The Braves announced Monday morning that they’ve signed right-hander Reynaldo Lopez to a three-year contract that will guarantee him $30MM. The CAA client will be paid $4MM in 2024 and $11MM in both 2025 and 2026. There’s an $8MM club option for the 2027 season with a $4MM buyout.
Lopez becomes the fifth name added to the Braves’ bullpen mix since their season ended, joining re-signed righties Joe Jimenez (three years, $26MM) and Pierce Johnson (two years, $14.25MM) and trade acquisitions Aaron Bummer and Jackson Kowar. Interestingly, however, Justin Toscano of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution tweets that the Braves will have Lopez prepare as a starting pitcher this winter.
While the club isn’t necessarily penciling Lopez into the 2024 rotation, the Braves believe he can have success in either role and ramping him down from starting to relieving is of course easier than the inverse. Lopez’s specific role may not be determined until the spring, but it’s certainly notable that there’s at least a chance he’ll get another look as a starter with his new club.
Lopez, 30 in January, has plenty of experience in both roles but hasn’t had much success as a starting pitcher. Once one of the sport’s top pitching prospects, he went from the Nationals to the White Sox alongside Lucas Giolito and Dane Dunning in the 2016 trade sending Adam Eaton back to Washington. While he gave the White Sox 32 starts and 188 innings of 3.91 ERA ball in 2018, he did so with shaky peripherals. On the whole, Lopez carries a lifetime 3.01 ERA out of the bullpen but a much rockier 4.73 mark as a starter.
Lopez’s career took off, in earnest, with a full-time move to the bullpen — a role in which he’s excelled for the past two seasons, albeit in different ways. The flamethrowing righty had a rough start in ’22 but was one of the sport’s most dominant bullpen arms over that season’s final four months, logging a 1.54 ERA, 28.8% strikeout rate and 3.1% walk rate from early June through season’s end. Overall, his 2022 campaign ended with a sterling 2.76 ERA, a slightly above-average strikeout rate (24.8%) and an elite walk rate (4.3%).
In 2023, Lopez’s run prevention was again strong (3.27 ERA), but he took a different route to get there. Brandishing a fastball that was now averaging a blistering 98.4 mph — a 1.3 mph increase over the prior season’s already-strong 97.1 mph — Lopez punched out a huge 29.9% of his opponents. However, his 12.2% walk rate was nearly triple that of the prior season. He all but abandoned his curveball, throwing it at just a 1.2% clip (after 7.2% in 2022).
The 2023 version of Lopez was effectively a two-pitch pitcher: blazing fastball and hard slider (with a seldom-used changeup and curveball). He has, however, had seasons where he’s thrown both his change and his hook at a 20% clip or higher, so there’s certainly a diverse enough collection of pitches in his arsenal to succeed as a starter — if the Braves can coax better and more consistent results from his secondary offerings. If Lopez were to work as a starter, it’s only natural to think his fastball velocity would drop a tick, but he’s still have well above-average heat regardless.
To an extent, it’s possible that Lopez’s ultimate usage in 2024 depends on the remainder of Atlanta’s offseason. As things stand, the Braves’ rotation includes Spencer Strider, Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Bryce Elder. There’ll be competition for that fifth spot, likely including Lopez but also featuring top prospect AJ Smith-Shawver, veteran Ian Anderson (who’ll be returning from Tommy John surgery), southpaw Dylan Dodd and righty Huascar Ynoa. The Braves have been linked to some free agents of note thus far, and if they succeed in signing Sonny Gray or acquiring another veteran starter, that’d likely push Lopez more firmly into the bullpen.
If Lopez ends up in his more familiar bullpen role, he’ll join a comically deep group. In addition to the aforementioned Jimenez, Johnson and Bummer, the Braves will deploy Raisel Iglesias, A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek in what’s shaping up to be one of the most experienced and most talented collection of relief arms in the Majors.
Lopez’s $4MM salary for the 2024 season pushes the Braves’ payroll up to around $207MM, per Roster Resource’s projections. However, while its backloaded nature spares Atlanta some bottom-line payroll in the upcoming season, the contract still comes with a much heftier $10MM luxury-tax hit, as all luxury calculations are based on a deal’s average annual value.
The $10MM AAV on Lopez’s contract pushes the Braves squarely into luxury-tax territory, as they’re now at about $241.6MM of luxury considerations — comfortably north of this year’s $237MM luxury barrier. They also paid the luxury tax last season, meaning their penalty levels will rise. Rather than a 20% dollar-for-dollar tax, they’ll now pay a 30% tax (with increasing penalties if they surpass the threshold by more than $20MM total). They’re also in line for even harsher penalties come 2025, as third-time payors face even steeper rates of taxation.