Winter Report Card: Atlanta Braves
With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014.
2014 results: 79-83 (.488), tied 2nd place NL East (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: RHP Brandon Beachy*, UT Emilio Bonifacio, RHP David D. Carpenter, OF/C Ryan Doumit*, RHP Gavin Floyd, C Evan Gattis, RHP Aaron Harang, RF Jason Heyward, C Gerald Laird*, 2B Tommy La Stella, RHP Kris Medlen, IF Ramiro Peña*, RHP Ervin Santana, LHP Chasen Shreve, LF Justin Upton, RHP Anthony Varvaro, RHP Jordan Walden (*free agent, still unsigned)
Key arrivals: RHP Manny Banuelos, IF Alberto Callaspo, RHP Mike Fotynewicz, RHP Jason Grilli, OF Jonny Gomes, RHP Jim Johnson, RF Nick Markakis, RHP Shelby Miller, LHP Josh Outman, IF Jace Peterson, C A.J. Pierzynski, OF Dian Toscano
In the four seasons from 2010-13, the Braves averaged 92 1/2 wins per year and made the playoffs three times, including both 2012 and '13. In 2014, they occupied a playoff spot as late as Sept. 6. However, Atlanta endured a final-month collapse that left it outside the playoff picture, tied with the Mets at 17 games out of first place and with a losing record. General manager Frank Wren was fired, and rather than replace him directly, the team named senior advisor Jon Hart president of baseball operations and tasked him and assistant GM John Coppolella with initiating a rebuild.
There are two motivating factors behind this rebuild. The first is that the Braves, burdened by the below-market television contracts signed by Time Warner prior to the sale of the team in 2007, appear to have maxed out their payroll in 2011. Per the figures on Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Atlanta's Opening Day payroll has averaged barely more than $112 million over the last four years without straying more than $5 million from that figure. The renegotiation of those pacts last May will reportedly bring in an extra $500 million over the life of the deals, but given that the contracts were originally set to run through 2027 and that it is unknown whether or not the renegotiation involved extending the contracts, that extra revenue may be consumed simply by baseball’s steady salary inflation. That would effectively keep the Braves buried in the middle of the pack in terms of spending power (they ranked 14th out of 30 teams in Opening Day payroll in 2014).
The second factor is that Atlanta is moving into a new suburban stadium that is expected to open in 2017. That could increase the team’s revenues, but the degree to which it does so could be heavily dependent on the quality of the team that takes the field in that ballpark. Thus, the Braves’ offseason focus has not been the 2015 team, but the 2017 team.
Last February, Wren acquired a certain level of cost-certainty for that season, signing first baseman Freddie Freeman, closer Craig Kimbrel, shortstop Andrelton Simmons and emerging staff ace Julio Teheran to extensions that last through and beyond 2017. That he didn’t also extend arb-eligible outfielders Jason Heyward or Justin Upton in that flurry was noteworthy at the time, and thus it should have come as no major shock when Wren’s front office replacements dealt both those players this offseason in advance of their walk years.
Upton and Heyward, who were due to make a combined $22.8 million in 2015, were traded to the Padres and Cardinals, respectively, for packages of pre-arbitration players. Heyward went to St. Louis with arb-eligible reliever Jordan Walden (who will make $2.5 million this season) for righthanders Shelby Miller, who has four team-controlled years remaining and won’t be arb-eligible until after the coming season, and Tyrell Jenkins, a 22-year-old prospect likely to start the year in Double A. Upton was sent to San Diego with righty starter Aaron Northcraft, who struggled in his Triple A debut in 2014, for a four-prospect package built around lefty Max Fried, a 21-year-old former first-round pick coming off Tommy John surgery and infielder Jace Peterson, who made his major league debut last year, still has all six team-controlled years remaining and will compete for the Braves’ second-base job in camp. Two other prospects, 20-year-old second baseman Dustin Peterson, and speedy 21-year-old centerfield prospect Mallex Smith, were also included. Given that the Braves appeared neither capable nor interested in signing either outfielder long-term, Hart and Coppolella did well with both trades, even if there’s no guarantee that any of the four players acquired from the Padres will prove to be a viable major league starter.
There was logic behind the trade of slugging catcher Evan Gattis to the Astros, as well, in that Atlanta wants to give slick-fielding prospect Christian Bethancourt the job behind the plate. First base is also occupied, so Gattis was left as a poor defensive backstop who is no better in the outfield, which he plays about as well as you’d expect from someone nicknamed “El Oso Blanco” (the white bear). Thus he was shipped to Houston along with 28-year-old reliever James Hoyt for rookie fireballer Michael Foltynewicz, 20-year-old third-base prospect Rio Riuz and 23-year-old Andrew Thurman, a 2013 draft pick with back-end-of-the rotation potential. Given that the Astros also intend to play Gattis in the outfield, the Braves may have actually sold high on the 28-year-old.
Keeping the focus on 2017 in mind, one can also understand why the team non-tendered and subsequently failed to re-sign starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, both of whom missed all of 2014 due to the second Tommy John surgeries of their careers (Beachy remains unsigned, but Atlanta reportedly took itself out of the running to sign him earlier this month). Medlen had just one year of team control remaining and reportedly balked at the Braves offer of a one-year deal with a “low-salary” club-option for 2016. Beachy had two team-controlled years remaining, meaning both would have hit free agency before 2017 even if their comebacks had been successful. Combine those decisions with letting the Twins overpay to poach Ervin Santana, and one can see the plan at work here.
However, that’s not all Atlanta did this offeason. It also signed Nick Markakis to a four-year deal worth $44 million. Yes, after trading Heyward and Upton, the team needed outfielders, but it didn’t need to make a long-term commitment to an overrated 31-year-old rightfielder who hasn’t slugged .390 since 2012. The Braves also didn’t need to drop pre-arbitration righty Anthony Varvaro from the roster after two strong seasons of relief, ultimately trading him to the Red Sox for minor league righty reliever Aaron Kurcz, whose 34 relief appearances in Double A last year were his first since August 2012 Tommy John surgery.
Perhaps the most notable other name in that list of arrivals above is that of Arodys Vizcaino, who was acqured from the Cubs for second baseman Tommy La Stella. A highly regarded prospect when originally acquired from the Yankees, Vizcaino missed all of the 2012 and '13 seasons following Tommy John surgery and is now 24 and no closer to being an established major league reliever. Meanwhile, arb-eligible bullpen stalwart David D. Carpenter (not to be confused with former Angel David L. Carpenter, whom Atlanta signed to a minor league deal earlier this month) was traded with rookie lefty Chasen Shreve to the Yankees for Manny Bañuelos, another former prospect who had his career derailed by Tommy John surgery. Bañuelos, a short lefty who will turn 24 in March, is no better a bet than Vizcaino to make an impact in the major leagues.
As for the other incoming free agents, 25-year-old Cuban outfielder Dian Toscano is the most compelling, if only because he’s such a total unknown. Toscano is a Cuban defector but he never played with his native country's national team and thus has yet to play competitively off the island. Toscano will get a chance to win the leftfield job in camp but seems more likely to open the season in Triple A. Signed for just $6 million over four years, plus a $1.5 million option for 2019, he is not necessarily expected to be a major league regular at any point. Pierzynski, Callaspo and Gomes are place-fillers at catcher, infield and outfield, respectively. Pitchers Grilli, Johnson and Outman will be expected to fill the vacancies created by the trades of Carpenter, Shreve and Varvaro. Of those six veterans, five were signed to one year deals worth $4 million or less. The exception is the 38-year-old Grilli, who landed a two-year deal worth $8 million with a $3 million option for 2017.
Unfinished business: Firing Fredi Gonzalez
Given that the Braves’ are working on a three-year plan, one can’t really judge the 2015 roster on its own merits. Sure, second base and leftfield appear understaffed, and Chris Johnson and B.J. Upton remain in place following dismal seasons at the plate, but there’s little sense in trading low on those two veterans, even if Atlanta could unload their contracts, which wouldn't be easy. There’s also good reason to give the team’s young, new acquisitions a chance to establish themselves at the other two positions, as well as at the back of the rotation behind Teheran, Miller, Alex Wood and Mike Minor.
Gonzalez, however, has twice failed to pull his team out of playoff-erasing nose-dives in his four years on the job. Even when they have reached the postseason under Gonzalez, the Braves have gone just 1-4. He was reportedly due to be fired with Wren but was saved by his predecessor, Bobby Cox, who continues to have influence in the front office despite the lack of an official position. After last September’s collapse and a 17-game decline in the team's record compared to 2013, it will be a surprise if Gonzalez is still steering the ship when it arrives at SunTrust Park in 2017.
Preliminary Grade: C+
If this grade were solely for the Braves' 2015 outlook, it would be difficult not to flunk them outright. Coming off a season in which they scored the second-fewest runs in baseball, they traded three of their only four regulars who posted an OPS+ above league average in 2014, and the best hitter they added is Markakis, whose 107 OPS+ would have ranked fifth on the 2014 team. They’ve also arguably downgraded the bullpen, as well, and, at least for the coming season, have not made any obvious improvements to the rotation (both Aaron Harang and Ervin Santana had a higher ERA+ in more innings than Shelby Miller last year).
However, the grade above reflects not how well Atlanta has prepared itself for the coming season but rather our perception of the quality of the team's multi-year plan and the success with which it has executed the first part of it. Still not a rave review, to be sure, but better than some might have expected given appearances. The major issue with what the Braves have done is the Markakis deal. That would be a poor signing in any context, but it is particularly weak for team in their position, lacking significant run producers other than Freeman both in the majors and minors and looking to build a contender for 2017 and beyond.
None of Atlanta's moves seem particularly astute, but there were some positives. The team did well cashing in Gattis, Heyward and Upton, was wise not to reinvest in its departing free agents and did net a draft pick for Santana. The Braves also still have that core of Freeman, Kimbrel, Simmons and Teheran, they just added a ton of young, team-controlled bodies and they have scaled back their payroll by roughly $25 million. The big question now is: How do they build the team back up from here? The grade for that is still pending.