Just 24 hours after receiving an award naming him the best overall defensive player in baseball in the 2015 season, Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons has been traded to the Angels along with a minor league catcher for fellow shortstop Erick Aybar, the Angels’ top two pitching prospects and cash. The deal finds the Angels trading from a perceived area of strength to shore up the defense behind their emerging young rotation and the Braves trading yet another established young regular in their continuing rebuilding effort, which is focused on the opening of their new suburban ballpark in 2017.
The two pitching prospects heading to the Braves, lefty Sean Newcomb and righty Chris Ellis, were two of the Angels’ top three picks in the 2014 draft and two of their top four prospects coming into the 2015 season per Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. Newcomb, the 15th pick in the 2014 draft, is a big 6'5" lefty out of the University of Hartford who throws a mid-90s fastball, slider, curve and changeup and struck out 168 men in 136 innings across three full-season levels in his first full professional season this year.
The 22-year-old also showed significant control problems, but he has already had success at Double A (2.75 ERA, 9.8 K/9 in seven starts to finish the season) and could very easily be a part of the Braves’ rotation in 2017 with a major league debut in late 2016 a distinct possibility. Ellis, a third-round pick out of the University of Mississippi who turned 23 in September, is a slim 6'4" righty who preceded Newcomb in Double A this year. Ellis works with a variety of fastballs in the upper-80s to low-90s, which he compliments with a changeup and curve.
Baseball America listed Newcomb as the 37th best prospect in baseball in July and, at the end of the season, named him the best prospect to spend significant time in the High A California League this year. He’s a clear blue-chipper, even if he is projected as more of a No. 2 or 3 starter at the major league level. Ellis has a similar mid-rotation projection, but is considered a longer shot to reach that potential given his thin frame, lower velocity and comparatively limited repertoire. Indeed, while Ellis made 15 Double A starts to Newcomb’s seven this past season, he also had a much larger drop-off in his performance from High A to Double A with his strikeout-to-walk ratio dropping from 3.50 at the former level to 1.44 at the latter via both a sharp drop in strikeouts and a big spike in walks. Ellis worked primarily in relief in his first two years in college, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him ultimately return to that role.
For the Angels, those two pitchers, plus $2.5 million to offset the 2016 salaries of Simmons and Aybar, were well worth acquiring a player who is indeed the best defensive shortstop in baseball and is under contract for just $54 million through his age-30 season in 2020 (an average annual value of $10.8 million).
Simmons didn’t deserve Wilson’s Overall Defensive Player of the Year award this season—that should have gone to Tampa Bay’s Kevin Kiermaier—but Simmons was deservingly named the best defensive shortstop in baseball this past season by Wilson and the Fielding Bible and ranked second to only Kiermaier in defensive runs saved this season. He saved 25 runs compared to an average shortstop, or nearly three wins. That was no outlying performance.
Simmons saved 28 runs in 2014 per DRS, tied for second behind only then teammate Jason Heyward’s 32, he saved 19 runs in just 49 games as a rookie in 2012 and he saved a whopping 41 runs in 2013, which stood as the defensive runs saved record at any position until Kiermaier scored a 42 this year. Those numbers aren’t a fluke of that particular system, either. Ultimate Zone Rating credits Simmons with 68.4 runs saved above average for his career, which works out to 22.2 per 162 games, and only Kiermaier, Heyward and Yoenis Cespedes bested his 17.3 UZR this season.
Thanks to his outstanding fielding, Simmons has been roughly a four-win player despite a lagging and inconsistent performance at the plate. Simmons put up a solid 101 OPS+ in 182 plate appearances as a rookie in 2012 and hit 17 home runs in his first full major league season in 2013. However, he posted an on-base percentage below .300 in both 2013 and ’14, he’s hit just 11 more home runs over the last two seasons and he hit a mere .265/.321/.338 (86 OPS+) in 2015, each of those rate stats being an improvement over 2014. In his brief minor league career, Simmons, a Curaçao native who was drafted out of Wester Oklahoma State College at the age of 21, hit for higher averages (.299 in 1,042 plate appearances) but not with more power (just six home runs) or patience. Given that Simmons just turned 26 in September, there is still some hope that he will mature a bit at the plate, but ultimately, the Angels acquired Simmons for his glove, and that seems likely to be well worth the price.
Ironically, this is in large part due to the work of the general manager of the rival Seattle Mariners, Jerry Dipoto, who resigned that same post in Anaheim in July. Thanks to Dipoto’s efforts, the Angels have an emerging young starting rotation that both made Newcomb and Ellis expendable and made the effort to improve team defense all the more logical. Over the previous two winters, Dipoto traded for Hector Sanchez, Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano while watching Garrett Richards emerge as a key part of the Angels’ rotation. The oldest of those five pitchers, Sanchez and Richards, will be 28 in the coming season, while Skaggs is set to return from Tommy John surgery at the age of 24 after a full 18 months of rehabilitation (he had his surgery in August 2014).
Heaney, a top-50 prospect prior to last season who’s coming off a strong 18-start rookie year, and Tropeano, who boasts a 2.86 FIP in 11 major league starts and one relief appearance, will both be 25 in the coming season and under team control through 2021. The arrival of Simmons increases the optimism associated with that young rotation, particularly Richards and Skaggs, who have the strongest ground-ball tendencies of the quintet. With Mike Trout, signed through 2020, and Kole Calhoun, the deserving AL Gold Glove-winner in rightfield this year, roaming the outfield and Simmons anchoring the infield in a pitcher-friendly ballpark, the Angels have an excellent foundation in place.
That doesn’t mean that new GM Billy Eppler doesn’t still have a lot more work to do. Leftfield, second base and third base are still question marks. Twenty-five year old Kyle Kubitza, acquired last off-season from the Braves for yet another highly regarded pitching prospect, small, teenaged Venezuelan lefty Ricardo Sanchez, could wind up winning the third base job, but he’s hardly a sure thing. Then there’s the fact that that young rotation is still being crowded by veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, both of whom are entering the final year of their contract but also have some form of trade protection (Weaver has a full no-trade clause, Wilson can block deals to eight teams).
As for the two other players in this deal: Catcher Jose Briceno is a non-factor, a former Rockies farmhand acquired by the Braves in the David Hale trade in January. He hit .183/.215/.267 in High A at the age of 22 this past season. Entering the final year of his contract as well as his age-32 season, Aybar is a mere stopgap for Atlanta. He has been a below-average fielder in each of the last three seasons per DRS and didn’t even out-hit Simmons in 2015, batting .270/.301/.338, while his 15 stolen bases came at a weak 71% success rate. That translates to roughly a three-win swing in expectations at shortstop for these two teams, with the Braves taking yet another big step backward in the short term and the Angels making a huge improvement to their starting lineup even if Simmons doesn’t show any improvement at the plate in the coming season.
Whether or not that translates into a playoff berth in 2016 for the Angels will depend on their subsequent moves this off-season, but at the very least the 2016 Angels will feature a pair of players who have a significant claim to the title of the best defensive player (Simmons) and best all-around player (Trout) in baseball. That will be worth watching no matter who is playing third base for Los Angeles come April.