Braves trade Christian Bethancourt to Padres

The Atlanta Braves rebuild continued last week as they shipped one-time-prospect catcher Christian Bethancourt to the Padres for one-time right-handed pitching prospect Casey Kelly and catching prospect Ricardo Rodriguez. It was rumored for a while that Atlanta wanted to move on from Bethancourt, and when the team brought back veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski several weeks ago, then signed another veteran catcher in Tyler Flowers last week, it was clear the young Bethancourt was soon to be dealt.

cbethancourtThe Braves didn’t seem to have much patience with Bethancourt this season, with indications coming from the beat writers and announcers that the team wasn’t happy with his defense and game calling. Of course, they also weren’t happy with his anemic hitting, as he posted a slash line of .200/.225/.290 in 48 games. It should be noted that 48 games isn’t much time to make an impression or get totally comfortable in the majors, especially when he never started three days in a row during the first two months of the season. With more consistent playing time, Bethancourt hit .327/.359/.480 after he was sent down to triple-A.

A supposedly rebuilding Braves club didn’t seem to have much of a desire to play the 23-year-old Bethancourt after he was recalled late in the year, preferring instead to play the 38-year-old Pierzynski. Either because of that or simply because his bat still hadn’t caught up to major league pitching, Bethancourt reverted to his poor offensive numbers, slashing .204/.232/.296 after getting called back up in late August.

Bethancourt will be just 24 years old next season, and has only started 72 major league games across parts of two seasons. The modus operandi for him throughout his minor league career was that he initially struggled at each new level, but was able to succeed at that level in his second full season go-around. With that in mind, and some regular playing time, Bethancourt might be able to catch up to major league pitching in the next year. So it’s strange that with a rebuilding year planned for the Braves in 2016 they don’t seem to want any part of trying to develop a catcher.

The answer to that question may lie in Bethancourt’s defense more than his offense. His throwing arm was always his plus-plus defensive tool, but the rest of his defensive game was generally considered pretty poor and a work in progress. The biggest knocks on his catching game seem to be in his pitch framing and game calling. There were games this season when he and Julio Teheran were simply not on the same page, and as an observer watching on TV it was quite obvious — something pretty rare to see in the major leagues. Clearly the Braves don’t believe that he can improve upon those skills, and so they chose to move on.

It should also be mentioned that when trying to develop a young pitching staff it’s important to have a catcher who is good at calling games and framing pitches in order to get his pitcher that extra bit of advantage. Pierzynski and Flowers are two catchers who are really good at both of those things. So from the standpoint of building a team through pitching, as the Braves are doing, having a competent catcher is a must.

ckellyIn considering both the positive and negative aspects of Bethancourt’s game as I described them, Atlanta seems to have done pretty well with their return in this trade. Casey Kelly was a huge pitching prospect, ranking among the top-100 prospects for four years from 2010 to 2013. He was also one of the main prospects traded to San Diego in the 2010 Adrian Gonzalez trade with the Red Sox. Everything seemed to be on track for him to be an important part of the Padres rotation until ye olde elbow ligament went bad in the spring of 2013, and he had to have Tommy John surgery.

It’s been a really long recovery for Kelly, who went all the way down to double-A this year to try and figure things out. He made it back to the majors this year for three games (two of them starts) at the end of the season. I like this acquisition by Atlanta. Sure, he’s potentially damaged goods, but if he can regain that top-100 talent he showed before the injury, then they found a mid-rotation starter. Kelly also has options left, so he can compete for a job in spring training, but spend the year at triple-A if he doesn’t make the opening day roster. He also performed pretty well as a reliever this year.

The final piece in this deal is catcher Ricardo Rodriguez. He was one of the top-30 international prospects when he signed with the Padres in 2014 for $800,000 out of Venezuela. Described as a defense-first, bat-later backstop, he doesn’t have any standout tool behind the plate, but is athletic and does everything well at a young age. Many scouts seem to believe that his bat is the biggest question mark, with many wondering if he’ll ever hit enough to be more than a backup.

Therefore it was an odd debut last year for Rodriguez, who split time between the Dominican League and the Padres complex ball rookie league. He hit better than expected, slashing .266/.336/.376, but made eight errors in just 25 games behind the plate. He’s still very young, and very raw in all facets of the game, but his skill set shows a solid foundation for an above average catching prospect. I expect he’ll start the year with one of the Braves rookie league teams, as the organization takes a slow and methodical approach to his development.

He does rank among the top-35 Braves prospects for me, based on bonus received and scouting reports. He slots in at No. 26, and will be the highest ranked catcher in a system now completely barren of catching prospects at the upper levels.

Overall this was a decent trade for the Braves. While they may have given up on Bethancourt too soon, it was pretty obvious last year that he wasn’t in their plans. Despite his poor performances they still managed to wrangle a solid catching prospect from San Diego, albeit one who is a long ways away, and a decent gamble on the once highly thought of Kelly.

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Braves acquire Swanson, Blair and Inciarte from Diamondbacks for Shelby Miller

The Atlanta Braves pulled off another blockbuster trade on day two of the Baseball Winter Meetings. They sent starting pitcher Shelby Miller and reliever Gabe Speier to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for shortstop prospect Dansby Swanson, right-handed pitching prospect Aaron Blair, and outfielder Ender Inciarte.

dwansonFor weeks the rumors of a Miller trade were everywhere on the internet, and the reports were that the Braves were holding out for a huge return. Boy did they ever get a huge return in this trade. Starting with Swanson, who was the number-1 overall pick in this year’s draft out of Vanderbilt. Blair was a first round pick in the 2013 draft, and is now one of the top-100 prospects in baseball. And Inciarte is no slouch, establishing himself as a solid all-around center fielder the past two years.

The inclusion of Swanson is simply amazing. Not only because he was this year’s first overall pick in the draft (the earliest a first round pick has ever been traded, thanks to new MLB rules), or because he’s considered one of the top-10 prospects in baseball, but because he’s a kid from Marietta, who will likely be ready to see the majors when the Braves open their new park in Cobb County in 2017. He instantly becomes the Braves top prospect, and the talk of the farm system next year. He should start his 2016 campaign at high-A Carolina, and should see double-A Mississippi by mid-year. That sets him up to start at triple-A in 2017, with a mid-year promotion to the majors. Of course, if some reports about how good his hit tool is are true, then he could be ready even sooner.

ablairAfter all the pitching prospects Atlanta has acquired in the past year, they finally get a top-flight bat. Of course, they also got a really good pitching prospect in this deal, Aaron Blair. He was a collegiate arm drafted in 2013 at No. 36 overall, who ascended to triple-A this season. He could follow a similar path next year to the one that Sean Newcomb will follow — starting the season in triple-A, then moving to the majors mid-year. He throws a mid-to-low-90s fastball with heavy sink that gets a lot of ground balls. He compliments that with a plus change and plus curve, as well as a developing slider. Blair likely slots in as the No. 5 prospect for the Braves, behind Ozhaino Albies on my top-35 prospect list.

The major league return for the Braves in this trade, Ender Inciarte, is not just a throw-in. He has played all three outfield positions the past two years in the majors, but should slot in at center field for the Braves, pushing Michael Bourn to a backup role. At the plate the left-hander makes solid contact, and mainly hit leadoff for Arizona last year, slashing .304/.340/.421 when batting first. He has some speed, but could stand to get better at the craft of stealing bases. He likely becomes the leadoff hitter in the Atlanta lineup next year.

The Braves do give up a big top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher in Shelby Miller, but with so many pitching prospects in the Atlanta system, he should be replaced by the time the team is ready to contend. Heck, in two or three years, Blair could be as good as Miller. Yes, Miller will be missed in the rotation, but as the Braves have clearly stated they are rebuilding, and the opportunity to get this many top prospects in return for him as well as a starting center fielder is too good to pass up.

einciarteSpeier is a minor relief prospect the Braves acquired from the Tigers last month in the Cameron Maybin trade.

This trade is a huge win for the Braves… if not an absolute steal! In the past year Atlanta has pillaged the Diamondbacks’ farm system, acquiring three first round picks (Swanson 2015, Touki Toussaint 2014, Blair 2013) as well as the No. 75 overall pick in this year’s draft. I wonder if Arizona needs anything else.

Of all the trades the Braves have made since the end of the 2014 season, this might be the best of the bunch. This trade should also go a long way towards helping repair the rocky start that General Manager John Coppolella got off to this offseason when he traded fan favorite Andrelton Simmons. Getting such high-value prospects in this Miller deal, plus such a highly-touted local kid in Swanson, will make for great headlines even while dealing away an established player.

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Braves acquire Jose Ramirez from Mariners

The Atlanta Braves acquired what seems like a minor bullpen piece today when they received right-handed reliever Jose Ramirez from the Seattle Mariners for a player to be named later and cash considerations.

Atlanta was attracted by the power arm of Ramirez, whose fastball sits in the mid-90s, and even tickles 100 mph at times. He compliments that with a plus changeup that can act like a split. He also throws a slider, but has not had consistent success with that pitch, and it’s lack of development is what pushed Ramirez from the rotation to the bullpen.

jramirezWhile he has a great fastball/changeup combination that profiles him as a dominant late innings reliever, his control has been suspect due to a long whip-like arm action that can be difficult to repeat. Guys like this sometimes take a long time to develop (if they ever develop), so clearly the Braves are hoping that they can somehow jump-start his seemingly stunted ascent to a permanent bullpen role in the majors. They must believe that he has either figured out his control problems, or that they can correct those problems once he begins working with their coaches.

He was originally a Yankees prospect, and as such was very familiar to some members of the Braves front office who used to work in that organization. He was dealt to the Mariners at this year’s trade deadline for Dustin Ackley. In today’s trade, the Braves now owe Seattle a player to be named, so far there are no rumors as to who that might be.

Some media outlets are reporting that Ramirez is out of minor league options, meaning he would need to make the team this spring or risk being lost. But because he’s had several injuries the past few years (including an oblique injury), an option may have been saved.

Ramirez has appeared on Yankees prospect lists for Baseball America dating back to 2009, soaring as high as No. 13 last year. He was also said to have the best fastball in the Yankees system for several of those years. He has some major league experience, though those numbers in limited innings look terrible due to nearly a walk per inning. His free pass numbers in the minors in recent years also don’t paint a pretty picture. At 25-years-old he still seems to be a work in progress, which is not always a good sign for a prospect.

In considering where to rank him on my Braves 2016 top-35 prospects list, my gut tells me to put him close to Mauricio Cabrera, another hard-throwing reliever with control problems who used to be a starter. While Ramirez is at a higher level than Cabrera, he’s also three years older, though he’s been better than Cabrera at every level, so I’m inclined to rank him higher. Therefore, I’m going to insert Ramirez at No. 26 on the top prospect list, moving Cabrera (and everyone below him) down a spot.

The Braves bullpen is starting to fill out for 2016, here’s what it looks like so far:

Probable and on the 40-man roster (4): Arodys Vizcaino, Jim Johnson, Daniel Winkler, Chris Withrow

On 40-man and in competition (6): Ian Krol, Danny Burawa, Brandon Cunniff, Matt Marksberry, Andrew McKirahan, Jose Ramirez

On 40-man, but not likely options (3): Mauricio Cabrera, Jason Grilli, Shae Simmons

Non-roster invitees to spring training (2): OG David Carpenter, Madison Younginer

There’s no guarantee Grilli or Simmons will be ready by opening day. This list also doesn’t take into account any pitchers that might drop from the starting rotation into the bullpen like Manny Banuelos or Mike Foltynewicz.

The baseball Winter Meetings start Sunday night, so we’ll see if the Braves make any more moves to add to this bullpen mix.

I’ll have to see who the player to be named later is that the Braves will give up for Ramirez to pass final judgement on this trade, but at this time it looks like a solid low-cost, low-risk deal for a live arm with decent upside.

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Braves 2016 Top-35 Prospects

It’s Atlanta Braves top prospect time, and boy oh boy is the system loaded with talent… after all it should be loaded with talent, having dealt away all the major league talent to acquire this prospect talent. Of the 35 prospects listed, 15 were acquired from other organizations in the past year, and 8 were added via the draft and international signings.

The system is a little bottom heavy, though there are a handful of players who should become major contributors in Atlanta in 2016. The system is also very deep, which is why I chose to list 35 prospects this year as opposed to the normal 30. The previous prospect list (2015 mid-season) can be found here.

I’m presenting the prospects both ranked in order from 1 to 35, and in groups based on letter grades. Hopefully this will give you a better idea of what I think of a prospect even though they may be ranked higher or lower than you would expect. I also find this helpful in establishing the different levels of talent throughout the system.

Grade A+: This grade of a prospect is, and should be a rare grade. It represents a prospect who could one day be a superstar and a franchise cornerstones.

1. Dansby Swanson, SS (Low-A) — Recently acquired
dwanson1Possibly the biggest prospect the Braves have ever acquired from another club, having come over from the Diamondbacks in the Shelby Miller trade. Swanson was the first overall pick in the 2015 draft out of Vanderbilt, and went to high school in Marietta, Georgia. In so many ways he’s the perfect fit for the Braves and their impending move to Cobb County, as the team hopes he will become one of the leaders on the team, while representing a local boy who made it big — like a return to the popular days of Francoeur and McCann. As for Dansby the baseball player, he’s a good one, who could be a great one. He projects to hit for a high average at the top of the batting order, while producing good power to the gaps and eventually hitting around 10 to 15 home runs a year. He’s a plus runner who should steal plenty of bases, and that speed also allows him to maintain plus range at shortstop, where he plays smooth and fluid defense with a plus throwing arm. One comp that has been thrown out there for him by some scouts is Derek Jeter with better defense. Swanson will likely start the year at high-A Carolina, but should move quickly to double-A. He will likely be ready at some point during the 2017 season, if not sooner. [Inserted into top prospect list after trade, pushing all other prospects below him down a spot.]

Grade A: These are prospects who I believe will be first division players, and occasional All-Stars, while filling valuable roles on the team.

2. Sean Newcomb, LHP (AA, A+, A-) — Recently acquired
snewcombAcquired as the principle prospect in the Andrelton Simmons trade, Newcomb has the makings of a front of the rotation starting pitcher. He has a big frame that can handle the workload of a power pitcher. His fastball sits in the mid-90s, reaching higher, and is his only offering that grades as plus right now. His breaking ball and change flash plus at times, but they are inconsistent and he has a hard time repeating his delivery with them. The development of those pitches and his ability to consistently throw them effectively will match his ceiling. If he can master those pitches then he’s a one or two in the rotation. If he struggles to command his offspeed stuff, then he ends up a tweener or pushed to the bullpen (like Folty). He probably starts next year back in double-A with an eye towards a quick promotion to triple-A with any sign of success.

3. Austin Riley, 3B (R+, R-) — Previously unranked
I was cautious with Riley in my mid-year rankings after he was drafted. While the draft reports on him were that he was a late comer and a two-way player who many teams liked as a pitcher, the Braves felt strongly enough about his bat to draft him higher than many prospect outlets had him ranked. So far the Braves are looking like geniuses, as Riley had the best pro debut of anyone in their 2015 draft class. His power is said to be legit, and while he will strike out, it’s not because he’s chasing bad pitches but because he’s taking aggressive swings in the zone. That good knowledge of the strike zone should also allow Riley to hit for a good average. Said to have a strong enough arm for the hot corner, his average range may push him to first base. He should start 2016 as part of a stacked Rome team of talented teenagers — which should be the most exciting team for the Braves at that level in nearly a decade.

4. Ozhaino Albies, SS (Low-A) — Previous rank: 2
oalbies2It’s no secret that one of the biggest reasons the Braves were comfortable trading Andrelton Simmons (and Jose Peraza) was the presence of Ozzie Albies. Like Simba, Albies is from Curacao, and also possesses that natural instinct at shortstop that gives him an extra step on the ball. He has a strong arm and grades as plus on defense across the board (although not as high as Simmons, who is on another plane of existence). At the plate Albies has good bat control and a quick swing, but it is geared towards making contact and line drive power not over-the-fence power. As such, Albies will likely never hit many home runs. His speed on the bases is also a factor, and when coupled with his ability to make solid contact that should make him a table-setter in any major league batting order. He’s slated to start the year at high-A Carolina, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Braves pushed him to Mississippi with an eye towards taking over in Atlanta mid-year. Albies is one of those players who could make a Furcal-like jump from the low minors to the majors.

5. Aaron Blair, RHP (AAA, AA) — Recently acquired
ablairPerhaps the forgotten player acquired in the Winter Meetings trade with Arizona, Blair should not be overlooked. He was drafted No. 36 overall by the Diamondbacks, five spots after Atlanta selected Jason Hursh. While Hursh flamed out as a starter in double-A and fell to the bullpen, Blair kept going strong in double-A, and on into triple-A while staying in the rotation. Like Hursh, Blair also features a sinking fastball as his main weapon, but that’s where the similarities end. Blair gets a lot more swings and misses, not only from his sinker, but also from a plus changeup and a potential plus curveball. He also has a developing slider, a pitch that if developed into a consistent weapon, would give him a commanding four-pitch arsenal. He is currently projected to have the floor of a mid-rotation starter, and if his offspeed offerings continue to develop, he could project as a number-2 starter. One of the best comps for him may actually be Shelby Miller. Blair likely starts the year at triple-A, with an eye towards competing with Newcomb to see who gets called up to the majors first. [Inserted into top prospect list after trade, pushing all other prospects below him down a spot.]

Grade A-: The next group of prospects I grade as possible first division players who will all play important starting roles in the majors.

6. Lucas Sims, RHP (AFL, AA, A+) — Previous rank: 9
lsims4No other prospect has been reassessed by me in the past year more than Sims. Before the new regime tear-down began Sims was the number-one prospect. It wasn’t until Matt Wisler arrived in the organization that Sims lost the top spot in my eyes. That was changed in the mid-season list, as Sims dropped to ninth after a bad start. All along there have been widely varying scouting reports, with some claiming Sims is a mid-to-top of the rotation arm, while others insist he is merely a back of the rotation prospect. Even now when scouting reports claim that Sims’ fastball was lively, others that have seen him will jump in and claim otherwise. What we do know about Sims is that when he’s on, he’s one of the best, with a mid-90s fastball, an unhittable curve and a respectable change. While he’s lessened his inconsistencies, they still show up, and when he’s off he’s quite hittable. Yet still, I list him here above three other highly valued arms because among this group he’s the closest to ironing out those inconsistencies and being that mid-rotation (or better) force he’s been projected to be. He will likely start the year in Mississippi, eyeing a mid-year promotion to Gwinnett. If things go really well, he might see Atlanta in 2016.

7. Kolby Allard, LHP (R-) — Previous rank: 11
kallardAdmittedly I was higher on Allard before news of his recent back surgery came to light (first reported by me). Ranking him here is no slight against his skills, but it does take into account the huge injury risk that is still unresolved. While the Braves dismissed the surgery as a “minor back procedure,” I had more than one scout tell me that there’s no such thing, especially with a young pitcher. But the whole reason Allard was around on the draft when the Braves first picked at 14 was because of the red flags about his back. With that risk also comes significant upside. Allard has a plus curve and plus fastball that sits in the mid-90s. His change needs work, but his command is good across the board. His small sample size in the GCL was tantalizing, though where he will start next season depends on his health. If he’s healthy in the spring, he’ll start at Rome, though there’s every reason for the Braves not to rush him.

8. Touki Toussaint, RHP (Low-A) — Previous rank: 3
ttoussaint2Much like how evaluators are split on Sims’ future, they are also split on Touki’s future. Toussaint has battled inconsistency in his outings mainly because of an inability to repeat his delivery — common with young pitchers, especially those with limited experience like him. His raw stuff though is some of the best in the system, with both a curveball and fastball that grade as plus on his good days. His change is far behind his other pitches, as Arizona didn’t allow him to throw the pitch when he was in their system. The Braves began adding it back to his repertoire, and that led to even more inconsistency and poor results at Rome. Because of that pitch in progress it’s best to take his poor stats at Rome with a grain of salt. More than anything he needs innings, so I expect to see him back at Rome next year.

9. Max Fried, LHP (Did not pitch) — Previous rank: 4
mfried2The highest overall pick of any prospect on this list (before Swanson was acquired), Fried was taken No. 7 overall in 2012 out of high school, where he was a teammate of the No. 16 overall pick, Lucas Giolito, a Nationals prospect and widely considered one of the top pitching prospects in the game. Even before Fried had to go under the knife for Tommy John surgery in 2014, his star didn’t seem to be burning as bright as his former teammate, as his changeup had not progressed at the same rate. Before the surgery Fried had a plus-plus curve and a plus fastball in the low-90s, with most scouts believing he would grow into more velocity. We’ll have to see how the Braves ease him into the season, and how many innings they let him throw. My guess is that they’ll start him out by letting him pitch out of the bullpen, slowly lengthening his outings, then tapering them off in the second half. He should be a very exciting prospect to watch this year with the raw talent he possesses.

Grade B+: These players grade as solid above average players with the potential to be much more.

10. Mallex Smith, OF (AAA, AA) — Previous rank: 10
msmith2No prospect acquired since the end of the 2014 season has improved their stock in a Braves uniform more than Mallex. Considered by many to be the fourth-best prospect in the Justin Upton trade, I ranked Mallex No. 20 before last season, then No. 10 at mid-year. Mallex is a late bloomer as a prospect. Always known to have plus-plus speed, some scouts were undecided on Smith’s ability to hit at the higher levels. His 2015 campaign should have put all of those concerns to rest, as he slashed .340/.418/.413 at Mississippi before getting promoted to Gwinnett. He struggled at first to adjust to triple-A, which brought the doubters out for a minute, before Smith silenced them again by slashing .325/.394/.414 in his final 39 games. He has game-changing speed on the bases, and is focused on getting on base via bunts and walks so that he can use that speed. With the trade of Cameron Maybin, Smith is queued up to take over center field in Atlanta at some point in 2016, with Michael Bourn (who had a similar prospect trajectory) serving as his mentor.

11. Braxton Davidson, OF (Low-A) — Previous rank: 8
bdavidsonWith perhaps some of the best strike zone judgement in the organization, Davidson tries to make the most of every at-bat, and is considered by many to be a tough out. Of course, other evaluators believe that he gives away too many at-bats by being too selective and not aggressive enough. He seemed to get stuck in one of those ruts of being overly-selective towards the end of the season, these ruts also seem to sap his extra-base power. At some point a coach is going to get in Braxton’s ear and tell him to be more aggressive, and he likely won’t have a breakout season or move up the prospect rankings until that happens. While some may point to his high strikeout rate as a sign that he shouldn’t be more aggressive, his patience and selectivity led to him strikeout looking more than swinging and missing. He should be ticketed for Carolina in 2016.

12. Mike Soroka, RHP (R+, R-) — Previous rank: 17
Because Allard was the team’s first pick (at No. 14 overall) this year, it’s easy to forget that Soroka (at No. 28 overall) would have been the highest first round pick that the Braves have had since they selected Sims at No. 21 in 2012. Soroka was a late bloomer in high school, and is still adding velocity to his fastball. His calling card on the mound has been his command and control of three average pitches that can flash plus at times. That command was on display in his early work in the rookie leagues, as he posted a combined strikeout-to-walk ratio of 37-to-5 in 34 innings between Orlando and Danville. He should start 2016 at Rome, and looks like a mid-rotation workhorse of a starter, with a chance to be more.

13. Derian Cruz, SS (Has not debuted yet) — Previous rank: 12
The Braves biggest international signing in 2015, the Dominican switch-hitter inked a contract worth $2 million, with the Braves trading a number of other prospects for additional cap space (read more). That’s the highest bonus the Braves have ever given an international signing. Cruz is an athlete and a runner, and with near-80 speed (on the 20-80 scouting scale) he has a chance to be better than Mallex or Albies on the base paths. While he hasn’t played a professional game yet, he gets this high a ranking based on scouting reports, signing bonus and the players dealt to create the room to sign him (as well as two more 2015 international signings on this list). We should see Cruz start in the GCL next year, as has been the case with the other high-profile international bats the Braves have signed.

14. Tyrell Jenkins, RHP (AAA, AA) — Previous rank: 7
tjenkinsThe first new prospect acquired last year at the beginning of the rebuild. Jenkins is still somewhat of an unknown quantity, but he rebounded well last year from shoulder surgery to throw 138 innings between Mississippi and Gwinnett. He put up good numbers at both stops, but gets knocks for not striking out enough batters to be considered top of the rotation material. He still has trouble finding a consistent release point at times, and he could stand to add more velocity to complement his plus curve and solid change. Ultimately he might become a No. 2 starter, but he looks more like a solid mid-rotation workhorse. Jenkins should start the year back at Gwinnett, but should see Atlanta at some point in 2016.

Grade B: With these prospects, the potential is there for a higher grade, all they need are experience and reps, but there is less certainty that they will emerge as impact players.

15. Manny Banuelos, LHP (MLB, AAA) — Previous rank: 5
mbanuelos2The results for ManBan in 2015 were mixed. Minor league observers had his velocity back into the 90s, though he rarely reached that high during his brief stints in the majors. He encountered some tenderness in his elbow mid-season that caused the Braves to shut him down for most of August. He returned only briefly before being shut down for the season after having a bone spur removed from his elbow in late September. That was likely the cause for the poor velocity.  When he was healthy he showed great control and good separation on his fastball and breaking ball — something that should get even better if he can regain more velocity. He’s expected to be ready for spring training and compete for a spot in the Atlanta rotation to open 2016.

16. Chris Ellis, RHP (AA, A+) — Recently acquired
A big-bodied hard-thrower, he was the second of two prospects the Braves received in the Simmons trade. Ellis has the makings of a mid-rotation workhorse. His fastball sits in the low-90s, and he compliments that with a solid change and a decent curve. He’s thrown a slider off and on throughout his career, but it’s unknown if that’s still a part of his repertoire. Ellis reached double-A last year, and will likely start there again. Walks are a cause for concern, and he’ll need to sort out what’s causing those if he is to stay in the rotation. At worst he probably ends up as a setup man out of the bullpen.

17. Juan Yepez, 1B/3B (R+, R-) — Previous rank: 25
Last year’s top international signing for Atlanta, the Venezuelan right-hander received a $1 million bonus. International scouts were mixed on his ability, but Yepez silenced many of their concerns about his bat while slashing .299/.364/.458 (.822 OPS) between both rookie ball leagues. The remaining question though is where he’ll end up in the field. The Braves seemed determined to put him at first base this year, even though he was signed as a third baseman. He struggled defensively which may have led to scouts not being as excited about him, and a move to first puts more pressure on his bat to add over the fence power. Still, as a 17-year-old getting his first taste of professional baseball, he was impressive — and in my book his stats live up to the signing bonus he got last year. Every pitcher he faced was older than him, and that trend should continue next season when he hopefully starts the year at Rome.

18. John Gant, RHP (AA, A+) — Recently acquired
jgantOne of the arms the Braves got in a mid-season trade with the Mets, Gant opened a lot of eyes with his great finish at Mississippi after the trade. A mechanical change he made just before the Braves acquired him has led to a steady improvement in velocity into the low-to-mid-90s. He already had good command and a plus changeup, so the added velocity is what led to such good results late in the season. Already considered a mid-to-back of the rotation guy with good command and a consistently low walk rate, he now projects as a mid-rotation arm. I’m still maintaining a bit of skepticism that these new results will last, since it’s hard to believe the Mets would trade a pitcher like that for two rental players. With a good spring training, Gant should find himself starting at triple-A, with an eye towards a mid-year call-up if all continues to go well.

19. Rio Ruiz, 3B (AA) — Previous rank: 15
Here’s a guy who can be found up and down prospect lists. A lot has to do with the day you see him or what you choose to ignore in his stats. The folks that like him will point to his strong finish to the season, saying that he was finally catching up to double-A — an advanced level for a 21-year-old. His detractors will point to his power numbers prior to this year as mediocre for the hitters’ leagues he was playing in, and how that lack of power reared its head in Mississippi. He’ll probably need to repeat double-A to start the season, and from there we’ll have a better idea if the late-season adjustments he made have paid off.

20. Dustin Peterson, OF (High-A) — Previous rank: 13
dpeterson2I was bullish on Peterson when the Braves acquired him last offseason. I still see him as a late bloomer who could improve as he moves up the ladder. He was showing signs of a breakout year, hitting .314/.392/.448 at the time of the Mudcats’ bus crash in mid-May. He missed a few weeks and struggled upon returning to the field. There are some who aren’t sold on Peterson’s hitting ability, but he showed great strides in 2015, lowering his strikeout rate and greatly increasing his walk rate. I’ll give him a mulligan on his decrease in power due to the bus crash, but he does slide down the prospect list some due to his move from third base to the outfield. We’ll see how he handles Mississippi next year, but his improved approach at the plate this year bodes well for his ascent to the high minors.

21. Cristian Pache, OF (Has not debuted yet) — Previous rank: 18
Signed for $1.4 million, he was the team’s second huge international bonus player this year. Like Cruz, Pache is out of the Dominican Republic, and is also a good athlete with plus speed. Pache is considered a plus defender in center field, with great range and a solid arm. At the plate he shows good bat control, albeit with a stroke that’s described as funky. Look for the Braves to keep him and Cruz together to begin their career, with both likely starting their professional careers stateside in the GCL.

Grade B-: With these prospects, the potential is there for a higher grade, all they need are experience and reps, but there is even less certainty that they will emerge as impact players.

22. Ricardo Sanchez, LHP (Low-A) — Previous rank: 16
rsanchezHe’s still a bit of an enigma for me. The Braves folks obviously love him, as they traded a third baseman who was close to the majors for him last year, and he continues to flutter around the top-10 of many lists. He certainly has a terrific curve and a good change, but his fastball is inconsistent in both velocity and location. He’s a smaller pitcher, so unless he grows a little more and bulks up there will be some questions about his ability to stay in the rotation. The Braves pushed him to open the season at Rome, which may have been a bit aggressive. While he didn’t face a batter younger than his 18 years of age, he showed his youth in games, letting his emotions get the better of him a few times. He needs to mature both physically and mentally, and will probably be back at Rome this year, though it wouldn’t surprise me to see them hold him back for Danville.

23. Isranel Wilson, OF (R-) — Previously unranked
A native of St. Thomas, who trained in the Dominican, Wilson was signed for $350,000 in 2014. He sports five tool potential, with power being the standout tool, though some believe he’s more of an all-or-nothing swinger. He’s new to playing the outfield, having moved off shortstop, but has the arm and range to play center field. He got off to a bad start in the GCL this year, but made steady improvement as the season progressed. That progress matches reports that his quick bat and plus athleticism will help him make adjustments and correct the holes in his swing. The Braves moved him slower than some of the other big international signings who made their debuts in 2015, and it will be interesting to see if they start him in Danville or Rome in 2016.

24. Ronald Acuna, OF (R+, R-) — Previously unranked
Another good interntational find out of Venezuela in 2014, Acuna has both plus speed and power, and showed both as he progressed from the GCL to the Appy League. He’s a quick-twitch athlete who at just 17-years-old is likely not done filling out his frame. It’s easy to dream on the well-rounded tools here, and posting a .269/.380/.438 slash line during his first taste of professional ball bodes well for the future. Acuna will probably start with Rome next year.

25. Zach Bird, RHP (AA, A+) — Recently acquired
zbirdAcquired from the Dodgers in the Hector Olivera trade, Bird was considered a project when he was selected in the ninth round out of high school. He has a loose arm and has gained velocity over the past two years, and now sits in the mid-90s, while touching 99 mph. His offspeed stuff needs a lot of work, though his slider shows good promise. The lack of refinement in those pitches leads to an extremely high walk rate. He’ll need to show progress with his secondary offerings in order to remain a starter, otherwise he likely ends up being a late-innings reliever where his top-end velocity will play up. The Braves will probably put him back at double-A to start 2016.

26. Ricardo Rodriguez, C (R-) — Recently acquired
The only prospect acquired in the Christian Bethancourt trade with the Padres, Rodriguez was San Diego’s top international signing in 2014, agreeing to an $800,000 bonus out of Venezuela. The squat 5-foot-10 backstop is said to have good overall catching skills in an athletic body, without one standout tool. While his catch-and-throw skills are raw, he’s considered very coachable and should show steady improvement in a Braves system known for developing catchers. His bat displays some good power, though it was believed that he may not hit for a high average. All of these assessments were of a 16 year old prospect, who debuted last year in the Dominican Summer League at age 17, before getting a short cup of coffee in stateside rookie ball. He will likely continue his sojourn through rookie ball next year as the Braves hope to develop both his bat and his glove. [Inserted into top prospect list after trade, pushing all other prospects below him down a spot.]

27. Juan Morales, SS (Has not debuted yet) — Previously unranked
The less-heralded of this year’s trio of international signings, Morales is less refined than either Cruz or Pache. The Venezuelan shortstop is also less well known than the other two, and while they received million-plus bonuses, Morales received $450,000. That’s still a hefty sum compared to many of the bonuses paid by the Braves in recent years. He’s said to have good hitting ability that should develop some power, as well as a strong arm that has a good chance to stick at shortstop. He too likely starts next year in the GCL.

Grade C+: This group of prospects also has the potential to be more, but are currently just fringe guys based on experience and/or lack of refinement.

28. Jason Hursh, RHP (AAA, AA) — Previous rank: 19
No prospect had a more disappointing fall in 2015 than Hursh. The Braves inexplicably had him repeat double-A to start the season, and he didn’t take it well, getting lit up for almost a month. The Braves pushed him to the bullpen in July, and he did well enough there to finally warrant a promotion to triple-A. It’s hard to say if his struggles to start 2015 were mechanical, or mental (after the disappointment of finding himself back in Mississippi). He got beat up some in the Gwinnett bullpen, but he showed increased velocity in one-inning stints, with his fastball sitting in the mid-90s, reaching 99 mph. He may not return to the rotation, but could become a solid force in the bullpen for Atlanta in 2016.

29. Juan Ramirez, RHP (MLB, AAA) — Recently acquired
jramirezAcquired from the Mariners in early December, Atlanta was attracted by the power arm of Ramirez, whose fastball sits in the mid-90s, and even tickles 100 mph at times. He compliments that with a plus changeup that can act like a split. He also throws a slider, but has not had consistent success with that pitch, and it’s lack of development is what pushed Ramirez from the rotation to the bullpen. While he has a great fastball/changeup combination that profiles him as a dominant late innings reliever, his control has been suspect due to a long whip-like arm action that can be difficult to repeat. Guys like this sometimes take a long time to develop (if they ever develop), so clearly the Braves are hoping that they can somehow jump-start his seemingly stunted ascent to a permanent bullpen role in the majors. They must believe that he has either figured out his control problems, or that they can correct those problems once he begins working with their coaches. [Inserted into top prospect list after trade, pushing all other prospects below him down a spot.]

30. Mauricio Cabrera, RHP (AFL, AA, A+) — Previously unranked
mcabreraNo pitcher in the Braves organization throws harder than Cabrera. Unfortunately he struggles mightily to throw it over the plate. His move to the bullpen seems permanent, but if he can clean up his control and get more consistent with his slurve, he could be a strong force at the end of games. His fastball sits in the high-90s, and tantalizingly reaches 104 mph. That’s an exciting number for a prospect, but there have been many before him with that kind of heat who were never able to aim it consistently. He likely starts in Mississippi this year, and if he shows improved control he’ll be in Atlanta.

31. Rob Whalen, RHP (High-A) — Recently acquired
Along with Gant, Whalen was the other member of the mid-season trade with the Mets. Whereas Gant brought some velocity, Whalen is more of a classic control and deception pitcher. He has four pitches that he can command, but his fastball and curve are the best, and feature the most deception. His profile reminds me of Cody Martin, and like Martin I expect Whalen to have trouble getting left-handers out and to eventually be pushed to middle relief in the bullpen. However, that’s likely his floor, and there’s still plenty of opportunity for him to exceed that projection. Especially if, like Gant, he finds some additional velocity. I actually like this approach by both of these guys — work on command and control first, then add velocity later. That’s the approach that Chasen Shreve used with great success. Expect Whalen to start the year at double-A.

32. Andrew Thurman, RHP (AFL, AA, A+) — Previous rank: 20
athurmanThe third prospect in the Gattis trade, he was a second-rounder in 2013 out of UC Irvine. Since then scouts have thought Thurman would move quickly through the minor leagues, but that just hasn’t happened yet. He has a decent four-pitch mix that lead some to believe he could develop into a mid-to-back of the rotation starter. Since being drafted he’s struggled with his mechanics, which shows up in the inconsistencies from one start to the next. He was another player who lost a lot of time after the Carolina bus crash, as he was showing signs of figuring some things out before that happened. He’ll likely be back at Mississippi to start 2016, though the Braves may shift him to the pen.

Grade C: These prospects have a tool or two that could be useful in the majors, or they need more time in the minors to determine what kind of prospect they will be; a.k.a. the holding tank of talent.

33. Lucas Herbert, C (R-) — Previous rank: 22
lherbertThis could be a big under-rank of Herbert, who was drafted No. 54 overall this year. He tore his meniscus in his third game after getting drafted, and there are some concerns about catchers with that particular injury. Herbert is athletic enough that he should be able to bounce back. He was considered the best defensive catcher in the 2015 draft class, and some reports indicated that his bat wasn’t a slouch either. We need to see him healthy and on the field next year before we can fully judge his future, but he has a chance to be the best true catcher the Braves have drafted since McCann. If healthy he likely starts the year at Rome.

34. Leudys Baez, OF (A-, R+) — Previously unranked
Another late 2014 international signing, the 19-year-old Dominican signed for $400,000, after his 2013 contract with the Nationals was voided over a reported discrepancy with his age (that actually never was proven). The switch-hitter is said to have a good approach from both sides of the plate, and should hit for both average and power. He started off the season hot in Danville, but fizzled late in the season after a promotion to Rome. He’s good defensively with a plus outfield arm. Because he’s a bit older he doesn’t get as much praise as some of the younger international players on this list, but he still shows some good potential. He should start at Rome, though the organization may be aggressive with him and push him to Carolina.

35. Dan Winkler, RHP (MLB, AFL) — Previous rank: 29
dwinklerThe Braves’ Rule 5 pick last year who spent the season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Winkler is a command and control pitcher without overpowering stuff. He adds a ton of deception in his three-quarters delivery which works better against right-handed batters than left-handers, though he’s still highly effective against lefties. His minor league track record indicates that he’s good at limiting hits and getting strikeouts, and as such should be a valuable part of any bullpen. Because he’s a Rule 5 selection who still needs to remain on the active roster to be kept, he’ll spend the season in Atlanta.

36. A.J. Minter, LHP (Has not debuted yet) — Previous rank: 23
Selected No. 75 overall in 2015, the Braves were not scared off by a pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery he had in March. In college Minter was a closer with a dominant mid-90s fastball. The Braves selected him because they believe he can be an elite closer once he hopefully makes a successful recovery from surgery. They will likely ease him back into games in 2016 while watching his innings. He probably starts at Rome.

37. Connor Lien, OF (AFL, A+) — Previously unranked
clienA late-round find in 2012 out of high school, Lien has progressed slowly yet methodically through the Braves system, showing improvement as he’s moved up the ladder. He’s got a nice profile as an athletic outfielder with a chance at five tools. He gets a little long in his swing, and strikes out a lot, but not yet to an excessive degree. He’ll get challenged when he opens 2016 with Mississippi, and if he can swim at that level he should shoot up prospect lists.

38. Wes Parsons, RHP (A+, A-) — Previous rank: 21
The past two seasons have seen Parsons’ promise fall into question as shoulder problems have kept him off the mound. While the nagging injuries are very much a concern, Parsons is still considered by many to be a prospect. He shows good control of both a low-90s fastball and array of breaking balls. When at his best that combination profiles him as a mid-rotation starter. He may eventually slide to the bullpen, where he still has plenty of value.

39. Max Povse, RHP (A+, A-) — Previously unranked
The imposing 6-foot-8 Povse is still more about projection than results. He shows a good low-to-mid-90s fastball and a good complimentary pitch in a mid-80s slider. His control is still a work in progress, but when it’s good he shows a lot of promise. There is some concern that he was shutdown in July with a possible unknown injury. If healthy, he’ll likely start 2016 back at Carolina, needing to make great strides to stay on the prospect radar.

Other Grade-C prospects considered for the top-35: RHP Steve Janas, OF Randy Ventura, OF Dian Toscano, C Tanner Murphy, RHP Alec Grosser, RHP Josh Graham, C William Contreras, RHP Ryan Weber, C Jonathan Morales.

Other 2016 Braves prospect lists:
Baseball America top-10
Minor League Ball top-20

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Braves trade Cameron Maybin to Tigers

cmaybin2The Atlanta Braves completed the required weekly offseason trade today, as they sent center fielder Cameron Maybin to the Detroit Tigers for left-handed relievers Ian Krol and Gabe Speier. It looks like the Braves will also send about $1.5 million to the Tigers, which means that Atlanta will save around $6.5 million this year.

The money is a large factor for this trade, but there was also a need to move at least one of the Braves many outfielders. Michael Bourn now becomes the presumptive starting center fielder next year, with rookie Mallex Smith likely supplanting him at some point during the season.

Hector Olivera now has a clearer path to play left field, while Nick Swisher will probably find time in left, at first base, and pinch hitting — if Swish isn’t traded before the start of the season.

Ian Krol was once a top-100 prospect in baseball in 2011, but he fell to the bullpen and has strangely gotten worse each year. He started his MLB career in Washington, but was sent to Detroit as part of the Doug Fister trade. There could be something to be said for a bit of misuse in Detroit, or some lack of proper coach to help Krol out. He used to be a pitchability guy, but his velocity has gotten better, though this year his control seemed to suffer because of it. He’s still fairly young and next year will be his age-25 season. There’s a “rose colored glasses” case to be made for Krol improving in 2016, but there’s also a case to be made that pitchers like this can be found all over the waiver wire for nothing.

Gabe Speier is somewhat of a prospect. A late-round find by the Tigers in 2013, Speier had Tommy John surgery later that year. His innings have been limited since then so he’s got a low-mileage arm, though his velocity has been inconsistent from one outing to the next. He’s got some good upside as a reliever. Even though, the Braves may put him back in the rotation for a while to make up for lost time, but he currently isn’t a top-30 prospect, just an arm with a tad bit of promise.

Over on the public relations side, the Braves front office and especially new GM John Coppolella, have some work to do on their interviewing skills. This tweet from the other day sets the stage:

That’s from 11 days ago, and it certainly seems like complete bonk because they clearly just trade Cameron Maybin (and the price seemed… low). Maybe they weren’t “looking” to trade him, but they certainly took whatever middling offer came their way.

The Braves really missed the boat when they failed to trade Maybin at this year’s deadline.

1st Half: .289/.356/.418 — .774 OPS
2nd Half: .240/.289/.311 — .600 OPS

With the great first half that Maybin had, his value was much higher than when the Braves acquired him, but despite some offers, the team failed to move him. Cameron’s second half returned his trade value to what you see today.

Nevertheless, a decent trade by the Braves to save money, clear an outfield spot, and acquire a couple of potentially useful arms. Several things accomplished in one deal. Next.

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Braves trade Andrelton Simmons to Angels

This one hurts. Damn the baseball analysis for a minute… Andrelton Simmons was easily my favorite Atlanta Braves player still left on the team. I first saw him in Danville, Virginia, a month after he was drafted. At the time we weren’t sure whether he would be a pitcher or a shortstop. What first caught my eye, in the midst of a 100+ degree heat wave, was his arm… his cannon. On some throws to first I couldn’t tell what was higher, the temperature or the speed of his throw. At the plate he was a scrapper, but one that could put the bat on the ball with relative ease.

andrelton1The next year I saw him at Lynchburg, that was the year he really burst onto the scene. Then the next year at Mississippi, right before he got called up. My comment to folks who wanted to know who he was and why I thought he was special was that “his defense was worth the price of admission.”

When he arrived in Atlanta that refrain was echoed throughout the Braves universe, and quickly replayed on the highlight reel every night. Watching him play was jaw dropping. What I had only seen flashes of in the minors was illuminated by slow motion replays in the majors that still boggle the mind. This was a pure kind of baseball where people go to the game to watch a guy play defense.

We may never again see a defensive player of his caliber step onto a field wearing a Braves uniform. That’s not hyperbole, that’s a fact.

andrelton-smileI’m going to miss watching Andrelton Simmons play every game. I’m going to miss watching him play for my team. This trade pisses me off because it takes away this generational talent, this guy I watched grow up and rooted for every step of the way in professional baseball, and a guy who you could tell was having fun every time he stepped on the field.

So, anyway, loyalty be damned in baseball. It’s a business, don’t you know.

Speaking of, how did the Braves do on the business end of this trade? The Braves got left-handed pitching prospect Sean Newcomb, right-handed pitching prospect Chris Ellis, and warm body at shortstop Erick Aybar.

snewcombNewcomb is the prize here. He’s considered one of the top-20 prospects in the game, he was a first round pick in 2014, and he made huge strides this year, reaching double-A. He’s not a finished product yet, as his command and delivery apparently need work, but he projects as a top of the rotation workhorse — a strong bet to be a number-2 starter, with a shot at ace. He probably becomes the Braves top prospect, ahead of the guy I had at the top of my provisional (unreleased) 2016 prospect list, Kolby Allard.

In addition to nabbing Newcomb, who was the Angels top prospect, the Braves also picked up another pitcher, largely considered to be the Halo’s second-best prospect. Of course, in the barren wasteland of the Angels farm system, number-2 is not saying much. If you may recall, the Braves traded for the Angels number-2 prospect last year, Ricardo Sanchez — who ended up ranking in the mid-teens on many Braves prospect lists. At that time Newcomb was the number-1 prospect and Chris Ellis was number-4.

Ellis is a big-bodied power pitcher, and still largely considered a work in progress. He spent the second half of this season at double-A, and like Newcomb, needs to work on his control and repeating his delivery. He was a third-round pick in 2014, and currently projects as a mid-rotation starter. He’s a decent gamble on an arm with good upside, but he’s no sure thing, though he still probably has a floor of a late-innings reliever. I’d probably put him somewhere in the teens on the Braves prospect list.

cellisErick Aybar is the 10-year major league veteran who replaces Simmons. He’s in the final year of a five year contract that will pay him $8.5 million. Aybar is a below average defender at shortstop who will have a pretty good year with the bat every once in a while. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Braves dealt him before the season began, but if they don’t, it’s a near certainty that he’ll get traded mid-season.

If Aybar does stay around to start the season, he’s merely a bridge to the shortstop of the future, Ozhaino Albies. Ozzie ranked third on my provisional 2016 prospect list before this trade. He played 2015 at low-A Rome, and was slated to start next year at high-A Carolina, though with this trade the Braves may aggressively promote him to double-A, with an eye towards a mid-season call-up to Atlanta. The presence of Albies, and the esteem with which many in the Braves system hold him, is likely one of the big reasons the team felt comfortable trading Simmons. It would not surprise me to see him make a Furcal-like jump to the majors this season.

Atlanta also sent catcher Jose Briceno to the Angels. He was acquired last offseason from the Rockies in the David Hale trade. Briceno had an awful 2015 campaign at high-A Carolina, and fell off the prospect list entirely.

So now the “why.” Why did the Braves feel they needed to trade Simmons? From reports online it appears that they were talking about trading him since last offseason, and that they may not have acted fast enough on some offers before they were pulled. The front office was apparently not willing to let another strong offer expire, and so they jumped on the first big one that came their way this offseason.

The explanations for why the team would trade Simmons range from poor and inconsistent offense to an expected decline in defense with age. Atlanta clearly thinks that Simmons is likely to decline, while the Halos think otherwise. I’m inclined to agree with the Angles, as Simmons is only 26-years-old and should be entering the prime of his career. Besides, if the Braves were really worried about decline in players as they age, then why did they trade for 30-year-old rookie Hector Olivera this year?

The real explanation is probably that this is just part of the overall strip-down and rebuild of the team, and that Simmons was one of the guys they didn’t get to move last offseason. So in that vein, how did the Braves do in their return for Simmons? Where many of the trades last offseason focused a little more on quantity over quality, or sacrificed health for fragile quality, this trade emphasized a quality return. Newcomb is arguably the best prospect the Braves have received in any of their trades. While he’s probably still a year away from being ready, he’s a well-refined product who should be a good bet to anchor a rotation in a few years. Ellis is a bit more of a reach, but still a quality arm.

So does one elite prospect and one good prospect equal the best defensive shortstop in baseball? That question can only be answered by answering the question of whether or not you believe that Andrelton’s bat has any more in it than he’s shown. Simmons is in the middle of the pack as far as hitting among major league shortstops. I, for one, believe that he will get better, as he’s still maturing as a hitter and finding out what kind of hitter he should be.

From a business of baseball perspective, this was a decent trade for the Braves. Not great, maybe not even good, but decent. Like the Olivera trade, this is another trade with a lot of risk based on the acquisition of unproven talent in exchange for proven talent. From a public relations and fan perspective, this was a horrible trade for Atlanta, as they seemed to unnecessarily give away a fan favorite player.

And that erosion of fan support and loyalty to players may not be done yet, as sources I have close to the Braves tell me that the front office has already talked to other clubs about Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran.

It’s a Brave new world… make sure you buy a program so you’ll know who’s on the team this week.

andrelton2

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Braves promote John Coppolella to General Manager

Last week the Atlanta Braves formalized what many people who follow the organization closely had assumed, that John Coppolella would be the team’s next General Manager. There are plenty of media stories out there about who he is and where he came from, so I’ll just link this one from which you can learn the basics.

What I would prefer to focus on is what we can expect from Coppy, as he’s called. What kind of GM will he be? After all, he served under former GM Frank Wren during virtually his entire tenure. For much of that he was considered one of Wren’s right-hand guys, and specifically his analytics guy.

I’m not quite as ecstatic as some around baseball and the Braves are about Coppy’s ascendancy to the GM’s chair. I wonder if some of the same factors that caused Wren’s relationship with many in the organization to turn sour will similarly affect Coppolella. I don’t dislike the move, but I’m hesitant to praise the move or to believe that he will be any better at his job than his predecessor was.

However, Coppolella will have two huge advantages that Wren never had. First is the rebuild the team went through this year that allowed them to restock the farm and reset the roster. The second, and most important advantage, will be the added payroll space that the new stadium will create.

Wren was never allowed to rebuild the Braves. He was mandated to try and put a winning team on the field every year, without the benefit of tearing down the big club and restocking. Sources within the Braves organization have told me that Wren wanted to rebuild the team several times after he took over, but was told that he could not. That decision not to rebuild, which came from above Wren, caused several necessary reactions by him and his front office and thus defined his tenure as GM:

  • Wren had to start using the draft to select players closer to the majors.
  • He was unable to trade away star players before they left via free agency, and those free agents didn’t net the draft picks they had netted under John Schuerholtz (because of a change in MLB free agent compensation rules).
  • He was forced to sign free agents to fill gaps in order to keep competing.
  • He had to spend more and more on the major league team, which left less for player development, especially internationally.
  • And most destructively, he had to use what farm system he had to make trades to try and remain competitive.

Coppy will have the advantage of eliminating virtually all of those hurdles. With the rebuild, the draft focus on younger talent has been reset — all of those trades last offseason also brought back more draft picks, and the Wood/Peraza trade this year added an extra 2016 draft pick. Clearly star players are now not immune from being traded. Coppy can be more selective in free agency, especially the next two years, with a rebuilding team that has low expectations. He will have more money to spend on the major league club and on player development with the opening of the new stadium and the development of better TV deals. With all of the above factors being more favorable, he will not be forced to deal away so much talent from the Atlanta minor league system.

Wren and Coppy will be judged against each other, just as Wren and Schuerholtz were, but none of them operated in the same environment or with the same advantages (or disadvantages).

While Coppy will start with fewer expectations and fewer disadvantages than Wren did, he nonetheless comes with some warning signs (or caution flags).

Remember that Coppy was involved in many of the decisions, even the unpopular ones, that happened under Wren. The case for signing free agent B.J. Upton was largely an analytical one, with expected future performance the main driver. One of the advocates in the front office for that signing, over other free agents at the time like Hamilton, Victorino or Bourn, was Coppolella. That signing was a huge risk, though it was one that many analytically inclined fans heralded at the time. Of course, it turned out to be too big a risk that didn’t work out in the Braves favor.

As Wren’s anaylitics guy, Coppy ran the numbers on many of the contracts that were handed out before the 2014 season. Most of those contracts seem like good value, though Chris Johnson’s stands out as a poor one in retrospect. How much of a hand did Coppolella have in pushing that contact forward?

Under John Hart, who took over after Wren was fired, Coppy had a huge hand in every trade that was made. Many in and around the organization questioned that all those trades needed to be made. To some it seemed like trades were being made simply to make a trade. Will that inclination (possibly compulsion) to constantly make trades erode trust within the organization?

Perhaps the biggest obstacle that Coppolella will face is the same one that Wren ran into — the necessary expansion of analytics from the front office to the field. One of the chief complaints about Wren was that he was occasionally telling the manager how to make out his lineup, or trying to interfere in how the pitching coach was doing his job. The old school baseball guys in the Braves front office didn’t like that.

Coppy will face the same criticism when he attempts to steer the coaches and the manager in the direction he wants them to go. If he hasn’t already, Coppolella will realize that the modern pitcher is more susceptible to getting hurt if he’s treated like pitchers were 30 years ago — is that why the Braves have had more Tommy John surgeries than any other team since Roger McDowell became pitching coach?

What happens when Coppy tries to explain to Fredi Gonzalez that he should not have gone to his bullpen to go lefty on lefty when the left-handed batter has a reverse platoon split? At least Wren played professional baseball when he was younger. How will coaches react when a guy who never played baseball professionally, who is younger than they are, starts trying to alter or critique their decision making?

For the sake of the team, and of our collective Braves fandom, I hope it all works out, and that Coppy is smart enough to approach these things the right way (if there is a right way), or at least learn from Wren’s mistakes in those endeavors.

I simultaneously worry that Coppy needs someone to vet all of his moves with so that he doesn’t just make trades all the time, and that the old guard will leave him alone and let him chart a more analytically driven course for the team.

I’m going to root for the guy, while also scrutinizing every one of his moves. I’m hoping that he can either build up enough cachet to convince the higher-ups to replace Fredi, or convince Fredi that he needs to vastly improve his handling of pitchers, his in-game match-up skills and decision making.

This Braves team has a long way to go before they are competitive again. How much rope will Coppy be given? What happens if he inadvertently steps on some heretofore unmentioned tenant of “The Braves Way?”

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Braves biggest need for 2016

The Atlanta Braves have spent the past year trading away hitters, dealing nearly an entire lineup — Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson, Jose Peraza, Kyle Kubitza, Tommy La Stella, Chris Johnson. By far the biggest subtractions the team made have been in the hitting department, and so it figures that the 2015 offense has scored the fewest runs in baseball. Therefore their biggest need must be hitting, right?

While they certainly need another good bat or two (something I wrote about last week), their biggest need is actually in the starting pitching rotation, and this offseason is the perfect time to make a move in that department.

jteheran3The Braves have just three pitchers they can count on for their rotation next year, Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran and Matt Wisler — and Wisler might be a “maybe.” Mike Foltynewicz could be an option, but the jury is still out on his ability to go through a batting order more than once. Manny Banuelos is a possibility, but his velocity has not been what was expected, and he looks like he still needs more time to build arm strength and extend himself deep into games. Williams Perez started out hot in the majors, but has regressed harshly, though there weren’t many people outside of the Braves organization who believed the soft-tossing sinkerballer could be an effective major league starter.

There is actually not much immediate help in the Braves pitching-rich minor league system either, with most of their top pitching prospects two or more years away. Tyrell Jenkins is close, but was shut down late this year with a dead arm. He likely needs at least a few more months of triple-A. Lucas Sims has ascended to double-A this year, and will pitch in the Arizona Fall League, but he’s still a year or more away from reaching the majors.

There’s no one else in the Braves system who appears ready to make the jump to the majors and for which we can expect a reasonable amount of success. So that leaves Atlanta with two, maybe three starters, and a few other potential candidates who are uncertain to last in that role. If this year has shown us anything, it’s that uncertainty and inexperience in the rotation can hurt other areas of the team.

The Braves need at least three starters who can go deep into ballgames on a regular basis. Without guys like that in the rotation the bullpen must take on more and more of the workload. While they rank in the middle of the pack this year in innings pitched in relief, the terrific Braves bullpens of the past two seasons had some of the lowest innings totals in the majors — because the starters had some of the highest innings totals in the majors. The added stress and workload on an already depleted bullpen this season is part of what has led to so many losses.

smiller2The easiest way for the Braves to remedy this problem is to add at least one, preferably two, experienced starters who can give the team lots of quality innings. A quick look at the list of free agent starting pitchers this offseason reveals a wide range of options from expensive (Price, Cueto, Zimmerman) to mid-range (Kazmir, Leake, Gallardo) to possible bargains (Kendrick, Anderson, Fister). The Braves should have the money available to make a significant investment in at least one big or mid-range starter, while still being able to afford two or three years of another innings-eater.

Acquiring two more good starting pitchers will take the pressure off their bullpen, and the Atlanta pen should be much better next year as Jason Grilli, Paco Rodriguez, Shae Simmons, and Chris Withrow return from the disabled list. This also highlights the vital importance of lowering the workload for a bullpen with a majority of relievers returning from injury.

The Braves front office has their work cut out for them if they are to put a competitive team on the field next year. They need to get their relief corp healthy, they need to find a catcher and a second baseman and at least one more power hitter, but most of all they need two more quality starting pitchers.

If starting pitching is the genesis of “The Braves Way,” then money will need to be spent. There is no immediate help to be found in their system.

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Over-correcting the strikeout thing

Much of what has driven the rebuilding of the 2015 (and beyond) Atlanta Braves was the shock at how strikeout prone the 2014 team was. But like so much of the recent history of the Braves, this desire to lessen the team’s strikeouts turned into an over-correction in the opposite direction (like the bullpen over-correction after 2006, or the rotation over-correction after 2008).

UpHeyThe strikeouts of the 2014 Braves (and the 2013 Braves) were part of the package that went with an assemblage of players who pretty much all swung for the fences. That team, at its best, was top-5 in the majors in home runs in 2013, and top-5 in strikeouts. Then in 2014, virtually the same team failed to match their home run numbers, but retained their strikeout numbers. The difference turned out to be an 18-game swing in their record.

The idea of power hitters who also strikeout isn’t a bad one — the top two teams this year in strikeouts currently occupy playoff spots. Even with half the lineup swinging and often missing, that formula worked for the Braves in 2013 (just as it’s working for the Cubs and Astros this season). The problem with the 2014 Braves was one of too many individuals having career-worst seasons — not even a disciplined-swinging team can cover up for that.

The culprit though became the strikeout. The cursed-at stat was blamed for all the team’s ills, and the architect who had assembled these strikeout-prone hitters was dismissed. That initiated the complete dismantling of the team and the removal of all those (mostly good) strikeout-prone hitters, replacing them with hitters who don’t strikeout (but weren’t necessarily good). Every other factor seemed to be ignored, especially power. Predictable results followed.

The Braves did remove the strikeouts from their lineup, now ranking in the bottom-5 in the majors in strikeouts. But they also lost all their power — ranking last in home runs and last in slugging percentage.

The new front office (and every other Braves’ fan, broadcaster and writer) should realize by now that they over-corrected and removed too many good hitters and too much power from the lineup. Now comes the arduous task of adding it back, of trying to find good power hitters on the trade market or through free agency. Already they have potentially over-paid for a hitter with power when they sent highly touted prospect Jose Peraza and the reliable rotation arm of Alex Wood to the Dodgers for the untested Hector Olivera.

I expect there will be at least one more move this offseason in which the Braves drastically overpay in one form or another for a hitter with power. And to add power back to their lineup they will have to do that, and they should, and it should be noted that this is the position the new front office regime put the team into.

The 2013 Braves were a good team with a lot of strikeouts, the 2014 Braves were a bad team with a lot of strikeouts and the 2015 Braves are a bad team without a lot of strikeouts. The 2013 team contained a lot of good hitters having great seasons, while 2014’s team contained a lot of good hitters having bad seasons, and the 2015 team doesn’t have many good hitters — and most of them are having bad seasons.

In the roulette wheel of luck that is any baseball season I’d rather have a lot of good hitters — whether they strikeout or not — and hope they have good-to-great seasons, and accept that there will be seasons when they slump, rather than collecting a bunch of average hitters who don’t strikeout and relying on them to produce great seasons. In this regard, the 2016 and beyond Braves have a lot of work to do and a high price to pay.

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Braves trade Chris Johnson to Indians for Bourn and Swisher

mbournThe Atlanta Braves made another big trade in what has been ten months of near-constant player movement. They sent infielder Chris Johnson to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for outfielder Michael Bourn and infielder/outfielder Nick Swisher. Atlanta also received about $15 million from Cleveland to help cover up for most of the differences in salaries.

This is a “change of scenery” trade for all involved. Chris Johnson seemed to wear out his welcome in Atlanta, even when challenging for the batting title in 2013. His anger after bad at-bats was at times uncontrollable and led to many confrontations, some of them in front of cameras in the Braves dugout. Despite that and sub-par defense at third base, the Braves decided to give him a long-term contract that would be guaranteed through the 2017 season.

That contract — at a time when the Braves were giving contracts to many of their young players — was seen by some as unnecessary for a player who didn’t have a long track record of good performances. I viewed it in much the same way, but tolerable in a market that was lean on available third baseman. Last year after the contract was signed Johnson quickly returned to his pre-Atlanta terribleness at the plate, continued to play poor defense, and didn’t seem to make any allies in the clubhouse.

The new Braves front office leadership made no secret of their months-long quest to trade Johnson, and in the lead-up to the July non-waiver trade deadline he made it known that he would be happy to move on. Both sides finally got their wish.

There were rumors of a Swisher for Johnson swap last month, and apparently the teams came really close to making it happen. The Indians decided to instead move two under-performing contracts.

nswisherBoth Bourn and Swisher were signed to big free agent contracts prior to the 2013 season. Despite putting up decent numbers in their first year with The Tribe, each player succumbed to injury and decline in subsequent years. The Indians quickly soured on both guys and sought future payroll flexibility — this is where the money that changed hands comes into play.

Cleveland sent between $10 and $15 million to the Braves this year to cover future contract obligations — money that likely covers both players’ remaining contract obligations for this year. Next year Swisher is owed $15 million and Bourn $14 million. Each player has a vesting option for 2017 ($14M for Swish, $12M for Bourn) if they reach 550 plate appearances in 2016. Chris Johnson is owed $7.5M in 2016 and $9M in 2017 with a team option for 2018. From the Indians perspective they clear Bourn and Swisher off their books this year, and get much lower future payroll obligations. The Braves meanwhile, will pay more in 2016 for the two players they acquired, but as long as their options don’t vest, they will have no payroll obligations for 2017.

While Bourn and Swisher routinely averaged more than 550 plate appearances for most of their careers, injuries have limited them to less than that number the past two years. The Braves will likely make sure that neither guy gets to that number next year, even without the “help” of a DL stint. That will likely be accomplished due to the now-crowded nature of the positions each of them play.

Bourn is currently blocked in center field by Cameron Maybin. Swisher is blocked at first base by Freddie Freeman when he returns from the DL. As the roster currently stands, both players will compete for playing time in left field next year — but of course as we’ve seen for the past ten months the Braves roster will likely continue to change. The presence of Bourn will allow the Braves to sell high on Cameron Maybin. If he is traded, then Bourn serves as a place-holder and mentor for prospect Mallex Smith, currently at triple-A.

I actually really like this trade for Atlanta. They take on a lot of salary for 2016, but they have plenty of room to do so, and they add two great clubhouse guys — something that has been a focus of their recent rebuild. They also rid themselves of a guy they really didn’t want in Chris Johnson — the third Johnson they’ve traded in the past month.

Atlanta also gets two more veterans who they could potentially move at next year’s trade deadline, much like they did with Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe this year. At that point their salaries should not be an obstacle to any trade, and as long as the Braves keep their plate appearances low in the first half of the year, the acquiring team would get a useful rental player.

With the injuries both Bourn and Swisher have experienced the past two years, and the inevitable age-based decline, there’s no telling what kind of offensive production the Braves could get from these guys. It’s also hard to predict what effect a decline in playing time due to positional crowding could have on each player.

In the near term it seems that Bourn and Swisher will be a lot more fun to watch than Johnson has been. These two veterans could also infuse the team with a renewed energy, which seemed to be lost when the team traded Uribe last month.

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