July 16, 2015

Without Offseason Rebuild, Braves not Relevant Beyond 2015

The Braves ended the 2014 season with plenty of talent on the major league roster, with Jason Heyward and Justin Upton headed towards free agency after the 2015 seaosn, and with a rather weak farm system. They had to make a choice.  They could stick with the core they had on hand and try to go for it one more time with Heyward, Justin Upton, and the rest of their star players, or they could trade some of their valuable assets (including Heyward and Justin Upton) to try to rebuild the system.

It’s too early to tell but so far it seems like their plan has worked.  They traded valuable assets that weren’t likely to stick around beyond 2015 in order to replenish the farm system.  They traded Craig Kimbrel, a reliever whose marginal value was worth more to a contender over the next season or two than to the Braves.  The Braves got more potential impact in return than what Kimbrel could provide by being a one-inning reliever on a team that wasn’t likely to contend for another couple of seasons.  They also got out from under Melvin Upton’s contract, giving them future payroll flexibility.  They traded Evan Gattis for future impact talent while Gattis was still young enough and cheap enough to be attractive to a team trying to contend.

Accepting that the Braves aren’t going to be a big payroll team for the foreseeable future and couldn’t keep their 2014 core talent together for another several seasons, and with the realization that their farm system was too weak to make up for potential free-agent losses in Heyward and Justin Upton, it’s hard to argue with what they did this past offseason.  But what if they had chosen the other path?  What if they had decided to go for it one more time with the likes of Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, Evan Gattis, Jordan Walden, and Craig Kimbrel; a group that served them well in 2013?

If they had avoided sacrificing some 2015 value for future value, they probably would have sacrificed possibilities for contention in 2016 and beyond, given the shape of their farm system.  Perhaps they would have focused on signing Jason Heyward to an extension, but that would have set them back, as paying him as much as he’s likely to command would have meant fewer resources to build out the rest of the roster beyond 2015.  And holding on to Justin Upton and Heyward through the end of 2015 would have meant just getting draft pick compensation in return instead of the returns they got by trading those two players. So had they not chosen the rebuilding path, they would have been in a bind after 2015.  However, perhaps their team would have been so good in 2015 that it would have been worth it.

Let’s look at the positions affected by the key trades to see what may have happened had they went all in for 2015 and not chosen the rebuilding route:

The Braves traded Evan Gattis (and RHP James Hoyt) for RHP Mike Foltynewicz, 3B Rio Ruiz, and RHP Andrew Thurman.  Foltynewicz made a bit of an impact for the Atlanta Braves but not much of one.  Gattis has been at or around a replacement-level player, according to Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference, so he has not made much of an impact for the Astros.  Braves’ catchers have been slightly about replacement level, according to Fangraphs.  It doesn’t seem trading Gattis away has made much of an impact on the 2015 team, so far, assuming he and Foltynewicz would have performed similarly had they stayed with their former teams.  Gattis could hit better than he has so far in 2015, as he’s under-performed compared to his 2013 and 2014 performances.  But there’s also a decent chance Foltynewicz could come up later in the year and make a noticeable impact, as either a starter or an impact reliever.  The Braves might still lose the trade for 2015 but if they do, it probably won’t be by much.

The Braves handed their secondbase job to Jace Peterson after he impressed in Spring Training, after coming over in the Justin Upton trade.  They signed Alberto Callaspo this past offseason and had Phil Gosselin on hand but Peterson won the job and has been so steady that they moved on from Callaspo and Gosselin.  Pedro Ciriaco and Juan Uribe have gotten a few starts at second since Callaspo and Gosselin moved on.  Peterson has been around a league-average offensive player and a solid defensive secondbaseman.  Without getting him in the Justin Upton deal, they would have tried to stay afloat at secondbase, a position that’s been a bit of a black hole since the Dan Uggla disaster.  Perhaps they would have kept Tommy La Stella to platoon with Gosselin, maybe they would have given the job to Phil Gosselin with guys like Callaspo and Ciriaco serving as back-up options to open the season.  While Peterson is not a star, he’s better than the hodgepodge of secondbasemen they likely would have went with had they not traded for Peterson.

The biggest hit the Braves took from 2015 to 2014 is in leftfield.  Justin Upton was arguably the most valuable offensive player on the 2014 Braves.  He and Freeman were close in offensive value.  And Upton hasn’t had much drop-off in 2015.  The 2015 Braves have gone with the likes of Jonny Gomes, Kelly Johnson, Todd Cunningham, and Eury Perez in leftfield.  Kelly Johnson has been the best of that bunch, and has played other positions, but he’s not Justin Upton.  The Braves (by design) took a big hit in leftfield.  Upton was around a 3-4 win player last season.  The Braves mix of leftfielders have been well below replacement level so far, so the trade of Upton may have cost the Braves a good 2-4 wins in leftfield for 2015.  Again, this was by design, as Upton was perhaps their most valuable piece they were willing to trade, so they got quite a bit of potential value in return.

The Braves ended the 2014 season with B.J. Upton in centerfield and, right up until the day before the opener, it looked like they would being the 2015 season with Melvin Upton in centerfield.  But just before Opening Day they got an offer they couldn’t refuse, trading Upton (and the salary relief that came along with it) with Craig Kimbrel for, most notably, Cameron Maybin and Matt Wisler.  If they hadn’t decided to rebuild and ship off Kimbrel, Upton would have started the season in centerfield, but I can’t imagine he had a long leash after two terrible seasons to start his Braves career.  They signed Eric Young and Eury Perez before trading Upton, but they probably would not have been a big upgrade.  They may have moved Jason Heyward to center but they still would have had to find a rightfielder.  I don’t think they would have signed Nick Markakis had they committed to going for it in 2015 with Heyward and Justin Upton manning the corners.  Centerfield likely would have remained a bit of a black hole, though I would guess not as dreadful as sticking with Melvin Upton for another whole season.  But they probably don’t have the kind of value they’ve gotten from Cameron Maybin.  Rebuilding instead of going for it has actually helped the Braves’ centerfield situation for 2015.

Rightfield is perhaps the most interesting place to analyze, compare, and contrast the 2015 Braves to the 2014 Braves.  The Braves traded Jason Heyward (with Jordan Walden) to the Cardinals for Shelby Miller and prospect Tyrell Jenkins.  Heyward hadn’t lived up to expectations offensively, as he was touted as an offensive force with a great approach coming up.  On the flip side, he was a much better all-around player than anyone ever wrote about or mentioned when he was coming up.  In a way, though he didn’t fulfill his offensive expectations, he was still underrated because a) his solid offense was based on getting on base and decent power instead of a high batting average and lots of power and b) a lot of his value came from unsung if not overlooked aspects of the game, like defense and baserunning.  After a slow start in 2015, both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference have Heyward around 2 WAR, and it looks like he’ll continue to be a solid but not great offensive player who also offers outstanding defensive value.  Nick Markakis, on the other hand, has posted a high batting average but hasn’t hit for power at all this season.  And although his reputation is that of a good perhaps great defensive player, the defensive data doesn’t back it up.  Markakis has been around a 1 WAR player, according to Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.  Markakis did have a neck issue at the beginning of the year that is probably the reason for his loss of power.  Overall there hasn’t been an enormous difference in Markakis and Heyward in 2015 but Heyward has a clear edge and it’s a safe bet that he’ll be much better or moderately better than Markakis in 2015.  So they would have been better off in 2015 with Heyward.  How much so remains to be seen.

In the starting pitching department, Shelby Miller was the Braves’ big change and, although he’s cooled recently, his first-half performance was outstanding.  Unfortunately other starters they were counting on for solid seasons, like Julio Teheran and Alex Wood, haven’t been so good, especially Teheran.  They also didn’t get much from Mike Foltynewicz as a starter.  But they’ve gotten a handful of good starts from the likes of Williams Perez, Matt Wisler, and Manny Banuelos.  Had they not gone the rebuilding route, they probably wouldn’t have a guy like Miller in the rotation, nor would they have been able to call up Wisler.  Perez was in the organization and the Banuelos trade, or something like it, may have happened regardless.  Miller sort of held things together in the rotation at the beginning of the season but perhaps, if they didn’t trade for him, they would have pieced together a solid rotation with cheap veterans.  Miller’s potential makes the current 2015 rotation a little better than it would have been had they not gone the rebuilding route.  Rebuilding probably helped the rotation some in 2015.

In the bullpen, Craig Kimbrel is a big loss.  In spite of his very human ERA in the 3’s, he’s pitched almost (but not quite) as well as he always has.  Jason Grilli has out-pitched Kimbrel, and Jim Johnson has been outstanding, despite a few bad outings sprinkled in.  Luis Avilan has been solid.  The rest of the bullpen struggled for much of the first half but has been better recently.  Remember the Braves added Grilli and Johnson before they decided to trade Kimbrel, which probably would have made for a very good bullpen.  A lights-out closer like Kimbrel with Grilli, Johnson, and Avilan having fine seasons would have made for some entertaining late-inning work, even if Kimbrel would have taken a step back in a Braves uniform.  Now that Grilli is injured and out for the season, the Braves are scrambling for more bullpen help.  The bullpen is definitely worse off due to the rebuild.

A key place where the Braves upgraded in 2015, compared to 2014, was in terms of overall offensive depth.  Last season the Braves had four hitters (Freeman, Justin Upton, Gattis, and Heyward) who posted OPS+ of 100 or better.  Every other hitter beyond those four posted an OPS+ in the 80s or below.  Beyond Freeman, Justin Upton, Gattis, and Heyward, the Braves were absolutely dreadful.  This season, the worst hitters getting significant playing time (Simmons and Gomes) are posting OPS+ in the high-70s and low-80s.  The worst hitters on the team in 2015 would have been around the fifth-best hitters on the team in 2014.  When pundits predicted the Braves would have a terrible offense in 2015, they simply overlooked the lack of offensive depth and the amount of players who had dreadful seasons in 2014.  The offense took some hits at the top end by losing Justing Upton, Gattis, and Heyward but they gained production overall by adding players who could produce just adequately.  If the Braves had not decided to rebuild and decided to go for it in 2015, you have to think offensive depth would have been an area the front office focused on.

The Braves would be in a good position for 2015, had they not traded away their players headed to free agency and their sell-high assets, assuming they would have realized the 2014 weak points and done a decent job addressing them.  I think they would have been somewhere in between the 2013 team that over-acheived and the 2014 team that under-achieved, but closer to the 2013 team, again, assuming they would have addressed weaknesses from last season.  They would have been well set-up for a World Series run but by no means a favorite to win the East over the Nationals or a favorite to dominate in October.  While I don’t think there is a clear right or wrong answer, rebuilding was the safe route and the route that increases the chances for long-term success of the franchise.  Without rebuilding, they would have been a very good but not dominant team in 2015 but it would have set them back for a good 3-4 years after.

 

 

 

 

 

3 Responses to “Without Offseason Rebuild, Braves not Relevant Beyond 2015”

  1. 1
    Anonymous Says:

    holy moly this is poorly written

  2. 2
    Tyler Says:

    All of his blogs are poorly written, but he gets his point across regardless.

  3. 3
    Matt B Says:

    I agree. The Braves made the wise choice of rebuilding this year. It’s better to accept your fate and position yourself for the future. Hart and company’s acquisitions and trades have improved the culture and team as a whole. As much as I love watching AJ play, I would understand if he is dealt before the August deadline. Same goes for some of the other veterans that enter free agency in 2016. Granted if the return isn’t worth a shake up in leadership then I understand if they are finished trading this year.

    I’m curious what moves we make in the offseason. As much as I hate to see FF hurt, this might give Chris Johnson more playing time. I’d give CJ as much playing time as possible. He should be played against LHP and limit his starts against RHP. Don’t play him against elite RHP. Braves know CJ’s weaknesses. Make sure the opposing pitchers aren’t good at exploiting them. Increase his trade stock by strategically playing him where he might put up good numbers. Starting him in opportune times will help us move him before the August deadline or ultimately in the Winter. With a tight payroll I’d try everything possible not to eat the remainder of CJ’s salary.

    In 2016 I’d continue the trend of acquiring former all-stars with strong leadership and team building personalities.

    I’d resign AJ at the right price. He is having a great year so he might get a number of offers. If he is too expensive I’d pass on him, but if you can get him at 1 yr 3mil I’d do it. Braves should pursue long term options at Catcher regardless, but I feel like his swagger rubs off on his teammates in a good way.

    I’d acquire Barry Zito to help with the development of our young starters. He is the type of player that you bring in when your organization is young and inexperienced. Having a former Cy young LHP that can occasionally start is a perfect match for this team. I read an article about his attitude. It’s exceptional for a veteran. For someone that played at such a high level he seems like a genuine, humble guy with a sincere team first attitude.

    Gomes is a good presence on the team, but his production is down. I’d sign him to a minor league deal, but no way I sign him for anything more than just above league minimum.

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