Saturday, December 20, 2014

John Hart: Okay, so I lied. This is a rebuild.

Since being "hired" to head up things in Atlanta, we have heard John Hart mention several times one particular point that needed to be clarified. John Schuerholz has parroted the line.

This is not a rebuild. We don't use that word. We are retooling and trying to compete in 2015 with an eye towards having an even better club when the new ballpark opens in 2017. We are totally not rebuilding and breaking down something that won the division in 2013.

It was a nice message. It was full of crap, but it was a nice message to ticket buyers. For people like me who despised the idea of half-assing a real rebuild, it was disconcerting. Change the culture all you want with a guy like Nick Markakis, but if you believe what Frank Wren built was flawed, do something about it. More to the point - make a decision to rebuild or compete.

Well, on Friday, that decision was clear. The Braves are rebuilding and trying to acquire a wealth of young talent. Having already added Shelby Miller, Tyrell Jenkins, and Arodys Vizcaino in trades, the Braves pulled off the blockbuster we have been waiting for as they moved outfielder Justin Upton to the Padres for four prospects - none as good as the ones we had been hoping were on the table. And the idea, supported by me, that Upton should be worth more in a trade than Jason Heyward didn't hold true, though that was apparently the Braves' goal. Maybe they meant Upton would be worth more prospects, not better quality. Further, the Braves couldn't even package one of their ugly two contracts with J-Up.

What did they get, though?

The best player of the deal for the Braves is Max Fried. That's kind of depressing because he just had Tommy John surgery in August. It's not that Fried's not a top prospect. After all, we are talking about a dude who was was around 50th in many publications for the best prospects in the game over the last couple of seasons. Fried has a lot of potential and is still a month away from being 21. He possesses a great curveball and many pointed to Cole Hamels as an apt comparison of Fried before the 2012 draft where he was taken seventh overall. Hamels, a southpaw like Fried, has turned out pretty good. Plus, I don't see anything necessarily ugly in his delivery to think he can't put August's surgery in the rear-view mirror and move on. Nevertheless, that's an added factor for a guy who won't pitch for your system until 2016. Maybe he'll become our Adam Wainwright and maybe my expectations were entirely too high. Fried as the second best player of the trade is acceptable. As the centerpiece? Ugh.

Atlanta also acquired a trio of hitters. The only one ready to contribute in 2015 is Jace Peterson, a middle infielder who got to the majors for 27 games last season. The 58th overall selection of the 2011 draft possesses good speed and athleticism. He also fits into the new Braves Way in that he grinds out at-bats and won't strike out. That's a product of what Baseball America once ranked as the best bad speed in the Padres system. He fits into the mold of the guy who will serve pitches where they're "pitched" over look for a pitch he can elevate. He had a tremendous 2013 season, but he also played in the California League, one of the most hitter friendly leagues in baseball and certainly wasn't a young rising prospect either at the age of 23. So, it wasn't surprising that the Padres pushed him quickly to AAA after a short stop in AA to open 2014. He hit well with El Paso, but again, the league (PCL) makes Andy Marte and Brock Peterson look damn good. His ceiling as a major leaguer is low. Basically, he's going to have to scratch for everything he does earn. Jace is part of the battle for playing time and should provide the team some depth. He could even platoon at either second or third depending on his performance. Still, he might only be a utility guy for a good team, stretched by bad teams into too many plate appearances.

Outfielder Mallex Smith has a ton of speed (88 steals last year), but hasn't faced AA pitching yet despite spending 240 of his 265 career games above rookie ball. There are some who love him, some who aren't super impressed. I'm part of the latter group. I acknowledge he's a decent enough prospect and might be a better player than I right now feel he's capable of. I haven't read enough on his defense, but so far, I've missed any glowing reports on it. It's not enough to have speed. To be better than Juan Pierre, you have to have another tool. I'll say this about him, though. His chances of being a successful major league player are better than running into someone who shares his first name.

Finally, third baseman Dustin Peterson, who is not related to Jace, but IS related to a guy the Braves were supposedly interested for when it came to trading Upton to the Mariners. The younger of two, Dustin was considered a better pro prospect out of high school than his older brother, which is why D.J. went to college and Dustin signed as a 2nd rounder by the Padres in 2013. He played short in high school, but has been a 3B (to little success) in his short professional career. Despite a compact swing and great bat speed, Peterson struck out often last season which could be an example of bad adjustments. He did show a little pop (ISO of .128) and is expected to have value at the plate, though where he plays defensively is a question and he could get moved to the outfield.

Overall, the general consensus is that it was a decent haul for the Braves. I came away unimpressed, but I admit my grades might be lower than others, especially in regards to the last two members of the deal. For me to get excited about what the Braves got, a better prospect would have had to be the centerpiece since Fried is hurt. I do like Fried, but my hope for the other three prospects in this trade is minimal. Is it still a win to gain six years of Fried for one year of Upton + compensation pick? Probably, but it's hard not to wish for more. Obviously, if one of the Dos Petersons and/or Mallex the Conqueror break through, it would tip this deal considerably in the favor of the Braves, especially since this next season (or two) are basically lost years.  My only real quibble is that the Braves were holding out for weeks for the right deal and this one just doesn't give me that feeling.

The big picture also puts into light other moves Atlanta has made this offseason. The one that sticks out is the signing of 31-year old Nick Markakis to a four-year deal. While he fits what the Braves essentially are looking for (high contact), spending that kind of money on an older player while in the midst of a rebuild calls into the question the consistency of the moves.

In addition, are the Braves done? Since the Heyward deal, it appeared that the trade of Upton was unavoidable. Even though the front office was throwing the ridiculous "this isn't a rebuild" mantra out and had spent heavily on Markakis, it was obvious that the Braves were doing away with the Frank Wren years. After this trade of Upton, that same feeling isn't there. The Braves could try to deal away Evan Gattis or find some more salary relief by trading Chris Johnson, but it would appear, barring a surprising move, that the Braves are likely taking a backseat to the ridiculously active trade market. They could look for more signings like the ones that brought Alberto Callaspo and Jim Johnson to town. Low-cost and short-term moves that are aimed at providing the team with, at worst, potential solid trade bait at the deadline. They could target Aaron Harang and/or Emilio Bonifacio for return trips, though the latter wouldn't appear to fit onto the roster now. Maybe get creative and target Jeong-ho Kang. They could also try guys who might be undervalued like Joba Chamberlain. But either way, the Braves have money to spend and an offense that went from bad to worse. Granted, the Braves might not compete in 2015 regardless, but the offense can't get much worse before our pitchers start going all seppuku.

This Upton trade isn't bad. It's not terrible. It's not even one you can look at and get angry about. Sure, you might hope for more in terms of the players coming to Atlanta and I do, but that's splitting hairs to provide fodder for longer blog posts. (did I break the fourth wall?)

And just the same, you can come away thinking the deal wasn't good. It wasn't great. It wasn't even one you can look at and get excited about. It was simply a reasonable collection of talent for Upton. There is a chance it works considerably in the favor of the Braves, especially is Mallex hits like some think he is capable of. This deal lacked an immediate return and that probably makes me think "meh" more than anything.

That said, at least we can bury this "rebuild v. retool" argument once and for all.

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