Thursday, December 4, 2014

Sacrificing Value for Financial Freedom

No other sport seems to experience the phenomenon known as a salary dump like baseball. With no salary cap, exchanging large salaries becomes much more doable. With a cap, everything has to fit just right. Third and fourth teams get involved so that the cap remains pristine. But even when that happens, the other team often has to take on salary in one form or another. In baseball, teams have more freedom. In the past few years, we have seen major blockbuster salary dumps both during the season (Red Sox/Dodgers trade in 2012) and the offseason (Blue Jays/Marlins a few months later). And both teams doing the dumping, the Red Sox and Marlins, couldn't have been more different. The Sox were a high profile, high payroll squad while the Marlins were tearing down their franchise after the splashes the previous winter.

Since taking his current job as President of Baseball Operations, John Hart has mentioned payroll flexibility a few times as a true hindrance to the Braves. Frank Wren made a lot of great trades with the Braves, but a few contracts truly blew up in his face. The Braves will pay Dan Uggla $13.2M to not play with the Braves in 2015. But the bigger blow comes with the B.J. Upton contract, a deal that the Braves still owe $47.15M on over the next three seasons. That's cash that could have been used to sign Jason Heyward long-term or really get into the Jon Lester bidding, though I'm not anxious to do that even if I have the payroll space. For a $112M payroll, B.J.'s salary in 2015 would account for 13.4% of the salary. Unfortunately, B.J.'s going to have to be considerably better in 2016 to account for 13.4% of the value the offense generates and that is unlikely to happen.

Unsurprisingly, this has forced Hart to seek out any trading partner willing to consider B.J. From there, talks can be had that discuss how much cash would accompany B.J. to his next team and what compensation the Braves will receive. A bad salary for a bad salary trade has been theorized as a possibility, similar to when the Cubs traded Milton Bradley to the Mariners for Carlos Silva. In mid-November, I discussed some possibile scenarios for a trade that looks into a swap of bad contracts.

Ken Rosenthal points out that the Braves might be trying a different approach, though. According to the article, during the summer, the Braves and Astros were discussing a trade that would have moved catcher Evan Gattis to the Astros. The trade would sent Gattis home and probably bring back considerable value considering Gattis is team controlled for four seasons, including one more year before arbitration hikes up his salary. The trade talk with Wren apparently didn't go too far.

This offseason, the Astros were once again calling on Gattis and Hart followed with this caveat. Sure, you can have Gattis, but you gotta take B.J., too.

Other players were discussed, including Dexter Fowler, but the big thing for the Braves out of this trade would be that the Astros would take on all of B.J.'s contract. To this point, it has been assumed the only way the Braves could get rid of Upton was to assume most of his salary in a trade, dumping the player and lots of cash onto the team that would take Upton. Such a move would provide the team with little financial freedom and they would still need to get a center fielder.

But if packaging him with Gattis means that $15M comes off the books next year and $32M the next two years is freed, is that an acceptable return on trading Gattis? As usual, there are at least two ways of looking at that question. Is it acceptable to free up cash and enter the 2016 free agent market with roughly $40-$50M to spend? If you're curious, that market includes, conditional on extensions, outfielders Drew Stubbs, Austin Jackson, the aforementioned Fowler, B.J.'s older brother Justin Upton, and yeah, that Heyward guy. Alex Gordon has a player option he might decline as well. Starters like Johnny Cueto, Doug Fister. Mat Latos, and Jordan Zimmermann will also be on the market if they aren't locked up first.

The flipside of the argument is that...is it acceptable to sacrifice prospects that could help the Braves over the next several years in order to simply rid yourself of Upton? Gattis's trade value may be at its highest with four years of team control and recent time behind the plate ahead of any silly move to left. Not cashing in on that trade value could prove foolish, especially when the Braves system is so bare beyond their top talent. Adding two or three grade B or better prospects in a trade that sends Gattis packing, especially to a team with a stockpile of young prospects like the Astros, could provide a significant step toward a quick turnaround toward competing in 2017. Sure, Upton might still be in center that season, but the young talent on the team should be much better and the depth will be improved.

Rarely, do these deals happen and that might tell us something. Salary dumps are common, but dumping salary and an established major league hitter who provides above average production at a premium position? I am drawing a blank on a comparable trade. Sometimes, the team dumping salary has added a prospect, but that's about it. Maybe that sheds light on the likelihood of this trade happening, though. Since trades like this don't seem to happen, we probably shouldn't expect it. There is a higher chance of maximizing player return in a deal that includes Gattis and the other Upton brother.

However, I come away believing that if this deal went down, even if the return was, as expected, minimal...it's still a good trade. The Braves would get a chance to start over. If they can move Chris Johnson and the younger Upton in a trade, like the one I mentioned last week, the Braves would be able to push forward with a massive rebuild with a lot of young talent and the financial freedom to hit the free agent market hard after 2015. They could even take on salary in a trade provided the salary they were taking on belonged to a good player.

While I do like the idea of a trade return on Gattis that brings back serious talent, I love the idea of a reboot better.

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