Friday, December 2, 2016

Braves Continue to Deal & Pick Up Lefty Jaime Garcia

By: Keith Allison via Flickr (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The last two years: Did you hear? The Braves acquired another pitching prospect! And another. They acquired Bronson Arroyo just to get yet another pitching prospect! They drafted a billion pitchers!

The last two trades: And this is why they did. Create a strength and trade from it. Over the last week, the Braves have packaged four pitchers (and a position prospect) as they acquired an established veteran starter that (probably) is better right now than Matt Wisler or Aaron Blair. They also acquired a lottery ticket in Alex Jackson and a player to be named later. Oh, and despite trading five starting pitchers, they still have at least ten pitching prospects that are incredibly desired by the rest of the league. And that...is why they acquired all that pitching over the last couple of years.

Yes, on Thursday night, the Braves sent a trio of prospects to the St. Louis Cardinals for left-hander Jaime Garcia. So, let's dive right into all that.

Garcia is a veteran of eight major league seasons and 158 games, all with the Cardinals. He's a bit of a lottery ticket in his own right because he's been very good (2.97 FIP/3.39 xFIP in 20 starts back in 2012) and a bit of a mystery (4.49 FIP/3.77 xFIP last year). Overall, he's been worth 13.5 fWAR during his career, which is about an average of 2.5 fWAR per 30 games. Part of the reason I did that average is that Garcia went through a four-year stretch beginning with that awesome 2012 where he struggled to stay on the mound. Last year was just the third time since establishing himself in the majors in 2010 that he's reached 150 innings.

So, what can we expect from Garcia? Well, a lot of grounders. During this decade, among pitchers with at least 500 innings, Garcia's 56.4% groundball rate ranks ninth. But Garcia is not some junkballer getting grounders and backing up third base for the throw. Garcia has a 3.50 FIP since 2010. That ranks 31st and better than Alex Cobb, Sonny Gray, and Garrett Richards.

Of course, it's a what-have-you-done-lately league and Garcia wasn't nearly as notable last year. Will that continue?

On the bright side, he's unlikely to get burned by a 20.2% HR/FB rate again. The HR/FB stat goes back to 2002 and no pitcher had ever reached 20% before. Odalis Perez was the closest when 19.7% of his flyballs turned into homers for the Dodgers back in 2003. And while groundball pitchers typically carry higher HR/FB rates, you have to imagine Garcia's HR/FB rate will resemble his career 11.5% norm rather than that absurdity in 2017.

I mentioned before the disparity between his FIP (4.49) and his xFIP (3.77). This is because his xFIP normalizes the homerun rate. While certainly you can argue that Garcia wasn't as effective last year as he has been during his career and that is a valid argument, some of that looks very flukish and the Braves are wise to believe that a bounce-back year is likely.

As you might expect from a groundball pitcher, Garcia relies heavily on his sinker, though a 33% usage rate isn't overly dramatic. Both his sinker and four-seamer, which he uses nearly as much, average about 91 mph and that is pretty much the norm since 2014. He follows that up with an 82-83 mph changeup and 81-82 mph slider. The changeup is a weapon against righties and he'll rarely use it against a left-handed hitter. Three or five times a game, he'll showcase a curveball, which is delivered in the mid-70's.

Garcia is around the zone at about an average rate, which is okay because his control allows him to pitch outside the strikzone effectly. In fact, he carries about a 5% below average outside-the-strikezone contact percentage, but a 2% above-average swing rate which means...whiffs.

You may have heard that Garcia is a free agent after 2017, something he shares in common with new teammates Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey. This is an ideal situation for the Braves. If they somehow don't compete, they have three short-term, trade-able assets. If they do compete, great, but they won't block their youngsters from playing important roles for them beyond 2017. Garcia is probably, due to his age, the most likely of the trio to stick around after this season, though it's too early to gauge what chances he has to stay. For now, he provides depth.

And that depth may not be as the presumable fourth or fifth starter for the current collection of talent. Adding Garcia ahead of the winter meetings means that the Atlanta Braves - right now - have a full rotation with the three newbies plus holdovers Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz. While all five make for a fairly good rotation and the depth at the minors is second-to-none, Atlanta now also has the option to use Teheran or Foltynewicz in a trade to upgrade. As we already know, the Braves have flirted with the idea of going after Chris Sale or Chris Archer. They both have the depth in the majors to withstand such an investment and the prospect depth to make a deal happen. Alternatively, they could also try to go in a different direction and try to offer Teheran as a lower cost option. Doing so could provide the Braves with ammo to possibly address weaknesses at catcher, third base, or in the outfield.

Either way, the deal for Garcia is a win provided he pitches like his normal self and has a bit more luck. Even if Garcia isn't quite the pitcher he once was, this deal is unlikely to keep John Coppolella and John Hart up at night because the cost was fairly minimal.

John Gant is a fine pitcher to fill out a pitching staff. His delivery and guile will get him far in baseball, but like Robert Whalen, the pitcher he was acquired with in 2015 (and subsequently dealt a few days ago), Gant had a low ceiling. Righty Chris Ellis has good size and excelled last season with Mississippi before struggling in Triple-A. He continues to deal with control issues and was rated much lower than Sean Newcomb, who he was acquired with last offseason. Finally, there was second baseman Luke Dykstra. Short of him becoming David Eckstein for the Cardinals - which is probably going to happen - Dykstra was a another low-ceiling, nice filler guy. He could presumably make a decent enough platoon option at second base, but he's an empty batting average guy without power or speed.

Much like the deal for Alex Jackson, the Braves packaged low ceiling assets for a piece they believe makes them a better team. While Jackson is a dream for the future, Garcia is a reality for right now. The Braves are better with Garcia than without him as pitchers like Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair haven't shown that they are better options. Further, the Braves potentially benefit in two ways from Garcia being on a one-year deal more so than they might with Colon and Dickey. Those two might each be calling it quits after 2017 whereas Garcia is trying to stand out in a tough free agent market as he tries to secure one final long-term deal. Contract years sometimes bring the best out of players. Secondly, by avoiding the long-term commitment, the option remains open to go to Wisler, Blair, Newcomb, or any number of great pitching prospects the Braves have.

Some will question why a team that has valued young pitching so much is now dealing it for a pitcher that turns 32 years-old next July. They will wonder why the Braves, after two years of rebuilding, are now sending prospects to other teams for short-term assets.

It's simple. You build a strength. You trade from that strength. You better your club. Garcia makes the Braves better right now and after those two years of rebuilding, I think it's about time we start to gaze at the right now a bit more than the distant future. Oh, it still looks bright, but the right now isn't looking so gloomy either.

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