It’s almost Christmas, and so far, the moves made by the rebuilt Braves front office haven’t quite been the good tidings we all had hopes for. The biggest concern of most so far has been a seeming lack of direction with where the organization is headed. Many expected a fire sale of sorts, shipping away everything that wasn’t bolted down to restock a barren farm system. Others expected the team to stay the course, trying to remain relevant in a jumbled National League. What has happened is a little bit of both, but not enough to really shed a great deal of light on what the big picture may be. Some moves have caused raised eyebrows, others have been deserving of praise, and some have been befuddling. Hopefully laying it all out will give us a little idea where we are headed.
Let’s start with the obvious…
John Hart named President of Baseball Operations
This is where it all started. Or where it all started to go wrong.
When Frank Wren was fired in late September, a three-man committee of team president John Schuerholz, former manager Bobby Cox, and senior advisor John Hart was formed to search out all options to find a replacement. As Hart would say in the presser, they “were looking for the next John Schuerholz.” It was also announced that day that until the position was filled Hart would take over as interim GM. Hart himself stated he wasn’t seeking a job and the group would cast a wide net. As he put it they were “going to talk to a lot of people.”
This was September 22nd. A month later, on October 23rd, Hart was named the new President of Baseball Operations, a title effectively making him the team’s general manager going forward. It’s the title held by Theo Epstein in Chicago and Andrew Friedman in Los Angeles. Both may have general managers by title underneath them, but all personnel decisions run directly through them. With Hart, he’s got GM-in-training John Coppolella, the organization’s wunderkind who many thought was the favorite for the job. Schuerholz knew all along who he wanted, to the point–according to Hart–that he avoided the search as much as possible over the previous month.
So, while organizations keep going younger and younger with their personnel managers, the Braves went with a man who was one of the oldest GMs in the game when he last held the position – ten years ago. Now, in an ever changing front office environment, the Braves have the oldest front office in baseball. But, hey, that’s just The Braves Way.
Signed Outfielder Zoilo Almonte
Honestly, I literally had no idea who Almonte was when the Braves signed him. And I still don’t feel like I do. He’s 25, has 47 ML games under his belt, and hasn’t shown much of anything during that time. He’s had high strikeout numbers at every level he’s played at, has never walked, but has displayed a decent amount of power at a couple different stops. I’m sure he would make a very good organizational guy, but the move to sign him to a Major League deal is very questionable. He’s a switch hitter who can play all three OF positions without looking out of place, so there is definitely some versatility to factor in. He’s always projected as a fourth outfielder, and truth be told, anything is better than what the Braves bench produced in 2014.
Traded Tommy La Stella to the Cubs for Arodys Vizcaino
The real star here was the international bonus pool money. Or so I’ve been told. I guess it makes sense with the amount of overhaul that was done on the scouting and player development departments. International development is always one of those questionable areas where you essentially throw as much against the wall and hope something sticks every decade or so. Still, the more you’ve got to throw against the wall the better, I suppose.
As for the pieces we know, La Stella was the player all of the Braves community wanted to see at 2B for the first half of the 2014 calendar year. He stumbled out the door, caught his stride when he left the stoop, tripped over his own feet when he reached the sidewalk, and then rolled into the street. To say he was the Braves best option would be akin to picking out your favorite turd in a pile of dog feces. A lot of us hated to see TLS go, but it ultimately wasn’t something many of us lost sleep over (Editor’s Note: Dan Simpson wept).
Five years ago when the Braves first acquired Vizcaino as a piece in the Melky Cabrera/Javier Vazquez trade, the hard-throwing righty was the top pitching prospect in the Yankees system and one of the top 100 prospects in all of baseball. Then, it all went wrong. After undergoing Tommy John surgery in early 2012, he was part of the package sent to Chicago in the deal for Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson. He still couldn’t shake the injury bug, requiring a second surgery on his elbow and another missed season in 2013. He would work his way back to the Majors in 2014 and having just turned 24 still has a ton of untapped potential if he can stay healthy going forward. Bringing Vizcaino back into the fold could prove to be one of the steals of the offseason.
Traded Jason Heyward & Jordan Walden to St. Louis for Shelby Miller & Tyrell Jenkins
The move that none of us wanted to see but knew was coming. The inevitability of losing Heyward still wasn’t enough to take the sting out of it. As it became more and more aware the team would not be able to offer an extension to Heyward or sign him long-term once he hit the free agent market, maximizing his value became top priority. And that meant finding a trade partner. A day after sending La Stella to the Cubs, the Braves would partner up with another NL Central team, sending Heyward and setup man Jordan Walden to the Cardinals.
Walden was a very pleasant surprise for the Braves, amassing 1.5 fWAR over his two years in Atlanta. Not bad for a guy who was a throw-in from the Angels in a dumping of Tommy Hanson. And now he was a throw-in to a deal that involved three much bigger names. A month removed from the trade any Braves fans have probably forgotten about his inclusion in the deal.
For the bare minimum of one year of Jason Heyward the Cardinals parted with starting pitcher Shelby Miller and prospect Tyrell Jenkins. Miller was atop the Cardinals prospects list four years running before becoming a permanent part of the Cardinals rotation in 2012. If there is one thing the Cardinals have developed in recent years, it’s hard throwers, and Miller has fit that mold perfectly. He just turned 24 as the season ended, so while it seems like he has been around forever, like Vizcaino, there is a lot of Miller we have yet to see. Working with Roger McDowell could be enough to propel Miller into the top tier, turning a guy who is currently a 3/4 into a solid number two in the Braves rotation.
With Jenkins the Braves get a player very similar to Vizcaino, but as a starter. He’s 22, very highly touted, and has had a career riddled with injuries. He’s peaked in high-A ball so far and has missed parts of three seasons with shoulder injuries, maxing out at a mere eighty innings over four full seasons as a pro. Still, Jenkins has a very high ceiling and doesn’t turn 23 until the middle of the 2015 season.
While none of us wanted to see Heyward go, the return could be a huge payoff. Or it could fizzle out.
Signed Reliever Jim Johnson
With Jordan Walden traded away, the Braves were in need of arms to bridge the gap to Kimbrel at the end of games. Enter Jim Johnson. It’s far from a high profile signing, but given the reclamation projects the Braves have produced in recent years, it could be a low-risk high-reward signing. He’s a year removed from back-to-back fifty save seasons with the Orioles, but had a disastrous 2014 split between the Athletics and Tigers. While he’s not expected to be the top guy in Atlanta, even if last season proves to be more the norm than an aberration, the Braves will be out a very small amount given his guaranteed money.
Signed Outfielder Nick Markakis
The Braves signed Nick Markakis to a four year, $44M guaranteed salary. Let’s be frank, this isn’t your daddy’s Nick Markakis. This isn’t the Nick Markakis that was one of the game’s premier young players from 2006 to 2010. This is the Nick Markakis that has been a very average Major League outfielder the past four seasons. He’s not great, he’s barely good, he just turned 31, and did I mention the neck thing yet?
Oh, yeah, that.
See, early in March two seasons ago, Markakis started having neck spasms. It was soon discovered he had a herniated disk in his neck. He progressed through 2013, playing all but two games for the Orioles, but put up the worst season of his career, both offensively and defensively. In camp this past season, the spasms cropped back up and the herniated disk continued to linger. Markakis had a bounce-back year in 2014, but he was still without the gap power numbers he had put up during his peak years in the late 00’s.
When the Braves signed Markakis two weeks ago, they were reportedly aware of the neck issue and the outfielder’s desire to have surgery to remedy the issue. They continued forward with the four year deal, locking up the Georgia native through his age 35 season. The surgery appears to be of the non-severe type. He’s expected to make a full recovery and be ready to go by the start of spring training. Fusion surgery can be tricky, however. A similar procedure was what nearly ended Peyton Manning’s career, and what took Prince Fielder off the field last season. If the organization says it was minor, and still went forward with the contract despite the knowledge, we have to take it at face value.
I’m going to continue to remain skeptical in regards to a 31 year old who was given a four year contract despite the knowledge he was going to need fusion surgery to repair a two-year old injury. The deal would have been much better under almost any other circumstances if the team weren’t in the current state of transition, but it’s a questionable move to lock up a guy trending downwards on a team that is supposedly trying to rebuild.
Signed Infielder Alberto Callaspo
Bringing in a guy like Callaspo is perfectly fine if you are trying to finish up your roster and round out your bench with infield versatility. Signing a guy like Callaspo because you have a huge question mark at 2B and need some insurance at 3B? Yeah, not so much. He’s another guy who is over thirty and appears to have his best seasons well behind them. He does have a slight amount of upside, but not much. It really all depends on how he is used. He’s been an above average ML starter for the majority of his career, and actually had some success both offensively and defensively. And up until the past two seasons, when he has battled weight issues, he’s had a little bit of pop, a decent walk rate, and his wRC+ has been right at league average for 2B over the past six seasons. So it’s not all that bad. It all depends on which version of Callaspo the Braves get in 2015: the one who as recently as 2012 put up a 98 wRC+ and 2.9 WAR with the Angels or the player who struggled with solid contact the past two seasons and saw his IFFB% balloon to greater than 10%. While I don’t hate the Callaspo signing as much as I did when it was first announced, and it’s low risk given the amount of money, I’m a little worried the black hole at 2B is going to continue for another season. Absolute worst case scenario is continued futility at 2B will lead to the promotion of Jose Peraza much in the same way early 2014 struggles lead to Tommy La Stella.
Traded Anthony Varvaro to Boston
For some reason unbeknownst to me, this move lead to an absolute meltdown amongst the Braves Twitter community. Given the sudden adoration for Varvaro, you would think the Braves had just traded away the bronze statues out in Monument Grove. Varvaro is about as average of a reliever as is humanly possible. He recently turned thirty, made 130 appearances over the past two seasons, has been worth only 0.5 WAR over that time, and while he’s posted a sub-3.00 ERA, his FIP (3.36) and xFIP (3.74) show there has been some luck involved. He also saw his IFFB% drop significantly in 2014, while his HR/FB doubled and velocity on his fastball dropped nearly a half a MPH. Factor in Kimbrel, Carpenter, Johnson, Vizcaino, Shae Simmons, and even Juan Jaime, and the need for a mediocre RH reliever is pretty limited. He was also out of options the past two seasons, so chances were pretty good he would be blocking a superior pitcher in Vizcaino, Simmons or Jaime from cracking the Opening Day roster.
Traded Justin Upton & Aaron Northcraft to San Diego for Max Fried, Jace Peterson, Dustin Peterson, and Mallex Smith
The trade of Justin Upton was the second of the two inevitable deals this offseason. As with Heyward, Upton was ultimately going to hit the free agent market following the 2015 season. The Braves front office made it pretty clearly they weren’t going to make strides to lock either outfielder up, so it all boiled down to getting the best return for each player.
It took me a while to come around to the package Heyward got from St. Louis, and I hope time will do the same with the Upton trade.
The centerpiece of the deal is lefty Max Fried. He turns 21 next month and has already been in the Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com Top 100 Prospects lists prior to the 2013 and 2014 seasons. The concerning thing with Fried, despite his tremendous upside, is the fact he battled elbow issues since spring training last year, which lead to Tommy John surgery this past August. So while he likely becomes the organization’s top pitching prospect, it will be another fifteen months before the team gets to see him throw his first competitive pitch. The huge advantage is he will only be 22 at the time, which still gives him plenty of time to get his feel back and work his way through the Braves system without being rushed. His path could end up similar to that of Alex Wood, who had Tommy John surgery at 19 during his freshman season at UGA, hit the Braves system at 21, and made his ML debut less than a year later. With even more upside than Wood, the organization surely hopes Fried does well enough in 2016 to hopefully have him in the Majors by the middle of 2017.
Jace Peterson could end up being the steal of the offseason. Entering 2014 he was the top infield prospect in the Padres system, and despite spending 2013 in high-A ball, made his ML debut in late April. He opened 2014 at AA before his call-up, but would end up spending much of 2014 at AAA El Paso, where he put up a very impressive .306/.406/.464 slash line over 68 games, despite numerous trips back and forth to the big club for depth. The LH’s addition adds another name to the race for the 2B job, and he adds depth at all three infield skill positions. At worst, he’s Tommy La Stella with added versatility, at best he’s the stopgap 2B until Peraza arrives and then settles into a key piece of the bench.
Dustin Peterson and Mallex Smith are total toss-ups and essentially throw-ins at this point, but both could develop into more than organizational guys. Peterson was a second round pick in 2013 and has played 3B the past two seasons despite being drafted as a SS. Scouting reports say he has a lot of bat speed, discipline, and could develop a decent amount of power. He’s still a couple years away from knowing what his eventual outcome could be, but there is upside at a position the Braves need depth at. The selling point on Smith is his speed, which most scouts are already grading as an 80. He’s justified that grade in a big way, swiping 152 bases combined over the past two seasons between A and high-A. The question with Smith, like most speed-first prospects, is how his other tools will develop. He’s posted a respectable walk rate in the Minors thus far, and like most players of his type, has posted a very high BABIP. When you’ve got speed akin to Smith, your top priority is getting on base, and if he can develop some plate discipline and an ability to routinely put the ball in play, even the weakest amount of contact can make him dangerous.
And just like that, I’ve already talked myself into liking the Upton trade more than I did when I sat down to write the past few paragraphs.
The Braves still have a long way to go before we know what the end result of this partial rebuild will be. The cornerstones are still in place: Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons, and Julio Teheran. And for now, there is a nice supporting cast in place with Evan Gattis, Alex Wood, and Mike Minor. Everything else just depends on what comes of the offense and if the staff can perform up to last year’s expectations. Still, with an offense that struggled to score runs last season, and now missing the key bats of Upton and Heyward, that aspect of the game will be the most damning in 2015. As presently constructed, Freeman is the only consistent bat the team has. Gattis has made great strides the past two seasons, but turns 29 mid-season, has yet to play over 108 games in a season, and if he’s expected to play LF, could be a huge defensive liability. Literally everything else in the lineup a question mark. Christian Bethancourt has still not shown development at the plate, 2B is up for grabs, Simmons/Johnson/Upton were abysmal at the plate in 2014, and Markakis will be coming off of major surgery.
But the biggest concern I have is where the farm system stands. If the organization is planning on treading water before making their big run with the move to SunTrust Park in 2017, where is the huge jump going to come from? Sure, Jenkins and Fried are added elite arms, Peterson and Smith could develop into pieces, but other than Peraza and pitcher Lucas Sims, the organization barely has enough above-average prospects to round out a top ten. The player development system is something the new front office has spent a lot of time assembling this offseason, but without a wealth of talent in place, how effective can the new team be? And with over $80M already tied into the 2017 roster, how much money will be left on the table?
There have been some positive moves this offseason, namely the Heyward and Upton trades, and the stopgap deals with Callaspo and Johnson have been low-risk, high-reward. But the decision to lock-up Markakis to a four year deal could make those questionable Frank Wren signings look very minimal in terms of damage. Even if the team is going to lay low until 2017, as of right now, they will have $22M tied into a RF in his mid-30s. Still, it’s hard to argue the signing wasn’t a necessity. Without Markakis, after trading Heyward and Upton, the Braves would have an even bigger question mark in an already woeful offense. The problem was it took a four year contract to get the two year stopgap the Braves needed.
Heading into 2015 and 2016, the organization is going to have a lot of questions to answer. There aren’t a lot of commodities left to move with Heyward and Upton gone, a lack of depth in the system, and a checkbook that is running low on funds. Hart, Coppollela, Schuerholz, and the rest of the front office are going to need to get very creative over the next 27 months if they plan on returning the organization to greatness.