By now it should be no secret: the 2016 Atlanta Braves are not built to be a contending team. A team that expects to compete against the strong and deep rotations of the Mets and Nats doesn’t take a week at the end of spring to decide whether Williams Perez or Jhoulys Chacin should be their fourth starter or fifth starter. A team that expects to contend doesn’t hold up as their top free agent signing of the offseason a backup catcher or backup infielder.
None of that should be taken as an indictment against how this 2016 Braves team is constructed, but we should be honest about this team: they’re not built to be a contending team. They are, however, built to take full advantage of the desperate needs of other teams leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. They are built to continue the rebuild that started after the 2014 season.
The Atlanta front office has stacked the 2016 Braves with as many tradable players as they can fit on a roster. They have parted ways with players still owed money in order to equip their roster with players who have the best chance to build trade value.
Most likely to be traded
Yesterday I was trying to figure out why the team would bring in Drew Stubbs at the end of spring to essentially usurp a roster spot from the popular Michael Bourn, and even Emilio Bonifacio — two players owed a combined $15 million this year. The best answer I came up with was that Stubbs’ career .444/.528/.756 slash line as a pinch-hitter is vastly superior over Bourn’s .137/.200/.176. Both of those are extremely small sample sizes of just over 50 plate appearances spread out over multiple seasons, but with such extreme numbers for each player the team must be hoping that while neither is expected to get regular playing time, Stubbs has the better chance of putting up good numbers in a pinch-hitting role.
Assuming they once again put up good numbers in the pinch this year, guys like Stubbs and Jeff Francoeur could have value at the trade deadline for teams seeking pinch hitters and role players. They could add value to trades when they’re paired with a reliever like Jim Johnson or Jason Grilli — the two most likely relievers to be traded. Veteran relievers Eric O’Flaherty and Alexi Ogando could rebound this year and raise their swap value.
Veteran infielders on one-year deals like Erick Aybar, Gordon Beckham and Kelly Johnson are all likely to be shipped off by the deadline. It’s a reassuring comment on the potential value of seemingly small trades of role players that one of the prospects Kelly Johnson was traded for just last year, John Gant, is already making his big league debut with Atlanta. One of the players that Jim Johnson was traded for last year, Hector Olivera, is expected to be an integral part of this year’s team.
While the stating pitching for the Braves is thin to begin the season, the first wave of rebuilding pitching prospects is going to be ready in a few months. That means the Braves will need to create spots for these young starters by shipping off veterans like Bud Norris and Jhoulys Chacin.
While many of the names I mentioned likely don’t have huge trade value on their own, as we saw last year, the Braves were able to combine players in trades to receive a better return. They were also willing to include a top prospect like Jose Peraza as a sweetener in a trade to acquire the player they really wanted in return. With some surplus of prospects, I wonder if we’ll see the Braves include one of their second tier of prospects in a deadline trade in order to get a top tier prospect in return.
Less likely to be traded
While the Braves have Nick Markakis on the books through 2018 at what seems like a reasonable $11 million per year, that lower-dollar contract is also what could make him attractive on the trade market. More years of control on a player should net better players and prospects in return.
The same could be said for Ender Inciarte, who has a whopping five years of team control left. After Atlanta acquired him this past offseason there were reports that many teams called to inquire about his availability. The Braves GM has even bragged in interviews about how many teams (20, by some reports) have expressed interest in Inciarte. Even with Ender filling a valuable role as a leadoff hitter and center fielder, the emergence of prospect Mallex Smith in that same role could make Inciarte available.
A good first half out of Jace Peterson could have Braves fans thinking he’s the second baseman of the future, but it could also raise his trade value to the point where the Braves would strongly consider moving him if another team expressed interest. Once again, five years of team control could add to his value in any deal, and with infield prospects Albies and Swanson arriving soon, there’s reason to think that Peterson could be considered surplus.
In order to put a contending team on the field for the opening of their new park in 2017, the Braves need to give their young prospects the space and time to cut their teeth in the majors. Consider too that many of their young prospects won’t be ready to join the major league roster until after the All-Star break. The team then needs to clear spots on a roster currently crowded with veterans. The confluence of those three things, as well as the potential tradability (described above) of so many of these players, seems to auger well for a flurry of mid-season trades.
At some point the team is going to have to stop trading away valuable pieces, but that point is not just yet. This year’s Braves team is still all about building for the future, and not yet about winning now.