Friday, October 30, 2015

Reviewing Hart's Trades: The Craig Kimbrel Deal

The Braves have been active in John Hart's first season at the helm to the tune of SIXTEEN TRADES! Sixteen deals involving major league talent going one direction or in both. Sixteen deals that include over 50 different players, a few draft picks, lots of cash, and two Uptons. It's been friggin unreal to see what the Braves have done.

With most of the season in our rear view, it's time to start reviewing each one of these trades. This series is going take a little while to get through, but hey, it gives me something to write about.

Trades Already Reviewed
La Stella for Vizcaino
Heyward/Walden for Miller/Jenkins
Varvaro for Kurcz
J. Upton for Jace Peterson and prospects
Carp/Shreve for Banulos
Kubitza/Hyatt for Sanchez
Gattis for Foltynewicz and Ruiz
Hale for Briceno
Elander for Cahill and Lots of Cash

The Trade
Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton to the Padres for Cameron Maybin, Matt Wisler, Carlos Quentin, Jordan Paroubeck, and a 2015 draft choice (Austin Riley). I looking at those leaving and coming at this blog and a deeper look over at About.com.

The Rationale
A month ago, as I went over the Justin Upton trade, I wrote this: "(A.J.) Preller could say he held out and didn't give the Braves the pitcher they really wanted - Matt Wisler. Of course, that would change when Preller got so desperate to put a bow on his first offseason, but we'll get to that deal later." Welcome to later. It's hard to decide what was the most surprising thing about this trade. That the Braves had moved Kimbrel, who we were told was untouchable? That the deal came hours before the season was set to begin? Or, if you were like me, was it that the Braves found a team so desperate - so foolish - to take on an additional $50 million in payroll just to get an elite closer?

Jim McIssac | Getty
A lot of people hated this trade, but not for its impact on the Braves team so much as losing yet another homegrown, popular player. Sure, losing the despised elder Upton and his contract helped matters, but Kimbrel was loved in Atlanta who had broken the franchise record for saves before he turned 27. He was the last remaining piece of the super successful O'Ventbrel with southpaws Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty. He was our chosen one who sat in a bullpen in Los Angeles while Fredi Gonzalez arbitrarily counted the amount of outs Kimbrel was "good for" even as the 2013 season went down in flames.

But even the greatest closer in franchise history only throws 60-70 innings. Closers are overvalued because of their mystique. Was Kimbrel overpaid? Not according to the market, but was he too expensive for the Braves? Absolutely. He was about to enter Year 2 of his 4 year, $41M contract with a team option that could increase it to $52M. The Braves saw a chance to clear the books and while they stuck with the company line that they loved Kimbrel and wouldn't trade him, even they saw future payrolls and wondered if Kimbrel was worth it.

Getting rid of Upton just made the exchange easier. A big red mark on Frank Wren's time in Atlanta, Upton had been offered $75M over five years to come to Atlanta despite a .255 career batting average and .298 OBP in his walk year with the Rays. The Braves basically put $75M on red during roulette. They would either come out of it looking like roses or things would go about as bad as you could imagine.

Of course, it went the latter. In two seasons, Upton slashed .198/.279/.314 with 21 HR, 32 SB, and 324 strikeouts. The Braves were desperate to find a taker for the $46.5M left on his contract. The Cubs flirted with the idea of sending Edwin Jackson to the Braves for Upton, but nothing materialized. It was a foregone conclusion that even if the Braves traded Upton, they would be taking on some, if not the majority of, the remaining salary.

But that's where the Padres stepped in. A.J. Preller had been nearly as active as the new Braves front office during the offseason. He had already traded for Justin Upton from the Braves while adding Wil Myers and Matt Kemp because defense is totally optional. With James Shields, Derek Norris, and Will Middlebrooks also in place, Preller assumed he had built a juggernaut. He assumed very wrong, but as the season was about to open, he saw an opportunity to put a cherry on the top. Mr. Kimbrel. Sure, the Pads still had Joaquin Benoit, who was more than capable, but he was no Kimbrel. Plus, with Kimbrel, the bullpen would be much deeper. Sure, they would have to add the other Upton, but they already had a glut of outfielders, as the rest of the deal showed.

Getting rid of Maybin and Quentin cleared up things for the Padres, who also had Will Venable. With Melvin missing the first couple of months, it allowed the Padres plenty of time to work him in slowly while keeping Venable in a 4th outfielder role because their super duper outfield was, well, super duper. Of course, where Melvin fit in was confusing, but KIMBREL!

Maybin was a bust in San Diego after signing a long-term deal when he first became arbitration-eligible. He had played in 109 games over the previous two years and had a .665 OPS over four years with the Padres. They didn't have a place for him and were glad to shed his salary. Quentin's inclusion was weird because the Braves released him soon after, but the latter was part of the plan. Quentin had no-trade protection and wanted to get the freedom to try to jumpstart his career elsewhere, preferably with a team that played 95% of their games with a DH. My friend Bryce theorized the inclusion of Quentin was so that the deal would get done without the need for commissioner approval rather than the Braves packaging money to help pay for the Padres to release Quentin themselves.

Paroubeck was an interesting prospect in the long-term. Incredibly raw with athletic ability off the charts, Paroubeck was a second-rounder in 2013, who didn't make his debut until the following season. The production was there, but again, as interesting as he was, it was like adding another draft choice to the organization considering how little he had played and how young he was. Speaking of draft choices, we didn't know it at the time, but the 41st selection of the 2015 draft would quickly pay dividends.

As for the guy the Braves had wanted for Melvin's older brother earlier in the offseason, Wisler was ticketed for a return trip to El Paso before the trade. It's where he landed the previous spring and after sulking because he felt he deserved a look over the pitchers the Padres kept, Wisler was demoted back to AA to try to jumpstart his season. Overall, he had finished with a 5.01 ERA in AAA. Even with that in mind, Baseball America ranked him the #34 prospect in baseball. He was one of just two Padres prospects ranked by BA, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com in the top 100 (Hunter Renfroe was the other).

Short-Term Results
The Padres remade their team and won three fewer games in doing so. Adding Kimbrel aided the pen, which was fairly good as a result. He struggled early (for him), but Kimbrel turned it on late. Homers were a bit of a problem, but a career-high rate in HR/FB may have been a bit flukish. It turns out to be his worse full season in the majors both in saves and xFIP/SIERA. However, Kimbrel's so damn good that having 39 saves, a 2.46 xFIP, and 2.21 SIERA is considered a down year. But the Padres learned what the Braves already were aware of - having a great closer is a luxery, but only makes a bad ballclub moderately better.

Of more interest was Melvin's resurgence. Sure, he was limited to just 87 games, but he slashed .259/.327/.429 with a 110 RC+. His last three years in Tampa averaged a 109 RC+ so that was impressive. I'm not sold on it continuing as Melvin's .348 BABIP was his highest since his 2007-08 days when he walked a lot and hit for a good average. That said, a pull rate that leaped over 50% might suggest that Upton's clunky approach at the plate was adjusted and gave him a better chance at getting around on balls, which led to a career-best line drive rate.

Just to touch on a few of the short-timers...Quentin caught on with the Mariners organization, but quickly decided that enough was enough and hung up his spikes at the ripe old age of just 32. Paroubeck was traded before he played a game in the organization. Nursing an injury, he was moved, along with Caleb Dirks, to the Dodgers on July 2 for an international bonus slot that helped the Braves sign their pair of high-priced international guys.

Now, to the meat. Maybin had a wonderful first half, but fell off the map in the second half, which led to a .267/.327/.370 final slash with 10 HR, 23 steals, and defensive metrics sour on him. He did play in 141 games after 109 the previous two seasons so that was a plus. His first half numbers were exciting, too. Who doesn't want .289/.356/.418 from your center fielder who, I wager, is better in the field that the -5.3 adjusted defensive rating Fangraphs gave him.

As for Wisler, there were both good and bad parts of his game this season. he remained a durable arm and threw 109 innings in the majors along with 65 in Gwinnett. Curiously, his strikeout rate fell from the 8.6 per nine rate he had been pulling before 2015 to a bit over 6 per nine. In addition, his xFIP and SIERA were not pretty (both around 5.00). While his late season starts look good, the results are not really supported in the numbers, though the same size is VERY VERY SMALL.

Finally, there is Riley, the prep pitcher who just wanted a chance to hit. The Braves gave him that chance and he smacked a dozen homers in 60 games. He has received some aggressive rankings since then (including #11 by me) and it might be premature for a guy who K'd a quarter of his plate appearances, but you just don't see many 18 year-olds brutalize the Appalachian League.

Long-Term Outlook
The Padres are on the hook for at least two more seasons of both Kimbrel and Melvin, though they have been rumored to be at least listening to offers on Kimbrel. And there in lies the accepted conundrum with Kimbrel. As good as he is, you still feel kind of dumb paying $24M for the next two innings for 130 innings. Granted, if you have an endless payroll, screw it. But for teams like the Padres and Braves, does paying that much money for so few actual innings make financial sense?

On the flipside, if Melvin keeps hitting, regardless with what happens with Kimbrel, the Padres will at least have that to hang their hat on. Yay...

Atlanta is stocked with veteran outfielders in 2016 and Maybin could be on the market, though I tend to think the Braves like the idea of letting Mallex Smith get a spring under the veterans, a few more months in Gwinnett to buy another pre-arbitration season, and bring up their hot prospect only after things clear up in Atlanta. It allows the Braves more depth to limit Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher's at-bats to keep their vesting options from triggering (which, if they produce, could help their trade value). I'm sure Atlanta will listen to offers on Maybin, but they need an upgrade to the roster to make a deal - not just more prospects.

The bigger picture rests on the arm of Wisler and the bat of Riley. Will Wisler clean up his game to become the middle-of-the-staff force many felt him capable of? It's definitely possible and if he makes that step in 2016, all the better. Atlanta could use the depth behind the projected rotation of Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran, zombie Mike Minor, and...well, that's it. Meanwhile, power is a commodity that the Braves are short on and while Riley is a number of years away from likely getting into the picture, Atlanta could use his presence.

All in all, this deal might be the best one the Holy John Trinity made in their first year. Yeah, a certain Diamondbacks deal ranks very high, but this particular trade was a franchise changer. It moved bad contracts while only adding Maybin's affordable contract post-2015. It brought two big young players to the system and it gave the Braves a chance to move beyond the awfulness of watching Melvin suck.

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