Braves Trade Jason Heyward to Cardinals for Shelby Miller

smillerIn the first blockbuster trade of the offseason the Atlanta Braves sent outfielder Jason Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. And this may only be the first blockbuster that Atlanta pulls off this winter, as WSB Sports Director Zach Klein quotes a major league source saying that this is “just the beginning.”

So what to think? I like the trade. I might even like it a lot. It’s not a perfect trade, and there’s probably not a clear winner, but it accomplishes several goals. First of all, understand that the Braves were not going to re-sign Heyward. The front office knows this, and so they set about trying to get the most for him.

It’s debatable whether this is actually “the most” that the Braves could have gotten, but we’ll have to take their word for it. I feel like they probably should have gotten a little more, but the Cardinals know that they won’t be able to sign Heyward at the end of the year either, and so he’s just a rental. Hopefully he becomes their J.D. Drew, and Jenkins becomes our Adam Wainwright.

Shelby Miller is the prize for Atlanta, and as a young pitcher who is under team control for the next four years and not arbitration eligible for another year he fits the team well. He is not without his warts–a high fly-ball rate, a high walk rate–but he’s young enough at 24 for us to believe that there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

tjenkinsTyrell Jenkins, the pitching prospect Atlanta receives is an underrated player. Injuries have slowed him in recent years, but before that he was cracking top-100 prospect lists. He’s healthy now and throwing his fastball in the mid-90s with a plus slider during the Arizona Fall League. He’ll likely start next season at Double-A, forming a formidable rotation with the system’s other top starting pitching prospects: Lucas Sims, Wes Parsons and Mauricio Cabrera (assuming he returns to the rotation).

Miller helps the team stay competitive now by filling one of the starting pitching vacancies, and he will continue to help the team through to the opening of their new stadium. So this is not purely about trading away a major leaguer for a bunch of prospects. However, the Braves also get a starting pitching prospect who is a hard-thrower, which is something the Braves system lacks. Jenkins will rank among the Braves’ top-5 prospects.

What the Braves didn’t address with this trade, or any of the three trades so far this winter, is the team’s offensive problems. If anything, this trade makes those offensive problems more problematic. That leads me to believe that there will definitely be more trades.

Atlanta could have held onto Heyward, watch him depart for a nine-figure free agent contract at the end of next year, and then gotten a compensation draft pick in 2016. But that doesn’t meet the timetable of a team that wants to be maximally competitive in 2017 when their new stadium opens. This trade gives the Braves two pitchers who figure to be strong members of the team’s starting rotation by then.

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Grit

From yesterday’s presser to announce John Hart as the new not-GM, but GM-like person in charge of GM-like things, we learned that part of The Braves Way apparently involves players with grit. What is “grit,” you may ask. That’s a good question.

grit

Well at least in the South we know a thing or two about grits.

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The Braves Way bus keeps backing over Frank Wren

wren-busThe Atlanta Braves are announcing their new President of Baseball Operations John Hart today. It’s not really news, as this has been rumored or implied for the past three weeks.

The subtext of today’s press conference was still thick with blame for the previous administration. Right or wrong, like it or not, that’s the way it is, and that “party line” seems to be the tone throughout the organization.

Here is the text of an email from a Braves Account Executive for season ticket holders. This was forwarded from a longtime reader who has had season tickets in the dugout level since 2008, and recently canceled them, prompting this response from the team:

This season has been a disappointing one to say the very least. Day in and day out, I have watched waiting for the light to turn back on with this team. Needless to say, it did not click. I do not doubt the young talent on this team, but I think the executive decision made with the release of Bruce Manno and Frank Wren was the first of many drastic changes you will see around this ball club during the offseason. I feel that Hart (and Bobby Cox) have backed Fredi Gonzalez in spite of this season because he has proven himself time and again. (He is the winningest manager in the National League since joining the Braves in October 2010!) I hope we can make some moves that you approve of (and that I approve of as well!).

We’ll see what changes on the field actually occur, but right now everyone is talking in circles trying not to offend the players that they obviously know they want to get rid of. Hart did this in today’s presser–saying that there were big problems and big changes are needed, but that the players are alright.

Pretty much Wren and Manno are being given all the blame. My chief complaint is that this is an oversimplification of the problems the team faced… on the field, at least. And that’s where the distinction needs to be made.

We can only infer what the issues might be, but Ian Morris at TalkingChop.com said it best the other day:

Wren’s firing may have been less of an indictment of his ability to make baseball decisions, but rather of his possibly difficult nature. As outsiders who don’t have access to the workings of the front office on a daily basis, we can’t know for certain, but this is a strong indication that Wren’s personality and/or demeanor may not have been the most pleasant.

Of course, we may also be able to infer that John Schuerholz never wanted to stop being GM back in 2007, and that he and Wren have had a constant struggle about the direction of the team since then.

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John Hart turns down offer to be Braves’ GM… again

John Hart has turned down the latest offer to be the Atlanta Braves general manager, according to the latest reporter to report this, Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan. This sounds mighty familiar, like it’s happened before, a couple of times. Since we currently have an unemployed former Faux GM, I figured I would put him to work…

littledoh-schu-hart

You can never fire Faux Frank Wren, he’s always on the job.

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Should Next Braves GM Tweak or Rebuild

The Atlanta Braves next General Manager will face an interesting choice of whether to make small changes to the team, or to radically rebuild the roster.

The team is certainly aiming for 2017 as the year they would like to be maximally competitive in order to try and fill their new stadium every game, and therefore justify the cost in terms of taxpayer dollars and fan loyalty. Could small tweaks between now and then be enough to put a playoff caliber team on the field? Or would a tear-down and rebuild give the team the best chance to be competitive and–this is important–go deep into the playoffs.

Atlanta has six players currently signed through at least 2017–Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons, Chris Johnson and B.J. Upton. They also have several key players under team control through 2017–Mike Minor, Evan Gattis, David Carpenter, Alex Wood and David Hale.

The biggest blow to their core of players comes at the end of next year, when both Jason Heyward and Justin Upton become free agents. The new regime could try and re-sign one or both players, they could let them walk at the end of their deals and collect the extra draft picks, or they could try and trade them this winter and begin to rebuild the team.

Heyward and JUpton are arguably the team’s two best players, so why would any new Braves GM want to trade them away in his first year? But if the major league club is really broken like John Schuerholz says, and the minor league system is unable to help, then it might be worth trading away some good pieces and having a rebuilding year (or two). If that’s the determination, then this is the time to do it–while they still have valuable pieces to trade, and when they can blame the need to do it on the last guy in the GM’s chair.

In any possible trade both Heyward and JUpton should return at least two good-to-great prospects who are a year or two away from contributing at the major league level. The Braves could use the Winter Meetings to see what kind of market exists for either of these guys, and if no market is there, then they could push hard to sign one or both to long-term contract extensions.

To further the rebuild, the team could also look to unload other players like Evan Gattis. That would allow the team to play Christian Bethancourt everyday during a non-competitive rebuilding year, allowing him to develop on the job. The increasing cost of keeping Mike Minor could also prompt the team to try and move him.

With at least one of these trades the Braves could require that the other team also take B.J. Upton in return, thus ridding themselves of a large and burdensome contract and an under-performing player. Chris Johnson could find himself in the same boat, with the team looking to develop prospect Kyle Kubitza at third base.

The Braves have not had a stated rebuilding year in over 20 years, but they probably should have gone through a rebuilding year at some point from 2006 to 2009. Had they truly rebuilt during that time, the result in subsequent years would have been better. Of course, they chose to go the other direction and trade away the farm in 2007.

I’m actually a fan of tearing down and rebuilding. Atlanta could also wait a few months, make a few additions this offseason, then see where they are at the 2015 trade deadline. At that time they could decide to trade away Heward and/or JUpton. But it’s hard for a team that might be in the playoff hunt midyear to give up on the season, and those two players might return a lot less during the season than in the offseason.

The Braves won’t be able to pawn-off BUpton or Johnson without paying an unacceptable amount of their future salary, unless they include a valuable piece along with them. This is where an Upton/Upton and/or Heyward/Johnson trade(s) make a lot of sense. Those trades would allow the receiving team to give up prospects and take on salary, and have cover for both under the guise of acquiring a great player (and another player who “just needs a change of scenery”).

A new stadium in 2017, and the added natural boost in attendance that would provide, means the Braves don’t really need to be competitive in the preceding years. Saying that the Braves should punt away a year or two to rebuild the team is weird because that has not been “The Braves Way,” but the quickest way back to The Braves Way may actually be to rebuild instead of just trying to reload from year to year.

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Braves bring back Roy Clark to lead scouting department

As the Atlanta Braves’ return to the nostalgia of “The Braves Way” moves from concept to reality, another big part of the old guard under John Schuerholz is returning to the organization.

Roy Clark presided over the Braves drafting and development system from 2000 to 2009, taking over for legendary scout Paul Snyder. With Clark comes the myth about Roy Clark–the one that says his drafts were better than the drafts Atlanta has had since he left.

That’s not to say that Clark was a bad director of scouting, quite the opposite, he was a good (even great) scouting director. But to say he was better than the next Braves scouting director is misleading.

Proponents of Clark will trot out the names of the players he drafted–Adam Wainwright, Jeff Francoeur, Brian McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Mike Minor. It’s a very impressive list, and that’s just the beginning of it.

The false narrative of Clark being better than his successor, Tony DeMacio, omits the advantages that Clark had. During the majority of Clark’s tenure with the Braves, he enjoyed a different drafting system than the one that exists today. Money was one of the biggest differences, with teams being able to spend greater sums of money on players, especially lower-round picks.

The old drafting system allowed teams to sign players up until a few days before the following year’s draft. Atlanta used this process, known as draft-and-follow, to sign guys like Adam LaRoche, Tyler Flowers and Tommy Hanson, all of whom were drafted after the 20th round, then signed in the weeks leading up to the next draft.

That process was eliminated in 2007, requiring teams to sign drafted players by August 15th, about five weeks after the draft. It’s worth noting that Clark’s last three drafts under this system, from 2007-09, did not include any players that reached the majors who were drafted and signed by Atlanta after the 10th round. In each of the three years after Clark left, DeMacio’s drafts have produced players drafted and signed after the 10th round who have reached the majors.

The other major advantage that Clark had during his tenure were additional early-round draft picks. The huge changes in the last few years to free agent compensation have led to fewer and fewer draft picks for teams that lose players to free agency. During Clark’s years in Atlanta, just about every free agent was offered arbitration and turned it down. Many of those offered arbitration didn’t cost the team signing them any penalty, while the team losing them often got two draft picks as compensation.

The Braves drafted Kelly Johnson with the 38th-overall pick in 2000, which was a compensation pick for losing free agent Jose Hernandez. If you don’t remember him, well I had to think long and hard to remember who Hernandez was too. (He played 48 games for Atlanta after coming over from the Cubs in a deadline deal along with Terry Mulholland.) Losing reliever Mike Remlinger to free agency in 2003 netted the Braves two top-50 draft picks, which they used on Saltalamacchia and Jo-Jo Reyes.

These additional picks persisted for years. During Clark’s tenure he had 20 additional picks (in 10 years) in the first and second rounds. Since he left, DeMacio has had just one additional draft pick in the top two rounds.

Those additional picks Clark received allowed him to cover up for a lot of bad picks, and turn what would have been bad draft years into good or great years. He may have picked Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman with first and second round picks in 2007, but between those two future cornerstones he drafted two other players, infielder Jon Gilmore and reliever Josh Fields, who never amounted to anything in the majors.

The 2005 draft would be considered a bust had they only chosen Beau Jones and Jeff Lyman with first and second round picks. But they also selected Joey Devine and Yunel Escobar with first and second round picks. The 2003 draft might have been a real bummer because the Braves took Luis Atilano, Paul Bacot and Jake Stevens in the first three rounds, but they also took Salty, Jo-Jo and Matt Harrison in the first three rounds.

Clark has reportedly done reasonably well in the new draft reality with his post-Atlanta teams. He was with the Nationals from 2010 to 2013 as Assistant GM, then joined the Dodgers front office last year.

While the drafts from his time with the Nationals have been decent, they have also had the benefit of high picks and the additional money that goes with those picks. He’s also had the benefit of an organization in Washington that has outspent Atlanta in the free agent market and the draft each of the last three years.

While some people have been disappointed by DeMacio’s drafts compared to those of Clark’s, the drafts of DeMacio did not have the extra picks in early rounds, late round draft-and-follows, or higher draft budgets that Clark enjoyed during the 2000′s in Atlanta.

We’ll soon find out what added elements Roy Clark can bring to the Braves drafting process, but don’t believe the narrative that he’s any better at his job than the guy he replaces.

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The Barves Way

Quite a day for the Braves. Less than 24 hours after getting eliminated from a postseason spot they bring the ax down on GM Frank Wren. This was one of the expected outcomes, but not the one I was hoping for. Fredi Gonzalez would have been a better choice to go, but from rumblings around the Twittersphere it sounds like the upper brain trust had other ideas:

I started off the day with a story at Bleacher Report about some consequences from the team’s failure to make the playoffs.

For my weekly ESPN Power Rankings blurb about the Braves, I decided to go in a different direction:
20140914-espn-power

After the John Schuerholz presser I wrote this story over at B/R about how misguided the decision was to fire Wren.

I’m quite upset by this move. Not only because I think it’s the wrong move for the organization, but because I really like Frank Wren. I’ve had the pleasure to talk with him and interview him on several occasions, and each time he’s gone out of his way to give me his time and answer my questions.

I’ve also liked most of his moves. Obviously Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton are major exceptions, but just about every other move he’s made I have either liked or had no opinion on. I didn’t like the Chris Johnson extension, but I understood it, and it still might prove to be a smart move in a market light on third basemen.

I scratch my head when I try to piece together why Schuerholz gave Wren an extension in February of this year, with the roster pretty much set for opening day (save for some injuries and brilliant injury replacements), and then seven months later he’s suddenly not following “The Braves Way.”

All this begs some questions. Can any GM have success under the microscope and constraints apparently imposed by Schuerholz? Can the new GM fire Fredi Gonzalez without Bobby Cox intervening to put a stop to it? What kind of freedom will the new GM have to hand out the large contracts necessary to compete in this market?

I wonder how many GM candidates won’t consider the Atlanta job for fear that they wouldn’t have the freedom to make their own decisions. Schuerholz has certainly set a precedent of “toeing the party line” for anyone who takes this job.

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Who Should the Braves Keep and Who Should they Fire

It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the problems with this 2014 Atlanta Braves team. The problems center around the team’s awful hitting, and blame for that has been assigned by fans and writers to the hitting coaches, the manager and the general manager.

Here is a look at each of those areas, and then an assessment of what I think the Braves should do when it comes to making a decision about who, if anyone, to fire.

Hitting Coach(es)
Atlanta has been through three hitting coaches in the past five years. Terry Pendleton was the team’s hitting coach from 2003 to 2010. In his final year, the Braves ranked 5th in the league in runs scored per game at 4.56—more than any Braves team has scored since.

For some reason the club thought they needed to make a change, and Larry Parish took over for the 2011 season. Atlanta dropped to 10th in the league that year, at 3.96 runs per game.

That got Parrish fired, he being the fall guy for the huge collapse the team suffered in September, and the tandem of Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher took over.

The 2012 team was 7th in the league at 4.32 runs per game. The 2013 team was 4th at 4.25, and this year’s team dropped all the way to 14th at 3.62.

I’m not sure we can extrapolate anything from these numbers. The two current coaches had a couple of good years, and then this year, which has been really bad.

Managerfgonzalez
Fredi Gonzalez took over in 2011, had one horribly calamitous season in 2011, then won the Wild Card, then the Division, and is currently having another rather calamitous season. If he wasn’t fired after the bad moves he made in 2011, then it’s clear the front office gives him plenty of rope.

Can this year’s poor team performance be attributed in any way to Fredi’s poor decisions? I would argue that they can, with the principle complaint being his lineups, which have far too often featured poor on-base guys like B.J. Upton and Andrelton Simmons at the top of the order.

I would also take issue with the lack of playing time he’s given his bench. Backup players need regular playing time to stay sharp when they’re needed in a pinch-hitting role, and at least some of the blame for the worst bench in the league has to fall on how those players have been managed.

General Manger
Here is where the loudest chorus of boos seem to be aimed. Frank Wren, because of the team he has assembled, has become the lightning rod for the Braves’ ills this season. Since he took over prior to the 2008 season, he has had some spectacular misses: Dan Uggla, B.J. Upton, Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami, Nate McLouth, Melky Cabrera and Ryan Doumit.

Braves GM Frank Wren watches the Atlanta Braves on his iPad while at the Rome Braves game

Braves GM Frank Wren watches the Atlanta Braves on his iPad while at the Rome Braves game

But Wren has also had some spectacular successes, like Justin Upton, Jair Jurrjens, Omar Infante, Javier Vazquez, Michael Bourn, Eric O’Flaherty and Billy Wagner. Even minor trades for Derek Lee, Paul Maholm and Rick Ankiel have played key roles as the team drove towards the postseason.

He’s built great bullpens year after year from discarded players, waiver claims and unknown minor leaguers. Even this year’s bullpen, which many people complain about, has the fourth-best relief ERA in the league. Those bullpens have also been built without spending excessive amounts of money on free agent relievers.

So who goes?
Now the question that will be answered in the next couple of weeks, should anyone lose their job because of this team’s offensive struggles. Remember, this year’s Braves team has scored fewer runs per game (3.62) than any team since 1988 (3.47), and that number continues to drop.

Is this offensive outage a weird anomaly of poor individual seasons all happening at once, in which the hitting coaches are not to blame? Does the manager deserve responsibility for making up sub-optimal lineups for over a fourth of the team’s games? Does the general manager deserve the blame for acquiring and paying players who have not performed as well as they did before they came to Atlanta?

There are reasons to fire all of these guys, and reasons to absolve them from most of the blame.

For my money, I’d keep Frank Wren, get rid of Fredi Gonzalez and let the new manager decide which coaches he wants to keep.

Wren has made a few bad signings for big money that get a lot of attention, but the bulk of his moves, even the ones that didn’t work out, are ones that I have applauded at the time, and they are moves that would have been made by just about anyone in his position. I find it hard to blame a GM for players suddenly sucking when they’re still mostly in their prime.

For most of his tenure Wren was dealing with ever-tightening budgets because of bad decisions—specifically the under-market TV contract—made by upper management. In that scenario, Terry McGuirk and John Schuerholz deserve more blame than Wren, who put together good teams with middling payrolls, while the rest of the league was outspending Atlanta.

Fredi Gonzalez has been underwhelming. Yes, he’s replacing a legend, which is sort of like being the guy the team is dating on the rebound—that rarely works out. For someone who came in with experience as a manager, he fell flat on what should have been experienced decisions in his first year, and to a less-obvious degree in the years since.

There’s very little evidence for his use of advanced statistics, let alone basic statistics, when making out a lineup. Today’s game demands a manager and an organization employ all the advantages that big data can bring to the game, and Gonzalez seems unwilling or unable to avail himself of those resources.

As for the hitting coaches, I have no idea. Parrish was obviously useless, but Walker and Fletcher have had success, and every comment I’ve read from players and beat writers about them has been positive. This year’s results notwithstanding, they seem to be pretty good at their job.

So there you have it Braves. Let’s have a new manager next year, and with him a new attitude in the clubhouse and between the lines. Pick someone who will use every advantage they can, especially the ones that advanced statistics can provide. I’m not even going to venture a guess of who that might be, but it’s probably best if it’s someone from outside the organization, who brings with them a new attitude and doesn’t have the shadow of Bobby Cox looming over them.

Oh, and then Frank Wren should get busy making some personnel changes to the 25 guys on the roster.

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SunTrust Park aka “The Oil Slick”

STP_LogoConsider this new Braves stadium, SunTrust Park, just a placeholder for the future 2047 home of the Braves in Woodstock. All the media and press and official dignitaries are on hand for the ground breaking of “the oil slick.”

Yep, I’m going to give this new park the nickname, “the oil slick.” That comes from the initials of SunTrust Park, STP. It also relates to the gas line they had to move before they could build the stadium. Though mostly it has to do with the greasing of palms that must have happened within the Cobb County Commission to secretly get the whole endeavor passed.

In honor of this brand new oil slick, here are some photos from a few years ago…when the city built the last stadium.

And of course, the last stadium to outlive its usefulness.

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Braves Trade Dead-Lines

It’s time for a collection of links and thoughts from the trade deadline.

My thoughts: First up, what did I think about the Braves move. Overall, I liked it. I understand there wasn’t much the Braves could do without moving some important pieces of the club, and that’s a rare thing to do in the middle of the season (even though the A’s and Cards both did it). To read my complete breakdown of this trade, head on over to my Bleacher Report column about the deal.

Called it!: Maybe I toot my own horn too much, but what’s the point of having your own blog if you’re not going to point out the times you got it right. Last week, I wrote this prediction of what the Braves would do at the trade deadline:

My prediction is that the Braves will go to one team for all their needs and pull off another two-for deadline deal.

And that’s what they did.

Schultz blames Wren: AJC columnist Jeff Schultz laid the blame for the Braves struggles this season squarely on GM Frank Wren’s shoulders. Essentially blaming roster construction and bad contracts for the team’s woes. While some of that is certainly the problem, that’s not where the majority of blame should be placed. This is a well constructed team, built within a tight budget, with accommodations made at the last minute to account for two devastating spring training injuries.

If I’m blaming someone for the Braves struggles this season, I’m laying the lion’s share of the blame on the players on the field. Freddie, BJ, CJ and J-Hey (and of course, Uggla) have performed well below expectations this season; especially when judged against the numbers some of them posted last year. No one on the team is really having a career year, everyone is about average or below, with the notable exception of Evan Gattis. It’s hard to win consistently when the majority of the team is performing below expectations.

That blame, though, could be erased by a couple of these guys getting hot down the stretch. The great 17-7 start the Braves got off to (which Schultz points out), could be repeated in August or September, should some of these batters start hitting again … then who do you blame? Or credit?

We’ll see what happens, but right now it certainly looks like doom and gloom on this West Coast swoon.

So long Caratini, we hardly knew yi: The Braves drafted Caratini in the second round just last year. For a few departing scouting reports on him, check out my mid-season prospect list, the Baseball Prospectus eyewitness report on him, and RotoScouting’s report. Baseball America ranked Caratini as the 8th-best prospect dealt on or near the deadline.

Lucas Sims: Meanwhile, the Braves top prospect toes the mound for Lynchburg today, and is coming off a string of 4 (maybe even 5) good starts in a row. That’s his longest stretch of good work this season, and hopefully the beginning of what will be a positive end to his challenging season. I still strongly believe that Sims is the best prospect in the Braves’ system, and the only pitching prospect with a good shot at developing top-of-the-rotation stuff.

CJ Wittmann of Baseball Prospects recently posted an eyewitness scouting report on Sims. He’s a little more bearish on Sims than I am, but you can still see the framework in his report for Sims to blossom into a top starter.

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