November 17, 2015

The Questionable Trades of Gattis, Wood and Simmons

Braves fans seem to understand and accept the trades of Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Craig Kimbrel.  Heyward and Upton were a year from free agency and Kimbrel is an elite reliever, a luxury item better suited for a team trying to win now.  But fans question the trades of Evan Gattis, Alex Wood (and Jose Peraza), and Andrelton Simmons.  I will make the argument that trading these players is understandable and defensible, or at least I will try and lay out why I think the front office pulled the trigger on trades involving those players.

Evan Gattis finished the 2015 regular season with 27 homeruns, and helped the Houston Astros reach the playoffs for the first time since 2005, after the Astros lost at least 92 games in each of the previous four seasons.  Gattis is making just $526,500 this season and is under contract through the 2018 season.  The Braves traded Gattis and minor leaguer James Hoyt, and got back Mike Foltynewicz, Rio Ruiz, and Andrew Thurman.  It was a questionable trade when the Braves made it and it doesn’t look any better in hindsight, right?

Well, not so fast.  This past season, Gattis had 27 homeruns and clearly has plus power but he also got on base at a .285 clip this past season.  His career OBP is .296.  That’s not terrible in this day and age, with offense down and with Gattis slugging .463 in 2015 and .476 for his career.  Gattis is around league-average at the plate, based on all-encompasing offensive statistics that adjust for league and park, like Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+).  But pretty much all of Gattis’ value is tied to what he does at the plate.  Gattis does not add any value on defense.  The Astros have almost exclusively used him as a DH (just 11 games in leftfield).  Looking at metrics that take defense into account, like Baseball-Reference’s WAR, Gattis didn’t add as much value as it seems.  Baseball-Reference has him at 0.5 WAR.

Also, while Gattis isn’t all that old, he’s not exactly young either.  This past season was his age 28 season.  He just turned 29 in August.  Players typically peak in their late 20’s.  While Gattis hasn’t played much and might still be gaining experience, and might improve in certain areas because of that, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll get much better overall.  He doesn’t have a huge diversity of skills.  Gattis’ power stands out but not much else.  He’s serviceable at catcher, leftfield, and perhaps firstbase, which adds to his value some, but he’s not good on defense.  It’s not like he has an array of skills to fall back on if his power dips, so he needs to keep hitting for a lot of power to maintain a roster-worthy offensive level.

So, Gattis isn’t a great hitter for a DH, doesn’t add much value in other aspects of the game, and, at his age, isn’t expected to get much better.  But he’s cheap, right?  Well, it’s true that because he only had two years of Major League service time under his belt, he made $526,500 this season, and he won’t reach free agency until after the 2018 season.  But he’s due for a raise this offseason in arbitration. With his power numbers, the raise could be somewhat significant.

The Braves traded Gattis at the right time.  He’s worthy of a roster spot because he is a league average hitter who can play catcher and some leftfield and possibly firstbase but, at his age, they aren’t going to miss him.  But why didn’t they get more?

Well, all the other teams, like the Braves, knew Gattis had these limitations, was older, and was due for a fairly significant raise.  While it seems like they should have been able to get more for a hitter with Gattis’ power, teams are more aware than ever of the downsides of acquiring a player like Gattis.  The Braves did about as well as expected in the Gattis deal.  Foltynewicz hasn’t looked that good but he’s still young and, even in a worse-case scenario, there’s a good chance he becomes a lights-out reliever.  If all the Braves get is a very good reliever for a extra role-player type, that’s decent return. But there’s still a chance Rio Ruiz and Andrew Thurman can contribute at the big league level.

The other move that left people scratching their heads was the Hector Olivera trade.  They give up a young starting pitcher in Alex Wood and a top prospect in Jose Peraza for a 30-year-old Cuban with limited experience in pro ball in Olivera.  (There were other piece involved but for all intents and purposes, the other parts of the deal sort of cancel each other out and, for simplicity’s sake, we can essentially analyze this as Olivera for Wood and Peraza).

The key principal to keep in mind when trying to analyze this trade is that all players are prospects, regardless of age.  All players come with risks, whether they are in their 30’s or in their early 20’s. Age is definitely an important factor in projecting player performance but it is one of many important factors.  Talent, skill, and contract also matter.

Alex Wood is indeed a good, young pitcher who has performed well so far in his three seasons in the majors.  He’s 24 and has posted a 112 ERA+ (an ERA 12 percent better than average after adjusting for park and league) in 439 career innings and 67 career starts.  But Wood has funky mechanics.  The fact that the Braves were willing to trade him indicates they are concerned with his mechanics and they don’t think he’s as likely to be as good as other 24-year-old pitchers with a career 112 ERA+ in three big league seasons.  Wood’s strikeout numbers are solid at 7.9 strikeouts per 9 innings but they aren’t overpowering.

Jose Peraza burst on the scene and became a legit prospect during the 2014 season, and reached #38 on MLB.com’s pre-2015 prospect rankings after a .339/.364/.441 in High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A.  However, there were red flags.  Peraza hasn’t walked much or hit for much power in his career.  But, considering he was athletic enough to play shortstop in the minors and has plus-plus speed, most evaluators thought (or still think) he can (and will) make his skill set work at the major league level.  But to what degree?  He spent all of 2015 in Triple-A where he slashed .293/.316/.378.  When I saw Peraza play in Gwinnett, he reminded me of Omar Infante.  As Braves fans, we all loved Infante.  But Infante posted a career OPS+ of 88.  In Atlanta, we saw the best of Infante, and he posted an OPS+ of 105 with the Braves while playing mostly second base.

Hector Olivera will turn 31 on April 5th.  People read or heard about injuries, they saw him struggle at third base, they saw him hit .253/.310/.405.  What they don’t see is what the Braves’ evaluators and others apparently saw and still see in Olivera: A very good hitter and baseball player who comes cheap to the Braves.  Here are his salary numbers (per Baseball-Reference):

2016: $4,000,000
2017: $6,000,000
2018:  $6,500,000
2019: $7,500,000
2020: $8,500,000

If Olivera is, say, a solid #6 type hitter and was a free agent, I don’t know that the Braves would get him at this price.  Yes, we do have to consider what they gave up to get him in the price they paid and will pay but it’s not hard to see this trade working out.  Sure, it might not work out the way many of us hope, with Olivera becoming something like a consistent all-star.  But he doesn’t have to in order for this trade to work out.  While I understand the questions about the trade, I think things will have to go very well for Wood and Peraza and things will have to go very poorly for Olivera for this trade to turn out terribly for the Braves.

The most recent head-scratching trade was the one that sent Andrelton Simmons to the Angels for shortstop Erick Aybar and pitchers Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis.  Simmons is signed through 2020, his age 30 season, to a reasonable contract and is a historically great defensive shortstop.  He signed long enough and he’s talented enough to have been here as an anchor through the rebuild.  Why deal him?

Trading away Simmons comes down to defense peaks early, Simmons’ defense is the only aspect of his game that is above average (albeit way above average), and he’ll make a lot of money as his defense declines.  Now, the starting point, in terms of how good his defense is, is so high that he should be a fine player throughout his 20’s and possibly into his 30’s.  And if his offense improves at all, he’ll be that much more valuable.  But, like Alex Wood, the Braves are betting against his defensive prowess remaining as impressive at it’s been and they are betting against any big offensive improvements.

Plus, even if Simmons remains a very good player, they think they got a gem in Sean Newcomb, who, with the trade, becomes their top prospect, according to MLB.com and Baseball America.  They get Erick Aybar to fill in at shortstop at least through this season.  He’s not Andrelton Simmons but he’s a capable major league shortstop.  And righty Chris Ellis isn’t exactly a throw-in piece.  There’s a chance he develops into a #3 or #4 type starter or a back-end-of-the-bullpen piece.

Yes, this move is risky.  Newcomb may never develop the command he needs to be a front-line starter, Ellis may not do much at the major league level, and Aybar may have a poor season and walk.  But it’s not a sure thing that Simmons will provide all that much value towards the end of his contract, when the team has designs on contending.

I don’t anticipate Simmons falling off a cliff by the end of his contract, by any means, but he could fail to improve offensively and his defense could decline such that he’s no longer a special player. Coming up there was no question about Simmons’ quickness, instincts, or arm strength but some scouts did have some concerns about his range.  This is nitpicking but if there is any area of Simmons’ defense with which to nitpick it’s that he’s not a super rangy shortstop.  His awesome defense is based a lot on instincts and arm strength.  So it’s not hard to see his defense falling from out-of-this-world to great or pretty good, while his offense or baserunning fail to improve.  If he drops off on defense, with his lack of other skills, it will be hard for him to remain a great player and it might not be worth it for a team like the Braves to pay him the $11 million to $15 million a season they would have had to pay him the last three years of his contract.

The down side to all the deals the Braves have made has been a lack of return on the offensive side of things.  Nearly every move has brought back pitching prospects.  The few position player prospects the Braves received (Jace Peterson, Malex Smith, Rio Ruiz, Dustin Peterson) don’t have the front-line potential that many of the pitchers have.  If I had to guess, I think the front office’s thinking on that is there will always be a surplus of position players somewhere on some team.  Look at the Pirates.  They are loaded with outfielders and their top position-player prospect, Austin Meadows, is blocked.  Rarely, if ever, is a pitching prospect blocked, because teams need at least six or seven starters to get through a season and might need seven or eight at least halfway decent relievers.  Of course the pitching has to develop to a certain level in order to flip them for position players.  Or they could trade Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran for a big package of position player prospects.

 

 

One Response to “The Questionable Trades of Gattis, Wood and Simmons”

  1. 1
    Tyler Says:

    The only trade I had any real concerns about was the Simmons one. I would have liked for the F.O. to have waited for the market on ss to be set. Brandon Crawford, who I believe is better than Simmons overall, just signed a huge contract. Desmond is about to sign a nice contract as well. Maybe they could have gotten more for him instead of what they got.

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