Braves sign flamethrower Renaldo López, will get him ready to be a starter

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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 hummed above 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 4 1/2 months of the season with the Chicago White Sox, Angels and Cleveland Guardians (who claimed him off waivers in August), López could be used as a starter by the Braves, his original role with the White Sox and one he had until late in the 2021 season.

The hard-throwing Dominican will train this winter as a starter and get stretched out at spring training to start, though the Braves say they’ll wait to decide where they want to use him. Lopez, 29, relies on a blistering fastball and hard slider as a reliever but has a change-up and curveball that are added to the mix if he’s starting. He had teams interested in him for either role, and he’s just excited about pitching for a team he said is all about winning.

“I always looked at (the Braves) and knew there was a competitiveness, a great vibe and atmosphere of wanting to win,” López said Monday through an interpreter. “People I spoke to, my inner circle and friends, everybody spoke highly of the organization, and when my agent said that there was an opportunity, I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

It’s a backloaded deal with a $4 million salary in 2024, $11 million in each of 2o25 and 2026, and an $8 million option for 2027 with a $4 million buyout.

For the Braves, improving their pitching staff was the priority entering the offseason, including adding a proven starter to the trio of Max Fried, Spencer Strider and 40-year-old Charlie Morton, whose $20 million option the team picked up.

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 pitching 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 .523 opponents’ OPS in 33 appearances after June 26, with 43 strikeouts, 17 walks and only one homer allowed in 33 innings  — despite pitching for three different teams in that stretch.

While he was only 17-25 with a 4.64 ERA in 65 starts during 2018-2019 in his last two full seasons as a starter, López pitched 188 and 184 innings in those seasons. He had a 4.10 ERA in nine starts in 2021 while moving between the White Sox bullpen and rotation, and López’s fastball has increased from an average of 95.8 mph as a starter/reliever in 2021 to 97.1 mph in 2022 and 98.2 mph in 2023.

“Things definitely changed,” López said of the improvement in his stuff. “There’s been different keys, different factors that have come into it, (along with) maturity, just being an older player four years coming down the road have set things up differently for me. But definitely looking forward to this, and I just think everything’s coming together at the right time.”

He added, “I’m a different person from when I started. A lot has been focus, my mindset, and also just the player maturity, being here for a bit now.”

Even allowing for the extra heat he has in short bursts 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 four batters he faced, including Travis d’Arnaud on three pitches to start the inning. After Michael Harris hit a two-out single and stole second, López struck out Orlando Arcia on three consecutive fastballs after Arcia got ahead 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 lefty Aaron Bummer, who was traded to Atlanta on Thursday in a deal that sent five players to 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 stronger impression. He faced seven Braves and gave up no hits and two walks while striking out three, including the first batter he faced, Ronald Acuña Jr. on three consecutive strikes — clocked at 100, 100.5 and 100.8 mph — after the NL MVP had gotten ahead in 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 4-1 Angels win. Against Ozuna, he threw three consecutive 100 mph fastballs before striking him out flailing at 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 consecutive sliders below it.

Ozuna and López have the same agent, and after the season Ozuna had a message. The pitcher recalled Monday that Ozuna “reached out to the agent and said, ‘Hey, we need him on this team.’ He told my agent to look into it.”

The Braves had interest in durable ace Aaron Nola before he re-signed Sunday with the Philadelphia Phillies. Atlanta also has pursued free-agent starter Sonny Gray, the AL Cy Young runner-up.

Gray’s age (34) and injuries in prior seasons before his sensational 2023 will likely make his contract demands far less than the seven-year deal, $172 million deal that Nola signed, something perhaps closer to three years and $70 million based on 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 moves well above MLB’s luxury-tax threshold ($237 million) for the second consecutive year and, unless they traded a significant salary, it would also push them more than $20 million above the threshold. That would trigger an additional 12 percent surcharge on top of the 30 percent penalty they’d already owe.

The Braves’ actual 2024 payroll, with the addition of López’s $4 million salary, stands at about $207 million. But for luxury-tax purposes, the average annual value of contracts is used, and they’re around $242 million. The López deal is like most other long-term extensions the Braves gave in recent years in that it’s backloaded, which increases the AAV — in Lopez’s case to $10 million, the average value of his three-year deal including the buyout.

So, unless the Braves have plans to trade at least one player with a big salary, it would seem they are planning to start López, add a pitcher with a considerably lower salary than Gray, or they are ready to accept tax penalties. Their overage rate would rise from 20 percent to 30 percent for surpassing the threshold a second year in a row, plus a 12 percent surcharge if they are $20 million to $40 million over $237 million.

That would jump to 42.5 percent overage if they were to go $40 million over.

The Braves, after rotation issues contributed in a big way to consecutive postseasons that ended abruptly with NLDS losses to the Philadelphia Phillies, perhaps decided they would go higher than they wanted to if that’s what it takes to add the level of starter necessary to lessen the likelihood of a repeat of the past two Octobers.

But it also could put them in a position to pay a far higher 50 percent tax rate if they were to surpass the threshold for a third consecutive year in 2025.

If López is not in the rotation and the Braves don’t add another starter, others competing along with Smith-Shawver for fifth-starter duties would include second-year lefty Dylan Dodd and veterans Huascar Ynoa and, a bit later, Ian Anderson. Ynoa and Anderson are returning from Tommy John surgery, Ynoa in the spring and Anderson likely around midseason.

So, no, the back-of-the-rotation options weren’t optimal, which is why the Braves might have López starting, which would effectively move Elder to fifth starter unless he’s beaten out by someone else in the spring.

The bullpen looks especially strong because the Braves have been MLB’s most active team early this offseason, re-signing relievers Joe Jiménez (three years, $26 million) and Pierce Johnson (two years, $14.25 million) and trading for Bummer. They join returning closer Raisel Iglesias and lefties A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek, who missed the 2023 season recovering from October 2022 Tommy John surgery.

With that group, the Braves should have one of baseball’s deepest and most experienced bullpens, even if López is in the rotation.

(Photo Reynaldo López: Dale Zanine/USA Today)

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