Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Braves Continue to Shoot for the Stars

On the first day of the 2015 calendar year, the Atlanta Braves packaged a pair of useful arms in David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve to acquire Manny Banuelos. A little more than a week later, the Braves sent pitcher Nate Hyatt and third baseman Kyle Kubitza to the Angels. Both players who could have potentially helped a bad Braves team in 2015, but the Braves wanted young left-hander Ricardo Sanchez.

Both trades - and there were others - were a sign that the Braves were willing to cash in high-floor guys for higher-ceiling, but riskier options. Yesterday, the Braves went to the well once more and packaged Robert Whalen and Max Povse for Alex Jackson, formerly of the Mariners' organization. A player to be named later will eventually also be sent from the Mariners. (Ed.: On 12/9/16, Tyler Pike was announced as the player to be named later. For more on him, click here.)

A right-handed outfielder, Jackson was the sixth overall selection of the 2014 draft. That alone makes this a bit of a surprise because the M's were so willing to cash him in. The young man turns 21 on Christmas and just finished a 92-game run with Clinton in the Midwest League (A-ball). While a catcher when he was at the prep level, Jackson has settled into right field since going pro. There are some who believe the Braves may try him again at catcher, but I tend to believe that with his offensive issues (I'll get to that), Atlanta won't try to add on with a move back behind the plate.

When the Braves picked Braxton Davidson 26 picks after Jackson in 2014, people graded Davidson's raw power potential as elite in that year's draft. It's worth remembering that Jackson was right there with him. Entering the draft, Baseball America named him the top position player available. In 135 games in high school, he crushed the opposition for a .375 batting average and 47 homeruns. He was on his way to the University of Oregon to pay baseball, but $4.2 million has a way to change people's minds.

To this point, we have seen a little of that raw power so many raved about (21 HR, .166 ISO), but too many strikeouts (223 in 793 PA). The Braves hope the switch to Atlanta's system will allow Jackson to start over. His swing has been tinkered with and needs even more work. It almost looks like he's fighting himself to get the barrel through the zone. He does show a decent eye at the plate (8.9 BB%) and had a .346 wOBA while playing in a hard park to hit homers as a right-handed batter (89 HR park factor over 3 years). According to Statcorner, his adjusted wOBA was 109, which means when you take into account league and park factors, his production was actually 9% above the average.

And remember...we are talking about a guy who had a bad year. And he did, but beyond the potential, there is some signs here that Jackson could be on the rise. Yes, his swing needs more work, but his line drive rate was up about 6% last year. His strikeout looking rate fell nearly 1%. He hit about 3% less pop-ups. By themselves, these stats tell us little, but taken collectively, they could - and I have to stress could - be a sign that he's "getting it" more than he did in 2015 and responding better to coaching.

But even if Jackson is a lottery ticket that doesn't become a winner, the Braves traded from a strength and didn't unload any top prospects. Max Povse is a personal favorite of mine because he's a freak of nature on the mound. He's a 6'8" behemoth who gets great sinking action with his low 90's fastball. It's tough to even locate the ball when he pitches because all you see is a mess of legs and arms come flying your direction as he cocks and delivers the ball. With his control and groundball tendencies, Povse would have also been a favorite of Roger McDowell, who stressed both.

Also headed to the Mariners is Robert Whalen, who I would classify as a maximizer in that he maximizes everything he has to try to get batters out. He's smart and not just because he's smart enough to realize he can't get by on a plus pitch or absurd stuff. Another groundball guy, Whalen throws a lot of pitches (a half-dozen of them) and knows when and how to use them.

That's a lot of praise for both pitchers and they deserve it. Both could help the Mariners in 2017. Here's the but, though. While both pitchers are prospects deserving of a look, neither rank highly both in terms of their respective placement among top pitching prospects in the system or rank highly in general compared to their minor league peers. To put it more bluntly, if all three reached their best case scenarios, the Braves traded a pair of 2 WAR pitchers for a batter capable of 4.5 WAR and then some. That's not to say any of the previous sentence happens and quite frankly, the better money is on Povse or Whalen posting 2 WAR versus Jackson posting All-Star worthy money.

But...there's a chance it could happen. The Braves followed the safe philosophy under Frank Wren where they valued high floors and depth over lottery tickets. John Coppolella and John Hart have proven that while depth is important, you gotta buy that lottery ticket every now and then. Sure, most will provide no return for your investment, but eventually, there's going to be a win and that, my friends, will be a game changer for this franchise.

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