Saturday, December 10, 2016

Where Does the Braves Roster Sit Right Now?

After a number of moves, it might be confusing to know where the Braves stand right now with two months to go before pitchers-and-catchers report to camp. Let's take a look at how the roster is shaping up.

Rotation (in no particular order)
Julio Teheran
Bartolo Colon
Jaime Garcia
R.A. Dickey

In the mix: One might think Mike Foltynewicz has the fifth starter job fairly locked up after posting a 4.24 FIP/4.18 xFIP/4.13 SIERA with improved groundball rates and control lover 22 starts last season. I know I felt that way - right up until I read this article in which Braves GM John Coppolella lays down the gauntlet and says "pitch better" if you feel you are owed a chance to join the rotation.

Still, Folty has to be in the favorite to reclaim a spot in the rotation. But, if not him, who else? Well, the recent trades of John Gant, Robert Whalen, Tyrell Jenkins, and the release of Williams Perez have cleared up things to an extent. Folty's main competition looks to be Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair for the time being. Wisler was one of the guys Coppy talked about being handed a chance after a decent September 2015 finish was parlayed into him getting a rotation spot to open 2016. Over 156.2 innings, Wisler had a 4.85 FIP and 4.71 xFIP. Atlanta needs to see more and quickly. Blair was lit up over 15 starts in the majors last year. He's carried a good deal of hype as he climbed the minor league ladder, but never posted overwhelming stats to match the praise.

Other options include Josh Collmenter, who the Braves brought back on a one-year deal, and Jesse Biddle, a former top prospect for the Phillies who missed all of last year with injury. The next two star starting prospects on the cusp of joining the fray are Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims, though it would take an amazing spring for them to leapfrog into the fifth starter role.

By Keith Allison on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational
(Crop) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Bullpen (assuming seven are kept)
Jim Johnson
Ian Krol
Arodys Vizcaino
Mauricio Cabrera

In the mix: With middle relievers getting paid handsomely this winter, the Braves have shied away from a crazy market in order to put together a collection of legitimate options along with shedding others from the mix like Chris Withrow and Ryan Weber.

Assuming, again, that there are seven total bullpen spots - right now I would include openings for three relievers - including at least one lefty. We'll get to them in a second, but there are plenty of right-handers available and one, the previously mentioned Collmenter, might already have his name in pen even if I don't do the same here. Jose Ramirez and Chaz Roe are a pair of holdovers who both struck out a small village and carry their own questions.

And then, there are the two Rule 5 guys. Recently selected Armando Rivero definitely has his foot in the door and has the pedigree. Still, the Braves want to be better than just a rebuilding team in 2017 so stashing him just to keep him is a no-go. The same applies for Daniel Winkler. It's impossible not to root for the guy after he made it all the way back from Tommy John only to have his elbow shatter during a game last April. He was looking nasty before the injury. I have not seen many updates, but the belief is he'll be ready to compete.

Luke Jackson was just acquired and has the stuff to be a high-leverage reliever in the majors. My gut says the Braves would like to work with Jackson in the minors for a little while, but he could force their hand with a big spring performance.

Shae Simmons returned for seven games last summer and will get his first chance to break camp with the Braves after being a midseason callup in 2014. At that point, he was immediately compared to Craig Kimbrel. He's not Kimbrel elite, but could be an x-factor for the 2017 bullpen. Other righties competing for a spot will be Jason Hursh, Akeel Morris, and Jordan Walden. The last name is very familiar, of course, and will try to make the roster after missing much of the last two seasons with injuries.

The left-handed side of the equation is just as crowded. Paco Rodriguez can be dominating when on the mound (2.98 FIP, 3.00 xFIP), but has thrown just 24.1 major league frames since the end of 2013. Atlanta has no idea what they have with Rodriguez at this point, but they also don't want to block him from claiming a spot. His main competition comes from Matt Marksberry and a pair of minor league signings - Eric O'Flaherty and Sam Freeman. Marksberry had a well-publicized health scare in November, but is progressing and seems like a good bet to be ready to compete this February. While his overall numbers in the majors aren't good, he has dominated lefties both in the majors and minors and if Krol continues to flash full-inning ability rather than be a LOOGY, there is room for Marksberry.

O'Flaherty was a surprise signing recently after looking terrible over 39 times last year for the Braves. To be fair, he was hurt. To be equally as fair, he hasn't been healthy since 2012. Freeman has a 4.32 FIP over 116.1 major league innings since 2012 and lefties have hurt him much more than righties.

I just mentioned 14 names battling for three spots. I could go on, too. Steve Janas, Caleb Dirks, Kyle Kinman, A.J. Minter, Bradley Roney, Adam Kolarek...

Suffice it to say, some of these guys are going to be spending time logging time with the minor league clubs this spring just to get some innings.

Catcher (assuming two)
Tyler Flowers

In the mix: To this point, the Braves have been shut out of the catcher market. Sure, they acquired Tuffy Gosewisch off waivers, but Jason Castro and Wilson Ramos have found new homes and neither are coming to Atlanta. While the market is still an option and the Braves may try to wait it out, there remains a significant chance that Gosewisch and Anthony Recker will battle it out to join Flowers on the active roster in April. At this point, there doesn't really seem to be another player in this battle.

D/ Swanson By Arturo Pardavila III from Hoboken,
NJ, USA [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Infield (assuming seven)
Freddie Freeman
Jace Peterson
Dansby Swanson
Adonis Garcia
Sean Rodriguez

In the mix: Chase d'Arnaud had his best major league showing last year, but still on-based just .317. The bad news for him is that the Braves added Rodriguez, who essentially does everything d'Arnaud does, but better. Even with in mind, d'Arnaud has a good shot to remain if the season were to open tomorrow as one of the two backup options behind Rodriguez because he's a bit of a better option at shortstop.

Emilio Bonifacio just returned on a minor league pack, but should be avoided because Brian Snitker can't help but use him if he's around. Also in the mix is Colin Walsh, a switch-hitter who has played a lot of second base, third, and the corner outfield slots in the minors with a career .813 OPS. He only went 4-for-47 last year in his first taste of the majors, but still walked 15 times. Kyle Kubitza has 19 games of experience in The Show and a career .366 OBP in the minors, but has limited experience on the infield beyond third base.

The only other two infielders on the 40-man are Johan Camargo and Rio Ruiz. The former on-based .304 in Double-A last year and has not played above that level so let's just focus on Ruiz. The Braves would love a big spring where he pushes Garcia for playing time. Speaking of big springs, what about Ozzie Albies? The conventional wisdom is that Albies is ticketed for at least a few more months at Triple-A, but if he pushes Peterson this spring, it'll be hard not to bring him north. I don't find that likely, but it could happen.

My gut says that d'Arnaud and Ruiz are penciled in, but I also could see the Braves adding a veteran to take up one of the spots. Possibly Kelly Johnson? Well, at least until the Braves ship him off to the Mets to live with his other parents for the summer.

By Keith Allison on Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Outfield (assuming four)
Matt Kemp
Ender Inciarte
Nick Markakis

In the mix: There are a few schools of thought on keeping Mallex Smith as a fourth outfielder. You don't want to stunt his growth and Smith has just 72 games at Triple-A over the last two years. To be fair, he has looked pretty good in those 72 games (.344 OBP). I personally like the option of keeping him on the roster. He'll get plenty of playing time spelling the aging Kemp and Markakis, you can develop him against select pitchers, he can study pitchers and their tendencies on the mound, and he gives you elite speed in a high leverage situation as a pinch runner.

The Braves' positional flexibility does mean that they don't have to carry a CF behind Inciarte. Peterson can move to center field and in a pinch, Rodriguez and d'Arnaud can as well. If they go for a non-Mallex option that's already in-house, Mel Rojas Jr. could be a surprise. After pedestrian numbers in Double-A, the son of the former Expos reliever excelled at Gwinnett over 64 games, hitting .270/.349/.491 with 10 HR and 9 steals. He had never looked that good before so don't buy in completely yet. Rojas is also a switch-hitter.

On the minor league free agent front, I mentioned Bonifacio and Walsh already. Another option is Lane Adams, a right-handed hitter, has played a lot of center field over his eight-year career. Last year, while playing for two stops in both Double-A and Triple-A, Adams hit .266/.342/.388 with 44 steals.

The veteran I mentioned above that I believe the Braves will sign to take up a bench spot might be an outfielder. Ideally, I believe the Braves would love a guy capable of playing CF even with options like Peterson around. One guy who would have to take a big pay cut is Coco Crisp, but he could make sense. Other CF-capable players include Austin Jackson and Desmond Jennings, who are both still young enough (30) to believe they could have a big year in their careers.

In summery...

The Braves positional battles look both wide open and underwhelming while the pitching battles could have too many players involved. Of course, two months give John Coppolella and the Braves' front office a lot of time to tweak and improve the roster.

What say you? Should the Braves spend big on a catcher? Should they go full-bore after a starter and take away the impression of a competition for a rotation spot? Does the bullpen need another established arm? How about the bench?

Friday, December 9, 2016

Braves Get Tyler Pike from Mariners

November's trade of Robert Whalen and Max Povse to the Mariners for Alex Jackson and a player to be named later is now complete. Left-hander Tyler Pike will be headed to the Braves. Presumably, the two teams had worked out a list of players the Braves would take, but Atlanta wanted to wait until the Rule 5 Draft was completed so that they wouldn't have to concern themselves with protecting the player they wanted.

Pike, who was once committed to Florida State, was a third round selection of the 2012 draft and the 126th overall selection of that draft. He showed promise through his first two seasons, but then reached the California League and things went away from him. And now, let's talk about the Seattle Mariners development team.

As a high school left-hander, Pike began his career in 2012 in the Arizona Summer League. That's pretty typical and while Pike certainly looked good (57 K's in 50.2 innings while allowing one homerun), the common path of a high school draftee is an assignment with the Advanced-Rookie League squad. Seattle, unlike the Braves, could have also waited until the Short Season Northwest League began its season and started Pike's second season there. Instead, they pushed Pike to A-ball Clinton of the Midwest League. This is not abnormal for the Mariners, either. They did the same thing with Taijuan Walker (and even moved him to Double-A the next year) after picking Walker out of Yucaipa High School in California.

It should be noted that both Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka, who signed rather than attend college after being selected in the first round of the 2015 draft, also moved up to A-ball the next year (though Allard did make five starts in High-Rookie ball). Nevertheless, Pike was still very young (about three years younger than the average) for the Midwest League. Like Allard and Soroka, Pike looked like he earned the promotion, but what happened next is why I bring this up.

When things came off the rails in 2014, he was again three years younger than the competition for the California League. Known as one of the most hitter-friendly leagues in baseball, the California League is not for the faint of heart. Pike would get bashed around and his psyche seemed cracked. In 61.1 innings, he gave up ten homers, walked 46 batters, hit seven more, and uncorked six wild pitches. He had an ERA of 5.72 in mid-June when the Mariners thought a change of scenery was needed. Rather than move Pike back down to the Midwest League to find his bearings, they promoted him to Jackson of the Double-A Southern League and his already putrid stats got a good deal worse. On the year, he had a 6.44 ERA between the two stops.

Most organizations would have started Pike back in A-ball in 2015, but not the Mariners. They started him in Jackson. He lasted eleven innings before being sent back to the California League. For 50 starts since then, he has started to find himself as his age came closer to matching his competition. Pike would also find better command over his curveball and the 12-to-6 pitch has plus-plus capability.

Pike is still an unfinished project. While he has improved his command, he still walked nearly five batters per nine innings last year. On the plus side, he struck out a new personal best 134 batters for a rate of 9.6 per nine. Pike won't induce too many grounders and has given up his fair share of homers, though the California League will do that to ya. His delivery looks fluid enough, though I'd like to see the Braves cut it down some as it includes a bit too much movement (over-the-head, high leg kick). It does provide some deception, but at a cost.

I talked about his curveball as it truly is the difference in helping him stay as a starter. When he is able to control and drop it below the knees as it reaches the plate, it has out pitch ability. Pike's velocity won't light up the radar guns (low 90's), but his command on the fastball will be key in getting him to the majors. He also has a pretty good changeup, though like his other pitches, improved command would go a long way to helping him.

Pike will turn 23 near the end of January and the southpaw will be given a third shot to solve the Southern League. This time, however, he's earned it and is age appropriate. He could easily be a sleeper that turns into a Top 10 prospect by season's end or get moved to the bullpen. Much like many prospects the Braves have picked up this offseason, Pike represents a low floor, high ceiling guy. His stats are not much to write home about, but if Atlanta straightens him out, they turned two decent arms into a big one (plus whatever happens with Jackson). That's how you build impact talent.

Braves Wheel and Deal on Final Day of Winter Meetings

The final day of the Winter Meetings saw plenty of players leaving and even some coming to Atlanta. Let's recap the moves.

By Arturo Pardavila III from Hoboken, NJ, USA
[CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Atlanta Braves release Williams Perez

The day got started with the news that the Braves were cutting Perez to open up a spot on their 40-man roster that would soon be used for a Rule 5 selection. Perez, a right-handed groundball machine, had came on the scene with a breakout 2015 in which he maintained a 2.91 ERA and 3.29 FIP at Double-A Mississippi. He never was a strikeout pitcher, but showed great command of the strikezone and a penchant for getting batters to smack the ball into the ground for easy outs.

Over the last two seasons, he has appeared 34 times in the majors with all but three as a starter. What we find out was about what we thought we knew when he was coming up. While capable of getting grounders, Williams lacked stuff and in the major leagues, it's almost impossible to get by as a right-handed soft tosser without having a weapon resembling a plus pitch to choose from. Just to add on, of all total pitches that Williams threw, a criminally low 5.9% became swinging strikes. The average is about 10%. Hitters bashed him and he wore his 4.85 FIP/4.75 xFIP deservingly. He's not bad Quad-A depth, but his ceiling was just too low for the Braves to keep him when they could re-purpose that roster spot on a higher ceiling option.

The Atlanta Braves select RHP Armando Rivero from the Chicago Cubs

Last week, I reviewed eight players I liked coming into the Rule 5 Draft. Only two were selected and the Braves' option wasn't on my radar. That said, I'm blogging in my boxers and they have a wealth of scouting reports so I'm confident they made a better selection than me. Rivero was a big signing by the Chicago Cubs in 2013 out of Cuba. Expected to be a quick riser through the minor leagues, Rivero has been on the cusp of the majors in each of the last two seasons. Overall, his minor league numbers are pretty studly with 303 K's in 220 ING (12.4 K/9). He can battle control issues and gives up a few too many homers. Unlike many Rule 5 picks, Rivero is up there in age and will turn 29 on the first day of February.

Rivero has mixed reports on his fastball velocity ranging from low 90's to the mid-90's. His best pitch when he was a star reliever in Cuba was his cutter. He also has a breaking ball that, had he been able to develop it into a plus pitch, might have pushed the Cubs to try him as a starter. That said, I've read that the pitch (which some call a curve while others say is a slider) can be a strikeout pitch, but lacks consistency. The bullpen is shaping up to have a lot of competition, but Rivero's Rule 5 status might help him claim a spot if not outshined by other options.

For more on Rivero - especially his defection from Cuba - read this article from last July from The Des Moines Register. New Braves minor leaguer David Freitas also has a quote in the article and I highly recommend it.

Minor League Portion of Rule 5 Draft Review

And then, there was the minor league portion of the Rule 5. While the Braves didn't lose a player in the major league portion while adding Rivero, they lost three guys in the minor league section along with gaining one. These players do not have to be offered back to their previous team if not kept in Triple-A.

The Braves selected Cesilio Pimentel from the Pirates in the First Round as they continue to absolutely crush the name competition. Signed out of the Dominican Republic, the lefty made his professional debut in 2011 and has slowly climbed the ladder since then. Last year, at 23, he pitched for West Virginia in the Sally League mostly in long relief. He's continued to show good control and adequate strikeout numbers, but really needs to be challenged at some point as he was just too old for the South Atlantic League. While he'll go to the Triple-A roster, my bet is that he'll start next season in Double-A.

The Second Round saw the Braves lose two players before a third went in the next and last round. First, left-hander Brian Moran went to the Orioles. He's been around for awhile now since the Mariners selected him out of UNC-Chapel Hill in 2009. He's also a veteran of the Rule 5 pick as he was picked in 2013 by the Angels, but missed the season with Tommy John surgery and was ultimately returned to the Mariners. He would pitch one more season with the M's before being selected last year as a minor league Rule 5 pick by the Indians. He was released at the end of spring training and played some in independent ball before the Braves added him last August for the stretch run with Gwinnett. He has good career numbers, but they don't really stand out, either.

Three picks later, the Rangers picked Zachary Bird. The righty had been acquired along with *gulp* Hector Olivera in 2015 from the Dodgers. He was praised for his athleticism and reports were thathe had a big arm that and some high-celing potential. However, last year, he looked completely lost in the Carolina League. Despite that, there was some rumblings that Bird might be selected in the major league portion if the Braves didn't protect him. That was probably due to the fact that his Dodgers pre-trade hype is still attached to him according to MLB Pipeline as very few - if any - experts had Bird as a Top 30 prospect for the Braves outside MLB's official prospect guys. Bird has a shot to be something for the Rangers, but not shocked the Braves didn't try to protect him.

The final selection of the day came with Texas again raided the Braves' system for righty Fernando Miranda. In 2015, he made a cameo in my Random Prospect Sunday series. He spent last season on loan to the Mexican League where he had decent K numbers, but not a lot else. Miranda had only pitched 78 innings over three seasons before 2016 in the Braves' system. This sentence might sum on the choice of Miranda - you didn't know the Braves had him and there was good reason for that.

By EricEnfermero (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Braves Trade Tyrell Jenkins and Brady Feigl, Take Chance on Luke Jackson

This is one of those trades where all you can say is "Uh, alright."

It wasn't hard to like Jenkins. He had an engaging personality on social media, was one of the first real young pieces the Braves acquired after axing Frank Wren, and had posted some pretty decent numbers over two years. The problem with Jenkins was pretty simple. While the Braves were able to squeeze the two healthiest seasons of his career, his metrics never climbed out of the "Meh" range. His K/9 fell under 6 an inning, his control never wavered far from 4 walks per nine, and while he always induced a lot of grounders, his stats never seemed to match the hype.

Like Zach Bird, Jenkins is an athletic righty who needed refinement. So much so that last year, the Braves pushed Jenkins to the pen. But whereas Bird headed south this season, Jenkins did enough to earn a callup to the majors. He walked more batters than he struck out and like a player the Braves cut earlier that day, Williams Perez, Jenkins couldn't get hitters to swing-and-miss. Since Jenkins has never displayed excellent control, that led to major league hitters elevating his pitches and sending them to the bleachers for souvenirs way too often.

That's not to say that Jenkins is a lost cause. Only that he had plateaued and was not improving. With better prospects reaching Triple-A or knocking on the door, Jenkins was expendable.

Feigl was a fun story during the 2015 spring training as a non-drafted free agent who Gene Karns, who had found Brandon Beachy, signed. Feigl pitched well in 2014 and with no lefties stepping forward in the spring of 2015, Feigl was beginning to look like a possibility to break camp in the majors before being a late cut. Soon after, he complained of soreness and later would need Tommy John. He missed almost all of the last two seasons before a late return to three rehab games in the Gulf Coast League last summer. I had big hopes for Feigl before his injury and for more on his strange path to nearly making the Braves in 2015, read this article.

As for the guy the Braves got, Luke Jackson heads to Atlanta. Selected five picks before Jenkins in the 2010 draft, Jackson has shown some strikeout ability in the minors that only got better after his 2015 move to the bullpen. It's the rest of his game that the Braves coaches will look to refine. His delivery occasionally comes out of whack, his breaking pitches aren't always thrown for strikes, and he can be a bit homer prone despite a real weapon in his fastball.

Much like how Jenkins had plateaued as a Braves prospect, it appears that Jackson has reached a level where he's just not getting any better pitching for the Rangers' organization. The Braves will work with him on getting his breaking pitch(es?) thrown for strikes and more consistency on the mound, which should make him better able to handle the strikezone. Jackson is armed with a 95-97 mph fastball that will buy him long looks with the Braves.

This deal can be summed up in one word: Ceiling. As we saw with the Alex Jackson trade (and many others before that), the Braves have no problem with dealing quantity for the highest ceiling in the trade. With 94-95 mph heat, electric stuff, and developing secondary options, Jackson represented the best bet to be more than just a bit player in the majors of the three players involved in this trade. Now, he has to prove it. Luckily for him, the Braves are building a who's who of pitching instructors and coaches.

I understand why some fans hated this trade. Part of that was overvaluing Jenkins, part of it was the underwhelming return. This trade needs time to allow the pieces to develop and mature before judging. That said, I like this aggressive front office that values ceiling over floor. This trade only reinforces that.

TOT - Maddux Decides Money is Nice, but Winning is Better

December 9, 1992 - The Atlanta Braves signed Greg Maddux as a free agent.

After the 1992 season concluded, the 26 year-old "Professor" was at a crossroads in his career. He had reached new heights the previous season and earned his first Cy Young Award as a member of the Chicago Cubs. However, just as he was realizing his immense potential, he was also hitting free agency for the first time.

The Cubs desperately wanted to keep Maddux. Before 1992, the Cubs offered a 5-year, $27.5M contract, which would have made Maddux the highest paid in baseball. The Cubs and their general manager Larry Himes didn't do themselves any favors. During the All-Star Break, as a negoiation ploy, they reminded Maddux that he had never won 20 games or a Cy Young award so their previous offer from December 1991 was sufficient. One thing, though - Maddux would reach both of these accolades by the end of the year. Still, he wanted to return to Chicago, but Himes was spending a small fortune on Jose Guzman and Randy Myers after feeling like Maddux was not going to return even after a modest increase over their previous best offer.

Chicago's strange maneuvering led to an open market and one team looked like the clear favorite. No, not Atlanta, but the New York Yankees. The Bronx Bombers had finished under .500 for the fourth consecutive season and hadn't been to the playoffs since the strike-shortened 1981 season. Attendance dipped to 1.75M in 1992, the lowest non-strike season attendance since 1975 and unacceptable for The Big Apple. George Steinbrenner was ready to spend heavily to get the Yankees back into contention and their rotation was badly in need of help. Outside of Melido Perez, who had a 2.87 ERA in 1992, the Yankees didn't have much of anything.

A highly motivated Steinbrenner and his General Manager, Gene Michael, made a shopping list. Included was Guzman, who had signed with the Cubs. They also sought the services of David Cone, but he went back home to Kansas City. They tried to bring back Doug Drabek, who they dealt to the Pirates in 1986. Like Cone, he sought a place closer to home and signed with the Astros. Greg Swindell joined Drabek in Houston while Chris Bosio headed out west to Seattle.

The Yankees needed Maddux and they gave the right-hander the full court press. They brought him to the Bronx and sent him to Broadway shows. They even arranged for him to have face time with Donald Trump - then only a businessman and sometimes tabloid star. Michael, who had managed the Cubs when Maddux reached the majors in 1986, flew out to Las Vegas and played golf with the pitcher. In New Jersey, Michael toured neighborhoods with Maddux and his wife as the Yankees did everything to influence his decision.

The money wasn't half-bad, either. The Yankees bested Chicago's best offer (5 yr, $30M) before increasing it to $34M. Maddux's agent, Scott Boras, countered with a total of $37.5M - though at that point, the Atlanta Braves were in the picture. The Yankees held at $34M, but offered a $9M signing bonus.

The Yankees gave it their all, but what they couldn't do is prove to Maddux that they were going to be contenders. During the six years Maddux was a fixture in Chicago's rotation, the Cubs had finished above .500 just once. Maddux didn't need the biggest offer, he didn't want to go see "Miss Saigon," and he didn't need a sit-down with The Donald. What he wanted - or needed - was a winner.

He got that with the Atlanta Braves. Just as Maddux was closing on a deal with the Yankees, the Braves offered him a $25M contract over five years. While it didn't immediately convince Maddux to sign, it gave him enough to back off joining the Yankees for the time being. When, on the next day, John Schuerholz upped the offer to $28M, the righty agreed within hours to join the Braves. He left $6M more on the table that he would have received by signing with the Yanks.

Of course, we know what happened next. For eleven years, Maddux pitched 363 games for the Braves with a 2.63 ERA and 2.95 FIP. He never walked more than 2 per nine innings, completed 61 games, and threw 21 shutouts. Along the way, he won three more Cy Youngs, went to six All-Star Games, and won a Gold Glove in all but his final year with the Braves.

Eleven years after leaving Chicago frustrated with their approach to resigning him, Maddux returned to the Cubs in 2004 before finishing up his 23-year career by playing for the Padres and Dodgers. The Yankees turned out okay, too. As did Maddux, who was later voted into the Hall of Fame (though not unanimously because writers are ridiculous).

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Best #63 in Braves Franchise History

(Series Note: Baseball-Reference was used for a collection of players so this series is as complete as their database is. No coaches/managers were included and a number had to have at least four options to be considered with two exceptions. I started from the highest available number because as I approach #1, I'll have much tougher decisions.)

Best #63 in Franchise History

Boy, this series gets an amazing start to it. Five options to choose from - each have wore the number since 2007. Three of the five also wore a different number while playing for the Braves. In addition, though not the same exact group as the last sentence, three players were later used in trades.

That last detail is how I arrived at this decision. What trade could ultimately pay the biggest dividends. Well, we do know that Charlie Morton (2008) was traded in the Nate McLouth and that trade has already been graded (Spoiler Alert: Bust). Robert Whalen (2016) was recently dealt to the Mariners in the Alex Jackson deal so we will know more about how that ends up later.

Before I pick, the other two options are Corky Miller (2007) and Jake Brigham (2015). Just didn't want to forget to provide that level of analysis.

By EricEnfermero (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
My choice for the Top #63 will be...Lucas Harrell. He wore the number in 2016 before Whalen later was assigned the number after arriving in the majors.

Oh, sure, Harrell only played five games with the Braves and yeah, those five games are easy to forget about. They included quality starts against the Marlins, a game in Wrigley, and his final start as a Brave - six scoreless innings in Minnesota where he stymied a bad Twins club. The other two starts weren't much to write home about as the Rockies bashed him around in Turner Field while the Reds got to him pretty good at home.

But Harrell is my choice for the Top #63 because of what was completed on July 27, 2016. It was on that day the Atlanta Braves announced that they had dealt Harrell, along with Dario Alvarez, to the Texas Rangers for second baseman Travis Demeritte.

What happens next is largely up to Demeritte. The Rangers selected Demeritte with the 30th overall pick of the 2013 draft and one pick ahead of the Braves, who selected right-hander Jason Hursh. He had a big showing in 2013 in the Arizona Summer League by hitting four homers and OPSing .856, but subsequent efforts were less exciting.

In 2016, however, Demeritte showed that he may be realizing his potential. Now, to be fair, he was playing in a league and park that inflates offensive numbers. With that said, Demeritte was hitting .272/.352/.583 at the time of this deal with 25 HR. That comes out to a nice and round .400 wOBA. He struck out a ton (33%) but also showed enough discipline to walk in nearly 11% of his PA.

After the trade, Demeritte's numbers fell some, but in 35 games with Carolina, the 21 year-old still carried an adjusted wOBA of .389. That represented a drop of just eleven points despite playing in a league that averaged a run fewer per game than the California League. After the season, he was a star in the Arizona Fall League, slashing .261/.333/.522 over 105 PA with 4 HR. He struck out significantly less than he did in the regular season (a difference of about 9%). By the end of the season, in a pretty awesome farm system, Demeritte is a solid Top 10 prospect.

Again, pickings are slim this high in the available numbers. Lucas Harrell was barely a Brave, but his trade could pay off in a big way if Demeritte continues to excel.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

TOT - The Braves, Rafael Soriano, and December 7 Have a Connection

Via Wikipedia Commons
Transaction of Today...December 7, 2006 - The Atlanta Braves traded Horacio Ramirez to the Seattle Mariners for Rafael Soriano...December 7, 2009 - The Atlanta Braves signed Rafael Soriano as a free agent.

Typically, I only have one transaction to review, but since these two involved the same player, I figured we could make an exception.

As the 2006 Winter Meetings kicked off, John Schuerholz knew he needed to give Bobby Cox more pitching. The follow-up to the Baby Braves of '05 had fell flat after a 6-21 June just about wrecked any hope the Braves had of competing in 2006. Left-hander Horacio Ramirez was actually one of the few bright spots Atlanta had in June after allowing just ten earned runs over five starts during the month. He had made just two starts up until that point because of injury and would make just eight more starts before his final game on August 7th. He ended the season with a 4.48 ERA.

His failure to stay healthy only compounded similar problems with the rest of the rotation. A team known for pitching finished with a 4.60 team ERA, which ranked 10th in the NL. The rotation was problematic, but the bullpen was pretty ugly, too. While Bob Wickman provided some stability after he was acquired midseason, the Braves had little in terms of talent to get the ball to him.

In a similar position across the country was the Seattle Mariners. They had finished 2006 with a nearly identical record as the Braves. While their offense was plenty abysmal and their bullpen was no great shakes, they were really searching for anyone to fill out their rotation. Felix Hernandez had just arrived and did his best to lead a staff with Jarrod Washburn, Gil Meche, and Joel Pineiro behind him.

There was some thought that the Mariners could take Rafael Soriano out of the bullpen without trading him. Soriano had came up in 2002 as a starter and wanted to give starting another try. However, the Mariners graded him as a talented arm that wouldn't handle the stress of starting. Considering they needed starters more than setup relievers, trading Soriano made a good deal of sense.

Ramirez, however, was an odd piece to get in return for Soriano. Both players were arbitration-eligible (Ramirez for the second time) and there was some thought that the Braves, even as strapped for pitching as they were, would non-tender Ramirez rather than give him a raise from the $2.2M he earned in 2006. It wasn't even like Ramirez was the crafty lefty managers like to have in their staff - the Mariners already had Washburn. Yet, Seattle went for HoRam and the Braves got Soriano (and saved a million in the process).

Ramirez would start 20 games for the Mariners. For many Mariner fans, that was about 19 too many. After April, the lowest Ramirez could push his ERA to was 5.89. Amazingly, Bill Bavasi not only tendered Ramirez a contract for 2008, but gave him a raise. And then, weeks before the season was to begin, the Mariners released Ramirez. Three months later, Bavasi would be fired. Shockingly, as bad as this trade was, it hardly ranks among the worst moves Bavasi made. That might explain why there were so many petitions demanding Bavasi's dismissal before it ultimately happened.

Meanwhile, Soriano became part of a re-worked bullpen for Atlanta. In addition to bringing back Wickman, the Braves also added Mike Gonzalez from the Pirates and with the help of a better season from Chuck James, the Braves finished third in the league in ERA. Soriano was a big part of that. In 71 games, he had a 3.00 ERA and 70 K's in 72 innings. He walked just 13 unintentionally and while he was vulnerable to homers - he surrendered 12 - he gave the Braves a steady force in the late innings - especially after wrestling the job away from Wickman.

Expectations were high for Soriano in 2008. However, his velocity was hit-or-miss. He was injured for most of the first two months, a significant part of June, and finally saw his season come to a close in early August. The dynamic duo of Gonzalez and Soriano could never stay healthy long enough to be used together.

That finally changed in 2009. Gonzalez pitched in 80 games while Soriano was used 77 times. While the Braves would fall short of a return trip to the playoffs, one couldn't look at Soriano. He K'd 102 in 75.2 innings and walked just 23 unintentionally. His FIP for the season was 2.54. The 29 year-old had finally came into his own as an elite closer.

That brings us to the second part of today's Transaction of Today. Both Gonzalex and Soriano were hitting the free agent market and Atlanta felt confident that both would leave for big free agent deals and offered each arbitration so that they could at least gain some draft pick compensation. Scott Boras, who represented Gonzalez, convinced his client to decline arbitration and Gonzalez later found a big contract with the Orioles. That part worked.

However, on this day seven years ago, the Braves re-lived the Greg Maddux saga. They were sure Soriano was a goner. They were even moving on. Five days before Soriano shocked them, they had added Billy Wagner to the bullpen and a day later, announced that they had signed Takashi Saito. Bobby Cox was fairly sure what the late innings were going to look like and then, Soriano shocked them.

There was no way the Braves could either afford to keep Soriano, nor find room for him. This is a team that would later non-tendered Ryan Church and Kelly Johnson before dealing Javier Vazquez. Wagner was their splurge. Saito was their mini-splurge. They would later add Troy Glaus and Eric Hinske just to give them warm bodies at first base. Soriano was just not a fit for the Atlanta Braves of 2010.

With that in mind, four days after Soriano shocked the Braves, they sent him to the Tamp Bay Rays. Like Philadelphia before them, Tampa Bay knew the Braves had no leverage. They didn't have to give them anything and simply offered left-hander Jesse Chavez, a pitcher the Rays had acquired a month before from the Pirates. The Braves had no other choice but accept the paltry offer and wave goodbye to Soriano.

Chavez would pitch in 28 forgetful games for the Braves as a long reliever before being included in a five-person deal with the Royals. He would later find success as a starter for the A's and most recently re-upped to return to the Dodgers, who acquired him from the Blue Jays last year. As for Soriano, he would go to his only All-Star Game as the Rays' closer and would pitch in the playoffs for the first time. The next offseason, he signed with the Yankees to be Mariano Rivera's understudy. The latter's injury in 2012 actually led to Soriano taking over and excelling.

Soriano would later become the guy who untucked his shirt for the Nationals, where he logged 75 saves over two seasons. He spent 2015 struggling to find work and not looking all that good once he did with the Cubs. He tried to make the Blue Jays roster in 2016, but after looking like he would be on the outside-looking-in, Soriano retired last March 20th.

Of course, the Braves were a bit better off than having to trade someone else to fit Soriano on their roster like they did with Maddux. And that five-person trade Chavez was part of ultimately paid dividends as Rick Ankiel helped in center field for the Braves and hit a big postseason homerun so I guess that's better than hoping you land something big with draft pick compensation like the Braves got with Gonzalez. Still, when Soriano accepted arbitration, you know John Schuerholz had a panic attack wondering how they would deal with this unexpected development.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Yangervis Solarte: Possible Braves Target?

By Keith Allison on Flickr (Originally posted to Flickr as
"San Diego Padres") [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Fox Sports reporter Ken Rosenthal is reporting that the San Diego Padres "continues to aggressively shop third baseman Yangervis Solarte." If so, you have to imagine that Braves general manager John Coppolella has reached out. And if he hasn't, Coppy, you better get on it.

A three-year veteran, Solarte was a bit of a late bloomer in a sense, but it's also surprising that nobody seemed to understand what they had with him. The Twins let him leave via minor league free agency after 2011 despite hitting .329/.367/.466 at Double-A. They were using him at second-base and in left-field. He caught on with the Rangers and over the next years, excelled at Triple-A, hitting .290/.340/.419. But again, the Rangers said "see ya" after believing Solarte was just a nice Triple-A utility guy. Just 26 years-old, Solarte landed with the Yankees organization and finally, someone thought to give Solarte a shot in the show.

He was brought to the majors in 2014 and hit .254/.337/.381 over 75 games for the Yankees, often at third base. He was part of the July 22, 2014 deal that sent Chase Headley to the Bronx with Solarte replacing him in San Diego. Since that point, he has slashed .275/.330/.428 over 317 games while playing half of his games in a stadium that isn't too fun to play in for hitters. Along the way, he's belted 33 homers and played five positions.

His primary position since coming to the majors has been  third base. The one thing I can say is that he won't win a Gold Glove, nor will he be a glaring defensive weakness. He has a -0.9 UZR/150 in nearly 2400 innings at third base with -7 DRS. He'll make most plays (96.3% of routine plays according to Inside Edge Fielding), but won't make the Web Gems.

Solarte has a bit of flexibility as he has played 390.2 innings at second base (-2.5 UZR/150), 237 innings at first base (-8.3 UZR/150), and a statistically insignificant amount of innings at shortstop and in left field, though he hasn't played the latter two since 2014.

A switch-hitter, Solarte makes his money at the plate. He has increased his ISO from .109 to .158 to .180 since arriving in the majors and while he won't walk much, he does a good job at reaching base enough (.332 OBP in the majors) to excuse that. He doesn't strike out a lot and his wOBA has increased each season from .317 to .324 to .346 last season. Solarte is a bit swing-happy, but has a significantly higher-than-average contact rate and with a career average of about 30% hard-hit rate, that's plenty acceptable.

There does exist some degree of difference between right-side and left-side, as we see in nearly all switch-hitters. When hitting righties, Solarte has a .331 wOBA and 111 wRC+. It's .320 and 104 respectably against lefties. That's not significant, but if the Braves want to find some additional playing time for Sean Rodriguez, they can get him some at-bats against southpaws at third base.

Contract-wise, Solarte is arbitration-eligible for the first time. MLB Trade Rumors suggests he'll earn around $2.7 million in 2017. The Braves would retain control on Solarte through the 2019 season.

The big question remaining is how much Solarte would cost. Even though I am praising him, he is a 29 year-old third baseman who just had his first season of a 2 fWAR or higher. The Padres are trying to trade him, which only works in Atlanta's favor as a team desperately trying to get rid of a player tends to lead to deals advantageous to the team acquiring the player (think Kevin Millwood/Johnny Estrada). The Braves will have to give up a prospect or two here - maybe Rio Ruiz and Akeel Morris or Anfernee Seymour.

The other big question might be is Solarte + whatever he costs in a trade so much better than going with incumbent Adonis Garcia? I believe the answer there is an affirmative. While Garcia did exceed expectations after returning from Gwinnett, Solarte is simply better and I can't imagine Solarte costing the Braves top prospects. If he does, the Braves will likely pass.

Also working in Atlanta's favor is the relationship Coppy and Padres general manager A.J. Preller have had. Since Frank Wren's ousting and Coppy's promotion to John Hart's right-hand man and then General Manager, the Braves and Padres have finalized four trades from the blockbuster (Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel) to the bland (Christian Bethancourt) to the "do me this favor, will ya?" (Hector Olivera/Matt Kemp). Both are outside-the-box thinkers and both could find a way to make this trade work.

Obviously, Solarte is not a home-run acquisition. But in this week's winter meetings, he could be a nice addition to an offseason where the Braves are seeking incremental improvements while avoiding long-term commitments.