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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