The “are they or aren’t they” question of whether or not the Braves are rebuilding is a bit of an ongoing debate this off-season. Thus far, the Braves have traded their best player for a guy with four years of team control (Shelby Miller) and a prospect. They’ve also let one of their best pitchers walk in free agency in return for a compensation pick. Rumors of trades of Justin Upton and Evan Gattis continue to circulate. The Braves have also surfaced as “candidates” in a few major free agents’ cadre of suitors, until it came time to make an actual monetary offer.
This looks–at this juncture at least–like a partial rebuild. The Braves seem willing to part with basically any player that they aren’t confident will be with the team in 2017, but they also aren’t ready to do a complete overhaul either. Typically, I’d view this as the sort of half rebuild that virtually never succeeds without ungodly sums of free agency dollars to help out. The Yankees and Red Sox can do this sort of thing, but I’m skeptical that the Braves have the resources, either monetary or agricultural, to succeed with such a plan. But evaluating that path isn’t really the purpose of this article. One thing does seem to be clear: the Braves certainly aren’t in win now mode. Win now mode would have seen them keep Heyward, keep Santana, and make a run at an impact position player in the outfield, second base, third base or catcher.
If the Braves aren’t in “absolute win now at all costs” mode, they probably need to keep BJ Upton.
In a lot of ways this probably sounds backwards. If you’re trying to rebuild, typically the first thing you’d do is try to move expensive players, right? Yes and no. In the classic rebuild (think Marlins in the late 90s), a team gets rid of many of its core, expensive players to shed salary and acquire prospects. They then develop these younger prospects into cost-controlled young studs who will contribute to the team for 6 years at pay rates that vary from staggeringly below market to substantially below market. Shouldn’t dumping BJ Upton fit in that mold?
Not at all. In the Marlins model, the players that were being shed were good players whose contracts didn’t have negative value. Josh Beckett had lots of value in 2005 when he was traded to the Red Sox for Hanley Ramirez. In contrast, BJ Upton has negative value. They would actually have to pay a team to take him, either in prospects or actual money (paying a large portion of his salary). So first, let’s be clear about what won’t happen in a BJ Upton trade: the Braves will not get anything back of real value. At best they’d get salary relief, and they’d have to part with BJ Upton’s corpse, plus additional players to even do that. This was the idea of the Astros/Braves trade that recently fell through according to reports. The Braves wanted to trade Gattis and Upton to the Astros for an organizational filler prospect and lots of salary relief. The Astros balked. Basically the Braves couldn’t even give away Evan Gattis plus BJ Upton.
Another part of this position is the rumored way that the Braves payroll is structured from year to year by their ownership. It’s been stated multiple times that the Braves are allowed to spend what they make on a year to year basis by Liberty Media. They don’t get to save money in one year to spend in a future year. This makes some sense with the way that Liberty Media views the Braves: as a tax break asset that they plan on eventually flipping at a profit once the Braves get rid of their horrendous local TV deal and are in the more profitable Cobb County Suntrust Park. For accounting and taxation reasons, Liberty Media likely saves more money if the Braves run a very small loss every year, as opposed to a surplus one year and a deficit the next.
What this means is that the Braves have some money to spend over the next few years, even if they’d ideally rather save that money for when they can likely contend again in a new stadium in 2017. In an ideal world, the Braves would simply buy some prospects from a team that was ready to contend, but strapped for cash. In practice this won’t really work, unless the other team has an overpaid player they’d like to part with, which a few have, but there don’t seem to be great matches.
What the Braves could do instead is simply sit on BJ Upton as opposed to trying to salary dump him on another team. This is like trading for an overpaid player to get more back in prospects, because it would then allow the Braves to get more out of a potential Gattis or Justin Upton trade.
Not that these exact scenarios are necessarily realistic, but to make the concept clearer, let’s imagine a couple of hypothetical trades with the Mariners:
Trade 1) Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, BJ Upton for a C level prospect. In this trade the Braves clear a metric crap ton of salary, but get little to nothing back in actual player return. This then frees the Braves up to go out and sign free agents for the next 2-3 years that they couldn’t have signed otherwise. But, uh… so what? Free agents are typically bad deals. If the Braves want to contend in the future with a payroll likely to be at least slightly below that of their rival teams, they need to do everything they can to restock the farm system and build with guys in their pre-free-agency, team-control years. Here the Braves are parting with virtually all of the offense that an already terrible offensive team had left, and gain only the ability to spend more money in the next 2-3 years and a guy who most likely won’t ever make the majors.
Trade 2) Justin Upton, Evan Gattis for Taijuan Walker and a B level prospect. In this trade the Braves still lose almost all of their offensive power, and still have to pay BJ Upton all of his money for the next few years, but they get one of the game’s young dynamic power arms in return, plus a guy who might contribute in a couple of years. A 2017 rotation of Walker, Teheran, Wood, Miller and Minor would be absolutely electric.
Again, the particular players aren’t so much important, but the idea of how you can trade money for prospects is. The difference in these trades is that in the second the Braves are eating roughly $45 million more in salary to get a top prospect and a good prospect. Trading money for impact prospects is almost certainly what the Braves should be looking to do. Consider not trading BJ Upton like a trade of money for prospects, because that is essentially what it is.
BJ Upton might not be very good ever again, but he can at least play CF for a few years, and maybe he can hit like .220/.290/.360. That’s roughly serviceable. Then in 2017 when he’s in the final year of his contact, you can probably afford to either use him on the bench, or more easily stomach an outright release, since you’re only on the hook for one more year. If the Braves look to include BJ Upton in a trade of one of their other marketable assets (Upton or Gattis), they’re essentially mortgaging their future for salary relief in the present, which is what a win now team would be looking to do. Do the Braves look at all like a “win now” team? Jason Heyward’s trade doesn’t really seem to make it appear to be so. As much as Braves fans in the present might grumble about it, keeping BJ Upton is probably the smart thing to do.