Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Most Recent Big Four in Atlanta

In baseball, you just never know...

During the offseason of 2011-12, the Atlanta Braves were faced with some considerable questions. The Braves had finished 2011, their first season under Fredi Gonzalez, by collapsing down the stretch and missing the playoffs. Changes were expected to be made. Alex Gonzalez was gone at shortstop, the trio of Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, and Tommy Hanson was either hurt or coming off injury, and the bullpen faltered down the stretch as the O'Ventbrel monster was overused.  Faced with the option of trying to topple the Phillies and/or beat an improving Nationals club in 2012, the Braves knew they needed to upgrade to compete.

However, the Braves were unwilling to break up their Big Four of young pitching. Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran were young righties signed on the international market who exploded through the minor league system. Teheran was considered the better prospect, Delgado the more polished one. There was also Arodys Vizcaino, a native of the Dominican Republic, who the Braves had picked up two years previous in the Javier Vazquez trade. Finally, there was left-hander Mike Minor. He lacked the ridiculous movement of the other three, but was the surest bet of the four. The Vanderbilt product was drafted, partly, because of his high floor.

By the end of 2011, all four had made it to the majors, though Minor was the only one who established himself in the rotation at all. Minor posted a 3.39 FIP in 82.2 ING for the 2011 Braves, though his 1.49 WHIP was ugly and entirely built on too many hits given up. Delgado had started seven games and while his WHIP was much better (1.23), he was fortunate. He walked 14 compared to 18 strikeouts and his BABIP was low...probably too low. Vizcaino, the youngest of the four, was employed as a reliever and appeared in 17 games with 17 K's in 17.1 ING. Oh, sure, he also walked nine and uncorked 5 wild pitches, but the 20 year-old was already looking like a nasty option out of the pen. Teheran had filled in when called upon, starting three games and appearing in five games overall, but was overmatched (5.87 FIP, 1.48) and barring a ridiculous spring, he was ticketed for a return trip to Gwinnett.

The Braves could have easily packaged one or more of these pitchers in a deal and entered the trade market where teams pay well in talent for young, projectionable starting pitchers. With that kind of alluring trade bait, the Braves likely received many calls during the winter as teams asked how available Minor was or maybe who the Braves were more willing to part with, Teheran or Delgado? Frank Wren held tough, refusing to trade any of the four. On the contrary, he made it easier for them to make an impact by paying Derek Lowe $10M to play for the Indians. At the end of spring training in 2012, the Braves did send a pitcher packing, but it was J.J. Hoover, part of a deep second-tier that produced other trade ammunition like Brett Oberholtzer.

However, it became clear the Braves couldn't sit on the four indefinitely and it was unlikely all four would be productive Braves so decisions had to make. But as much as they shined in 2011, the four suffered setbacks in 2012. Vizcaino hurt himself in spring and would miss 2012. Delgado made 17 starts that were much uglier than his 2011 run, though his FIP liked him more. He also struggled in the minors with a 1.53 WHIP. Teheran struggled in AAA as the Braves tweaked his delivery. The only saving grace, and it took a marvelous second half to get to it, was Minor. After a 5.97 ERA in the first half of 2012 with a 1.42 WHIP, Minor was on fire in the second half, posting a 2.16 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP while helping to lead the Braves, with Kris Medlen's ridiculous final two month run, to the postseason.

But before they got there, the Braves decided who was the keepers and who they could afford to send packing. Vizcaino was up first, packaged with another minor league reliever to the Cubs for Reed Johnson, Paul Maholm, and financial assistance. The Braves seemed convinced that Vizcaino, while he may have the best stuff of the four, was the least likely to stay healthy and subsequently, the most likely to max out as a reliever. It was the kind of decision that can haunt a GM, even if both Johnson and Maholm were productive major league players. Making a deadline deal that surrenders a great arm can kill your legacy. Just as the Tigers and their lost opportunity with John Smoltz.

But before that deal actually happened, there was the deal that didn't happen, also with the Cubs. A week before the deadline, the Braves were ready to part with Delgado to acquire Ryan Dempster. A pending free agent, Dempster chose to invoke his no-trade clause. The Braves were amazed as the Cubs were spiraling into yet another losing season and Dempster, who had one awful postseason start on his resume, seemed content to spend the year enjoying the loses. He ultimately wasn't and headed to Texas instead on the same day the Braves acquired Maholm and Johnson and sucked it up for the Rangers down the stretch.

Still, the writing was on the wall for Delgado. The Braves were willing to trade him, but not Teheran and definitely not Minor. After the season, the Braves used Delgado as a key figure in the blockbuster trade that brought Justin Upton and Chris Johnson to the Braves. This time, the Braves benefitted after Upton used his no-trade clause to block a different trade to the Mariners.

Since the decision to keep half of the big four prospects, the Braves have seen Teheran flourish into the ace they believed he could be. Meanwhile, Minor is steady and productive, a perfect compliment to the ability and stuff Teheran possesses. At the same time, the Braves have seen the two they have surrendered fail to establish themselves. In Vizcaino's case, it has been injuries holding him back. After his second Tommy John surgery in March of 2012, Vizcaino missed all of 2013 after needing a follow-up procedure. He appeared in his first game since September 27th, 2011 last April 3rd and for a month, owned the Florida State League, a high-A league. He struck out ten over nine innings, all as a reliever. Since then, he tossed 7.1 ING for Tennessee, the Cubs' AA squad. Vizcaino is on the 40-man roster for the Cubs and can run it up to 100 mph. He might make it back to the big leagues this summer if he stays productive and shows that he's capable of pitching on back-to-back nights, something he has yet to be asked to do.

While Vizcaino has struggled to stay healthy, Delgado has simply struggled. After failing to make the Diamondbacks out of camp in 2013, Delgado struggled in Reno, though most pitchers hate the Pacific Coast League. However, Delgado was especially bad because Delgado, for all of his poise and ability, has never been able to refine the flaws to his game. Notably, too many homers, too many walks, too few groundballs. After the trade, many articles referred to Delgado as a groundball pitcher and while he gets his fair share, his problem was that he lacked a third pitch breaking ball. He relied far too much on a 93-95 mph fastball with a plus-changeup. As a starter, he was asking for trouble.

Still, despite 24 homers in 116.1 ING last year with Arizona, he posted a workable 4.26 ERA and a pinpoint 1.8 BB/9. At least, that was the impression from looking at his numbers. He even tossed a three-hit shutout against the Padres. However, after that shutout which lowered his ERA to 2.85, Delgado got roughed up over the last two months to the tune of a 5.46 ERA and 17 homers in 62.2 ING. The book was out on him. Those struggles have continued this season. Out of options, Delgado, coming into Wednesday, had appeared in 15 games with 2 starts and posted a 6.85 ERA. His FIP (3.98) likes him more than his ERA right now, but he has walked a lot of batters (15 in 23.2 ING).

You take chances in trades and you never know which trade will work out, both for the production you receive and the performance of the player you traded. So far, and it's early, of the Big Four, the two the Braves kept have been tremendous and two they surrendered have been unproductive. Things can change and Vizcaino is slowly working his way back while Delgado won't be 25 until next February, but considering the players the Braves brought in by trading those two, Atlanta and its front office has to feel good.

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