The Padres made a splash when they acquired Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton from the Braves on the eve of Opening Day. But will the additions prove to be more costly than they're worth?
Opening Day may be at hand, but the Padres and Braves are dealing like it's still December. Three and a half months after completing a trade that sent Justin Upton to San Diego, the two teams have pulled off a seven-player swap in which brother Melvin Upton Jr. (formerly B.J.) as well as All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel join the Padres in exchange for outfielders Cameron Maybin and Carlos Quentin, two prospects and a competitive balance draft pick. The move significantly pares the Braves’ payroll while furthering their rebuilding effort, and while it provides a substantial upgrade to the Padres' bullpen, it comes at an even more substantial cost, since they’re taking on the entirety of Upton’s remaining salary. Surprisingly, no money changed hands in the deal.
The centerpiece of the trade is Kimbrel, the game's top closer. The 26-year-old righty has earned All-Star honors and received Cy Young votes in each of the past four seasons while leading the National League in saves and posting microscopic ERAs coupled with staggering strikeout rates. In 2014, he saved 47 games while pitching to a 1.61 ERA and 1.83 FIP with 13.9 strikeouts per nine in 61 2/3 innings, a performance worth 2.5 WAR. For his career, he owns a 1.43 ERA, 1.52 FIP and 14.8 strikeouts per nine. The first two numbers are the lowest in major league history for a pitcher with at least 200 innings, while the latter ranks second only to Aroldis Chapman's 15.3 per nine.
One of five players the Braves signed to long-term deals last spring as a means of providing cost certainty during what was expected to be a bright future (Freddie Freeman, Chris Johnson, Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran are the others), Kimbrel is the first from that core to be dealt, with several players in whom the team was less invested, such as Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis, having already been sent away. Still, it’s not a shock that Kimbrel was dealt given that a rebuilding team has less need for a $11 million-per-year closer than a contender. He’s under contract for the next three years at a combined cost of $34 million, including a $1 million buyout of a $13 million club option for 2018. For the Padres, his acquisition bumps 37-year-old Joaquin Benoit back into the setup role he occupied before Huston Street was traded to the Angels last July. In his first season in San Diego, Benoit notched 11 saves while posting a 1.49 ERA and 10.6 strikeouts per nine in 54 1/3 innings; he missed time in September due to shoulder inflammation.
For the Braves, the loss of the popular and prolific Kimbrel is a steep price to pay for unloading the 30-year-old Upton, who, along with the since-departed Dan Uggla, became a symbol of everything that went wrong with the Frank Wren regime, which ended with the general manager's ouster last September. Signed to a five-year, $75.25 million deal in November 2012—and shortly thereafter united with his brother, who was acquired from the Diamondbacks—Upton hit a combined .198/.279/.314 with -1.6 WAR in two seasons in Atlanta, including .208/.287/.333 with 12 homers, 20 steals and -0.3 WAR in 2014. He still has $46.35 million remaining on his deal through 2017, but once he comes off the disabled list (a bout of sesamoiditis, inflammation of the sesamoid bone, could sideline him until May) it appears he'll be a very expensive benchwarmer and defensive caddy. The Padres' starting outfield stacks up with Justin Upton in leftfield, Wil Myers in center and Matt Kemp in right, a star power-heavy trio acquired by general manager A.J. Preller in December but one that lacks a true centerfielder. Myers has a total of 53 major league innings there, not including exhibitions. He may not necessarily be worse in the middle pasture than Upton, who is 38 runs below average in center for his career according to Defensive Runs Saved, including seven below in 2014. To be fair, Ultimate Zone Rating views him much differently: Eighteen runs above average in his career, and just two below average in 2014.
While Melvin Upton's role for 2015 isn't clear, he could take over centerfield next year with Myers moving to left, assuming that Justin Upton departs via free agency. For the moment, the deal does at least thin the herd of extra outfielders on the Padres roster, as neither Maybin nor Quentin figured in their plans. Quentin doesn't figure in the Braves' plans, either. The 32-year-old slugger's $8 million salary for 2015 was merely ballast in the trade, as his new team reportedly plans to designate him for assignment. Quentin hit just .177/.284/.315 in 155 plate appearances last year, losing more than half the season to two extended stays on the disabled list for left knee inflammation. He's played in just 218 games over the last three seasons, missing enough time that he won't qualify for a $3 million buyout on his $10 million mutual option for 2016.
Maybin, on the other hand, gets a new lease on his career while slotting in as the Braves' starting centerfielder. The 28-year-old, who ranked among Baseball America’s top 10 prospects in 2007, 2008 and 2009, is coming off a rough season that included a 25-game suspension for a banned stimulant, a five-week absence due to a torn biceps tendon and a .235/.290/.331 line for an 81 OPS+ and 0.5 WAR in 272 PA. A natural centerfielder, he's seven runs above average per 1,200 innings according to DRS. He's owed $7 million for 2015, with an $8 million salary for 2016 and either $9 million or a $1 million buyout for 2017. He'll be flanked by a platoon of Jonny Gomes and Eric Young Jr. in leftfield and Nick Markakis in right, a far cry from the Upton/Upton/Jason Heyward outfield that the Braves boasted in 2013 and 2014.
As for the other players in the deal, the Braves get Matt Wisler, a 22-year-old righty who was San Diego's seventh-round pick in 2011 out of an Ohio high school, as well as Jordan Paroubeck, a 20-year-old leftfielder who was the Padres’ second-round pick in 2013 out of a San Mateo, Calif., high school. Atlanta also gets the No. 41 pick in this year's draft; won in the competitive balance lottery, it’s the only type of draft pick that can be traded.
Wisler split last year between the Padres' Double A San Antonio and Triple A El Paso affiliates, posting a combined 4.42 ERA with 1.3 homers and 8.3 strikeouts per nine in 146 2/3 innings. He's been a staple of top prospect lists in the last two years, topping out at No. 34 on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list this spring, and is by BA's reckoning at least No. 1 in the Padres' organization. The 6'3", 195-pounder features a plus fastball/slider combo with a fringe-average changeup. His fastball sits 92-94 mph and touches 96, and the general consensus is that he's a No. 3 starter in the making. He could find his way into the Braves' retooled rotation—which features Teheran, Shelby Miller, Alex Wood, Eric Stults and the recently-acquired Trevor Cahill, plus Mike Minor on the disabled list—at some point this season.
Paroubeck didn't play after being drafted in 2013 due to a small tear in the labrum of his right (throwing) shoulder, suffered when he collided with a teammate in a high school playoff game following the draft. The injury cut into his time in 2014 as well, as he played just 34 games in the Arizona League last year, where he hit .286/.346/.457 with four homers and four steals in 157 PA. Here's what Baseball Prospectus' Nick Faleris had to say about him:
“There is a level of controlled violence to the switch-hitter’s swings that a pro developmental team could shape into a 30-plus home run threat, and the former Fresno State commit also brings above-average speed and some defensive projection to the table. Paramount to Paroubeck’s development at this point is logging in-game reps, and with a developmental step forward in 2015 the NorCal native could establish himself as one of the more interesting talents in the system.”
If you’re scoring at home, the Padres have added a net of $56.35 million in salary commitments, including $8.45 million more for 2015, for an upgrade at closer, a reshuffled bench and a thinner farm system compared to a day ago. In a division where they’re competing with the bajillion-dollar Dodgers, that would seem to be a steep price to pay for an incremental improvement in their playoff chances, even knowing that they’ve been absent from the postseason since 2006.
The Braves, meanwhile, have freed themselves from a huge financial burden while taking a worthwhile flyer on a centerfield upgrade and adding two interesting prospects and a draft pick to boot. It’s odd to see a team that so recently was a perennial contender turn to another team cast as a perpetual rebuilder for help in spurring its own rebuilding effort, but nobody can claim that these two teams haven’t moved decisively toward their new direction since the end of last season.