With less than six weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Atlanta Braves.
67–95 (.414), fourth place in National League East (Hot Stove Preview)
SS Erick Aybar, UT Emilio Bonifacio, IF Gordon Beckham, C Tyler Flowers, CF Ender Inciarte, RHP Jim Johnson, UT Kelly Johnson, RHP Casey Kelly, LHP Ian Krol, RHP Bud Norris, RHP Jose Ramirez, LHP Evan Rutckyj+, SS Dansby Swanson
(+Rule 5 draft pick)
Off-season In Review
When the Braves began to rebuild after the 2014 season by trading away the walk years of outfielders Jason Heyward and Justin Upton and multiple team-controlled seasons of closer Craig Kimbrel and catcher Evan Gattis, their goal appeared to be a quick turn-around that would yield a contending team for the first year of their new ballpark in '17. This off-season, however, Atlanta continued to ship out young, team-controlled major league talent, suggesting that the club is taking an even longer view than we all thought.
Of the players the Braves traded this winter, outfielder Cameron Maybin will be 29 in April and is a free agent after the coming season; he woudn't have been a part of Atlanta's next contending core anyway. But startng pitcher Shelby Miller is 25 and has three team-controlled years remaining; shortstop Andrelton Simmons is 26 and has five years remaining on the extension he signed prior to the 2014 season; and catcher Christian Bethancourt, who was once considered the Braves’ catcher of the future, is 24 and has five less expensive team-controlled years remaining. A team hoping to contend by 2017 doesn’t trade all of those players.
Assuming Atlanta is taking a longer view of its rebuild, however, it did well with those moves. Most significantly, Miller brought back a fantastic package from the Diamondbacks, led by shortstop and Georgia native Dansby Swanson, the top pick in the 2015 draft and an elite college player who could move quickly through the Braves’ system; he has the potential to be the face of the franchise in the next decade. Included with Swanson in the Miller deal was slick-fielding centerfielder Ender Inciarte, who is 25 and has five team-controlled years remaining. Inciarte combines a league-average bat with an elite glove, and he has been worth 5.8 Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version) per 162 games in parts of two major league seasons. The Braves also landed righthander Aaron Blair, a starting prospect with mid-rotation potential who will battle for a major league job in camp this year.
Simmons, who was sent to the Angels in November, netted veteran infielder Erick Aybar and pitching prospects Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis. Aybar will turn 32 this week and is entering his walk year, but Newcomb, a big college lefty drafted with the No. 15 pick in 2014, could be a front-end starter if he can improve his control. Bethancourt, who was shipped to the Padres, brought back Casey Kelly, a former top pitching prospect with the Red Sox who got sucked into San Diego’s Tommy John vortex of recent years. Kelly has struggled since returning to action but is still just 26 and has four team-controlled years remaining. Maybin, meanwhile, was dealt to Detroit and brought back lefty reliever Ian Krol.
The net result of all of that is a big upgrade in center with Inciarte, a potential long-term upgrade at shortstop with Swanson and an impressive collection of near-ready starting pitching talent in Blair, Ellis and Newcomb—and all five of those players will be under team control through at least 2020. Blair, Ellis, Newcomb and Swanson will also all be in major league camp this spring, though only Blair is likely to be seriously considered for the Opening Day roster.
As for the 2016 team, the Braves’ re-signed catcher A.J. Pierzynski for his age-39 season and brought back veteran utility infielders Kelly Johnson and Emilio Bonifacio and reliever Jim Johnson to prop up the major league club. They also added busted first-round pick Gordon Beckham, now 29, to help fill in the infield, and righty Bud Norris, 31 in March, to eat innings in whatever role he’s needed. None of those veterans, all of them on one-year deals worth $3 million or less, are going to be impact players or long-term solutions. Slightly more compelling are young relievers Jose Ramirez and Evan Rutckyj, a righty and lefty, respectively. Both are originally from the Yankees’ system, the latter coming over as a Rule 5 pick in December. The two have thrown a combined 17 2/3 major league innings, all Ramirez’s.
The Braves’ most underrated move this off-season, however, was the two-year, $5.3 million contract given to Tyler Flowers six days after he was non-tendered by the White Sox. Once a big hitting prospect with Atlanta whose ability to remain at catcher was in doubt, Flowers (another Georgia native) was traded to Chicago in the December 2008 Javier Vazquez deal. He returns as the inverse of the player he was then: an average hitter (.240/.296/.378 over the last two years compared to the .232/.295/.383 line for catchers this past season) but an elite pitch-framer who led the American League in Baseball Prospectus’ Framing Runs in 2015, saving more than 1 1/2 wins by stealing strikes for his pitchers. Flowers will turn 30 later this month and is under contract for just the next two years, but he could prove to be instrumental in bringing the Braves’ young pitchers along. In the meantime, he should be a significant upgrade for the major league team, provided Atlanta gives him enough playing time behind the plate in place of Pierzynski, who was nearly a win below average in pitch framing last year.
Unfinished Business: None
While there was a lot of chatter throughout the winter about the Braves dealing their best remaining young assets—first baseman Freddie Freeman and starter Julio Teheran—both players are signed through at least the 2020 season, and both are coming off down years; it would have made little sense to trade either one. Of course, the same could have been said about Simmons.
Preliminary Grade: A
Trading Simmons, arguably the best fielder in baseball and signed to a long-term extension, didn’t make much sense at first, but replacing him in the system with Swanson changed the appearance of that deal dramatically. The Miller trade was a major coup and could come to represent the turning point in Atlanta’s rebuild, and signing Flowers was an outstanding low-level move.
No, the Braves aren’t likely to be any better in 2016 or to contend in '17, but their long-term outlook is much brighter now than it was a year ago. That’s a successful off-season for a rebuilding team.