Monday, September 28, 2015

Reviewing Hart's Trades: The Justin Upton Blockbuster

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

The Trade
Justin Upton and Aaron Northcraft to the Padres for Max Fried, Dustin Peterson, Mallex Smith, and Jace Peterson. I reviewed this deal shortly after it happened here.

The Rationale
This was the move that cemented one thing - the Braves are in full rebuild. Oh, sure, they toyed with the idea by trading away Jason Heyward, but by adding Nick Markakis, the Braves could have (and appeared to) argue that they felt they were a better team with Shelby Miller AND Markakis than Heyward and - I don't know - Eric Stults? Wait, that signed him, too. Either way, the Braves made a compelling argument that they would be better team because of the Heyward deal and looking at the roster, there was enough firepower to think that could be true.

Then, this trade happened. While the Holy John Trinity continued to suggest that they were both trying to improve for the current and the future, only the casual observer could accept that as even reasonably possible. Atlanta moved Upton to the Padres during San Diego's ridiculous effort to build a contender overnight and took advantage of their desperate endeavor by pilfering four prospects from the Whale's Vagina. It immediately brought some extra talent to a system needing in a boost and it assured that the Braves would get more than just a compensation draft pick for Upton.

San Diego had a great farm system and then A.J. Preller happened. In the span of two days, Preller finalized trades for Matt Kemp, Derek Norris, Wil Myers, Will Middlebrooks, and Upton. The outfield of Upton, Myers, and Kemp was predictably a bad idea and the whole thing blew up. 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.

As for the players the Braves got, I was a bit underwhelmed at first, though I probably over-inflated Upton's worth. Fried was a lefty many compared to Cole Hamels, but the youngster would miss all of 2015 while Smith was a speedy outfielder with questions about how real his offense was outside of hitter-friendly leagues. Jace Peterson also had his question marks, though people liked his speed and high floor. Plus, he was major league ready, but my concern about him was that, "he might only be a utility guy for a good team, stretched by bad teams into too many plate appearances." As for Dustin Peterson, the Braves got a guy with some high-level potential, but who was also raw and many wondered if he could stay on the infield.

There was another guy in this deal. Aaron Northcraft, a right-hander who pitched out of a 3/4's delivery, went to the Padres. Northcraft was a slow riser up the chain after being a 10th round selection in 2009 out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California. In 2012, he threw a no-hitter for the Hillcats (7 innings because of a double header) and K'd over a batter an inning, but he never seemed to get high in the Braves good graces despite 38 starts at AA and two trips to Arizona for the Fall League. He had turned in a much better second run just before being placed in this deal.

Short-Term Results
For the Padres, this season has been a study in how not to build as team overnight. It cost Bud Black his job and despite all the moves, the Padres are assured of their fifth consecutive losing season, their longest streak of consecutive losing seasons since five-straight down years following their World Series appearance in 1998. You can point to a lot of issues, though it would be difficult to place the blame on Justin Upton. While he's still not posting superstar offensive numbers, he should finish the year with his first back-to-back 3 WAR seasons of his career and will lead the Padres in both homers and steals. His defense remains a negative, but he plays a less important defensive position so that's a trade-off one might accept.

For what it's worth, Northcraft continues to pitch fairly well at AA and awfully at AAA. He was DFA'd back in February and might be a minor league free agent at the end of this year.

While the Braves miss Upton's bat in the lineup, they did get a full-time starter in Jace Peterson, though his production fell off a cliff in the second half. Fried missed the season as expected while Dustin Peterson had an uneven year. He was great in April and May as he hit near .300 with an OPS well over .800, but hit a wall after May's bus accident that affected several Carolina Mudcats. In his defense, only eight of his plate appearances in 2015 came against pitchers older than him. While it wasn't a great year for Peterson by any means, it also wasn't a bad one. It just kind of exists.

The breakout star of this deal has been Mallex Smith. He was the Braves' Minor League Player of the Year while leading the system with 57 steals compared to just 13 times he was caught. His .306 average probably would have been even higher had he not gone through a few weeks of adjustment following his well-deserved promotion to AAA. He only added 27 extra base hits, though 18 came with Gwinnett. Still, he showed a strong on-base capability that his predecessor as future vroomstar, Jose Peraza, just lacked.

Long-Term Outlook
The chances J-Up leaves San Diego in the offseason seem strong, though we may recall that they added his brother Melvin Upton Jr. to the mix. Still, it's probably good money that J-Up bolts, which is almost as interesting of a free agency case as Heyward. Whereas Heyward depends on overall value to trump the lack of phenomenal numbers at the plate, Upton is more traditional with a big power stroke, though he has some decent value on the basepathes. In an era of declining offense, Upton's numbers must be taken into context. Over the last three years, Upton has a 128 RC+, good for 33rd in baseball in that time frame. To compare, Chase Headley plays a more important position and plays it at a higher rate and got just $52M over 4 years. Granted, he was coming off a much worse year, but a three-year RC+ of 123 entering free agency. Nelson Cruz had a (3-year) 122 RC+ last winter when the M's gave him 4-yr/$58M contract.

That would be a bargain basement price for Upton, which I don't expect to be the case. The problem is finding a high-end comparison for a guy with Upton's relative youth (28), consistency (2.2 fWAR low, 6.3 fWAR high, 3.8 fWAR avg since 2009), and power (3 consecutive seasons over .200 ISO). So, watching his free agency will be interesting. Some have suggested the Braves should try to bring him back - don't count on it. Meanwhile, the Padres may have gotten just one year out of Upton (+ a draft pick) and Northcraft failing to solve the AAA level for a four-pack of prospects.

At worst, the Braves got depth out of this trade, but at least Smith and Fried have first-division starter appeal. Smith might be pushed out by numbers in the outfield next spring and forced to spend a few months at AAA waiting for a trade to shake up things. Even so, he's definitely put his name in as a potential difference maker at the top of the lineup. As for Fried, obviously it sucks to miss a year in development, but we're talking about a guy ranked in the Top 100 heading into 2014. He'll be 22 next year and probably will be on an innings count (though it should be pitches, but I digress). With any luck, he'll be in the AA mix next year at some point and then in the discussion for a major league spot midway into 2017 at the earliest. As for the Petersons, Dustin moved to left field so his top-end value took a hit. He's young and he has great raw power potential. He could be a surprise guy next year. Jace, I'm still not sold on. He could be a high-end utility guy in the Mark DeRosa role (with less power) or a starter exposed by too much time. The Braves might need him to log serious time in 2016 if a better replacement's not there.

Overall, this one is a big winner for Hart. The Padres embarrassed themselves this season by trading away so much talent for so little in results and Atlanta would benefit not only in this deal, but the trade months later.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thursday Throwback - Charlie Morton

(This column used to be called Random Ex-Brave.)

The 2008 starting staff for the Braves didn't seem terrible on the surface, but it took little time to blow up and with it, any chance the Braves could make a run at the playoffs. Tim Hudson got the opening day start in Washington with Tom Glavine following in the next game. Nate McLouth homered and drove in four in that game - more on him later. After Glavine, you had Jair Jurrjens, Chuck James, and the aging John Smoltz, who missed a start to open the year and many more after April 27. Glavine also missed a few starts leading to Jeff Bennett. Ugh. Jo-Jo Reyes replaced Smoltz which is about as far as you can possibly go from different sides of the spectrum. After James went down, Jorge Campillo was next in line. This is depressing just writing about...

Morton doesn't understand when he's supposed to cover home
Scott Cunningham | Getty Images Sport
After Glavine got hurt again, the next in line was Charlie Morton. A right-hander out of Joel Barlow High School in Redding, Connecticut, Morton was the third round pick by the Braves in 2002. That third round only gave baseball Curtis Granderson, the sad Elijah Dukes, and Dan Ortmeier. You might not know the last name, but he was a great pinch hitter for me in Out of the Park. What? This is my blog, dammit.

Morton wasn't much of a prospect before a strong run in the Arizona Fall League in 2007. Over 21 innings, he K'd 20 to just eight walks and was touched up for just 15 hits. He continued his strong run with 79 innings with Richmond in which he kept his ERA around 2, K'd 72, and allowed the same amount of homeruns that he hit that season (clearly zero because pitchers can't hit homers). The Braves, desperate as hell as you may have noticed, called up Morton and said "go get 'em, kid." He won his first start on June 14, 2008 against the Angels, but was often either kind of "meh" or just bad during his forced call-up. In five of his 15 starts, he failed to go five innings. His greatest outing with the Braves came on my birthday, August 7. He scattered five hits over seven scoreless innings in Arizona, getting his third-of-four wins. His next three games - 9.2 ING, 16 H, 9 R, 9 BB, 10 K.

Frank Wren made starting pitching a priority entering 2009 and added Javier Vazquez, Derek Lowe, and Kenshin Kawakami - ordered by quality of pitching. Kris Medlen would replace an ineffective Reyes before being replaced himself by the strong rookie Tommy Hanson. Toward September, the Braves welcomed back Hudson. But what about Morton? After failing to beat out Reyes in camp, Morton headed to Gwinnett and was very strong for the G-Braves. In his final eight starts with Gwinnett, he gave up a run or less in seven of them, including a seven-hit shutout of Syracuse on May 29. That would be his final start in the Braves system.

Atlanta needed help offensively. While the pitching was definitely improved, the weak hitting of Kelly Johnson, epic failure of Garret Anderson, and Jeff Francoeur deciding to play like Jeff Francoeur led the Braves to search for help. Martin Prado helped with the issues at second base, but they still needed a center fielder because Jordan Schafer is a few things, but a starting center fielder in the major leagues is not one of them. With that in mind, the Braves packaged a trio of players (Morton, Jeff Locke, and Gorkys Hernandez) in a trade with the Pirates to get McLouth, who I profiled in this series back in April. Problem solved and everyone lived to love this trade.

Well, not so much, but McLouth was kinda decent in 2009...

After seven scoreless in a game against the Lehigh Valley for Indianapolis, the Pirates brought Morton to the majors to make his first start against Jurrjens and the Braves. He left after just one inning with an injury - this will become a theme. He returned ten days later and would serve as the fifth starter for the Pirates for the rest of the year. He finished the year with better overall numbers than he had with the Braves the previous year.

The next season would be a troublesome one for Morton, who finished 2010 with a 7.57. Not the airplane, the ERA. The Pirates placed him on the DL and sent him to a doctor. Not James Andrews, but a sports psychologist. After getting back on the mound, Morton was sent him to AAA to try to get him going and in his credit, his September numbers were not as awful. He would build on the mini-success to end 2010 and would set a new personal high in innings with 171.2 the following season. His big year included a pitching style change that Shelby Miller would later adopt. Morton utilized his 2-seamer over the 4-seamer, which turned him into a groundball pitcher seemingly overnight. The Pirates named him their "Breakout Player of the Year" and he had a 3.83 ERA with a pair of complete games and a shutout. He also was handed the moniker "Ground Chuck."  After the season, Morton opted for surgery to repair a torn labrum.

His 2012 started late and ended early as by June, it became clear Morton needed more surgery - this time, it was our old friend Tommy John. Almost a year to the date of that surgery, he was activated off the DL in 2013 and finished the year strong with 20 starts, a 1.28 WHIP, and his first league-leading effort in a statistical category - 16 hit batters! Regardless, it was a good season for Morton.

Over the last two seasons, Morton has stayed fairly healthy (for him) and just made his 22nd start of this season in a stinker against the Rockies, though the Pirates still won by six. All in all, Morton is just kinda good enough that you feel like you'd still like to have in the middle of the rotation (4.10 career FIP), but just not good enough to miss all that much. Still, many of us would take the many injuries of Morton over the epic failure of McLouth.

More Thursday Throwbacks
Freddy Garcia (2013)
John Thomson (2004-06)
Kent Mercker (1989-95, 2003)

Monday, September 21, 2015

Reviewing Hart's Trades: Varvaro/Kurcz

The Braves have been active in John Hart's first season at the helm to the tune of SIXTEEN TRADES! And I had to ignore a lot of the minor deals to come to that number. 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

The Trade
Anthony Varvaro to the Red Sox for Aaron Kurcz and cash. Last December, I looked at Varvaro into depth here and talked about Kurcz briefly here.

The Rationale
It surprised a lot of people when the Braves designated Varvaro for assignment. Varvaro needed a pair of seasons to get going, but in 2013, he went 73.1 ING out of the pen with a 1.27 WHIP in long relief duty. The following year, he upped his strikeouts, lowered his walks, and became a damn good set-up guy.

That's what the Red Sox thought they were acquiring. While the deal was strange, the Red Sox looked at Varvaro as a depth guy. Maybe - just maybe - the Braves worried about his chances of staying healthy.

Short-Term Results
As the Red Sox's season went in the crapper, Varvaro struggled in four of six games as the season's first month came to a close. He was designated for assignment on April 29th and the Cubs claimed him a few days later. Varvaro never appeared for Chicago before they  outrighted him off the 40-man roster. The story got weird from there because the Cubs found out that Varvaro had a torn right flexor tendon. The Cubs returned him to the Red Sox as the Sox claimed they didn't know about Varvaro's injury. He expects to start throwing this winter.

Kurcz got a decent look this spring for the Braves, but went to Gwinnett to open the season. On the plus side, he showed the strike-out ability that made him an interesting prospect with 10.4 K/9 in 33 innings. On the negative side, he walked a small village and though his ERA was a decent enough 3.27, his WHIP was an alarming 1.52. The Braves would trade Kurcz to the A's for $167K in international bonus slot money so that they could add Dominicans Derian Cruz and Christian Pache during the signing period without suffering big penalties. Baseball-Reference and MILB.com disagree on how Kurcz pitched after the trade. Actually, B-R doesn't even have his Nashville Sounds stats, but give him eight starts after the trade. MILB says he finished the year with a 4.15 ERA with Nashville and an even worse 1.69 WHIP. I'm inclined to believe it's a bug on B-R's end.

Long-Term Outlook
For the Braves, this trade got them a useful arm and that useful arm turned into useful theoretical cash that could allow the Braves the opportunity to not only add two strong prospects this year, but have the freedom to spend big on guys like Kevin Maitan in 2016. Of course, it's not fair to suggest that the Braves knew when they made the deal to send Varvaro to the Red Sox. Regardless, the Braves got something for a player who they may have had injury concerns about.

The Red Sox could bring back Varvaro for 2016. He's arbitration-eligible for the first time, though I imagine they'll non-tender him and Varvaro will look for a good situation to get another shot at the bigs.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Minor League Stats Pack for September 19

One final Saturday Stats Pack for the minor league Bravos. We'll mix things up a little by not focusing too much on the team, but the end-of-season stats. If you want some more observations, but this time of the major league club, click here.

Homeruns - 15

That's how many Carolina (and briefly Gwinnett) 1B/DH Jake Schrader hit in 2015. What might surprise you about that number is that it led all Braves minor leaguers. In fact, only six players reached double digits in homeruns all year - though two of them (Austin Riley and Isranel Wilson) spent the season in short-season rookie ball.

13/12

One of the odd little nuggets that makes nerds like me excited to see ended up not happening. For a large portion of the year, Rome outfielder Joseph Daris had more triples than doubles, but a three double binge over four games changed that in sad fashion. Daris finished the year as one of just two Braves with at least 10 triples - fellow outfielder Keith Curcio also did it.

Stolen Base Crown - 57 steals

Playing full season ball helps. Mallex Smith added seven steals in September to finish his year with 57 overall split between Mississippi and Gwinnett. It gave him two more than Randy Ventura, who paced the Dominican Summer League. Of course, Ventura's number is probably even more impressive considering it came in just 58 games. Neither player competed for the top mark in the minors (which was 82) and the Braves joined the Yankees and White Sox has teams with two 50-steal guys in the minors.

One Shy

27 year-old Cedric Hunter got a small look in spring training, but the former prospect headed to Gwinnett to play 2015 and nearly did something no other Braves minor leaguer was able to do - reach 200 total bases on the year. He finished just one base short. How unusual is it for the Braves to not have someone reach 200 TB or more? The last time it happened was when Francisco Cabrera led all Braves farmhands with 198 total bases in 1989. Or to put that in another way...a year after Hunter was born.

Modified ERA Title

Who had the best ERA of a guy with at least 100 innings pitched? That would be Greg Smith, the former LSU lefty, who has logged time with the A's and Rockies over his career. He finished this year with a 2.71 ERA in 31 games, including 19 starts. Kind of surprised he didn't get look since the Braves have employed the likes of Donnie Veal.

A Trio of Workhorses

Only three pitchers in the Braves system completed multiple games. Tyrell Jenkins finished three games for Mississippi before his promotion to Gwinnett while lefty Yean Carlos Gill had three, including a shutout, between two stops at A-ball. Of course, Gil also had a 4.69 ERA overall so that's not a year anyone will write glowingly about. Leading the way for the Braves was Sean Furney, who the Braves quietly acquired for "cash considerations" shortly before the season from the D'Backs. Furney provided depth and was pretty ancient at Rome (24 years old), but when he was called onto to start, he was productive with a 3.03 ERA and FOUR complete games.

The Generic Rip-Off Rolaids Relief Award Goes to...

For Tyler Jones, it wasn't about stuff. He had plenty of stuff. But could he consistently spot it? Cast off by the Twins as spring training came to a close, the Braves added Jones and after breezing through a month with Carolina, he finished the year with 39 games in Mississippi. Overall, he led the system with 22 saves and could be a guy that might surprise some people next spring.

Strikeouts? What's that?

While the Braves have developed a lot of power arms to come out of the pen - Bradley Roney led them with 70 K's in 48.1 ING - getting K's from the starter was not something Atlanta saw much of this year. Only four pitchers reached 100 K's, led by 22 year-old Brandon Barker and his 109. Lucas Sims needed a strong finish with Mississippi to make it four as he reached 100 even K's in his final game when he K'd 7 Jacksonville Suns in as many innings.

Everyone Hold Onto Your Butts

I've talked about how disappointing this season was for Alec Grosser before, but really, this year was so terribly bad, it deserves another mention. In 85.1 ING, Grosser walked 65 batters. That's a sophomorically funny rate of 6.9 BB/9. But where Grosser's numbers get exceedingly awful is with these two nuggets. He hit 16 players during the year and uncorked 26 wild pitches. I wonder if the PA system had to make an announcement to get those gloves up because Grosser has absolutely no idea where it's going. The odd thing is that Grosser was fairly good with Danville in 2014 (3.1 BB/9, 6 HBP, 4 WP in 63.1 ING). I'll say this - if you are going to suck, spectacularly suck.

What Jersey Do I Wear Today?

This is not really stats-related, but just to shine light on poor Joey Terdoslavich this year. Due to rehab assignments and demotions, Terdo logged time with five different teams this season. He began the year with Rome, went to Carolina next, then Mississippi, and onto the majors before a few demotions to Gwinnett. His stop in Mississippi included just one game. Well, at least he got to see the southeast.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Reviewing Hart's Trades: Heyward/Miller

The Braves have been active in John Hart's first season at the helm to the tune of SIXTEEN TRADES! And I had to ignore a lot of the minor deals to come to that number. 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

The Trade
Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden to the Cardinals for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. I reviewed the deal first with a knee-jerk reaction and second with the reasons I both loved and hated the deal.

The Rationale
For the Braves, the deal was accepting the inevitable. Heyward was a goner in the post-2015 world so why not be proactive and make a trade to get something now. While Heyward was both a fan favorite and young enough to expect even bigger things out of him, he was also a guy who - in the midst of a plethora of extensions being handed out - accepted a short-term deal after 2013 to buy out his remaining arbitration years. He was gone and we all seemed to feel it happening even if some fans held out hope the Braves would suddenly find $20 million in their other pants.

Beyond just giving up Heyward, the Braves were also staring at a lack of pitching in both the minors and, more notably, the major league rotation. Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang were free agents and exiting with their combined 400.1 innings. Alex Wood and Julio Teheran were returning along with the questions that were present with Mike Minor. Injured Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy were even bigger question marks and both would be non-tendered rather than brought back. The Braves needed a starter and got one in Miller, who had showed both the good and not-so-good about his game in two seasons in the majors.

The addition of Jenkins and Walden in this trade were less noteworthy to this trade, but for the Braves, the trade also gave them an exciting, if unknown, hurler. The Braves needed young pitching and if Walden smoothed over the concerns of the Cardinals, that was just fine because the Braves would find some relievers somewhere to help out. Right? ...sadface

I'm not a Cards expert, but we all knew the Cardinals saw Heyward as an immediate replacement to Oscar Taveras, the exciting rookie who had tragically perished in an automobile accident. Walden was also expected to shore up a bullpen that was losing Carlos Martinez to the rotation. Plus, I have to believe the Cards were not anxious to use a 40-man spot on the unknown Jenkins, but also didn't want to lose him in the Rule 5 draft for nothing.

Short-Term Results
Let's start with the Cardinals first. Heyward has largely stayed healthy and productive for the Cards this season, though the power numbers remain disappointing. He remains an elite-level player in center, though his metrics haven't been as crazy awesome as they were last year when he had 32 DRS. All in all, Heyward has been great for St. Louis and paces them in WAR according to both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference. He remains on track to hit free agency after the World Series - a Series the Cards are strong contenders to reach.

As for Walden, he got off to a great start, but hit the DL at the end of April with a biceps injury. Later on, rotator cuff trouble kept him on the mend and efforts to get back on the mound have proved unsuccessful. His season officially came to a close a few weeks ago. He's trying to avoid surgery because the rate of pitchers that return from that particular surgery is not high. Interestingly, a physical let the Cards know that his shoulder possibly had issues, but that didn't stop them from promising $6M through 2016 to Walden.

Very little hasn't been said about Miller at this point. Relying more on a two-seam fastball than ever, Miller has been a different pitcher for the Braves than he was with the Cardinals. Of course, we all know about the loses - a league-high 15 right now. He's gone 22 starts since his last win, a streak that ties Carl Morton for the most consecutive starts without a win for the Atlanta record and is four games off the pace for the franchise record. It should be added (I guess) that Miller's case is special since his streak is restrained to one season unlike the other two. Our old buddy Jo-Jo Reyes and Matt Keough hold the MLB record at 28 straight winless starts while Jack Nabors holds the single season record with 27.

But unlike them, Miller has been very productive. His 3.00 ERA, which is on the rise, would still set a new low. He's matched his previous two seasons' output with two shutouts in 2015 while already setting a new high in innings. He'll likely add a new strikeout high before the end of the season. On a team without a lot going right and even with Miller's crazy winless streak, he's been consistent for Atlanta in giving them a chance to win - even if they are too inept to take advantage of it.

As for Jenkins, he stayed (mostly) healthy this season for the first time in his career and logged 138.1 ING between AA and AAA. Just 23 years-old, Jenkins has a real opportunity to parlay his success into an extended look next spring.

Long-Term Outlook
Again, let's start with St. Louis. Walden is a toss-up at this point if he's going to avoid surgery and if he doesn't, it's a toss-up if he ever pitches in the majors again. That's unfortunate because he's such a fun pitcher to watch and when he's on, he's really on. Heyward's been hitting well this month and looks primed for a big pay day. If it doesn't come with the Cardinals, it'll come from someone. There is a real chance Heyward will get $200M this offseason even though people who value traditional counting stats won't understand why. Without a World Series ring, the Cardinals could be looking at one-and-done with Heyward and little from Walden as the price for Miller and Jenkins.

The Braves will take that exchange, of course. Miller seemed primed to spend the next few seasons helping to shore up the front of Atlanta's staff. He's arbitration-eligible for the first time this season and has been pretty durable to this point. Atlanta might even look to lock Miller up for the foreseeable future rather than go year-to-year with him, though that's just a guess. As for Jenkins, again, he could be in the staff next spring, though I believe he'll be too low from the starting depth chart to sneak his way into the staff. Nevertheless, with some productive outings at Gwinnett, he'll be in the majors sooner rather than later.

Overall, Atlanta can make the claim that they've already won this deal, though the Cardinals could easily say they have the pitching to compete and adding Miller wouldn't have made them all that much better. Conversely, not having Heyward may have wrecked them. Either way, the Braves weren't going to keep Heyward and are glad to have a pair of arms to play on their next good team.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Reviewing Hart's Trades: La Stella/Vizcaino

The Braves have been active in John Hart's first season at the helm to the tune of SIXTEEN TRADES! And I had to ignore a lot of the minor deals to come to that number. 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.

The Trade
Tommy La Stella to the Cubs for Arodys Vizcaino and $830,000 in international bonus slot money for the 2014-15 signing period. I reviewed the deal at the time here.

The Rationale
From the Braves side, La Stella was a well-liked - yet limited - prospect who started 86 games at second base during the previous season. The Braves felt so little about his defense that he was allowed to complete just 60 of his starts - a Chris Johnson-esque handling - and while TLS showed the plate discipline many lauded him for (36 BB/40 K), the Braves were not sold. His defense, again, was an issue, but TLS also was short on tools in his offensive game. With Gwinnett that season, he hit just one homer and stole as many bases as he was caught stealing (one) in 47 games. In 88 games, mostly with Mississippi, in 2013, he hit just a handful of homers. While there was optimism he could add enough doubles to fill out the stats card, it made for a guy who needed a high average (in the .290's) range to be productive. While TLS was propped up as the anti-Dan Uggla, that didn't make him a hot prospect.

Meanwhile, Vizcaino was returning to the Braves - where he made his debut as a 20 year-old in 2011. Despite that, he's almost two years younger than La Stella. Vizzy was a top prospect back in the day who, after he broke down with arm troubles, was traded to the Cubs in 2012 for Reed Johnson, Paul Maholm, and bags of cash. The Cubs had high hopes for him, but continued injury issues kept him out until 2013. He would appear in 45 games total with just a handful coming with the Cubs, who finally saw the guy they traded for three years before. The results weren't exciting, but the high-end potential still had a shot.

Short-Term Results
Neither player got off to a good start. TLS got hurt in his second game after opening the year in the starting lineup and batting ninth. For Vizzy, a PED-related suspension followed an underwhelming spring training (he had already been demoted to Gwinnett before the suspension had been announced). That left both players out of action until the summer. Vizzy began his 2015 season in Rome and would make his way up the ladder over eight ballgames with bad results across the board except for strikeouts (which the Braves were happy to see).

Once re-instated, Vizzy began as a middle reliever, but his importance would quickly increase with the injury to Jason Grilli and trade of Jim Johnson. By August, Vizzy was named the closer for the rest of the way - though the sad state of the Braves provides few closing opportunities. In 27 games, Vizzy has a 2.16 ERA and 1.28 WHIP to go with 25 K's in 25 innings. The walks (11) are a little on the high side and after allowing one run in his first 20.2 ING, he has been charged with five earned in 4.1 ING with two of them coming off the bat of Yoenis Cespedes. Overall, however, Vizzy has been excellent for the Braves and a rare bright spot in a bullpen that has looked awful.

La Stella made it back to the field just over a month after being hurt for some rehab games, but a setback made him miss June and most of July before finally getting back into the fold just as July was ending. He hit nice enough to get a recall to Chicago before rosters expanded and regularly been used as a 2B, 3B, and PH. The results have been pretty overall, though, and TLS is hitting just .205 in 43 PA over 18 games with the Cubs. In his defense, he's matched both his HR and SB output that he had with the Braves in 2014 (1 HR, 2 SB).

Long-Term Outlook
For TLS, he seems like a forgotten man in a system that keeps churning out infield prospects, but that hasn't changed anything from the moment the Cubs acquired him. He's a decent enough left-hand bat to have around for depth purposes, but he's likely going to need a change of scenery or a big hot streak to get much of a deep look with the Cubs.

For Vizcaino, though, the Braves have an exciting arm that will form the foundation of the 2016 bullpen. Whether the Braves grab an established arm to handle ninth inning duties or hand the title back to Grilli remains to be seen as Vizcaino certainly has the potential and velocity to be a shutdown reliever. He might not crack into the elite status of excellant relievers, but Vizzy's got a realistic opportunity to be a very solid pitcher out of the pen for the next several years. He'll also be arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason. It's a weird case to keep an eye on because while we've seen some cool stuff from him, he lacks the totals you might except for a reliever who made his debut in 2011 (his next game will be career #50). I have a conservative $800K allocated to him going into next season, but that's a shot in the dark projection.

Probably the bigger picture look at this is from the international bonus slot money that came from the Cubs. After the trade, the Braves had a lot of international signings (which was a little unusual because the signing period began several months before). Of those signed that have already made their debut: LHP Jhonny Diaz (DSL, 3.63 ERA), LHP Kelvin Rodriguez (GCL, 18 K's in 24 ING), RHP Odalvi Javier (GCL, 2.37 ERA, 18 K in 19 ING), RHP Carlos Lopez (DSL, 3.64 ERA, 1.18 WHIP), RHP Bladimir Matos (GCL, 4.58 ERA), RHP Ali Pantoja (DSL, 3.16 ERA, 10 K/9), C Carlos Centeno (DSL, .533 OPS), C William Contreras (DSL, .783 OPS), SS Angel Perez (GCL/Rome, .503 OPS), IF Luis Mejia (DSL, .706 OPS), OF Leudys Baez (Dan/Rome, .697 OPS, 5 HR, 6 SB), OF Randy Ventura (DSL, .815 OPS, 55 SB), OF Isranel Wilson (GCL, 10 HR, .828 OPS).

A lot of names, I know, but at least two of them will be on some Top 30 prospect lists for the Braves (the last two). Now, knowing how much money the Braves were able to increase their available bonus pool by because the La Stella trade is difficult to pinpoint because I don't know how much money the Braves already had in reserve (they used a lot of it to sign Juan Yepez), but suffice it to say, their ability to add talent without a big penalty was increased by the TLS/Vizzy trade. That part of the deal won't get a lot of talk, but it could be just as important in the long run.

Overall, this was a shrewd low-cost, high-reward deal that is already paying dividends.