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Can Anthopoulos pull off another surprise move this offseason?

Instead of attempting to guess who might be general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ most significant acquisition every offseason, maybe it would be more prudent to guess who will be his big surprise this time around.

With Aaron Nola back with the Phillies and Sonny Gray joining the Cardinals, the likelihood of Anthopoulos creating another shock has increased.

This is a tradition that began about a month after Anthopoulos joined Atlanta to run the baseball operations department in November 2017, shocking many when he found a suitor for a declining Matt Kemp. The trade with the Dodgers created long-term payroll relief and netted Charlie Culberson and Brandon McCarthy, both of whom contributed to the unexpected 2018 National League East title.

Johan Camargo provided solid production after he was given the third base job six weeks into the 2018 season. So, Anthopoulos certainly created another surprise when he signed 2015 American League MVP Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million deal to serve as the Braves’ third baseman in ’19. Donaldson’s lone season in Atlanta netted him a four-year, $92 million deal with the Twins.

Anthopoulos and Donaldson formed a connection with the Blue Jays in 2015. There was a sense this might lead to a long-term deal in Atlanta. But Anthopoulos’ best move leading into the ’20 season was to shy away from re-signing Donaldson. After missing half of that 60-game season, Donaldson has produced a .740 OPS and averaged just 106 games per year over the past three years.

With Donaldson gone, Anthopoulos signed Marcell Ozuna — first to a one-year, $18 million deal in January 2020, then to a four-year, $64 million deal in February 2021. Ozuna has had his share of problems over the past four seasons, but his revitalization this past summer has restored value as he approaches the final guaranteed season of his contract.

At different points over the past couple years, the Braves tried to swap Ozuna for the likes of Patrick Corbin or Madison Bumgarner, a pair of left-handed pitchers with negative value. Now, instead of swapping bad contracts, they actually could trade Ozuna to help gain something in return.

Or, they could just put him right back in the middle of a great lineup, one he routinely fueled this past summer.

If not via trade, how are the Braves going to satisfy their desire to add quality to their rotation? The 34-year-old Gray looked like a viable option because he would be willing to take a three or four-year deal.  Unlike some of his peers, Anthopoulos has been wise enough to recognize giving six or seven-year deals to veteran pitchers isn’t good business. This is why 31-year-old Blake Snell, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, and 30-year-old Jordan Montgomery don’t seem like fits.

That said, a six or seven-year deal for a guy like the 25-year-old Yoshinobu Yamamoto feels more like a reasonable gamble.

Will Anthopoulos surprise with a free-agent signing or another blockbuster trade like the one that brought Sean Murphy to Atlanta last winter? That three-team trade with the A’s and Brewers came out of nowhere. Just before the Winter Meetings, a scout told me the Braves were shopping William Contreras. This led me to write about the possibility of a trade, but I didn’t necessarily see Murphy coming to Atlanta in any potential deal for Contreras, who just enjoyed an All-Star season.

What will this year’s surprise be? Trading Ozuna as he heads into the final year of his deal certainly seems more attractive than moving another member of the lineup. To get value, you must move value. Ozzie Albies’ value extends beyond his great on-field production and Michael Harris II has the potential to become an MVP candidate.

It seems unrealistic to think the Braves could properly address their current and long-term rotation needs by trading Max Fried as he enters the final year of his contract.

Given what Anthopoulos has done over the past few offseasons, it’s probably not wise to assume anything other than the likelihood he has something up his sleeve.

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