Friday, July 28, 2017

Walk-Off Talk 1.8: The Trading Deadline Extravaganza

(Stephen Tolbert and Ryan Cothran have joined me, Tommy Poe, for a conversation on Braves' targets for the trading deadline.)

Tommy: It's the final weekend before the Non-Waiver Trading Deadline and the Atlanta Braves are in the middle of scores of rumors. Atlanta has already completed two trades as they pull off the shocker and find a new home for the well-liked, well-regarded, well-travelled, well-named Chaz Roe. Oh, and they traded Jaime Garcia, too. But will that be it? Chances are no.

Atlanta is in a weird place where they both want to sell off assets they no longer need or want and also acquire assets that they can play a role for next year's club and beyond. It builds on last year's efforts in which guys like Kelly Johnson and Jeff Francoeur were shipped out but Matt Kemp was acquired (albeit, in large part to get rid of He Who Shall Not Be Named).

That is why the Braves have both been shopping deals for Brandon Phillips and trying to acquire a big name starter - such as Sonny Gray.

On Tuesday, you talked about Gray, Stephen. The price tag for such a pitcher is stiff, but the reward is potentially great as well. After an injury-filled down year in 2016, Gray's numbers have reverted back to their 2014-15 levels in which Gray posted a combined 6.8 fWAR during his first two full seasons in the majors. In his Age-27 season, Gray has two more years of arbitration left and if he continues to pitch at his current level, could be peaking at the right time.

Gray has his issues - which many fans are quick to point out. He's a groundball pitcher who relies a good deal on his defense making plays. That said, he is carrying a career-high 23.5% strikeout rate into action Wednesday so it's not like he can't get strikeouts. A big reason for his increased strikeout rate is a better feel for his changeup, which has made it more effective. Others would point out that he's a health risk. A pair of unrelated injuries put him on the shelf twice last season while a lat strain suffered in spring cost him the first month of action this season. It's worth mentioning that he threw 427 combined innings in 2014-15 so he's flashed durability in the majors.

Could Newcomb get a new rotation mate in Sonny Gray? | Chris Blessing
Like most potential trade targets for the Braves, the fit for this version of the Braves is a clear upgrade. The Braves' rotation has looked improved after the release of Bartolo Colon and improvement of R.A. Dickey, but it remains one of the weakest collection of starters in baseball and that was before you remove Garcia from the mix. Adding Gray won't fix all of those problems, but adding him means Mike Foltynewicz isn't the team ace. It means Julio Teheran's struggles might be easier to deal with. It means Sean Newcomb's emergence over the final two months is a little less important. Those three are controlled through 2019, the earliest Gray would hit free agency.

But the biggest issue in regards to Gray is the price tag - and I'm not talking salary. The first player the A's have apparently asked about was Ronald Acuna. Naturally, that is a non-starter. Ozzie Albies is logically the next player the A's might be interested in - though a package of Cristian Pache and pitching arms (along with a closer offensive prospect like Dustin Peterson) might be enough to convince Billy Beane.

Of course, that's a best-cases scenario and those don't develop often. The Braves' interest in Gray is at least matched or exceeded by other clubs, including the Yankees who are considering a blockbuster deal for both Gray and Yonder Alonso. Such interest inflates the price for Gray even more.

I'm going to throw out my thinking and see if it matches up with you two. Stephen, I think we're on the same side of things actually. Is Gray worth a top package? In this market? Abso-freaking-lutely. But is he worth a top package of Braves prospects to the Braves? Here is where I start to pull away. If the Braves can discuss an Albies/Acuna-less package of players and the A's sign off on it, I'm game. Let's make a deal. But if the A's hold out - and they probably should - for Albies or Acuna, I'm walking.

So, to you two, what are the chances the A's do go for a package without Albies or Acuna? Should Atlanta at least consider a swap even if Albies is in it? And more generally, do you believe Gray is "that guy?" Is he a pitcher worthy of such a price tag in the first place - whether or not you're willing to pay it withstanding?


Stephen: Hello boys. Always enjoy these. Yeah so obviously I just wrote about this so my thoughts are pretty well known.

From the A’s point of view, they see the package the White Sox just pulled in for Jose Quintana, which included one of the best prospects in all of baseball, and they want something similar, which is fair. There was a report out yesterday they were interested in Ronald Acuña which is close to water being wet territory in terms of newsworthiness but they have every right to hope for the moon. And, honestly, given their financial disadvantage, it would be committing malpractice if they didn't at least ask. But asking doesn't mean getting and there's zero chance Atlanta gives up any of their top prospects for a guy who's only under control for 2 more years after 2017.

And it's that last part that really is the crux of the issue with Gray. I think he's a fantastic pitcher and I may even be higher on him than most but, as I wrote yesterday, while matching up talent is important, matching up timing is equally important. Atlanta simply isn't ready to maximize a guy like Gray with multiple playoff berths because they simply aren't there yet in their timeline.

I really like Sonny Gray and there will come a point where acquiring a guy like him is exactly what Atlanta needs to do. They just haven't reached that point yet.

Ok Ryan, how do you see the Sonny Gray situation?


Ryan: If there was some way for the Braves to pull off a quantity over quality, sending the A’s 4-5 mid-level prospects that don’t seem to factor into the Braves future plans, then I’m all-in. Unfortunately, this is not going to be the scenario and Sonny Gray will likely land two blue-chippers and a few throw-ins. For me, that’s a kicking and screaming NO!  If he was under control for four years and hadn’t had injury problems or lackluster results last year, I’d be down. But make no mistake, this is a buy-high and he’s THE guy right now that many teams want and Braves just aren’t in a position to be selling their farm yet for 2.5 years of control. John Hart said this after the Braves went and met with Jon Lester prior to his free agency: “He’s the right guy at the wrong time”.


Stephen: So it looks like we all agree trading for Sonny Gray wouldn't be a wise decision given where the team currently is and what the price reportedly is so let's move to the next guy.

Fulmer | Keith Allison on Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Our next candidate certainly isn't one we have to worry about how long the team controls him. Michael Fulmer is having a really good sophomore year for the Detroit Tigers, who appear to be on the verge of their own rebuild. Detroit has spent the last decade paying for the present by mortgaging their future and it looks like that bill is about to come due. Massive long term contract to aging players have left the Tigers without many actual trade chips which is why they may consider moving Fulmer for the right price.

One thing that makes him so attractive as a trade piece is his age, and therefore his salary. Fulmer is 24 and in his second year in the majors meaning he has 4 years of team control at a highly affordable rate.

Another positive for Fulmer is how he's able to consistently keep the ball on the ground. His ground ball rate sits at 50%, well above league average, which obviously means he's also able to get the ball in the ballpark. In a perfect world, I'd like to see him miss a few more bats but you can't have everything.

All of this, of course, means he wouldn't come cheap in a trade and if Atlanta really wanted him, it'd take a decent size chunk out of their farm system.

The other possibility from Detroit would be taking on Justin Verlander and some of his mega deal. Verlander is getting paid $28M a year for the 2018 and 2019 seasons before becoming a free agent again so Detroit would definitely have to take on a chunk of that just to give him away. If they want anything real in return, they'd have to take even bigger of chunk.

The primary reason for that is Verlander really isn't that great anymore. He has league average ERA, league average FIP, league average strikeout rates...you get it. He's just an average pitcher now and while that has value, it doesn't have 28M/year in value.

So what you two think of the Detroit guys? Anything interesting there or hard pass? Ryan, we’ll start with you

Ryan: When discussing Fulmer, not much is different from my opinion on Gray, and that is the Braves just aren't in a position to do a move like this quite yet. If the next wave of pitchers and position players come up (Acuna, Albies, Soroka, Allard,etc.) and show they can be big league commodities, then a surplus develops and it's easier to bite a chunk out of the farm. So, for me, I'm not ready to see a trade that costs the Braves 3-4 top 10 prospects.

Now Verlander? You're getting into my territory. Regardless of what the Tigers say, a Verlander trade will not bring a big haul back to Detroit. This is where the Braves could land a dependable starter at a discounted prospect price and, hopefully, a discounted actual price. However, in regards to this kind of move, Verlander is down my list 2-3 spots.


Tommy: Essentially, we are hoping to be on the other side of a Melvin Upton/Craig Kimbrel exchange here. Pay less in terms of prospects because you are taking on an overpriced asset that could make it more difficult to rebuild. It worked out for the Padres as when they used the desired commodity (Kimbrel) in another trade, they got much better value than they surrendered in the first place.

The problem I see is will Verlander agree to a trade to a team that isn’t yet in contention? He carries a full no-trade protection - something Detroit hands out like candy - and can Atlanta even convince him to come south even if they wanted him to?

Separating Fullmer from Verlander might be not only more preferable for the Braves, but a necessity if Verlander declines to go with Fullmer. Another pathway isn’t as dramatic but still, would give the Tigers a little financial freedom. Taking back Ian Kinsler in the trade would save the Tigers roughly $9-$10M when you factor in Kinsler’s buyout for 2018. Atlanta could try to flip Kinsler, of course. They could also take back Anibal Sanchez, who is owed around $12-$13M (another $5 buyout for next year included).

Again, these are not significant salaries to tie in with Fullmer, but other assets like Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann have some degree of no-trade protection which could make it difficult to trade for their contracts - which is essentially what we are talking about here.

Say Verlander does agree. There might be a way to keep the Tigers from not having to pay the Braves money to pay off some of the right-hander’s salary. The Braves could opt to send Matt Kemp to the Tigers. There are a couple of problems with such a proposal. One, the deal doesn't provide enough financial relief. Kemp's salary is about $13M less over the next two seasons than Verlander. Detroit might want a little more financial freedom and the Braves could offer to add an additional $3.5M the next two years to give the Tigers at least $20 extra million in financial relief over the next two seasons - plus whatever prospects.

As for the prospects, Atlanta can use their wealth of starting pitching plus some positional prospects to try to smooth over a deal. Say something along the lines of Aaron Blair, Kolby Allard, Lucas Sims, Travis Demeritte, Kemp, and $7M for Verlander and Fullmer. I’d also see what it might take to add Justin Wilson to the trade and hope the presence of Verlander might keep Wilson’s price tag from not being as significant as this trading market demands for good relievers.


Ryan: Well that was more like it! All different takes. I like it! I just feel with Fulmer’s asking price and Verlander’s expensive contract and a no-trade clause, we just typed a whole lot for nothing.  But if we really want to start typing a bunch of nothing, let’s talk about Christian Yelich and Giancarlo Stanton!

This is a tall-tale in the mold of David vs. Goliath, but we aren’t referring to physical size, but contract size.  Let’s look at their contracts:

Yelich | hueytaxi on Flickr[CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Yelich: Under team control through 2022 on a team friendly deal that would max out at a total of 58.25MM for ‘18-’22 (5 years).

Stanton: Lifetime contract, bajillion dollars. I mean, heck. That’s what it seems like. Seriously, the contract runs through 2028 (he’d be 39) and it pays him anywhere between 25 and 32MM annually.

So, why are we discussing these 2 bozos? Well, I think it has a lot to do with a ridiculous tweet that a bigger bozo (me) sent out earlier this week. Most met this tweet with outrage and rightfully so as taking on a 300MM contract is absurd, right? Well, maybe it is but dig a bit deeper.  If the Braves could package Nick Markakis and Matt Kemp, who most consider dead money at this time, you’re essentially getting Stanton for $240MM. Well...that’s still crazy. But it did make me think and swing my head to the left...that is left field and there I found Christian Yelich. This dude has a pretty tasty contract, plays fair defense, is only 25, and can hit. Not only can he hit, but he’s a left-handed hitter which looks as though will play well at Suntrust Park. But he’ll be expensive...like 2-3 top 10 prospects expensive. While it’d be nice to have both of these guys in a Braves uniform, let’s be realistic for a moment:

There’s minuscule chance a mid-market team takes on Giancarlo’s absurd contract, especially one as frugal as the Braves.

Yelich is a good player, but as stated above, the price at this point just doesn’t make sense for the team. The next wave needs to hit and Braves need to see what sticks before really addressing any areas of need and trading away assets. There will be some traded, but I don’t think trading now is the answer.

Tommy, am I wrong? I prefer to be right but I can accept defeat as well…


Tommy: For a change, I’m kind of hoping you aren’t wrong.

I love Christian Yelich. Absolutely love the guy. Even though his numbers are a little down compared to last year, he's one of the quiet superstars in the game and a big-time performer in the lineup.

With Giancarlo, it's hard not to love his power. 240 homers in less than a thousand games? Yes, please. He has a good idea of the strike-zone and gives his team impact potential with each plate appearance.

But unlike Yelich, his contract is just all kinds of ugly for the franchise. Especially for a guy who has avoided time on the DL just once in his seven full-time seasons. So, that brings me back to Yelich and I have to admit it's difficult not to get a little nutty here. Can you imagine an outfield of Yelich, Ender Inciarte, and Ronald Acuna? It's an embarrassment of riches. Oh, and he has four more years under his contract for a very affordable deal as you brought up.

Yelich is exactly the kind of expensive, controllable player the Braves are seeking. He’s signed long-term to a contract that suits the team very well. Here’s the “but” because we knew it was coming. But this only works if the Marlins are willing to take pitching and a lot of it. Luckily, the Marlins desperately need that particular commodity. The unfortunate death of Jose Fernandez left them with a massive hole in their rotation that is currently relying on Dan Straily and Edinson Volquez to fill in the void. Further, while the Marlins have some decent arms in the minors, what they don't have is a Kolby Allard, or a Mike Soroka, or even a Luiz Gohara. The farm system has been wrecked in recent years and currently has no one in the MLB.com Top 100.

Sometimes, you have to make a tough choice to give up on a young-and-exciting talent to try to gobble up more of those type of players. The Braves lived that rebuild. It might be time for Miami to do the same and if Yelich hits the trade market, I imagine the Braves would be one team that will step up to the table and play some "Let's Make a Deal."

As for Stanton...he can continue to enjoy Miami during a rebuild.


Stephen: So this is interesting and a place where I probably differ than most.

First of all Ryan is correct, the likelihood of either of these guys being moved is slim at best considering the team is currently in the process of being sold. Moves like this are usually made by the new owners, not the old ones, so while Miami eventually will have to make some tough decisions on these guys, it probably won't happen until after they're sold.

But if we only talked about trades that are likely to happen, we'd never talk about trades and where's the fun in that?

Yelich is a fascinating player to me because everything about him screams superstar except one really weird thing. Since he debuted in 2013, no player in the NL has hit the ball on the ground more than Christian Yelich. He's at almost 60% for his career and that was shocking to me considering the numbers he's put up. You add that to the meh offensive year he's having this year (113 wRC+ GB% at 57%) and the exorbitant cost it would take to acquire him and I don't know, I pause.

It's silly because he really is a great player but he just has to do so much damage on the ball he doesn't hit on the ground, it just gives him a smaller margin of error than most. I know I'm stupid.

With Stanton, normally I prefer the route of taking on money to acquire talent instead of giving up prospects. Money replenishes at a quicker rate than talent does. But this is a whole new level of money. Stanton is still owed 295M over the next 10 years and that much money combined with his injury history would give me cold sweats at night as a GM. The talent is unprecedented but the value is the combination of talent and cost and right now, Stanton’s cost speaks louder than his talent. Unless Miami is willing to eat significant dollars, it's a hard pass for me.


Tommy: All of that is fair, Stephen. Moving on from guys that are getting a lot of trade rumors play, I want to move onto the guy we think is the best fit for what the Braves might need. And with that in my mind, the Braves should go after Marcus Stroman.

Stroman | Arturo Pardavila III [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Before I address the mega elephant in the room, Stroman is in his fourth year since coming up in 2014. There's a missed campaign in 2015 where he made just four starts, but other than that, he's been a durable workhorse. The only other time he missed any notable time was because of a suspension for methylhexaneamine, a common “stimulant found in over-the-counter dietary supplements" back in 2012. And that injury I mentioned? That was knee surgery - not an arm issue.

Since 2014, Stroman ranks in the Top 30 in both FIP and xFIP. He has the second-best groundball rate in that time frame to Dallas Kuechel, who is a very similar pitcher. He does everything you are looking for and he's only improving as he's getting more whiffs than ever. His sinker is one of the best versions of that pitch and he uses it half of the time - without suffering as a result.

Stroman is also one of baseball's top showman - a reason to put butts in the stands and enjoy one of the game's very best practicing his craft. He even hit his first homerun this year in interleague action. He should be in the NL where the antiquated idea of a pitcher hitting is still in vogue.

But there's a catch. He won't come cheap and I don't just mean the package the Braves will have to surrender. As a Super 2 arbitration-eligible player, Stroman already has reached the $3.4M plateau in salary after beating the Jays in arbitration last spring. That means big money for both 2019 and 2020 as he goes through a third and fourth year of arbitration if he's not signed to a long-term deal beforehand.

And then there's the price in prospects that make this deal a little pie-in-the-sky. Okay, "little" is an understatement. The Blue Jays apparently aren't interested in dealing their controllable assets. I wouldn't be either, but the Jays aren't exactly getting younger. The Braves could try a similar approach to the Fullmer one we discussed and take back salary to make the deal more attractive. J.A. Happ is due $13M next year and the Jays could jumpstart a quick rebuild centered around their influx of young-and-talented position prospects and the pitching prospects the Braves and others might surrender for their assets.

The price would be significant. Likely, it would be too much to bear. But if there is some room to work here, Stroman would be the perfect addition at the perfect time for the right team.

Stephen, who is your guy that you think will fit perfectly for the Braves?


Stephen: So my guy is a little out of nowhere and I'm not sure how many people have ever actually heard of him but I want 3B Yandy Diaz of the Cleveland Indians.

Yandy has been on my radar for a couple years now as it's become clear that 3B was a bit of an organizational hole. He got a cup of coffee in the majors earlier this year but he's basically a prospect at this point. Of course when I see that, what I see is 5 or 6 years of team control at an affordable rate so that's a plus for me.

As far as why Yandy, all you have to do look at numbers he's put up in the upper minors the last few years:
  • 2015 (AA): 143 wRC+
  • 2016 (AA): 144 wRC+
  • 2016 (AAA): 149 wRC+
  • 2017 (AAA): 151 wRC+
And it's not just the production, but the underlying skill:
  • 2015 (AA) BB% 14%  K% 11%
  • 2016 (AA) BB% 22%  K% 14%
  • 2016 (AAA) BB% 11%  K% 15%
  • 2017 (AAA) BB% 15%  K% 15%
That kind of production matched with that kind of discipline is rare and I'd love Atlanta to find a way to get him. Cleveland is a win now team with an All-Star 3B in Jose Ramirez so it's not crazy think Diaz could be had if Atlanta could send something their way to help their 2017 club. Their catchers and 2B have been pretty terrible this year so maybe some combination of Phillips and Suzuki plus maybe a reliever? I don't know.

All I know is Yandy is exactly the type of prospect I think gets undervalued in today's game. His consistent production against the highest levels of minor league baseball combined with his rare level of plate discipline make him one of my favorite potential targets and one I hope Atlanta takes a serious look at.

Ok Ryan, who's the guy you hope the Braves make a run at?


Ryan: Well...it’s no secret that my buy-low guy was Jeff Samardzija but that has been stomped and burned as we found out a few days back that the Braves are not one of the teams that he’d accept a trade to...disheartening. There were some wrinkles when acquiring The Shark but combine his peripherals with a team that (hopefully) features the best framing catching combo in the league (and yes, this is my plug to extend Suzuki for another year) and I think we could have had a K-machine that sports a mid-3 ERA.  In addition to that thought, I think the Giants would have to send over a good chunk of cash to get any deal done. Yet, once again I typed a paragraph for no reason...so I’ll move on now.

Sometimes matchups with teams seem like no-brainers and as an armchair GM, it’s easy to harp on these ideas.  However, there are some cases where teams are making pushes and everything just seems to come together.  The Braves just so happen to have Julio Teheran, Matt Adams, and Brandon Phillips, all which seem to be available in some sort of capacity. Also, there just so happens to be a team that has been shuffling the deck all season at 1st base that has also suffered late injuries to their starting 2nd baseman AND a starting pitcher in the rotation. How about we take a look at ravaging a system one more time before this rebuild is complete? So I don’t have a “guy” per se, rather guys. Making this kind of deal really puts me out of my comfort zone, but I’m looking at at least 3 top-10 prospects.  So here’s where my idea gets interesting.  Yankees have 3 great players on the shelf for quite a while in Michael Pineda, Dustin Fowler, and Gleyber Torres. While I don’t think they’d sell-low on all of these guys,  2 of the 3 could be in play. It’s a risk…a risk that I’ve warned about in the past, but I’m willing to roll the dice one more time. My proposed deal:

Yankees get Julio Teheran, Matt Adams, Brandon Phillips
Braves get Chase Headley, Michael Pineda, Dustin Fowler,  Miguel Andujar, and 2 lower level prospects.

A future 3B, a 2018 fill-in 3B (or offseason trade piece), a future star RFer, and a roll of the dice stud SP.

Who’s with me?  Likely not Yankees fans!  Go Braves!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Some Thoughts on Jaime Garcia and Sonny Gray

Yesterday the Braves traded Jaime Garcia to the Minnesota Twins in the most expected deal in human history. Atlanta and Minnesota had been talking seriously for at least four days now and Atlanta was so sure something was going to happen, they significantly altered Aaron Blair’s schedule this week so he could take Garcia’s spot in the rotation if he was dealt. Well yesterday afternoon they finally completed the deal, and while the trade itself wasn’t any surprise, the return the Braves got might have been.
Wikimedia Commons

For Garcia and AAA C Anthony Recker, Atlanta got 19-year-old RHP Huascar Ynoa and some cash to offset some of Recker’s salary. Ynoa does have some potential with some pedigree and a 3-pitch mix but he’s in his 3rd year in rookie ball and still struggling to get his career going. Reasonable people can disagree on how good he is or will be but one thing for sure is rookie ball pitchers with bad numbers and some upside aren’t hard to find and aren’t that much harder to acquire. Every organization has a handful and their likelihood of even reaching the majors is so small that most teams are fine using them in trades.

But in addition to Ynoa, Minnesota gave Atlanta something else. They gave them the gift of not having to pay Jaime Garcia for the rest of the year, which in turn saved the Braves around $4.7M off this years payroll. This was the real point of this trade. Braves wanted some flexibility. As the news of the trade was leaking out yesterday and everyone was trying to figure out why Atlanta just basically gave away a decent MLB starter for nothing, Mark Bowman, Braves beat writer for MLB.com, sent out a couple of tweets:

So, this is interesting on a few levels. 1.) Salary dumping Garcia so you can get a controllable SP means you’re pretty serious about getting that second move done. 2.) The fact that they cleared two 40-man roster spots in the deal makes it seem like they might already have a specific second or third deal in mind. 3.) The fact that they made this move a full week before the trade deadline means they clearly wanted time to get other deals done after he was moved. Now to be fair, Garcia has a medical history longer than a CVS receipt so moving him before he threw another pitch was probably smart but this still feels more like the first move than the last move.

The last interesting part of those tweets was the specific name Bowman brought up: Sonny Gray. That isn’t terribly surprising since Atlanta has been rumored to controllable front-line starters for the last year and half now. When Jose Quintana got traded in June, there were reputable reports out there that Atlanta’s offer was only beat out by the Cubs. And since the Tampa Bay Rays have played well enough to keep Chris Archer’s name out of trade talks, it makes sense that the Braves are focusing on acquiring Gray.

But should they be?

Is Gray really the right piece for them?

To truthfully answer that question, we’re going to have to make a couple assumptions. One, we have to assume Oakland will be asking for a similar package for Gray that the White Sox asked for Quintana. This isn’t too much of a leap when you consider Gray is really the only front-line, controllable guy currently on the market, assuming Detroit doesn’t move MichaelFulmer. So the price for one should similar to the price the other. You could even make the argument Gray should cost more since he’s the last one on the market. The drop off after him is substantial enough to increase his value but there’s also a bit of talent difference between him and Quintana so I’m fine canceling those things out.

The second assumption we have to make is, if they acquire Gray, it’s the only substantial move they’ll make. Now this assumption is more out of necessity than accuracy. There’s hundreds of potential second and third moves they could make after they acquired Gray as there simply no way to account for them all or consider them for this exercise. Just too many variables.

With our first assumption, we can reasonably guess that any package for Gray will have to include either Ronald Acuna or Ozzie Albies. The Quintana trade included Eloy Jimenez who was one of the very best prospects in all of baseball, usually coming in somewhere in the top 20 depending on whose list you looked at. The only two guys Atlanta has in that range are Acuna and Albies so that seems like reasonable place to start. There was a report out today that Oakland is looking at CF prospects in their return which opens up the possibility of Christian Pache but I won't believe the A's would actually take him as the headliner until I see it. He's just not that level of prospect. Now I’m fairly certain the Braves aren’t moving Acuna for anyone so really, we can make it even simpler. If Atlanta wants Gray, it’s going to cost them Ozzie Albies and then some stuff.

When I wrote my “Should the Braves trade Ozzie Albies” piece a few weeks ago, I made the point that any number of players in baseball would be worth trading Albies for in terms of talent. Gray is probably one. He’s a really good pitcher whose numbers would probably be even better in the NL getting to face a pitcher multiple ABs every game instead of a DH. But as I also pointed out in that piece that talent isn’t the only factor to be considered here. There’s another big factor: timing.

Gray has two more arbitration years left on his service time which means, after 2017, he has two more years of team control before becoming a free agent. This is where the rub lies. To justify the likely cost it would take to acquire him, the Braves would need to be ready to compete for a World Series in both 2018 and 2019. And quite simply they aren’t ready for that. More likely scenario is Atlanta gets to 82 or so wins in 2018 and then starts really competing in 2019. But by that time Sonny Gray is about to walk out the door and Ozzie Albies is entering his prime with 4 or so years left of team control. This is why timing is equally important to talent in trades.

I fully support Atlanta’s effort to gain a controllable ace for their future but the definition of controllable should begin at 4 years of team control or better. That’s the only way they match up that talent with their timeline. This means I wouldn't trade Albies or any of our top prospects for a guy who had less than 4 years of team control left. That gives Atlanta the best chance to actually be contending for titles when these acquired players are still wearing their uniform.

To be clear, Sonny Gray is worth a top prospect in talent. But he isn’t worth a top prospect in timing. At least not for the Braves. Not yet.

Transaction Tuesday: Braves Lose Player to the Air Force

After a big week of promotions to report the last time I did this, the last seven days were more about the weird (lots of player movement for procedural purposes) and the unusual (a player going on military leave) than well-earned promotions - though there were a couple.

*The moves covered in this edition of Transaction Tuesday cover July 18 to July 24. A number in parenthesis represents the player's ranking in the midseason WOW Top 50.

We've already given the full-court press on yesterday's trade. Stephen gave a general recap of the deal and what it means for the Braves while I focused on the prospect acquired in the deal, Huascar Ynoa, with a scouting report.
By Keith Allison on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational (Crop)
[CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Activated: Arodys Vizcaino...A right index finger strain didn't keep Vizcaino out of action for long. It's been a weird season for the hard-throwing righthander. A year after turning into a groundball pitcher, he's reverted back to his 2015-self with a groundball rate just south of 40%. He's also allowed five home-runs - nearly half of his career total. That's played a big part in an FIP of 3.89. And no, this isn't a SunTrust Park thing - only one of those homers occurred in Georgia. He got off to a slow start but was dominant from April 27 to July 1. His numbers started to fall again before his trip to the DL. The Braves are hoping he gets going again as it both helps his trade value and gives Brian Snitker more options should the Braves trade Jim Johnson or at least demote him from his current position.

Placed on Bereavement List and Activated: Kurt Suzuki...A day after hitting a big two-run homer in Atlanta's 6-3 win over the Dodgers last Thursday, Suzuki headed to Hawaii for his grandfather's funeral. He was activated Monday. It's been a great season for Suzuki, who recently reached 1 fWAR for just the second time in the last six years. He could garner some trade attention moving forward, but with Anthony Recker dealt yesterday, Atlanta will likely hold onto their backup catcher short of an offer John Coppolella can't say no to.

Promoted: Matt Wisler...Like his other call-ups this year, Wisler's return to the majors will be short. Aaron Blair has been given Jaime Garcia's spot in the rotation. Instead, Wisler is back in the bigs to help out the bullpen. He got that shot in Monday's game and got hammered. At this point, we know what Wisler the Starter looks like and it's not good. We also have seen glimpses into what Wisler the Long Reliever looks like and that's not too attractive of an option either. What about Wisler the One-Inning Reliever? It seems like that's the only stone left unturned here. Consider this: Wisler has mid-90's heat and can touch 97 mph on the gun as a starter. He might be able to consistently hit 97 as a reliever or at least be able to push his velocity that high more often. We also know that throughout his career, he has a slider that is capable of generating whiffs. In fact, it's the only pitch he's been able to get swings-and-misses on. Now, if you were able to take his control, increased velocity, and plus-slider and turn it into a reliever, you might have the makings of a solid option out of the bullpen. At any rate, it's time to try something new with Wisler.

Released: Eric O'Flaherty...Atlanta kept hoping they could get something out of the former star reliever, but ultimately, O'Flaherty just couldn't find his groove anymore. Since returning to Atlanta last year, O'Flaherty had a 4.91 FIP over 47 innings while allowing seven home-runs. During his best three years in Atlanta during his first run as a Brave (2010-12), O'Flaherty gave up seven homers in 175 innings with a 2.98 FIP. O'Flaherty had been on the DL with left rotator cuff tendinitis and there was no word on any time table ahead of him being released. Atlanta could have opted to send him to the 60-day DL to get a roster spot, but instead, ran out the clock on something else. O'Flaherty reached ten years of major league service by the Braves waiting as long as they did to release him. That ensures a full pension from Major League Baseball. A solid move by the Braves as they reward one of their most well-liked pitchers of the last decade.

Jeff Morris - Follow on Twitter
Activated and Promoted from Mississippi: Joseph Odom...After spending most of the first three months of the season on the DL, Odom appeared in four games with Mississippi before landing back on the DL. Once activated, he was promoted to replace Recker. His first few games in Gwinnett haven't been great, but Odom will likely be the guy moving forward for the G-Braves behind the plate as the only other catcher on the roster, David Freitas, is a 28-year-old journeyman hitting .265/.346/.354. Odom has been lost in this new era of a number of interesting catching prospects in the Braves' system, but he did rake last year with Carolina, hitting .292/.349/.500 with 8 HR before a promotion to Mississippi. To be sure, he struggled after arriving in Double-A. Odom is solid backstop behind the plate, though not elite. At the plate, he's progressed each year in OPS from .567 to .654 to .688 to .758. While it's difficult to predict big things, Odom has enough skills that might play well as a backup. For the moment, he might be third on the depth chart at catcher so keep him in mind.

Optioned to Gwinnett: Lane Adams...In his most extended shot at sticking in the majors, Adams has done some things well. He's been an option off the bench with five successful steals, has belted a pinch-hit homer and another pinch-hit double and can play all three outfield slots. The negative is that he's only on-based .267 over 30 PA. To be fair, he's received zero starts so nearly all of his action has come in late inning situations. The returns of Danny Santana and Sean Rodriguez, along with Atlanta's insistence to stick with an eight-man bullpen cost Adams his job. Chances are he'll be back again in the majors at some point this season. He's slashed .269/.320/.473 in the minors this year with 18 EBH, including 7 homers, and 15 steals.

Promoted from Mississippi: Enrique Burgos...In a brief return to Double-A, Burgos never appeared as he waited for a spot to open back up in Gwinnett. Burgos has been wonderful since his trade from the Diamondbacks' organization with a 1.15 ERA over 15.2 ING. He has K'd 18 and walked eight as well. Burgos may not be a top relief prospect, but he's done a good job opening some eyes in Gwinnett and might get a chance in the majors with the Braves looking to tinker with their pen to get better results.

Demoted to Florida and Re-Promoted: Xavier Avery...This is the first of many weird moves that occurred last week in which several players were shuffled down to Florida and back up. A few guys came up from Florida and were quickly shifted out again. It must have been a logistical thing. I just wanted to point this out because you'll see some funny transactions here. In pretty much every one of these moves, the player never appeared during his brief time demoted/promoted. In regards to Avery, he's been a productive player for the Gwinnett Braves this season. He strikes out way too often (104 in 292 PA), but he's also got on base at a big-time clip (.371) and showed good pop (.213 ISO). He's also added 15 steals and if it wasn't for Adams, he'd likely be next-in-line in case a bench spot for an outfielder opened up.

Demoted to Florida and Re-Promoted: Caleb Dirks...For the first time in his career, Dirks is struggling. Over his last six appearances (sandwiched around a trip to the DL), Dirks has given up eight earned runs and three homers over 8.2 ING. He's K'd 8 in that time frame. Dirks has been remarkably consistent and awesome during most of his four-year career since the Braves took him in the 15th round back in 2014. It'll be interesting to see how he answers adversity for a change.

Demoted to Florida and Re-Promoted: Evan Phillips...Evan Phillips was a bit of a surprising promotion at the end of May because he was carrying an 8.14 ERA at Mississippi. That was a product of a bad handful of games to open the year. In his final ten games, he had a 2.81 ERA with 18 Ks in 16 ING. Since joining Gwinnett, he's continued to pitch fairly well, though he needs to clean up the walks (12 in 18 ING). Still, he's getting a strikeout an inning and has a 3.00 ERA in his first taste of Triple-A ball. You'll take that anytime. A 17th-round selection back in 2015, Phillips won't turn 23 until this September.

DL: Mauricio Cabrera...The Atlanta Braves' bullpen struggles may have started this year with the inability to get Cabrera going. He was expected to take a prime role in the pen after 38.1 ING in the majors last year with six saves and a 2.82 ERA. Instead, he has been abysmal in Triple-A with nearly a walk-an-inning. His last six outings were especially bad as he walked ten in 5.2 innings. Cabrera had control issues in the minors before but seemed to find it a bit after getting to the majors. It's just flat-out gone now.

DL: Kyle Kubitza...It hasn't been the best season for Mr. Kubitza with a .232/.321/.324 line over 66 games. To be fair, the former prospect has turned it on since June 1, slashing .284/.375/.402. That kind of slash is why many Braves fans thought Kubitza might be a possible piece that could help the Braves' team in 2015 before he was traded to the Angels in the Ricardo Sanchez trade. No word on what sent Kubitza to the DL, but at this point, he's filler at the infield and outfield corner positions.

Jeff Morris - Follow on Twitter
Promoted from Florida: Corbin Clouse...I didn't put Clouse in my Top 50 Midseason list, but he was very close. He keeps this up, he'll definitely be in it when we reconvene for an offseason list. Clouse has some ugly walk numbers this season in Florida, but something started to click for him over his final nine games. In 13.1 innings, he walked three and struck out 19 while not allowing a run. In the 21.2 innings before that, he walked 18 and struck out 27 with an ERA of 3.82. The change for Clouse warranted a promotion to Mississippi and he's already tossed four scoreless innings there. When you add last year's success between Danville and Rome, Clouse has a 1.69 ERA over his first 69.1 ING...which I hear is nice. He's also struck out 103 of 287 batters, a rate of 36%. Not too shabby for a 27th rounder out of Davenport University.

Promoted to Gwinnett from Florida and Demoted to Mississippi: Junior Rincon...Since joining the organization earlier this month, Rincon has spent most of his time in Florida but now returns to Mississippi where he threw one game out of the pen a few weeks ago. He also got a few days in Gwinnett but didn't pitch. It would have been his Triple-A debut if he had.

Promoted to Gwinnett and Demoted Back: Andres Santiago...Santiago gets around. He's played for four minor league teams this year and all of them are in the Braves' system. Most of the season has been spent in Rome where he's thrown 33.2 of his 53.2 innings. At 27, Santiago is an eleven-year veteran who is just trying to keep a dream alive.

Promoted from GCL: Troy Conyers...A 23rd-round southpaw out of the University of San Diego, Conyers is a big guy at 6'5" and 230 lbs. Slowed in college by Tommy John surgery in 2014, Conyers was switched from starter-to-closer in 2017 and it came together for him in a big way (12.5 K/9, 2.5 BB.9, 1 HR allowed in 46.2 ING). At 23, it was a surprise to see him in the GCL until you remember that the Braves drafted 20,000 left-handers in June and they couldn't all be in Danville. Over eight games in the GCL, Conyers was absolutely dominant. In 14 innings, he struck out 19, walked two, and the only run to score off him was unearned. He needs a challenge and it might as well come in Rome.

Nothing doing.

Demoted from Danville: Jeremy Fernandez...Fernandez wasn't getting a lot of playing time in Danville and what playing time he did get resulted in a .174/.240/.196 line over 50 PA. This is the third season of his career and the 20-year-old has yet to show much offensive capability. He's played mostly second base.

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Placed on Military Leave: Adam Groesbeck...The Braves knew this was coming. Groesbeck was a 38th rounder last month out of the Air Force Academy. After graduating, Groesbeck had 60 days of leave and a majority of that was spent with the Braves' organization. The outfielder played in 14 games before leaving the team and struggled mightily with just two hits in 39 PA. He walked seven times and struck out eleven. Groesbeck was among the top hitters in Division I baseball last year with a .410/.460/.649 line over 50 games. According to new requirements put in place last April, Groesbeck must serve two years of active duty before requesting Ready Reserve status (which would last five years). As such, Groesbeck exchanges his baseball uniform for a military one and will begin his primary career as a drone pilot.

Nothing Reported

Scouting Report - Huascar Ynoa

Yesterday, the Braves traded Jaime Garcia to the Twins - along with Anthony Recker and a bag of money - and acquired Huascar Ynoa. Stephen Tolbert did a tremendous job going over the trade. Today's focus is on Ynoa, though. Here is a scouting report on the young pitcher.

Jon Tarr - YouTube
Player: Huascar Ynoa
Date of Scouting Report: 7/25/17 by Tommy Poe

Position: Pitcher
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Age: 19
How Acquired: Trade, 7/24/17
Salary: Minor League Minimum
Years Before Free Agency: 6
Years Before Arbitration (If applicable): 3

Brief Bio: Ynoa was a top pitching prospect during the 2014 J2 Class. Signed for $800,000 by the Twins, Ynoa ranked 17th on the international prospects MLB.com list while ranking 14th on Baseball America's Top 30 list. A product of the Dominican Republic, Ynoa was lauded for his frontline starter potential and some sources felt he was the best pitching prospect in the class - better than Christopher Acosta (Red Sox), Anderson Espinoza (also Red Sox), Juan Meza (Blue Jays), and Franklin Perez (Astros). Interestingly, the Braves' top signing that year, Juan Yepez, missed the MLB Top 30, but now the Braves have two members from that class in Ynoa (#17) and catcher Ricardo Rodriguez (#30).

Ynoa made his debut the following summer in the Dominican Summer League. Just 17 years-old, Ynoa was solid over 14 starts with 19% strikeout rate. He did walk 12%, which lowered his FIP to 3.84, but all-in-all, it was a good debut season for the teenager still learning how to pitch. He headed to the Gulf Coast League the following season and improved his numbers a good deal with a 24% strikeout rate and 6% walk rate. Like the previous season, he allowed just one homer but threw seven fewer wild pitches in 5.2 fewer innings.

This season, Ynoa came out the gate and struck out seven Danville Braves in his season debut, which resulted in a loss. He allowed four earned runs combined over four of his first five starts, but his stinkers were especially bad (5 walks, 5 ER over 2 innings on 7/10, 6 ER on 7/23). His numbers in those games especially have put a significant hurting on his season line.

Ynoa is listed at 6'3" and 175 pounds, which is interesting because he was 6'2" and 190 lbs. when he signed. I've also seen some sources list him at 220 lbs., which is a bit more believable. He has a great pitcher's frame and has yet to spend any time on the DL.

At the time of the trade, Ynoa was ranked #22 by MLB Pipeline in a Twins system that was ranked about middle-of-the-pack in terms of organizational talent. John Sickels ranked Ynoa #14th before the season and spoke highly about Ynoa's curveball. He also praised Ynoa's improving mechanics and command. Recently, Twins Daily left him out of their Midseason Top 15.

Offensive Observations and Grades: N/A

Pitching Observations and Grades: Ynoa starts with his hands at his stomach when pitching from the wind-up. He'll bring the glove up to about neck-high with a leg kick that's not too pronounced. Early on, it looked like his release point was a high 3/4's, but that looks to have dropped to a regular 3/4's release point. His motion to the plate is very fluid and he's quick to the plate - almost too quick. His mechanics can sometimes come out of whack as he tries to get through his motion - especially with runners on base. He might be better served by incorporating a pause or something to force him to push his weight back to allow his mechanics to come through better. The plus side is Ynoa won't waste much time between pitches, which will help keep his infielders on their toes.

When Ynoa signed with the Twins, one thing that stood out about him is that for a young pitcher, he had a robust repertoire of pitches - a fastball, splitter, slider, changeup, and a curve. The Twins have worked to widdle that down to a three-pitch mix - heater, change, and a slider that is more of a slurve.

His fastball has not added much velocity since signing. Instead, he's still trying to find the stamina to not lose velocity the second time through the order. His heater averages in the low 90's with a max in the 94-95 mph range, though I have seen him listed at hitting 97 mph. He's still growing into his body and should find more consistent velocity as he gets older.

Despite still being a teenager, Ynoa has always flashed both good mechanics with his changeup and an excellent feel for the pitch. The velocity drops into the low-to-mid 80's with similar arm motion and speed as his fastball. When he's on, he can spot his changeup on the corners and low in the zone, which induces a good deal of weak contact.

His breaking pitch is a slider/slurve that flashes some good sweeping movement with bite. Like any of his deliveries, consistency is a problem. One start, the pitch could be the low 80's with swing-and-miss stuff. During his next start, it could be in the mid-80's and flat. I believe much of that is due to his inability to consistently repeat his delivery to this point.

The Twins pushed Ynoa to scrap his splitter and curveball. The Braves preach curveballs so they may have a different plan. Either way, his curve does have some good movement when he can hit his release point with it. It might not be a plus-pitch, but could be a good second-time-thru-the-order pitch to showcase here-and-there.

Grades from a 20-80 Scale...Velocity (50), Movement (45), Control (40)
Potential Grades...Velocity (60), Movement (55), Control (55)

Individual Pitch Grades...Fastball (40), Changeup (45), Slider (35), Curveball (30)
Potential Individual Pitch Grades...Fastball (55), Changeup (60), Slider (55), Curveball (45)

Other Grades...Holding Runners (N/A), Speed to the Plate (60)

Defensive Observations and Grades: No grade is given right now, but Ynoa's follow-through takes his momentum toward the first base side of the mound, making him vulnerable to bunts toward third. He shows good athletism and a feel for knowing to cover first base.

Future Projection: There is a lot of raw talent here despite being in his third season. The Twins have played it very conservative with him and I doubt the Braves will change that just yet. Ynoa is a project with a high ceiling, but enough questions revolving around him to believe he may never get there. If the slider develops and there is more consistency with his delivery and velocity, Ynoa could profile as a reliever down the line. If his slider develops a lot and his changeup becomes a great pitch - along with increased control and tighter mechanics - Ynoa could be a starter in the major leagues and a potentially really good one at that.

Ynoa is similar in some regards to Ricardo Sanchez. Another young kid who was a big international signing, the Braves liked Sanchez's pitchability and maturity. Ynoa has that. What he doesn't have is the results to support the belief that he's much closer to realizing his potential than he was when he signed. Perhaps with the Braves coaching helping him, that might change. Like our Stephen Tolbert said of him, "he's a lottery ticket." Most of the time, lottery tickets don't win. Some of the time, you might get your investment back or maybe even get a $20 scratcher. It's hard to find that big winner, but Ynoa once had many scouts believing he could be that big winner. Perhaps he still can be.

Realistically, Ynoa has the most likely projection of being a low-leverage reliever in the majors. But there are reasons to be optimistic here and Ynoa's profile is worthy of some degree of optimism here.

I want to know your opinion/scouting report. Add it below and if it prompts me to alter mine, I'll credit you.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Braves Trade Garcia for Options

And we’re off. Trading season has begun and the Atlanta Braves and GM John Coppolella fired their first shot Monday afternoon trading LHP Jaime Garcia to the Minnesota Twins for, well, for flexibility.

Officially the trade is Garcia and C Anthony Recker for RHP Huascar Ynoa and some cash. But Ynoa is a 19 year-old pitcher with 5.26 ERA and a 12% walk rate. He did have some pedigree before he signed and Fangraphs threw a 55 on both his change-up and his curveball before the season but his actual production has been abysmal, especially when you consider he's in his 3rd year of rookie a ball and one of his strongest attributes was suppose to be his control. Nice way of saying it; he's a lottery ticket. Probably the more accurate description however is this was a salary dump.

Garcia, in the last year of his deal, had a decent year for Atlanta. The 32 year-old LHP put up 4.14 FIP with a 55% ground ball rate and a surprising amount of durability. The big question when Atlanta acquired Garcia was could he stay healthy. Garcia’s ability to do just that as well as put up respectable numbers made one of the more valuable rentals on the market.

In moving Garcia, Atlanta frees up almost $5M in salary to use on future moves and that’s really what this trade was all about. Between the saved money and the two 40-man roster spots that were cleared, Atlanta has some room to move. It’s been reported that they're strongly pursuing a frontline starting pitcher with multiple years of control and before this trade, they simply didn’t have the salary or space to add one. My guess is over the next week, we'll see strong push to grab Sonny Gray, Michael Fulmer or another controllable young arm for 2018 and beyond.

During the offseason, Atlanta jumped into the free agent pool adding Bartolo Colon, R.A Dickey and Sean Rodriguez for a combined $31M as well as trading for Garcia and his $12M. Add that to the $60M they already committed to Freddie Freeman, Matt Kemp, Nick Markakis and Julio Teheran as well the expenses of filling out the rest of the roster and simply put, they were out of money. There’s a reason they started the year with maybe the worst collection of bench players in baseball; they were shopping from the bargain bin.

It was also reported, as well as just being common sense, that the Braves could’ve improved their return had they been willing to pay down some of the money still owed to Garcia but after already paying almost $6M for Colon to pitch for the Twins, they weren’t really looking to bankroll another 20% of Minnesota’s starting rotation. Especially with so little cash available. So this is the deal. 

On its face, this trade is obviously just meh. Any time you give up a real player for what is basically a hope and a prayer, it doesn’t taste great. But this deal probably shouldn’t fully be judged until we see what Coppy is going to do now that he has something he hasn’t had all year. A little cash to play with.

Jim Johnson's High-Leverage Problems

By Keith Allison on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational (Crop)
[CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
On Sunday, Jim Johnson entered to pitch the tenth inning with the scored tied at 4-4. The Atlanta Braves had just made one of the most improbable comebacks of the season. Kenley Jansen, tasked with preserving a 4-1 lead in the ninth, ultimately gave up a three-run bomb to Matt Adams. It was the first blown save of the year for the All-Star.

After Arodys Vizcaino pitched the bottom of the ninth and the Braves failed to pull ahead in the top of the tenth, it was Johnson's turn. First, kudos to Brian Snitker for not waiting for the lead on the road to bring in Johnson. Second, it went about as poorly as possible. Johnson faced five batters and retired just one. The fifth Dodger he faced laced a single up the middle to win the game. The Braves, who got to .500 last Sunday, lost five-of-the-next seven games to fall back to three games under .500.

Quickly, people called for Johnson's head and it's understandable. He's blown two saves this month and seven overall. While Sunday was just the second game this year in which he was saddled with a loss, it seems like it wasn't for a lack of trying. Curiously, the Braves are just 3-4 in those blown saves - but each of those wins was made harder by Johnson than they needed to be.

All the while, Johnson's full-season numbers are tremendous. Entering Sunday, he ranked 15th among relievers in fWAR with a 1.2. His 28.7% strikeout rate is nearly 11% above his career norm and the best of his career. His walk rate is a skosh higher than his career rate, but still very solid at 8.4%. His ground-ball rate is a career-worst 50.5%, but he's also inducing a career-high 12.9% of infield pop-ups and a career-high 32.1% softly-hit ball rate.

Johnson's FIP of 2.53 (xFIP of 3.15) along with his 1.2 fWAR could be attacked. FIP's main criticism is that it's overvalues homeruns for pitchers - especially for relievers who have a shorter sample size. Vizcaino has similar K% and BB% to Johnson, but his FIP is 3.89 largely as a result of an unusual higher number of homeruns allowed by Vizcaino this season. That's a fair criticism. WAR's usage of FIP also compounds the potential problem here as they use a more advanced formula of FIP when they calculate WAR. They add in infield fly-balls - something I just mentioned Johnson is inducing a career high number of - and count them as strikeouts. These are fair criticisms, but FIP - and by extension WAR - remain useful in this discussion as they remain two of the widely and most accepted "advanced" metrics currently in use and while we can knock them for overvaluing what Johnson does well (limit homeruns, get a great number of popups), they also value what great relievers do well (get K's, have control, so on).

Yesterday, I compared Johnson to Chris Reitsma, who endured a great deal of Braves fan hate between 2004-06. Yet, he ranked 55th among relievers in fWAR for those three years. That's not great, but it's not that terrible either. And that's where this comparison is made. When you look at the numbers, you expect to see horrid stats to match the perception of the player who keeps driving you to drink. On the contrary, the numbers suggest a higher level of competency than you might be willing to give the player.

What gives? Are the stats wrong? Have they forsaken us? Is there truly a closer mentality that Johnson, like Reitsma before him, lack?

To the last question, possibly. Jonah Keri, then of Grantland.com, looked at the different theories related to the idea of a "closer mentality" and defined roles helping players to perform better. It's impossible, though, to prove one has the mentality to close games for all of the obvious reasons. You don't know a player has the mental capability to close a game until he closes games. In that, Johnson should have the the closer mentality. He's saved 176 games during his career - including back-to-back 50-save seasons - and he's posting numbers that suggest he's actually more dominant than he was back then. Are we to believe he's a better pitcher, but lost the ability to believe in himself?


But let's jump away from the unprovable and jump into what we know. Johnson might be pitching the best baseball of his life, but a few themes have developed that might explain his struggles. Leverage refers to the importance of the situation in regards to a particular plate appearance. It's the best way we can calculate the idea of whether or not a situation is clutch. How important is that moment? A simple way to organize this line of thinking is to refer to low-leverage, high-leverage, and of course in between that is medium-leverage. This is dependent on the score, the inning, and so forth. This season, major league hitters have a 95 wRC+ in low-leverage situations, a 99 wRC+ in medium-leverage situations, and a 91 wRC+ in high-leverage situations. The overwhelming majority of situations are low and medium. Simple enough?

Leverage Batters Faced Opp wOBA K% BB% FIP xFIP
Low 55 .240 24% 4% 2.86 3.08
Medium 53 .235 34% 8% 1.35 2.15
High 66 .299 29% 12% 3.08 4.16

Jim Johnson has very solid numbers regardless of the situation, but does struggle more in high-leverage moments during the game. As a closer, he'll see those situations more, too.

Worse - this isn't a new thing. David Appelman attempted to refine our idea of what clutch is and put it into a metric. What this stat attempts to do is tell us how worse or better the player performed in a high-leverage moment versus one of neutral leverage. The number has many flaws, but with a good deal of data, it could give us an idea in how that player has performed in the past. Johnson's career clutch rating is -0.32. That's slightly below-average. But he hasn't been a closer his whole career. If we are going to look at just 2012, 2013, 2016, and 2017 - the years he has 20 or more saves - a frightening thing develops. In three of his four years as at least a part-time closer, Johnson has carried a negative Clutch rating of nearly -1.

He's also been prone to a number nobody wants to be in the Top 10 of - meltdowns. This is situations in which a pitcher had a WPA, or Win Probably Added, of -0.06 or less (worse). Over the last five years, Johnson has had 52, the seventh most. To put that into some sort of context for Braves fans, Tyler Clippard has the fifth-most with 53. To be fair to Johnson, he's also 21st in most shutdowns - or outings with a WPA of 0.06 or better. However, he stands out on a list of the Top 30 pitchers over the last five years with the most shutdowns because he's the only pitcher on the list with a negative WPA.

It's very important to note that none of these leverage/win probably stats are predictive. They only tell us what has already happened. It's also worth mentioning a few things in regards to those leverage stats - Johnson has a .368 BABIP and 42% Left-on-Base% in high leverage situations. These numbers imply some degree of bad luck. Of course, significant increases in walks won't help, either. Further, over his career, he doesn't shown significant differences in regards to the relative leverage of a situation. This needs to be mentioned because in some regards, we should expect those "luck" numbers to regress at least some.

That brings little solace to Braves fans. In the end, Johnson is a product of a bad system. The book says you need a closer. That closer should be your most effective pitcher. By strikeout percentage, walk percentage, FIP, etc. - that pitcher is James Robert Johnson. The Braves have one other real option in Arodys Vizcaino, who has been better this season in high-leverage situations. Again, it's not a predictive stat, but Vizcaino has always had the kind of arm people thought was capable of closing games. If one has to define the pitcher roles, Vizcaino is the logical replacement to Johnson.

The problem, though, is regardless of what role he's pitching in, Johnson has been too successful in Atlanta to not be in high-leverage situations. Perhaps he'd get fewer of them in a setup role, but not significantly less. The metric, inLI, gauges the average leverage when a pitcher enters an inning. The average inning has a LI of 1. High-leverage situations are defined as 2-and-above while low-leverage outings typically start at 0.85 and below. The Braves have used three pitchers whose inLI is above 1. Johnson has an average of 1.63, Vizcaino has an average inLI of 1.35, and Jose Ramirez has a 1.14 inLI. Unsurprisingly, those three are usually utilized in innings 7 through 9 when the Braves are tied or have the lead. Flipping Johnson with Vizcaino might help him avoid some higher-leverage situations, but he'll still be counted on with the game on the line in many cases.

The Braves don't have a lot of options right now except to hope. They may hope another team trades for Johnson without them having to give away the righty who has great overall numbers. They can also hope the leverage numbers and win probability metrics start to regress. In the end, without clearly better alternatives, it's Johnson or bust in high leverage situations.

Of course, the struggles of Chris Reitsma prompted the Braves to later trade for Bob Wickman, Rafael Soriano, and Mike Gonzalez. They learned their lesson the hard way. This iteration of the Braves appears to be watching history repeat itself.

(Stats accurate entering 7/23/17)