Braves trade reliever David Hale to Rockies for catching prospect Jose Briceno

The Atlanta Braves made their 843rd trade of this offseason by sending relievers David Hale and Gus Schlosser to the Colorado Rockies for two minor league catchers, Jose Briceno and Chris O’Dowd.

hale-bethA move was needed to clear a roster spot for free agent Jonny Gomes, whose signing was made official shortly after the trade, and the bullpen had gotten mighty crowded after several offseason signings. But the Braves aren’t shipping Hale off for nothing. The acquisition of Briceno continues the trend for Atlanta this offseason of adding potential high-impact prospects.

Jose Briceno is a 22-year-old from Venezuela who profiles as a bit of an opposite to current top catching prospect Christian Bethancourt. Whereas Bethancourt is a plus-plus catch-and-throw backstop with more work needed on the hitting site, Briceno is a plus hitter with plus power who needs work on his receiving skills (though his arm and accuracy are plus, as evidenced by his 43% caught stealing rate last year).

Briceno and Bethancourt are similar in their protracted path through the minor leagues. Bethancourt signed in 2008 and spent the past seven years working his way up the ladder. He is a year older than Briceno, who signed in 2009, but is taking an equally long time to develop.

The reports on Briceno have him improving greatly behind the plate last year, while maintaining a solid hitting tool with good power. Like Bethancourt, Briceno seems allergic to walks, but he doesn’t strike out nearly as much.

The new catcher will probably start the season at the Braves high-A minor league affiliate, the Carolina Mudcats. It’s hard to tell if he’ll be promoted aggressively if he does well, but if Bethancourt struggles in his first full-season major league debut, then the organization may push Briceno with an eye towards replacing Bethancourt in 2016.

Chris O’Dowd, the other catcher received in the trade, is the son of former Rockies General Manager Dan O’Dowd, who stepped down from that post last October. This could be a similar change-of-scenery trade, like the one the Braves made to begin this offseason, by sending Frank Wren’s son, Kyle Wren, to Milwaukee. Chris O’Dowd is not considered a prospect.

Gus Schlosser was released by the Braves earlier this offseason to clear him off the 40-man roster, but re-signed later as a minor league free agent. He likely wasn’t going to make it back to the majors with the Braves. It will be interesting to see if his side-arm sinker can succeed in Colorado.

Briceno, meanwhile, will need to be ranked among the Braves top prospects. He was just shy of Colorado’s top-10 this year, ranking No. 11 on FanGraphs’ list and presumably No. 11 from Baseball Prospectus. Baseball America had him ranked No. 18 on their Colorado list. The Rockies have a top-10 farm system with strong depth, so being considered the No. 11 prospect in that system is pretty big. Consider too that he’s a catching prospect who can hit, which is a rare thing in the minors.

My initial thought is to put him No. 12 on my Braves’ prospect list, as the first guy in the B+ category. That could be subject to change, but that’s my initial thought.

In summation, this was another good trade for the Braves. Hale was completely expendable–though I did like him for the rotation or the bullpen–and Atlanta acquires a moderate-risk, high-reward prospect. This trade may also show a waning confidence in Bethancourt by the Braves’ front office. It does put some pressure on Bethancourt to succeed this year, but maybe he needs to be pushed.

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Braves sign fond memories… and Kelly Johnson

After the public relations disasters the Atlanta Braves have endured over the past few months — trading away popular players and fleeing their downtown stadium for the suburbs — they needed a nice shot of nostalgia to help pump up the fan base. And so they brought back one of the 2005 Baby Braves, Kelly Johnson, for what is probably a last hurrah.

kjohnsonJohnson was traded twice last year, all within the A.L. East. There’s no sugar-coating the fact that at no stop over the past few years has he been that good. At 33 years old he’s still relatively young, but he no longer has speed on the bases or the quickness to be an everyday infielder. The best hope here is that he can turn into a useful utility player and pinch-hitter. He signed a minor league deal, so there’s still no guarantee he’ll make the team.

Johnson was last a member of the Braves during the 2009 season, then non-tendered after the season ended. There is not a single player from that 2009 team who is still with Atlanta.

This signing reminded me of another burst of nostalgia the Braves set their sights on before the 2008 season. There was a need for a backup catcher, and so the team signed Javy Lopez, who hadn’t played at all in 2007. That didn’t go so well, as he hit .188 in spring training, showed limited mobility behind the plate, and lost the backup catcher’s job to Corky Miller (who hit .259 in spring training, but managed to hit just .083 during the regular season).

What this really reminded me of was a post I wrote (on Talking Chop) when Lopez was signed in December of 2007. I figured it was worth a good re-post for a laugh:

On the heels of the Javy Lopez signing yesterday, the Braves have gone back to the 90’s vintage former-Brave-well one more time, signing infielder Mark Lemke to a non-guaranteed minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.

When reached by telephone at his suburban Atlanta home Lemke seemed excited about the opportunity to play for the Braves once again. “I don’t think I ever stopped being a baseball player,” Lemke said. “Even after putting on 40 pounds these last few years, I still felt like I could go out there and be a competitor.”

When asked about his ability to still be successful after so many years away from the game Lemke responded, “Bobby can squeeze blood out of a turnip, so I know he’ll be able to put me in the right situations to succeed.”

Lemke was quick to respond to the question about a rumor he used steroids and HGH to get to within 20 pounds of his previous playing weight, by blatantly admitting that he was currently using HGH. “Sure, why not,” Lemke said. “They’re still not testing for it, so why not get away with it as long as you can. I’m mean, I’m on the wrong side of 40, so if I really want to have a chance at making this work I need all the help I can get.”

Frank Wren said the team hopes Lemke will compete for the spot left vacant by the departure of Pete Orr. “We knew it would be hard to find someone to replace what Orr brought to the table,” Wren said of the Lemke signing, “but we think the Lemmer can be that kind of guy.”

The only Braves player or coach who could be reached for comment was Eddie Perez who said through an interpreter, “f&#k man, if that fat gringo can play then I’m going to take a crack at that backup catcher job.”

When asked if he would miss doing the pregame radio show and the occasional play by play announcing, Lemke quipped, “I think everyone has figured out by now that I’m no good at radio.”

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Braves 2015 Top-30 Prospects

The new regime in the Atlanta Braves front office has spent the offseason building up a depleted minor league system, as well as swapping out prospects in trades. The result is that 8 of the top-18 prospects on this year’s list are new arrivals to the system. With these acquisitions the front office also struck a balance between prospects that are major-league-ready and younger prospects with several years of development time left.

It’s going to be an exciting year in the Braves minor league system, as we watch what these new guys can do. I’ve already got a few road trips planned.

I’m presenting the prospects both ranked in order from 1 to 30, 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: None of the prospects in the Braves system grade as A+ for me, so we start with the three guys I rank with a grade of A. These are prospects who I believe will be first division players, and occasional All-Stars, while filling valuable roles on the team.

1. Lucas Sims, RHP (High-A) — Previous rank: 1
Still number-1 in my book. While Jose Peraza has eclipsed Sims on some lists, and Max Fried may find his way to the top of others, Lucas Sims is the player I still consider the best prospect in the Braves organization. What is likely turning people off from considering Sims so high is his average performance last year at Lynchburg. While his first year of full-season ball in 2013 produced a 2.62 ERA, 1.106 WHIP and 10.3 K/9, his second full year saw his numbers dip across the board to 4.19 ERA, 1.296 WHIP and 6.1 K/9, though he did pitch 40 more innings. We can’t expect dominance all the time, in fact we should want our top prospects to struggle some in the lower minors. That teaches them how to overcome those challenges that they will face as they continue to climb the ladder. And Sims will climb the ladder this year and move up to double-A, where he will turn 21-years-old a month into the season. Of the 676 times he faced a batter last year, only 11 times did he face a batter younger than he was. Add to that a strong finish to his 2014 campaign, posting a 2.88 ERA in the final month. Sims has the floor of a mid-rotation starter, and the potential to be more. MLB ETA: 2017

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2. Michael Foltynewicz, RHP (MLB, AAA) — Recently acquired
mfoltynewiczThe 19th-overall pick out of high school in the 2010 draft, he was the centerpiece of the return the Braves got in the Evan Gattis trade. The attraction here is the fastball, which grades as an 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale, and which routinely hits 100+ mph throughout the game. His control and command of that pitch is still a work in progress, as are his off-speed offerings, of which his curveball is the best. The Braves will likely start him off at triple-A this year, hoping to refine his control and develop his changeup. If all goes well, then Folty could become a top-of-the-rotation starter with a dominating fastball. If consistent control of his fastball can be gained, but his changeup cannot be developed, then he becomes a dominant two-pitch (fastball and curve) setup man or middle reliever akin to Andrew Miller or Wade Davis. MLB ETA: 2015

3. Max Fried, LHP (A-, R-) — Recently acquired
mfriedAcquired this offseason from the Padres in the Justin Upton trade, Fried will be sidelined this season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery he had in August of 2014. He was the seventh-overall pick in the 2012 draft out of high school, and has ranked in the middle of many top-100 lists since then. While he will lose two years of development time to arm problems, he’ll still be just 22-years-old when he returns to the mound in 2016. The Braves coveted him for his top-of-the-rotation profile buttressed by three plus pitches — a mid-90s fastball, change-up and potential plus-plus curve. The physical tools and projection are there, Fried just needs time on the mound to refine his craft, which will be unfortunately set back by this injury. That could affect his prospect status down the line, but I’ll take a glass half full approach for now. He may have more raw talent than anyone in the Braves system, but because he’s injured and will be behind when he returns, he doesn’t out-rank Sims on my list. MLB ETA: 2018

4. Jose Peraza, 2B (AA, A+) — Previously ranked: 3
I definitely talked myself out of ranking Peraza as the No. 1 prospect this year. But don’t be mistaken, I still really like Peraza as a prospect, and expect him to be a big contributor in Atlanta as early as this year. He’s got game-changing speed on the bases and has an excellent ability to make consistent contact, and even a willingness to change his setup in the batter’s box at the urging of his coaches. That ability to make adjustments will serve him well and should keep his average around .300, but he’s got some work to do in a couple other areas. He’s not a power hitter, but because of his speed he’ll hit a lot of doubles and triples. But the biggest knock on him, and probably the one thing that keeps him from the top spot, is his unwillingness to walk. He’s always been below league average in the free pass department, but last year he seemed almost allergic to them. His plus hand-eye coordination allows him to expand the zone, but I fear that propensity to chase pitcher’s pitches off the plate could be exploited in the majors. He could easily fall into the trap of being a one-dimensional player too reliant on his BABIP to be consistent. MLB ETA: 2015

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5. Rio Ruiz, 3B (AFL, A+) — Recently acquired
rruizThe other big prospect acquired in the Evan Gattis trade, Ruiz will likely begin the year at double-A, where he will turn 21-years-old in May. The Astros drafted him in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, though he received an over-slot bonus of $1.85 million, equivalent to a first-round pick. While he was a raw prospect when drafted, he has improved at every level as he’s gained experience and playing time. He has good line-drive power, and a keen eye at the plate, which he uses to take lots of walks and limit his strikeouts. His major league ceiling has been compared to that of Robin Ventura and Eric Chavez. This season at Mississippi should tell the Braves if they have a future star on their hands, and if the returns are good, he could push Chris Johnson in 2016. Even if Ruiz needs more time at double-A, or a full season at triple-A, he’s young enough to be ahead of schedule if he arrives in time for the opening of the team’s new stadium in 2017. The Braves hope is that Ruiz is to third base what Freddie Freeman has become to first base — a solid defender who posts high on-base and slugging numbers hitting in the middle of the order. MLB ETA: 2016

Grade A-: The next six prospects I grade as possible first division players who will all play important starting roles in the majors. It’s a testament to the way the Braves have rebuilt their minor league system this offseason that half of these prospects were added to the system since the end of last season.

6. Tyrell Jenkins, RHP (AFL, A+) — Recently acquired
tjenkinsAcquired in the Jason Heyward trade from the Cardinals, Jenkins was listed at the back end of many top-100 prospect lists as recently as 2013. That was until shoulder problems slowed him in 2012, and finally sidelined him after surgery in 2013. With almost two lost seasons he’s a bit behind on the development spectrum, but he caught-up in a big way during the 2014 Arizona Fall League. While still a bit raw, especially with his control, he nevertheless flashed several plus pitchers: curve, slider, and a legit mid-90s fastball. It’s that consistent mid-90s heat, and a big 6-foot-4 frame that can handle that power as a starter, which is why I rank him so high–probably higher than many other evaluators. I believe the talent that made him a top-100 prospect a couple of years ago is still there, and now that he’s healthy he’s ready to establish himself as a legit prospect alongside Lucas Sims in the Mississippi rotation. MLB ETA: 2017

7. Christian Bethancourt, C (MLB, AAA) – Previously ranked: 2
cbethancourtThe 2015 Atlanta Braves starting catcher’s job is his to lose in spring training. The team may be asking a lot of Bethancourt to presume that he’s ready to handle both a major league pitching staff behind the plate and handle major league pitching in the batter’s box. His ascendancy to the full-time role in Atlanta has been a long time coming, and while scouts have drooled on his plus tools as a catcher, his painfully slow progress as a hitter has some (especially me) rethinking if he can be a starting catcher. A lot will depend on how much rope the Braves can give him this year to fail, and how fast he can make adjustments to succeed. His ceiling is really high, but so is his risk–probably more than any other prospect in the top-10. MLB ETA: Now

8. Braxton Davidson, OF (R+, R-) — Previously ranked: 5
The Braves 2014 first-round pick (No. 32 overall) had a tepid debut primarily in the Gulf Coast League last year. He didn’t hit for much power in limited at-bats, but he showed a good eye at the plate. Most scouts believe he will grow into his power from his line-drive stroke. His entire package reminds me of Freddie Freeman, who also struggled mightily in his first taste of pro ball at the same level. Look for Davidson to spend his first full season of professional baseball this year at Rome. His performance there should help us see what kind of prospect we have in Davidson, though it is by no means make-or-break. MLB ETA: 2018

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9. Manny Banuelos, LHP (AAA, AA, A+) — Recently acquired
mbanuelosAnother former top-100 prospect (from 2011-12), and another Tommy John victim (October of 2012), Atlanta acquired Banuelos in an offseason trade with the Yankees. Highly thought of before the injury, some of that could have been the sheen of being a Yankees prospect, but the short 5-foot-10 lefty is said to have plus control of a good mid-90s fastball, plus curveball and a developing changeup. Banuelos will compete for the fifth starter spot in spring training, though he may benefit from more seasoning at triple-A, with an eye towards joining the Atlanta rotation mid-season. That would also help limit his innings after just throwing 76.2 innings in 2014, his first year back from surgery. The Braves obviously hope he regains the luster of a top-50 prospect in baseball, and in his second year after TJ surgery we should see what he is really capable of. MLB ETA: 2015

10. Jason Hursh, RHP (Double-A) — Previous rank: 9
jhursh2Hursh is one of the few prospects in the system who moved up in the rankings while all the new talent was added through trades. In his first full season of professional ball last year he debuted at double-A Mississippi. While it may not seem like a big jump for a college pitcher, consider that because of Tommy John surgery (2012) in college he didn’t throw as much as most guys drafted after their Junior year. He relies on a sinking fastball that he is still working to command, along with his slider and change. He’s a work in progress, but should advance to triple-A this year as a 23-year-old — young for that level. While many of the pitchers Atlanta has acquired this offseason have stolen much of the press, Hursh should nevertheless be a strong competitor to join the rotation in 2016. MLB ETA: 2016

11. Arodys Vizcaino, RHP (MLB, AAA, AA, A+) — Recently acquired
avizcainoThe Braves reacquired Vizcaino this offseason from the Cubs in exchange for Tommy La Stella, after having traded him at the deadline in 2012, two months after he underwent Tommy John surgery. Atlanta basically let the Cubs borrow Vizcaino while he rehabbed from surgery. He returns this season and should finally become a big part of the Atlanta bullpen. He rises to the top of the Braves system as the best relief prospect, primarily because he still has the repertoire and four-pitch mix of a starter, but because of the injuries is limited to a relief role. He could emerge this year as the top setup option for Craig Kimbrel, assuming his mid-to-high-90s fastball is all the way back. MLB ETA: Now

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

12. Dustin Peterson, 3B (Low-A) — Recently acquired
dpetersonProbably the least-discussed prospect received in the Justin Upton trade from the Padres, for me he is the most intriguing. In a Braves system devoid of power-hitting prospects, Peterson rises to the top thanks to his plus bat speed and power to all fields. His first taste of full-season pro ball last year produced mixed results and a season line of .233/.274/.361, and a pretty high 24.3 K%. He started off great at the plate, posting a .264/.319/.428 line from April through June, but tired down the stretch from July to September with a .187/.200/.258 slash line. Almost all of this was against older competition, Peterson was just 19, a trend which should continue as he will likely be assigned to high-A Carolina this year as a 20-year-old. With 38 errors at the hot corner he may eventually wind up at an outfield corner, and his power should play nicely there. MLB ETA: 2018

Note: Had RHP J.R. Graham not been selected in the Rule 5 draft he would have been ranked here as the No. 13 prospect with a grade of B+.

13. Mauricio Cabrera, RHP (High-A) — Previously ranked: 4
Cabrera has taken one of the biggest tumbles down this list, due to a 2014 season scattered with injuries and the realization that he may be more suited to the bullpen than starting. It’s hard to glean much from his stats last year because of all the breaks in his season while he was continually nursing a right forearm injury. He’ll still be just 21-years-old this year, and will likely need to repeat high-A. We’ll have to see if the Braves eventually put him back in the rotation, or if they keep him in a relief role all season. Because of a lack of innings last year I expect him to start the year in the bullpen. Wherever he is he’ll need to work on consistently controlling his mid-90s fastball. MLB ETA: 2017

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14. Jace Peterson, INF (AFL, MLB, AAA & AA) — Recently acquired
jpetersonThe most major league-ready prospect in the Upton trade, Jace Peterson could fill a number of different roles for the Braves this year and beyond. He can hold down second base or third base as well as any other defender on the team, and he’s solid at shortstop. He was called up directly from double-A last year, then made three other trips up to the majors from triple-A. All of that moving around and changing roles may have cost him at the plate statistically, but it may have also prepared him to fill multiple roles on the team in the future. As a prospect it may be easiest to think of him as a super-charged Phil Gosselin, or even as a Martin Prado-type player in waiting. Peterson doesn’t have a clear plus tool, but he does just about everything well, and still has a lot of room to improve his game. He’s a high-average, good on-base guy with surprising speed and could fill the role of a top-of-the-order hitter. MLB ETA: Now

15. Ozhaino Albies, SS (R+, R-) — Previously unranked
oalbies2With the teens of theses prospect rankings thus begins a run of three teenagers who burst on the scene this year with much fanfare. The 18-year-old Albies is a short (listed at a generous 5’9″) but speedy infield prospect who has already displayed a keen eye at the plate. With a short and quick swing he profiles as a leadoff man who relies on his on-base ability and speed to stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples. True power will never be part of his game, but much like Jose Peraza, Albies profiles as a prospect who could play an important role as a top of the order table-setter for a first-division team. Full season ball at Rome should be where he starts this year, and if his mid-.300s average from last year continues, he could quickly find himself moved up a level. It’s about time the Braves found another star player from the island of Curacao. MLB ETA: 2017

16. Ricardo Sanchez, LHP (R-) — Recently acquired
This 17-year-old (who will be 18 in April) was acquired in January from the Angels in exchange for prospects 3B Kyle Kubitza and RHP Nate Hyatt. Sanchez was ranked anywhere from No. 2 to No. 10 in the Anaheim organization, which is reportedly one of the worst in baseball. That fact aside, this young Venezuelan, signed for $580,000 in 2013, has drawn rave reviews for a potential mid-90s fastball and plus curveball. His ceiling is that of a top-of-the-rotation starter, but there is a long way to go before that potential is realized. The Braves likely hope he will team with Dilmer Mejia, as they both encourage and compete together in the same way that Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado did when they ascended through the Braves’ system. MLB ETA: 2019

17. Dilmer Mejia, LHP (R-, DSL) — Previously unranked
The youngest of this trio of teenagers, Mejia signed out of Nicaragua in 2013, and made a successful debut first for the Braves Dominican Summer League team, then stateside for the Braves Gulf Coast League team. He’s still young to know what his fastball could eventually top out at, but the potential is there for a plus pitch, and he already has good control and feel for his secondary pitches. While not known by many prospect evaluators, Mejia may sneak up on a lot of people this year as he develops and fills out, especially coming from a country not as well known for baseball. MLB ETA: 2019

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.

18. Mallex Smith, OF (AFL, A+, A-) — Recently acquired
Do you like speed? Then Mallex Smith is your guy, acquired as part of the Justin Upton trade. He led all of baseball in stolen bases last year with 88, and was eighth in the minors the year before with 64 (tied with Jose Peraza). He is still rough around the edges, but has made strides in recent years to refine his game. He will need to continue that approach as he moves up to double-A this year in his age-22 season. He’s likely the eventual replacement for B.J. Upton in center field. Without much raw power, he profiles as more of a Juan Pierre-like leadoff hitter in the majors. MLB ETA: 2017

19. Wes Parsons, RHP (High-A) — Previously ranked: 10
wparsonsThe undrafted right-hander tumbles a half-dozen spots down the prospect list, both due to a season marred with injuries as well as the arrival of other prospects in the system from trades and international signings. I’m still bullish on Parsons as a starting pitching prospect, and hopefully he can put a disappointing 2014 behind him this year. He will likely repeat high-A due to his inconsistency and a bad finish, but a mid-year promotion to double-A is not out of the question. Even while repeating the level next year as a 22-year-old he should not be considered behind schedule. He has the big (6-foot-5) frame that scouts love to see in power starters, and a low-90s fastball that he can push up to 95 mph in shorter outings. MLB ETA: 2017

20. Cody Martin, RHP (Triple-A) — Previously ranked: 15
cmartinEven though he wasn’t protected on the 40-man roster, Martin was not selected in the Rule 5 draft, leading many to question how much of a prospect he actually is. Martin has never been a starter that blows anyone away, but he’s had success pitching to contact with the ability to reach back for the strikeout when he needs it — his 8.3 K/9 rate in one and a half seasons of triple-A is very respectable. With a four-pitch mix and good control to go with inning-eating durability, Martin should stay a starter, but to find a role in Atlanta he may have to convert to a relief role. He’s no stranger to relieving, having been an All-American closer at Gonzaga. I wonder if he could sneak into the fifth spot in the Atlanta rotation this spring if the Braves want to start Manny Banuelos off slowly in the minors. MLB ETA: 2015

21. Andrew Thurman, RHP (high-A) — Recently acquired
athurmanDrafted with the first selection of the second round in the 2013 draft (No. 40 overall) after his Junior year at UC-Irvine. He was chosen nine spots after the Braves selection of Jason Hursh. Traded to Atlanta in the Evan Gattis deal, he at first seemed like an afterthought, but that assessment may have been premature. In his first full season last year he struggled with control of his pitches, which was said to be a by-product of new-found velocity on his now mid-90s fastball. Thurman will probably have to back off his fastball to the low-90s to corral his control. With a four-pitch mix of average stuff his floor is that of a back-of-the-rotation starter, with the possibility that the extra velo could create a ceiling for him as a mid-rotation starter. He also has the kind of pitchability and baseball acumen that the Braves love. Atlanta will likely return him to high-A to start the year. MLB ETA: 2017

22. Alec Grosser, RHP (R+) — Previously unranked
Given an over-slot bonus as an 11th-round pick out of high school in 2013, Grosser was supposed to be a long-term project in the Atlanta system. With a strong showing as a 19-year-old in advanced rookie ball last year he’s already ahead of schedule. While a lot of prospect outlets rank him among the system’s top-10 prospects, I’m a bit more realistic about Grosser. We need to see him at full season ball, and he should begin at Rome this year, and it would be nice to see a bit more velocity on his low-90s fastball. Luckily he still has projection left in his 6-foot-2 frame to add more velo. This year should tell us if his reported baseball acumen lives up to the hype. MLB ETA: 2018

23. Tanner Murphy, C (R+) — Previously ranked: 25
Another standout on the Danville squad was their catcher. The Braves had been trying to pick a catcher in early rounds of the draft for several years, and may have finally found one in the 4th round of the 2013 draft. While possessing a catcher’s body, Murphy shows good power as a hitter and a strong arm behind the plate. He also has a strong baseball IQ which helps him on both sides of the ball, with a patient approach to hitting and the ability to handle a pitching staff. He’s still a long way away, but should see his first taste of full-season ball this year. MLB ETA: 2018

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24. Garrett Fulenchek, RHP (R-) — Previously ranked: 16
The Braves second-round pick last year out of high school, his ranking fell mainly because of others entering the system or leapfrogging him rather than anything he did on the field. Fulenchek is all about projection based on scouting, with many prospect outlets ranking him among the team’s top-10. He’s got a big 6-foot-4 frame from which he generates a low-to-mid-90s fastball with room to add velocity. He didn’t pitch much in high school and is considered quite raw, meaning his development will take a while, so there’s no need to get ahead of ourselves by over-ranking him. It will be interesting to see if the Braves start him at full-season ball in Rome this year, and if they do, can he rise to the challenge. MLB ETA: 2019

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.

25. Juan Yepez, 3B (Has not debuted yet) — Previously unranked
The Braves biggest international signing since Edward Salcedo signed for $1.6 million before the 2010 season, Juan Yepez received a reported $1 million-plus bonus last year at the beginning of the July 2 signing period. The 16-year-old Venezuelan is said to have a quick and balanced swing that already generates plus power. While his ultimate position is still undecided, with some believing he will end up at first base or a corner outfield spot, the attraction here for the Braves was his raw power — something the organization (under the old Frank Wren regime) apparently focused on with last year’s international signings. While I, nor most scouts, have seen Yepez in action, his signing bonus plus scouting reports warrant him being listed on this prospect list. MLB ETA: 2019

26. Juan Jaime, RRP (DWL, MLB, AAA) — Previously ranked: 11
jjaimeAt 27 this year, Jaime is getting old for a prospect, but dang-it he still throws 100 mph. His two cups of coffee plus a September call-up last year bore mixed results, with the biggest point of concern being that which has plagued him his entire career — too many walks. Of course, he also registered a 13.1 K/9 rate in Atlanta, which was in line with the 13.8 K/9 rate he posted at Gwinnett. As I have said since he joined the Braves organization at the end of the 2011 season, in order for Jaime to take the next step he must work on consistently controlling his pitches. If he does, he’ll become an elite reliever, but as the years tick by there’s less and less reason to think that he will. MLB ETA: Now

27. Dian Toscano, OF (Cuban League) — Recently acquired
The Braves seemed disappointed to lose out on Cuban outfielder Yasmani Tomas, but hell-bent on signing someone from Cuba, and settled for the virtually unknown Dian Toscano. What we do know about the 25-year-old 5-foot-10 Toscano is that he has good strike zone awareness, which has led to high on-base percentages and batting averages in the Cuban leagues. Based on his modest (for Cuban players) signing bonus there’s no guarantee that he’s a starting outfielder. He reportedly has the speed to play center field, but doesn’t have the arm to play right. MLB ETA: 2015

vreyes28. Victor Reyes, OF (Low-A) — Previously ranked: 13
The Braves top international singing in 2011 out of Venezuela, the organization pushed him to full-season ball to start 2014, after a very successful stateside debut in both rookie leagues the year before. He got off to a hot start at Rome, but wore down as the season progressed. He has an athletic 6-foot-3 frame that should develop power, but in three professional seasons he has yet to hit a home run. He needs to improve his strength and conditioning to add power at the plate and to handle the rigors of a full season. He’ll likely repeat at Rome this year as a 20-year-old, needing to have a breakout season to stay on this list. MLB ETA: 2018

29. Andry Ubiera, RHP (A-, R+) — Previously ranked 22
aubieraThe Braves pushed Ubiera to Rome to begin the year, but he got hit hard and was sent down. He regrouped once short-season ball began and he thrived in the Danville rotation. I’ve seen a lot of Ubiera (generally on his good days) and I like how he attacks hitters and fights through bad spells on the mound while keeping his head in the game. He works his fastball in the low-to-mid-90s while complementing that with a plus curve and developing changeup. He’s still inconsistent from start to start, and he may eventually end up in the bullpen, where his fastball/curve combo could make him a dominant late-innings reliever. First of all though, he needs to conquer full-season ball. MLB ETA: 2017

30. Carlos Salazar, RHP (A-, R+) — Previously unranked
Much like Ubiera, Salazar started the year at Rome and got lit up in ten starts where batters hit .320 against him. He found new life in Danville as a reliever, holding opposing batters to just a .147 average against while posting a 10.7 K/9. His future may be as a max-effort reliever, though the Braves may try him in the rotation again in order for him to get innings. His motion on the mound is like that of Jordan Walden, incorporating a little hop where he jumps at the batter. That seems to be part of how he generates his mid-90s velocity, but it’s gimmicky enough to be much more effective out of the bullpen. It also leads to some inconsistency and control problems, which he will need to work on. MLB ETA: 2017

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. Almost any of them could be ranked among the final three of the (pre-Gattis trade) top-30, but I’ve chosen these three guys as the best of the bunch.

31. Williams Perez, RHP (Double-A) — Previously unranked
wperezIt surprised me (and others) that Perez (and Yean Carlos Gil) were protected on the 40-man roster over seemingly better prospects like J.R. Graham and Cody Martin. But in many ways Perez out-pitched every other starter at Mississippi. Prior to this year he was considered a soft-tossing command and control pitcher, but he apparently added some velocity to his sinking fastball, pushing it into the low-90s. He combines that with a good changeup in a pitch-to-contact approach that keeps batters off balance, while limiting free passes. He should join the Gwinnett rotation this year, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him emerge in spring training as a candidate to be the fifth starter in the same way that Gus Schlosser did last year. MLB ETA: 2015

32. Yean Carlos Gil, LHP (Low-A) — Previously unranked
ygilThe most surprising addition to the 40-man was Gil, who hasn’t pitched above low-A. When he burst on the scene in 2011 some folks took notice and expected big things, but he had Tommy John surgery in 2012. That has put him behind in his development, so at 23 he was a little old for low-A. He’s a pitch-to-contact sinkerballer like Perez, who is stingy on the free passes. He was the best starter in the Braves system last year (with more than 75 innings pitched) at preventing home runs — allowing just three longballs in 126 innings. He should at least begin this year at high-A, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s pushed to double-A. MLB ETA: 2016

33. Johan Camargo, SS (A+, A-) — Previously unranked
Camargo, Johan (15)Clearly I’m not terribly high on Camargo, who was ranked No. 8 this year by Baseball America. Scouts like his raw tools at shortstop and bat control at the plate. I’ve seen Camargo a lot at multiple levels, and while he sprays the ball to all fields well, he’s a no-power, no-speed middle infielder, and that’s hard to really get excited about. The Braves have a guy on the 40-man roster named Elmer Reyes who at 24-years-old is very similar to Camargo, and while Reyes is at triple-A, you won’t see him considered on this prospect list. The difference with Camargo, who will be 21 next season, is that he’s still young enough to believe he can develop into something more. MLB ETA: 2017

Other Grade-C prospects considered for the top-30: LHP Luis Merejo, OF Josh Elander, OF Todd Cunningham, LHP Dan Winkler, INF Daniel Castro, OF Sean Godfrey, OF Connor Oliver, RHP Aaron Kurcz, RHP Max Povse, RHP Ryne Harper, RHP Brandon Cunniff, RHP James Hoyt, RHP John Cornely, RHP Alex Wilson, RHP Tyler Brosius.

Photos by C.B. Wilkins and Martin Gandy. Please do not reprint without permission.

Other 2015 Braves prospect lists:
Baseball America top-10
Baseball Prospectus top-10+
Minor League Ball top-20 (1)
Minor League Ball top-20 (2)
MLB.com top-20

[Note: This post was originally posted on 1/11/15, but updated on 1/16/15 to reflect the new prospects acquired in the Evan Gattis trade.]

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Adi-Oso Blanco: Braves trade Evan Gattis to Astros

The Atlanta Braves have traded Evan Gattis to the Houston Astros in exchange for three minor leaguers, right-handed pitchers Michael Foltynewicz and Andrew Thurman and third baseman Rio Ruiz. The Braves also send minor league relief pitcher James Hoyt to Houston.

Illustration by Tim Williams (timwilliamsart.net)

Illustration by Tim Williams (twillustration.com)

This is another rebuilding trade for the Braves, who ship off their final obvious trade chip for three more building blocks. As with the first trade of this offseason, in which the team sent the popular Jason Heyward to St. Louis, the Braves may be bookending the offseason trading frenzy by parting ways with the equally popular Gattis. While we should all be used to the tenor of this offseason by now, it is never easy to see a fan-favorite player depart.

As a fan of homegrown Braves players this trade is a tough one to handle, but of all the moves Atlanta has made this offseason, moving Gattis was probably the most likely thing to happen. So why was Gattis traded?

His trade value might never be higher than it is right now, having posted back-to-back 20-home-run seasons, and still with four years of team control. But his value to the Braves was declining, due to the team’s subtextual unwillingness to play him in the outfield, and the presence of rookie catcher Christian Bethancourt.

Forget that this makes the 2015 lineup weaker, it should be pretty clear by now that regardless of the stated desire of the front office to contend this year, they’re rebuilding and in the midst of an all-out Hungry Hungry Hippo-esque prospect grab. I now believe that their trading may still not be done, and that even some of the new faces on the team will be moved during the season. Their focus is on 2017, with all seasons before that being sacrificed to achieve maximum contending ability in the inaugural year of White Flight Field™.

mfoltynewiczSo how about that return. The Braves get Michael Foltynewicz, a first-rounder (19th overall) out of high school in 2010, who is now one of the top prospects in the game. He ranks either third or fourth in the Astros system (depending on the prospect outlet), and prior to 2014 was ranked anywhere from No. 43 to No. 59 in all of baseball. His calling card is a high-90s fastball that touches 100 (or more) — a legit 80 pitch on the 20-80 scouting scale. The 2014 Baseball America Prospect Handbook said of Foltynewicz that “no minor league starter touched 100 mph more often in 2013.”

With that high-octane fastball comes inconsistent control. His walk rate has been around 4.5 BB/9 the last two seasons as a starter, though he improved upon that when he was called up to the majors at the beginning of August last year to the tune of a 3.4 BB/9. Over those final two months he was used exclusively as a reliever. Atlanta will likely send him back to triple-A this year and return him to a starting role, hoping to refine his control and improve his secondary offerings.

rruizThe other big prospect coming to Atlanta is third baseman Rio Ruiz, who ranked at the back-end of the Astros’ top-10 prospects. He will turn 21-years-old next May, and should start the year at double-A. There is a lot to like in Ruiz, who combines solid plate discipline and a declining strikeout rate with growing power — power that should now be viewed as among the best in the Braves minor league system. Drafted out of high school in the fourth round of 2012, Ruiz was extremely raw, but has made strides at every level to improve his swing at the plate and his defense at the hot corner. This is an exciting prospect, and one who seems to be on the rise. With a successful 2015 campaign at double-A, Ruiz should see the majors at some point in 2016, or before if Atlanta can rid themselves of Chris Johnson.

The final prospect going the Braves way is right-hander Andrew Thurman, who is less-exciting. Baseball America says he projects as a back-of-the-rotation starter who has no plus pitch and a fringy low-90s fastball. He’s more of a control pitcher, but last year he struggled at A-ball to the tune of a 5.38 ERA. While that looks bad, his FIP was a more modest 3.74. Of course, that still screams back-end starter — a pedigree that doesn’t jibe with the No. 40 overall pick from the 2013 draft. Perhaps there’s more here than the stats can reveal.

athurmanThis last prospect makes the trade seem a bit weird. A back-end starting prospect like Thurman is something that the Braves have in spades in their system. Why would they need another one, especially when he would seemingly be instantly blocked by the half-dozen good-to-great mid-to-front of the rotation starting pitching prospects the team has acquired this offseason. I understand the desire of the front office to stash away all the pitching prospects they can, but why not take a flyer on a hitting prospect with some promise as opposed to another fifth starter.

The two main prospects in this trade, Foltynewicz and Ruiz, are closer to the majors than three of the four prospects they got in the Justin Upton trade. But the four prospects in that trade represent a better overall return.

The other player the Braves sent to Houston, right-handed reliever James Hoyt, is a 28-year-old pitcher with an interesting road to professional baseball through the Independent Leagues, and even through the Mexican League. M-Braves broadcaster Kyle Tait has a good four minute audio interview with him here. As for Hoyt the prospect…he appeared as the Braves’ No. 30 prospect in the 2014 Baseball America Prospect Handbook, then dominated double-A in the first half of last year before hitting a wall at triple-A. He’s not really a prospect anymore, though a team might be able to get a few good middle relief seasons out of him in the majors.

It’s also worth noting that the first news of this trade was broken on Twitter by some bloke named gondeee…

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Braves trade for LHP prospect Ricardo Sanchez

The Atlanta Braves continued to improve their farm system today by acquiring one of the Los Angeles Angels’ top prospects, left-handed pitcher Ricardo Sanchez. In exchange the Braves sent third base prospect Kyle Kubitza and right-handed relief prospect Nate Hyatt to Anaheim.

This trade is about getting maximum potential into the Braves’ minor league system. While Kubitza seemed to have a future (maybe a year or so away) as a solid major league regular at the hot corner, the 17-year-old Sanchez represents a pitching prospect who, while young and far away from contributing, has the ceiling of a top-of-the-rotation starter.

While ranking him as the No. 2 prospect in their 2015 Angels top prospects, Baseball America describes Sanchez as a prospect with “tantalizing upside.” He has a fastball that has been clocked in the mid-90s, as well as a curve ball in the low-70s that already grades at plus. Sanchez was signed out of Venezuela in 2013 for $580,000. It should be noted, however, that the Angels’ farm system is one of the worst in all of baseball.

Kubitza became a personal favorite of mine in the Braves system, so I’m sad to see him go. I’ve described his major league potential as that of Chris Johnson, but with the ability to take a lot of walks. He should see the majors late this year or early next year.

I also liked Hyatt as a relief prospect, but the Braves didn’t push him last year and had him repeat High-A Lynchburg, when most folks expected to see him at Double-A Mississippi by now. He’s like many other relief prospect in the Braves system, with the ceiling of a decent middle reliever. Both he and Kubitza will be 24 this season.

This seems like a great trade for the Braves, and perhaps the Angels. Atlanta swaps a poorly thought-of relief prospect and a third base prospect blocked by Chris Johnson (and recently acquired prospect Jace Peterson) for another high-upside young pitching prospect–echoing a theme for this offseason’s acquisitions.

In the short term this trade might look real good for the Angels, as both of the guys they got should reach the majors before Sanchez does. But in the long run, the high upside of Sanchez was too much for Atlanta to pass up–seemingly an easy decision to make when the stated intent this offseason was to rebuild the system, beginning with left-handed starting pitching.

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Braves acquire Manny Banuelos from Yankees

The Atlanta Braves continue to retool for 2015 and beyond. On the very first day of the year the team has acquired left-handed starting pitching prospect Manny Banuelos from the New York Yankees, in exchange for relievers David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve.

mbanuelosBanuelos had Tommy John surgery in October of 2012, and missed all of the 2013 season. Prior to the injury he was considered one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, ranking between No. 13 and No. 41 from 2011 to 2012.

One of his early-career calling cards was his good control with a low-90s fastball. As he moved up the minor league ladder he added velocity to the mid-90s, but his control suffered and his walk rates spiked.

As with the insider knowledge of the prospects they acquired in the Justin Upton trade with the Padres thanks to the recent hire of a former San Diego assistant GM, the Braves are dealing from a similar area of increased knowledge with the Yankees. Atlanta brought in former Yankees scout Gordon Blakeley to serve as an assistant GM as part of their front office overhaul several months ago. Clearly the Braves have a high degree of confidence that Banuelos can return to his pre-surgery promise.

Losing Carpenter and Shreve will likely not hurt the bullpen too much, if at all. With the recent acquisitions of Jim Johnson, Jason Grilli, and others, Atlanta must believe they have enough relief pitching. The team deals Carpenter while his value is high, and perhaps Shreve too, especially if his emergence from obscurity last year was a fluke. I’m more inclined to believe that Shreve’s velocity and command are real, and he’ll be a good O’Flaherty-esque reliever for years. (Click here for my story on Shreve from last year.)

The Braves are going for most upside with this trade, acquiring a young starting pitcher who will turn 24 in spring training. If he can return to the pitcher who had the promise of a top-50 prospect, then Atlanta just got a steal.

This is another trade with an eye towards the new ballpark for the 2017 season. ManBan could be an established part of the rotation by then. But first the Braves will give him every opportunity to win the fifth starter spot in spring training. If he’s not ready, then he can start the year at Triple-A.

The Braves 2015 rotation now projects to be one of the youngest in baseball. Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Shelby Miller and Banuelos will all be 24 years old by opening day, and Mike Minor will be the elder statesman at 27.

Even though the Braves have traded four members of their 2014 bullpen (Carpenter, Shreve, Anthony Varvaro, and Jordan Walden), their relief corps look deep for 2015: Craig Kimbrel, Johnson, Grilli, Shae Simmons, Arodys Vizcaino, David Hale, James Russell, and Luis Avilan, as well as several others not on the 40-man roster who could compete for spots, like Michael Kohn and Donnie Veal.

With that kind of depth in the pen, this trade looks like an even bigger win for Atlanta, as long as Banuelos can regain his command. They dealt from an area of great depth, and acquired a player who could be a big part of the team for years to come. ManBan is still a gamble, but this is a worthwhile risk to take.

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Braves trade Justin Upton to Padres

The Atlanta Braves continue to remake their team, and have now reportedly pulled off their second blockbuster trade of this offseason by sending slugging outfielder Justin Upton to the San Diego Padres. In return the Braves receive a haul of prospects: left-handed starting pitcher Max Fried, infielders Jace Peterson and Dustin Peterson (no relation), and outfielder Mallex Smith. The Braves also send minor league pitcher Aaron Northcraft to the Padres, and receive an international bonus slot, valued at $182,300, from San Diego.

mfriedIt became apparent that the Braves were not going to re-sign Upton, and with one year remaining in his contract before free agency, next year would have been his last in Atlanta. The team spent the last three months assessing the market for Upton, and we have to believe they found the best deal, but the return they got seems to be more about quantity than quality. San Diego’s best prospects were not included.

That said, the Braves have an expert knowledge of San Diego’s minor league system thanks to the hiring of Chad MacDonald as a Special Assistant to the General Manager earlier this offseason. MacDonald had spent the previous three years as the guy in charge of player personnel for the Padres. That should give everyone a little more confidence that the prospects coming to Atlanta are well thought of.

 

The Prospects

Max Fried was selected with the seventh overall pick in the 2012 draft out of high school. Since then he’s ranked between 43 and 61 on various top-100 prospect lists. While his stats in the minors have yet to catch up to his scoutable talent, the tools are there for him to have three plus pitches and a top-of-the-rotation profile.

jpetersonHis debut in a Braves uniform will have to wait though, as he had Tommy John surgery in late August of this year. While that is a risk, the Braves must be confident that he can return fully healthy. There is also no rush with Fried, as he’ll be 21 next season, and 22 the year after when he should return to the mound. His acquisition is about putting together a rotation for 2017 and beyond.

Jace Peterson is another first-round pick (58 overall), selected in the 2011 draft out of McNeese State University. He was listed as the Padres No. 7 prospect prior to 2014 by Baseball America. He’s a shortstop, but has also played second and third. While he has below-average power, he sprays the gaps and gets on base well then uses plus speed and instincts to take the extra base. He profiles as a top-of-the-order hitter with a low strikeout rate and a high walk rate. He had several brief stints in the majors this year, serving mainly as a backup player.

The next two guys, third baseman Dustin Peterson and outfielder Mallex Smith, are young projectable prospects, and instantly rise to the top of a Braves system weak in positional prospects.

Dustin Peterson was selected 50th overall in the second round of the 2013 draft. He played last year as a 19-year-old at A-ball. While his stats won’t knock your socks off, he held his own against much older competition, and probably wore down late in the season. He may eventually have to move off of third base to the outfield, but with excellent bat speed he should hit for plus power and a high average. dpeterson

Baseball America ranked him No. 22 on San Diego’s top prospect list before last season, and MLB.com ranks him No. 10 now. Mallex Smith was unranked by Baseball America last year, but is now ranked No. 20 by MLB.com.

Smith’s calling card is speed. He’s stolen 169 bases since turning pro three years ago when he was selected in the fifth round of the 2012 draft out of Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Florida. He’s a slasher at the plate, but does whatever he can to get on base, and is an excellent bunter. Mallex will start next year at Double-A in his age-22 season, and could get a look in the majors at some point. He is B.J. Upton’s replacement-in-waiting. So just as soon as the Braves can move B.J., Smith will be his replacement. He sounds like a classic Juan Pierre-like leadoff guy.

For more on the prospects, check out this article at FanGraphs.

 

Thoughts…

All of these young hitters continue the trend of the Braves to acquire more “on-base first” type players who don’t strike out in excess, and the Braves likely expect all of them to be big parts of their team by 2017. Here is a potential lineup that we could see for the first ever game at Sun Trust Park:

  1. Mallex Smith, CF
  2. Jose Peraza, 2B
  3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
  4. Dustin Peterson, LF
  5. Nick Markakis, RF
  6. Christian Bethancourt, C
  7. Jace Peterson, 3B
  8. Andrelton Simmons, SS

While that lineup may not have the kind of power in it that we’ve come to expect from recent Braves’ lineups, it has tons of speed, good on-base ability, and good situational hitting. If anything, it has too many top-of-the-order types, but in the post-enhanced era this could be where baseball lineups are headed.

msmithThe Braves didn’t get any of the Padres big prospects, but they got prospects who can fill needs, as well as high risk/high reward players. It sounds like Atlanta opted for four boom or bust prospects rather than one sure thing. That makes this trade of prospects difficult to compare to the Jason Heyward trade. It’s easy right now to say that the Heyward trade is better because Shelby Miller is an impact major leaguer, and Tyrell Jenkins is likely only a year away.

To accurately compare the two trades we will have to wait several years to see what the four players acquired from the Padres develop into. Right now the Heyward trade is better, but there’s a chance the Upton trade could be to Atlanta what the Mark Teixeira trade was to the Rangers–in which the four main prospects traded have so far amassed 41 bWAR as major leaguers. On the other hand, it could be what the Fred McGriff trade was to the Padres–which netted them three “prospects” who eventually amassed -2.3 bWAR in their careers.

In terms of building for 2017 this is a good trade. The Braves would have gotten a draft pick when Upton left after next year, but that pick would probably not be ready in time for the opening of the new park. At least three of the players here should be major leaguers by that time, and all but Smith come with a first round (or equivalent) pedigree.

It feels like the Braves aren’t done reshaping their team this offseason, with Evan Gattis and Chris Johnson being two players who could also be traded. Until we see what happens there, we shouldn’t take this trade as a signal that the Braves are punting the 2015 season and completely rebuilding.

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Braves trade Anthony Varvaro to Red Sox for Aaron Kurcz

When the Atlanta Braves signed Alberto Callaspo several days ago they surprised quite a few people by designating reliever Anthony Varvaro for assignment–meaning they had ten days to trade him or release him.

akurczThis was surprising since he had been such a big part of the Atlanta bullpen the last two years. In an era where quality relief pitchers don’t grow on trees, here were the Braves leaving one blowing in the wind. The rumor though, was that the team already had a taker lined up for Varvaro.

Today that taker materialized as they traded Varvaro to the Boston Red Sox for minor league right-handed reliever Aaron Kurcz. He is a player who gained a little bit of infamy when he was traded from the Cubs to the Red Sox as compensation for General Manager Theo Epstein going to Chicago.

Kurcz is an 11th-round draft pick from the 2010 class out of the College of Southern Nevada. That’s the same school Bryce Harper attended, and also the same school Braves lefty reliever Chasen Shreve attended. In fact, both Kurcz and Shreve were taken in the same round of the 2010 draft.

Parting with Varvaro is still a bit of a head-scratcher. He was a popular player in the clubhouse, and also seemed to readily accept any role that the Braves asked him to perform. The best guess I have for why Atlanta was so willing to part with Varvaro is an apparent drop in velocity at the end of last season. His fastball fell off a bit of a cliff, dropping from around 94-95 to 90-91 (via FanGraphs.com):

varvaro-fb

That’s a fairly noticeable drop, and he didn’t appear in a game between September 9 and 24. Of course, he was effectively recording outs during this entire time, so velocity or not he seemed to be effective. I say again, it’s a head-scratcher why he was deemed expendable. If the Braves really needed a 40-man roster spot, Jose Constanza is sitting there taking up space.

As for Kurcz, he’s a hard thrower much like Varvaro, and projects as a middle-innings reliever. He’s also two years removed from a Tommy John surgery he had in August of 2012 (he missed the entire 2013 season). Here is an excerpt from a scouting report on Kurcz by the website SoxProspects.com:

Right-handed reliever with small frame and lean build. Loose thrower. 3/4 arm slot. Balanced delivery with easy landing. Fastball sits 92-93 mph and can top out at 95 mph. Average command. Tends to work in the upper tier of strike zone too much. Capable of generating swings-and-misses with fastball. 75-80 mph 3/4 breaking ball. Has curveball look in lower reaches of velocity and slider look in upper reaches. More of a slurve. Average offering. Potential to tighten up to create more consistent power and depth. Also mixes in a developing 82-85 mph changeup. Shows arm-side fade. Tends to float too much presently. Solid-average potential. Converted to a reliever in 2011. Strong makeup for age. Sixth- or seventh-inning reliever potential at major-league level.

For a more in-depth scouting report, click here. He also participated in this year’s Arizona Fall League with good results.

He’s another decent relief option to stash on the farm, and will get a look in spring training, but will most likely start the season at Triple-A Gwinnett.

Based on how fleshed out the AJC.com article on this trade was immediately after it was announced, I’m guessing the beat writers knew about it when Varvaro was designated on Monday. The two days that elapsed were likely used for both sides to review medical records.

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Braves take a chance on Cuban outfielder Dian Toscano

The Atlanta Braves have signed Cuban outfielder Dian Toscano, pending physical and some other procedural motions. The signing will not count against the team’s international bonus pool.

While I was happy that the Braves lost out on Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas, who I thought was too big of a risk, they seemed determine to add a player from that island. Every team seems to want a Cuban accessory.

Toscano is not as much of a household name as Tomas, and comes with quite a different profile. While Tomas is a swing-and-miss power-or-nothing type hitter, Toscano is apparently a work-the-count get-on-base type hitter.

While Tomas signed a monstrous six-year, $68 million deal with Arizona, Toscano has apparently signed a modest pact with Atlanta, though the reported ceiling of his talent is nowhere near that of Tomas.

That’s a $7.5 million gamble, $6 million guaranteed. Though spread out over four years (five with the option), that’s not too bad at all–much better than the gamble the Diamondbacks are taking.

The scant scouting report on Toscano comes from Ben Badler at BaseballAmerica.com:

Toscano, who is around 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, is a lefthanded hitter with good bat control and strike-zone awareness.

Short guy, gets on base, sounds like a fourth outfielder, though clearly the Braves think more highly of him.

While reading the terrific article from Eno Sarris on inflated prices for Cuban players, I was directed towards the “Davenport Translation.” This formula seeks to take stats produced in Cuban leagues and turn them into Major League equivalent stats. Here are the Cuban League stats for Tomas and Toscano translated into MLB equivalent, according to the Davenport Translation (peak, age-adjusted):

Yasmani Tomas: .233/.269/.421
Dian Toscano: .215/.287/.304

Neither number looks pretty, but at least the Braves are only committing 10 percent of the guaranteed salary to Toscano, that Tomas is getting.

So just keep all of this in mind when you read the other stories that list the actual stats Toscano posted in Cuba, which look really sexy: .300/.399/427.
“Hey, he’s a .300 hitter, right?”
Maybe, just maybe, but probably not.

Still, probably worth the gamble at a million or so a year to see if he can turn into something more than a fourth outfielder.

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Braves Sign Outfielder Nick Markakis

nmarkakis1The Atlanta Braves have signed free agent right fielder Nick Markakis to a four-year, $44 million deal. The 31-year-old Woodstock, Georgia, native won the American League Gold Glove award in right field last year, the second time in his nine-year career he has won the award.

If you’re counting at home, then four is now the number of starting outfielders that the Braves employ–Markakis, B.J. Upton, Justin Upton and presumably Evan Gattis, as the team (or team sources) have indicated that he will shift from catcher to left field next year. That means one of them will need to be traded, and by process of elimination it will either be Gattis or Justin, and more likely Justin.

Moving Justin Upton–a long-rumored next trade for Atlanta–is now a virtual certainty. The Winter Meetings start next week, and he will probably be moved there. So before fully judging this signing of Markakis it needs to be seen in the context of the entire remaking of the outfield, which is still TBD.

What we do know is that Jason Heyward has been replaced in right field by Markakis, while the team netted a mid-rotation starter and a starting pitching prospect. In left field the team appears set to replace Justin Upton with Gattis, and in the process will get some additional players and/or prospects.

We also have to look at this in the context of the new stadium, opening in 2017. This is a four-year deal, and gives the team another controllable player for the first two years of the new park, at a relatively low cost. It’s almost certainly a lower cost after next year than Heyward would have been, and the Braves know that after having had long-term contract discussions with him.

nmarkakis3Markakis allows the Braves to be more competitive now (or to at least replace the competitiveness they lost when they traded J-Hey), and stay competitive for the next four years. But don’t think of him as just replacing Heyward.

Markakis is likely the first piece of an offensive rebuilding project that deemphasizes SABR attributes like WAR and advanced stats for the more scouting-centric qualities in players, like consistency and a grinder mentality. (Seriously, Google “John Hart grind at bat,” he’s been talking about that kind of thing glowingly for years, and mentions it repeatedly in interviews since he took over as not-GM.)

But the consistency of Markakis matters too. One important piece that was removed from Atlanta’s lineup when Chipper Jones retired was a consistent hitter against both left-handed and right-handed pitching. Markakis brings that back (although not as good as a Hall of Famer), and brings it to a spot in the lineup that didn’t have it before. Check out these lefty/righty splits for Markakis and Heyward:

AVG/OPS vs. RHP career vs. LHP career vs. RHP 2014 vs. LHP 2014
Markakis .291/.816 .288/.743 .274/.751 .280/.673
Heyward .281/.788 .221/.650 .304/.820 .169/.477

This signing is likely the first part of a trend for the team as they strive to add more balance to any spot in the lineup that they can bring more balance to. Essentially they’re trying to build an offense that can score a few runs every night, rather than one that scores in bunches then goes on long droughts. This is also consistent with their building of a pitching staff that features a mid-to-top of the rotation guy every night.

nmarkakis2I believe this is a good move for Atlanta. While Markakis is not a flashy player, and he doesn’t put up monster stats, he does add needed consistency to Atlanta’s lineup. He hasn’t made an error since August 10, 2012, but advanced defensive statistics don’t like him due to his average range (which hurts his WAR stats). So again, in the field he’s more consistency than flash.

The Braves didn’t sign a superstar, but they got tired of waiting for Heyward to become one, so they got what they could for him, and replaced him with a boringly decent above-average player.

Only time will tell how Markakis fares in Atlanta from his age-31 season through his age-34 season. The Braves didn’t have good luck with big contracts to B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla (which I didn’t like at the time), but I’m optimistic Markakis will fare better since not as much of his value is tied up in his power, which is usually the first thing to go with age.

Now we’ll have to see what the team does with Justin and/or Gattis… stay tuned, the GM Meetings are next week. Markakis also continues the trend this offseason for the Braves of replacing players in the name of long-term rebuilding while still trying to build a competitive team for next year.

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