11 million in 2025 and 2026, and an $8 million option for 2027 with a $4 million buyout.
For the Braves, improving their pitching staff was the priority early in the offseason, including adding a proven starter to the trio of Max Fried, Spencer Strider and 40-year-old Charlie Morton, whom the team selected the $20 million option.
The Braves also return Bryce Elder, who made the All-Star team in his first full season before fading in the second half, and several other back-end candidates led by rookie AJ Smith-Shawver, who impressed in a few of his five starts. , but just turned 21 on Monday and has only been throwing regularly for three years. Atlanta had one of baseball’s best offenses in decades, but its starting pitchers ranked 17th in the majors in ERA and 19th in WHIP.
López had a 3.27 ERA in 68 games last season with 83 strikeouts and 34 walks in 66 innings, a career-best rate of 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings. He was dominant in the second half, posting a 1.09 ERA and 0.523 OPS for opponents in 33 appearances after June 26, with 43 strikeouts, 17 walks and just one home run allowed in 33 innings – despite starting three different teams during this stretch.
While just 17-25 with a 4.64 ERA in 65 starts in 2018-19 during his final two full seasons as a starter, López pitched 188 2/3 and 184 innings at during these seasons. He had a 4.10 ERA in nine starts in 2021 as he moved between the White Sox bullpen and the rotation, and López’s fastball went from averaging 95.8 mph as a starter/reliever in 2021 at 97.1 mph in 2022 and 98.2 mph in 2023.
“Things have definitely changed,” López said of improving his equipment. “There have been different keys, different factors that have come into play, (with) maturity, just being an older player four years later has put things differently for me. But I’m really looking forward to it to be there, and I just think everything is happening at the right time.
He added: “I’m a different person from when I started. A lot of it has been about focus, my mindset and also just the maturity of the player, having been here for a while now.
Even accounting for the extra heat he gets in short stints as a reliever, his fastball ranks among the elite, and the Braves know firsthand what he can do in multiple innings.
López was with the White Sox on July 16 when he pitched the sixth inning against the Braves, striking out two of the four batters he faced, including Travis d’Arnaud on three pitches to start the inning. After Michael Harris II singled with two outs and stole second, López retired Orlando Arcia on three straight fastballs after Arcia took the lead in the count 3-0.
Coincidentally, the reliever who replaced López that day and pitched two perfect innings against the Braves with three strikeouts was left-hander Aaron Bummer, who was traded to Atlanta on Thursday in a deal that sent five players on the White Sox, including starting pitchers Michael Soroka and Jared. Shuster.
When he faced the Braves again on July 31, it was five days after López was traded to the Angels and this time he made an even bigger impression. He faced seven Braves and allowed no hits and two walks while striking out three, including the first batter he faced, Ronald Acuña Jr., on three consecutive at-bats – clocking in at 100, 100, 5 and 100.8 mph – after the NL MVP took the lead. at the count 2-0.
He struck out Marcell Ozuna and Eddie Rosario consecutively on a total of seven pitches with a runner on base to end the Angels’ 4-1 victory. Against Ozuna, he threw three straight 100 mph fastballs before striking it out by hitting a 90 mph slider off the plate. Rosario struck out on three pitches, including a 100.2 mph fastball at the top of the strike zone followed by back-to-back sliders underneath.
Ozuna and López have the same agent, and after the season, Ozuna had a message. The pitcher recalled Monday that Ozuna “contacted the agent and said, ‘Hey, we need him on this team.’ He told my agent to investigate.
The Braves were interested in durable ace Aaron Nola before re-signing with the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday. Atlanta also pursued free agent starter Sonny Gray, a finalist for the AL Cy Young Award.
Gray’s age (34) and injuries suffered in previous seasons before his sensational 2023 will likely make his contract demands far lower than the seven-year, $172 million deal Nola signed, perhaps be closer to three years and $70 million, according to various projections.
However, even if the Braves signed Gray to a contract with an average annual value of only about $22 million, it would ensure the team would go well over MLB’s luxury tax threshold ($237 million). for the second year in a row and, unless they trade a significant salary, that would also push them more than $20 million over the threshold. This would result in an additional 12 percent surcharge on top of the 30 percent penalty they already owe.
The Braves’ actual payroll for 2024, with the addition of López’s $4 million salary, is approximately $207 million. But for luxury tax purposes, the average annual contract value is used, and it comes to about $242 million. López’s deal is like most other long-term extensions given by the Braves in recent years in that it is postponed, which increases the AAV – in Lopez’s case to $10 million, the value average of his three-year contract, buyout included.
So unless the Braves plan to trade at least one player with a big salary, it would appear that they are considering starting López, adding a pitcher with a considerably lower salary than Gray, or they are prepared to accept tax penalties. Their excess rate would increase from 20 to 30 percent if they exceed the threshold a second year in a row, plus a 12 percent surcharge if they exceed $20 million to $40 million beyond $237 million.
That would increase to 42.5 percent if they exceed $40 million.
The Braves, after turnover issues largely contributed to back-to-back playoff runs that ended abruptly in NLDS losses to the Philadelphia Phillies, may have decided they would go higher than they wanted if that was what was needed to add the level of starter needed to reduce the number of starters. probability of a repeat of the last two months of October.
But it could also put them in the position of paying a much higher tax rate of 50% if they exceed the threshold for a third consecutive year in 2025.
If López is not in the rotation and the Braves do not add a starter, others competing with Smith-Shawver for fifth starter duties would include second-year left-hander Dylan Dodd and veterans Huascar Ynoa and, a little later, Ian Anderson. Ynoa and Anderson return from Tommy John surgery, Ynoa in the spring and Anderson probably around mid-season.
So no, the back rotation options weren’t optimal, which is why the Braves could start López, which would effectively put Elder at number five unless he was beaten out by someone else in spring.
The bullpen looks particularly strong as the Braves have been the most active team in MLB early this offseason, signing relievers Joe Jiménez (three years, $26 million) and Pierce Johnson (two years, 14 .25 million dollars) and trading for Bummer. They join closer Raisel Iglesias and lefties AJ Minter and Tyler Matzek, who missed the 2023 season while recovering from October 2022 Tommy John surgery.
With this group, the Braves should have one of the deepest and most experienced bullpens in baseball, even if López is in the rotation.
(Photo by Reynaldo López: Dale Zanine / USA Today)
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