Braves Journal, The House That Mac Built

Scarred, but smarter.

02 Dec

Trade Recap: The Andrelton Simmons Trade

Ed. note: Click here to see Rob’s recaps of the other major trades from the Great Teardown.

This may have been most controversial deal during the rebuild, and was likely the most heartwrenching. Andrelton Simmons was a fan favorite, a GIF maker’s delight, and was the best defensive shortstop in baseball by a significant margin. He was under team control for the next 5 seasons, he was only 25, and with the team largely unsettled with position players, he was a stable commodity on the team. Nonetheless, the Braves traded him and Jose Briceno to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for Chris Ellis, Sean Newcomb, Erick Aybar, and cash ($2.5M).

Who We Gave Up:

Andrelton Simmons – Simmons had won two Gold Gloves in his time in Atlanta (he inexplicably lost the 2015 award to Brandon Crawford, and the 2016 award to Francisco Lindor). His range knows no bounds, he’s extremely sure-handed, and his arm is electric and accurate. When he was drafted, a scout who thought he’d make an excellent pitcher enthused that he had “huge sh*t coming out of the pen,” but the Braves took him as a shortstop and the rest was history. He’s a human highlight reel, and you may enjoy the compilations here and here. Over the last 4 years, Andrelton leads baseball in Defensive Runs Saved with 131. The next guy has 61. He’s really good at playing shortstop.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Andrelton’s offense has never really developed. After late season duty in his rookie year that led people to think he could be a perennial All-Star (a .289/.335/.416 line in 186 PAs), he continued hope in his offense with a respectable first full season (.248/.296/.396). As was the case with many players on the 2013 Braves, the long ball was in play for Andrelton where he produced his to-date career high, 17 HRs. But he has not hit double-digit home runs again, and has not cracked an OPS over .700. In his first season with LAA, he did steal 10 bags, and his .690 OPS was the highest since his first full season. But with his salary increasing to $6M, $8M, $11M, $13M, and $15M, the Braves just couldn’t justify his future salary and needed to give the next team some years at a below market price to make the deal possible.

Jose Briceno – Briceno is a non-prospect catcher with no stick to speak of. Catchers tend to develop their offense late, but he has not shown an ability to hit upper minors pitching. He’s TBD, but he doesn’t look like he’ll be in the major leagues any time soon.

Who We Received:

Sean Newcomb – The centerpiece of the deal. Newcomb is a big lefty, standing 6’5” and weighing 255 lbs. He has a plus fastball, plus change up, an average change, and many have compared him to Jon Lester. Based on his size, mechanics, and stuff, the comp is valid. Newcomb has the strikeout numbers to be within striking distance of Atlanta, but walks have been his undoing. His BB/9 has never been below 4 since Rookie league, and in his second year at AA (he had 7 GS in 2015), he still has not mastered the strike zone (4.6 BB). He still strikes out over a batter an inning even as he gets into the upper levels, but if he does not fix his control issues, it will be very difficult for him to be a big league starter. He’s very important to the short- and long-term success of the Braves, and if he consistently avoids free passes, he can be an ace of a staff.

Chris Ellis – Another tall (6’5” as well), imposing starter. A less heralded prospect, Ellis possesses an average fastball but an above average change up. He’s also had his bouts in control, but like Newcomb, maintains a strong strike out rate. After a strong showing at AA (78.2 IP, 61 K, 1.131 WHIP, 2.75 ERA), Atlanta promoted him to AAA in hopes he’d continue his performance. Instead, he ran into more struggles than he’d had at any previous level, seeing his walk rate balloon (6.9 BB/9), his H/9 increase (9.0), and his ERA skyrocket to 6.52. Interestingly, his strike out rate improved to 8.6, so there is some reason for optimism in his progression. He’s had a few good outings in the AFL, so he’s still moving forward. He’s 24, however, and if he doesn’t make it to Atlanta before some of the higher-ceiling prospects are able to, then he could find himself stuck in AAA or traded.

Erick Aybar – The Braves thought they needed to take a shortstop back in the deal, so they received Aybar and $2.5M of his $8.5M salary. Aybar was 32, coming off a down year, but had performed well 3 of the previous 4 seasons before then. Aybar struggled to hit his weight out of the gate for Atlanta, but upon returning from a DL stint on 6/12, he pulled off a .289/.346/.396 line until he was pawned off on the Detroit Tigers. The Braves received Kade Scivicque, a 23-year-old catcher with some pop, and Mike Aviles and his $2M salary, who was later released. Scivicque has also been playing in the AFL, and could be an interesting piece down the road.

So What?

It’s hard to get excited about the return for Andrelton. Andrelton may not have ever been an offensive asset, but according to advanced stats, he saves you a lot more runs than he costs you. However, while in the cold light of day it may have made sense to trade Andrelton, the return seemed light. If Newcomb is able to harness his command, he can become an above average major league starter or even an ace. But he’ll be 24 next year, he hasn’t yet found his command, and if your aunt had balls, she’d be your uncle. It’s also possible that Ellis never makes a meaningful contribution to the parent club. Based on his salary, Aybar did not provide much value to Atlanta at all, even considering the return in his mid-season trade.

The best I can say: to be determined.

25 Nov

Trade Recap: The Jason Heyward/Shelby Miller Trade

Ed. note: Click here to see Rob’s recaps of the other major trades from the Great Teardown.

The first big trade that Coppy made was trading Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. Like Justin Upton, Heyward was one year away from free agency, and with seemingly no hope of re-signing him, they decided to get something significant for him instead of leaving for free agency. By this point, it was not publicly declared (and perhaps not even internally decided) that they were in the midst of a rebuild, so receiving back a major league piece like Shelby seemed to be important.

Who We Gave Up:

Jason Heyward – Bad Henry County. The next Braves Hall of Famer. The next Hank Aaron? A true 5-tool player who could perform each of them at an elite level. He dumped the first fastball he ever saw into the Braves’ bullpen in 2010. The expectations were enormous. He should have had the bat of Fred McGriff, the defense of Andruw Jones, the arm of Jeff Francoeur, and the leadership of Chipper Jones if you talked to enough Braves fans. But instead of being a cornerstone player for the next 15 years, J-Hey was simply… an excellent major league baseball player. He was an All-Star, finished second in the RoY, has now won 3 Gold Gloves, and sabermetricians think he is one of the most valuable players in baseball. As it stood, he had a .781 OPS, stole bases at a 75% clip, and played perhaps the best right field defense in the game. He was mostly durable aside from some hamstring issues and a very unfortunate pitch to the face in 2013.

In his lone season in St. Louis, he had one of his best seasons since his rookie season. He managed his highest stolen base total (and success rate), he hit .293/.359/.439, and won another Gold Glove. St. Louis, perhaps, hoped that he would sign his inevitable long-term mega deal with them, but he went to their rival, the Chicago Cubs. But after signing up with the Cubbies for 8 years in exchange for $184,000,000 in payment, his first season at Wrigley was a very forgettable one. He turned in his worst OPS of his career (.631), played his fewest games since his injury-marred 2013 season, and didn’t steal nearly as many bags as he had previously. It got so bad, in fact, that he was benched multiple times during the Cubs’ World Series run.

He’s perhaps the most enigmatic player to play for the Braves. Do you really pay $22M a season for a guy who is not a transcendent offensive power? But at the end of the day, a penny saved is a penny earned, and advanced defensive metrics say that he saves significantly more runs over an average right fielder than he “loses” at the plate over an elite offensive player. To many, the balance tips to his side, and the value is there.

Jordan Walden – Classic Atlanta with this one. We picked him up by trading the late Tommy Hanson in 2012. For a total of $2M, he provided two solid relief seasons for Atlanta. For St. Louis, he pitched 10 1/3 innings in two seasons due to injuries. The Braves signed him last week to a minor league deal with an invite for Spring Training.

Who We Got Back:

Shelby Miller – Shelby, we hardly knew ye. Shelby clearly was the centerpiece of the deal, and like his counterpart in this deal, he played one season for his new team. He didn’t produce the WAR that Heyward did (6.5 to 3.6 WAR, with much of that gap due to Heyward’s controversial defensive contribution), but he turned in a valuable season for the rebuilding Braves. He led the league in starts, pitched 205 1/3 innings, produced a 3.02 ERA, and made the All-Star team as the Braves’ lone representative.

But where the story changes is what the Braves did with Miller next. While Heyward left for the Cubs in free agency, the Braves traded the big Texan to Arizona for Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte, and Aaron Blair. Considered at the time to be one of the biggest heists of the decade, the progression of value certainly is to be taken into consideration for what the Braves received with Shelby Miller.

Tyrell Jenkins – Another big fella from Texas, Tyrell was originally committed to Baylor to play quarterback. He’s a high-ceiling-low-floor prospect who possesses a 94 MPH fastball, average breaking ball and change, and struggles to match his secondary stats with his otherwise strong ERAs. He struggles to consistently throw strikes (3.5 BB/9 in his ML career), doesn’t strike out enough guys (6.5 K/9), and that came to a head in his time in Atlanta in 2016. His inability to master those things in the minors led to an alarming walk rate (5.7 BB/9), a simply unacceptable K/9 (4.5), and that led to a 5.88 ERA in 14 games. The Braves at a couple different points have said that his future may be as a reliever, and the jury is still out over where he slides into Atlanta’s plans long-term. He has been rated as highly at #6 on some prospect charts as the Braves have continued to tinker with their farm system.

So What?

If the trade evaluation ended at the end of 2015, then you’d say that the Braves traded a cornerstone player for a very good right-handed starting pitcher. That may not sound particularly appetizing. But with Heyward now in such an enormous contract, Shelby sold for a king’s ransom, Jenkins still having potential, and Walden back in Atlanta, you’d have to conclude that the Braves sold at a great time on Heyward and maximized his value.

18 Nov

Where Do We Go From Here? — Catcher (by Rusty S.)

Ed. note: Every year we publish a series of articles entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” in which we analyze what the Braves need to do in order to get better the following year. Here’s the intro to the series.

The Incumbent

Tyler Flowers has an unremarkable career slash line of .232/.302/.384, in 1720 plate appearances spread over 8 seasons.  In 2016, the righty-hitting Flowers went a more respectable .270/.357/.420, his first season in Atlanta.  That included 8 home runs in 281 at bats.

Flowers generated 0.3 WAR in 2016, with a 1.5 oWAR dragged down by a -0.8 dWAR.  In his career, Flowers’ dWAR has generally hovered around the +0.5 mark, but there is no hiding the fact that in 2016 Flowers caught only 3 of 63 base stealers, a hideous 5% rate.  In 2017, Flowers will need to get closer to the 25% – 30% range he exhibited with the White Sox, or this is going to be a problem.

Flowers will be 31 in 2017.  Maybe there is something about Atlanta or the National League that will allow us to ignore his career line and see him maintain something close to his 2016 offensive levels.  However, the more likely bet is that 2017 sees a return to his career norms.

Others

Anthony Recker is another righty-hitting catcher, on his fourth major league team at age 33.  2016 is the first time he’s batted over .215 for a season.  Recker has a .200/284/.350 career slash line, so let’s not get too excited about the .278/.394/.433 line he put up in 112 Atlanta plate appearances.  Recker does appear to have a moderate amount of power, with 18 home runs in 545 career at bats.

In his limited time in Atlanta in 2016 he was assigned 0.6 WAR, in line with his career bests.  He also threw out 22% of attempted base stealers.

We were under the impression that A.J. Pierzynski had retired, but it’s being reported he may try to find a landing spot in 2017. In fairness, this is just the cherry on top of Pierzynski’s retiring in his own inimitable style. There is no evidence that the Braves are interested, nor should there be.

Prospects

Lucas Herbert is the only catcher in mlb.com’s list of top 30 Braves prospects, at number 26. The 19 year old Herbert hit .185 at Rome in 2016, with 8 home runs in 335 at bats.

Free Agents

The Braves seem to be interested in acquiring a catcher, either through free agency or trade.  The top free agent catchers based on 2016 are 30 year old Matt Wieters of Baltimore, and 29 year old Wilson Ramos of Washington. Ramos hit .308 with 22 home runs in 2016, but unfortunately he is out at least the first 2-3 months of 2017 with his second major knee injury. Georgia Tech’s Wieters, who will be 31 in May, posted a 1.7 WAR in 2016, his first season over 0.8 since 2012.

Other catchers the Braves have been tied to include Jason Castro and Nick Hundley. The Astros’ Castro is a lefty hitter who could platoon with Flowers.  Castro will be 31 in June and is coming off of a .210/.307/.377 line in 2016, his 3rd consecutive season around that level.  He caught 24% of prospective base stealers in 2016.  The 33 year old righty-hitting Hundley is coming off of a 0.1 WAR season for Colorado.

The recent signings of R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon lead me to believe that the Braves are looking at more of a stopgap approach for 2017.

One thing is clear.  Between the incumbents and the prospects, catching is the most dire component of this organization, and it will have to be addressed before there is a next great Braves team.

11 Nov

Where Do We Go From Here? — Second Base (by Rusty S.)

Ed. note: Every year we publish a series of articles entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” in which we analyze what the Braves need to do in order to get better the following year. Here’s the intro to the series.

The Incumbent

The incumbent, such as it is, is Jace Peterson, who played 87 games at second for the Braves in 2016. Peterson has now amassed 1063 Major League plate appearances, with a career slash line of .237/.319/.334. Optimists may want to toss out his 58 ugly plate appearances in San Diego in 2014, and focus on his 2 year record in Atlanta — .245/.328/.347.

Peterson’s 2016 .254/.350/.366 line was an improvement over 2015, and there is reason to believe that he will continue to improve offensively in his upcoming age 27 season. Whether or not any improvement will be enough to make Peterson a useful major league starter is to be determined. In 2016, Peterson was a 0.4 WAR player, according to Baseball Reference.

Mitigating that a bit is the fact that Peterson had an oWar of 1.3, and I’m not sure how statistically significant the calculation of -0.7 dWar is over 87 games. At 2B Peterson has a career range factor per 9 innings of 5.03, compared to a league average of 4.71. There is a case that at his peak Jace Peterson will be a useful major league starter, but that peak looks to me as if it will be a short one.

Peterson played an additional 16 games in the outfield for the Braves in 2016, and 1 game at 3B. On a better Braves team Peterson would be a useful super-sub, but it looks like the Braves aren’t trying to be that kind of team quite yet. The lefty-hitting Peterson has a career .214/.269/.268 line against left handed pitchers (in 187 PA’s) and the Braves might improve themselves by adding a right handed hitting platoon partner.

Others

Chase d’Arnaud: He is a 29 year old utility infielder who has recorded four unremarkable major league seasons. In 2016 he played all the difficult infield positions and the outfield and may return in a utility role.

Emilio Bonifacio: With all due respect, the title of this article is “Where Do We Go From Here?”

Prospects

Ozzie Albies: Albies is the 12th ranked prospect in baseball, according to mlb.com, and the 5th ranked shortstop. The Braves have apparently settled on Dansby Swanson at shortstop, and Albies’ near term future looks to be at second base (Swanson is the 2nd-ranked shortstop prospect.) Albies suffered an elbow fracture in September while taking a swing, and is questionable for the start of 2017.

Offensively, the switch-hitting Albies dominated Rookie ball in 2014 at age 17, then followed up with a .310 batting average for Rome in 2015. In 2016, he split time between AA Mississippi and AAA Gwinnett, winning the Southern League batting title at Mississippi as a 19-year-old with a .321/.391/.467 slash line. Gwinnett was not as much fun, as Albies recorded a .248/.307/.351 line in 247 PA’s. Defensively, mlb.com rates him as an above average shortstop, which should translate really well to second base. Albies stole 30 bases in 2016, although at only a 70% success rate.

Still, with a combined .292/.358/.420 between AA and AAA as a 19 year old, it is easy to project that Albies at age 20 could already be as productive at the Major League level in 2017 as Jace Peterson will be. However, there is little harm from Albies starting in AAA and seeing how it goes from there. The elbow injury is the wild card, as it is unclear if Albies will be physically ready to compete for the Major League job in Spring Training anyway. It concerns me that someone can fracture their elbow on a swing. Hopefully it is a case like Chipper Jones’ freak knee injury in 1994, and not a sign of some ongoing structural weakness.

Travis Demeritte: Demeritte is the 7th-ranked prospect at second base, according to mlb.com, and the Braves’ 9th-ranked prospect overall. Demeritte is not ranked among the top 100 overall MLB prospects.

As a 21 year old in 2016, the righty-hitting Demeritte posted a .266/.361/.554 slash line between 2 clubs at High A, including 28 home runs in 520 PA’s. Additionally he stole 17 bases in 21 attempts. His 67 walks contributed to his nice .361 OBP, but his average was pulled down by a staggering 175 strikeouts in 455 at-bats. It will be interesting to see if Demeritte can keep up the OBP and/or reduce the strikeout rate when he makes the presumable jump to AA in 2017.

Although Demeritte is two years older and a level and a half behind Albies, he is still quite young and an interesting prospect. He was acquired from the Rangers organization mid-2016, and according to his scouting profile on mlb.com, the Rangers had moved him to second from third base due to a third base glut at their major league level. The presence of Albies makes it a possibility that Demeritte eventually moves back to 3B, where the prospect competition includes Austin Riley and Rio Ruiz. Demeritte ranks above both those players on mlb.com’s Braves prospect list.

I will not get too excited over anybody’s power numbers at High-A. Let’s revisit this after a season at AA.

Free Agents

The best free agent second baseman appears to be Neil Walker. The 31 year old hit 23 home runs and batted .282 in 2016, while making a little over $10 million. The Mets have made him a qualifying offer, and the Braves will not be in on Walker. A cheaper possibility could be right handed hitting Sean Rodriguez, coming off a career year at 31. Rodriguez hit 18 home runs and could platoon with Peterson. I would not expect him to be a huge improvement over Peterson, based on career numbers.

Other familiar names include Kelly Johnson and Gordon Beckham. The Braves focus seems to be on acquiring starting pitching, and with Albies in the pipeline, it’s probably wise long term that the Braves aren’t looking to spend on age 30+ infielders, even if they could get incrementally better in 2017.

Trades

As with free agents, the Braves do not appear to be in the trade market for a second baseman, and the presence of Albies makes it even less likely they would address this position, as opposed to their many other immediate holes (starting pitching, catching, 3B.) The Braves seem to be content to go into 2017 with Jace Peterson as their second baseman, with the idea that Ozzie Albies will get the job as soon as he is ready.

04 Nov

Where Do We Go From Here? The Starting Rotation (by seat painter)

The Braves began this past season thinking that their rotation might be a — and maybe the — strength of the team, while they had serious confidence issues about the offense. Then they finished the season with the offense carrying the shell of a rotation across the finish line. Atlanta used 16 different starters over the season, and finished the year with major questions about 15 of them.

The Sure Things
The “Ace” of the rotation was, no surprise, Julio Teheran. Julio went 7-10 on the year, with an ERA of 3.21. That season ERA was the fourth one in a row that was beneath his FIP, which in 2016 was 3.69. It appears that Julio has the ability to outperform his FIP. He also lowered several key peripherals from 2015, including Hits/9 (from 8.5 to 7.5), HR/9 (down from 1.2 to 1.1), WHIP (down to 1.053 from 1.306) and BB/9 (from 3.3 to 2.0). He also raised his K/9 from 7.7 to 8.0. All this was over the course of 188 innings, which was 12.2 less than 2015’s total. Put it all together, and Julio’s ERA+ was a healthy 129. So, I present Exhibit 1,752 (Exhibit 1,751 was Shelby Miller ca. 2015) of why pitcher wins are a terrible way to judge starters.

The other certainty to start 2017 in the rotation is Mike Foltynewicz. Folty entered the year with high hopes and many question marks. He answered a lot of those questions in a positive manner. He has absolutely filthy stuff. High 90s heater and filthy curve that reminds me of Noah Syndegaard if I squint hard enough. Mike led the team with 9 wins to go against 5 losses, while pitching to an ERA of 4.31, which was right in line with his FIP of 4.24.

Folty got a late start in the rotation, beginning the year on the DL after recovering from thoracic outlet surgery (which Matt Harvey of the Mets underwent). Mike threw 123 innings this year, up from 86 in 2015, but unlike Teheran, his peripherals were merely pedestrian, which led to a slightly below average ERA+ of 96.The main problem appeared to be a H/9 of 9.1 (although that was better than 2015’s 11.8 mark), and a BB/9 of 2.6 which totaled a WHIP of 1.297.

The main question facing Folty next year will be health. No one doubts the stuff, and prior to taking a line drive off the calf he was pitching as well as he ever has. If he can stay healthy and improve as much from 2016 to 2017 as he did from 2015 to 2016, the Braves will have a very good 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Certainly this year showed the Braves were correct in keeping him as a starter.

The Third Guy
Next up is the perplexing Matt Wisler. Wisler went 7-13 and seemed to take a step back from 2015. But he was only 23 for the majority of the season, so it’s too early to write him off completely. Wisler’s ERA was a nice round fat 5.00, which will happen when you give up 9.1 H/9 and 1.5 HR/9. Wisler seemed to lose confidence in his pitches, and would get in trouble trying to nibble at the corners. The positive to this was that it would drive Joe Simpson crazy, which is good to keep him on his toes. The negative? Just about everything else.

One has to wonder if Wisler was one of the main reasons that the Braves and Roger McDowell parted ways, as McDowell’s rep for connecting with young pitchers was less than stellar, and Wisler never seemed to improve. 2017 will be a big year for Matt to prove himself, as he has to be hearing the footsteps from the herd down on the farm who will be itching for a spot in the rotation next year.

After Teheran, Foltynewicz, and Wisler, the Braves have a big question mark as to who will fill out the last two spots (three if Wisler can’t get it together). The front office has publicly stated that the team will be looking to acquire at least two starters, either via trade or free agency.

Trade and Free Agent Targets
The Braves have several targets they COULD theoretically pursue in trade – the main target being Chris Sale of the White Sox, who has apparently irked the Sox brass. But, to be fair, Sale would be a huge get for any of, oh, 28 other teams as well, and the haul needed for him may make us long for the good old days when we only had to send four studs to Texas for Mark Teixeira.

The Rays also may be in the market to deal some of their starters, and might be induced to part ways with Chris Archer or Jake Odorizzi. Oakland may look to deal Sonny Gray as well. The only thing that will be sure is that Coppy will explore all potential options, and perhaps even some that aren’t viable.

The starters available on the free agent market are nothing to get excited about, with either age or injury concerns, or both, to give pause to clubs. The best of the lot may be Doug Fister from Houston, Jeremy Hellickson of the Phillies, or Andrew Cashner from Miami. None of those names are likely going to get season ticket sales at STP soaring. An intriguing name on the list is Ivan Nova, who went 5-2 with a 3.06 ERA (ERA+ of 139) in 64.2 innings for the Pirates after the Yankees traded him away mid-season.

If the Johns can’t acquire the two starters they want, then who will the Braves stick on the Opening Day Roster? Let’s take a quick look at the internal options.

Internal Options for the Back of the Rotation
Josh Collmenter was acquired in the waning days of the season, and made three very good starts for the Braves down the stretch. He had spent a good chunk of the time in the Diamondbacks bullpen, appearing in 15 games, all in relief, and not turning in results that impressed. But when the Braves trotted him out as a starter, he was a different guy. His “stuff,” such as it is, will remind no one of a prototypical MLB starter. It may not even remind one of a prototypical high school starter, as he tops out a fastball in the mid 80s. However, a funky delivery, seeming to hide the ball behind his head, seems to throw hitter’s timing off. Based on the last three starts, he should get the first chance at one of the spots.

Among the many other internal options are such diverse elements as Tyrell Jenkins, who was absolutely awful last year; Aaron Blair, who was even worse; Williams Perez, both of them; John Gant, who did have a few good outings out of the pen; Ryan Weber, who did too; Jesse Biddle, a former Phillies prospect who was on the 60-day DL; Rob Whalen, and a cast of thousands.

The kids on the farm who might make a push for the 2017 rotation include mainly Lucas Sims and Sean Newcomb, although Max Povse is a sleeper who pitched well in High A and AA.

The Bottom Line
As much depth as we have on the farm, the strategy in 2016 was Teheran and Folty and pray for rain, and it’s not clear how much better the staff will be in 2017. Unless you believe in Josh Collmenter, Matt Wisler is the third-best starting pitcher in the organization right now. The Braves don’t appear to be satisfied to stand pat. We’ll see what they do.

28 Oct

Where Do We Go From Here? — Third Base (by Rusty S.)

Ed. note: Every year we publish a series of articles entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” in which we analyze what the Braves need to do in order to get better the following year. Here’s the intro to the series. The first is by Rusty S.

The Incumbent
Adonis Garcia: Garcia will be 32 in 2017, and is coming off of a 2016 season of 0.2 WAR, posting a .273/.311/.406 slash line, including 14 Home Runs in 532 at-bats. Garcia’s 1.1 oWar was mostly offset by a -0.8 dWar, and he was actually sent back to AAA Gwinnett in May to learn how to play left field. I don’t know what happened at Gwinnett, and baseball is not supposed to be that easy, but somehow when Garcia returned from Gwinnett he seemed to be a significantly less bad defensive 3rd baseman.

For his Major League career, Garcia has a .274/.307/.430 slash line and 0.9 WAR in 723 AB’s. In 1014 AB’s at the AAA level he had a .296/.336/.423 slash line, and 19 HR. Garcia spent his early years playing in Cuba, and his US career did not start until age 27. While he may have some time left on the good side of the development curve he is undeniably on the wrong side of the age curve. With over 1700 Major League and AAA AB’s, we have a good idea what kind of offensive player Garcia is. We have most likely already seen his best major league season.

Garcia’s career oWar is a passable 2.0, and if his later season defensive improvement is somehow real, he could be a tolerable option for the next year or two. Garcia seems like a good guy, who I like to pull for. The Braves options for 3B in 2017 are limited, and it appears that they are satisfied to bring Adonis Garcia back.

Free Agents
Justin Turner: With the exception of Turner, there does not appear to be a free agent 3rd baseman who would be a significant upgrade over Garcia. Turner hit 27 home runs for the Dodgers in 2016 as a 31-year-old. He would make sense at the right price and years, but given the market at the hot corner, I suppose that he will be priced far above what the Braves would pay.

Prospects
Rio Ruiz: Lefty-hitting Ruiz will be 23 in May, and is coming off a .271/.355/.400 slash line at AAA Gwinnett, with 10 HR in 465 AB’s. Ruiz is currently ranked as the Braves’ #15 prospect according to MLB.com.

Ruiz had a disappointing season at AA Mississippi in 2015; however, he has been quite young for his league at every level. I can imagine Ruiz earning a platoon with the right handed hitting Garcia in the near future, or taking the job totally when the Braves decide to go younger there. In 2017 I do not project Ruiz to be an upgrade from Garcia, although Ruiz’s higher minor league on base percentages suggest one measure that could separate the two. MLB.com lists Ruiz as an adequate prospect defensively.

I expect eventually that Ruiz’s best Major League season will be better than Garcia’s proves to be, but I don’t see anything in his Minor League numbers that indicate that it will be significantly better. Because he has been young for his leagues though, that assessment could change if Ruiz repeats AAA in 2017 and demonstrates more power.

Austin Riley: Riley had an interesting season at Rome, hitting 20 HR in 495 AB. Still only 19, it will be some years before the Braves’ #13 prospect has any impact on the Major League team. Neither Ruiz nor Riley are listed in the top 10 MLB prospects at 3B, or in the top 100 of MLB prospects. This does not provide confidence that either will ever provide the Braves a competitive advantage at the position.

Trades
I have no idea what 3rd basemen might be available in trade (is Longoria available? do we care?) — but the Braves do not appear to be inclined to check. They have stated that they are not ready to start trading pitching prospects, and the only real trade chips on the roster seem to be outfielders (Markakis, Smith, Kemp, Inciarte). In any case, the Braves have indicated that they are more interested in starting pitching than upgrading at 3rd base.

Oh, and Don’t Forget
Kevin Maitan: Maitan was born in 2000. (People my age may insert their favorite expletive here.)

20 Oct

Where Do We Go from Here? Introduction

So who am us, anyway?

Fredi Gonzalez’s 2016 Braves were one of the worst teams that we’ve ever seen in Atlanta. Brian Snitker’s 2016 Braves were a not-very-good team with a decent number of young players who might be able to improve, and a farm system full of promising talent.

Can we ignore April and May, and chalk it down to Jeff Francoeur and Erick Aybar and Fredi Gonzalez and A.J. Pierzynski, all of whom are gone? Well… maybe, kind of, mostly. The trouble is, as AtlCrackersFan noted, the Braves were actually worse at starting pitching at the end of the year than they were at the beginning of the year. So the improvement in offense helped to mask a decline on the other side of the ball. In other words, despite the team’s near-.500 record under Snitker, this is not actually a good baseball team.

As Mark Bowman writes (in response to a question I tweeted at him), the Braves essentially fired Roger McDowell as a way of expressing their belief that a different pitching coach could turn Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair into bona fide major league starters.

Naturally, new pitching coach Chuck Hernandez will be tasked with many of the most important answers to the question of “Where do we go from here?” The Johns chose to focus the rebuild around young pitching, the area of the game that the Braves franchise still believes it does better than other teams. We’ll see if they’re right.

There are a lot more open questions around the lineup: can Ozzie Albies come back and be Ozzie Albies? If so, we’ve got a second baseman. If not, we’ve got a tough row to hoe. Catcher and third base are even further from being settled. And in the outfield corners there are two veteran placeholders and a speedy fourth outfielder.

So, does all this add up to a good team in 2019? Are these bums going to turn into the Braves of the 1990s, a collection of young guys who all turn into aces at the same moment? Or the Braves of the 1980s, a couple of stars surrounded by a bunch of busts? Or the Braves of the 2000s, a decent team that has a couple of bright moments but never managed a breakthrough?

What do you think?

17 Oct

Brian Snitker and the History of Partial Season Managers (by AtlCrackersFan)

When Fredi Gonzalez got fired, the Atlanta Braves record stood at 9-28, a lowly .243 winning percentage that would have ranked the team with some of the worst in franchise history. The Braves history of midseason replacement managers provides some interesting guidance about expectations.

Before 2016, and including the 19th-century Boston teams, the franchise had made 18 midseason managerial changes.

History
Only eleven of those changes occurred when the team had a losing record. (They have fired seven managers with winning records!) In five of those eleven cases, the new manager produced a worse record, and in six cases, he produced a better record. On average, new managers achieved a winning percentage about .010 higher than their predecessors.

But that’s mostly because of a massive outlier in 1966. Bobby Bragan was fired after 111 games, his team having limped to a 52-59 record, a winning percentage of .468. Billy Hitchcock came in and finished the year with a 33-18 record, a .647 winning percentage that was .179 points higher than Bobby Bragan’s .468 mark.

If you exclude the 1966 season, the average change in winning percentage was actually -0.058 — in other words, the replacement manager usually fared worse than the man he replaced.

Over the six instances where the new manager improved on his predecessor’s mark, the new man’s winning percentage was .053 higher. Take out 1966, and the average increase in the other five cases was just .029. For the five instances when the successor manager’s team posted a worse winning mark, the average decrease totaled .041.

So, had Snitker followed precedent, his team might have been expected to have a record between 25-99 (a .201 record) and 37-87 (a .298 record). Instead, his Braves went 59-65, a .476 record, an increase in winning percentage of .233 over Gonzalez’ mark after May 18. This represents the largest change between managers in any instance of change in the dugout and only the 4th instance of a winning percentage increase exceeding .100.

What Snitker Overcame
Despite the monumental increase in winning percentage under Snitker, the Braves still finished in last place, of course, the same spot they were in on May 18. That’s a familiar story in franchise history. Only twice did a Braves team with a losing record at the time of the managerial change improve their position in the standings — 1945, when Warren Spahn and many of the league’s top stars were at war, and the aforementioned 1966.

Of all the obstacles Snitker faced, a few jump out immediately. For starters — no pun intended — the Braves ran out 14 different starting pitchers in his 124 games. For example, Jhoulys Chacin started five games before being traded on May 11, a week before Fredi was axed. Another five pitchers were traded after Snitker became manager, and Alexi Ogando got his outright release.

The Braves had a total of 35 pitchers make at least one appearance during the season, but none spent the entire season on the active roster. Everyone either spent time on the injured list, time in Triple-A, or time with another franchise. Teheran led the starters with 188 innings pitched. Williams Perez had the fifth most innings as a starter, with just 53.2 innings pitched.

On the field, 25 different men stepped between the foul lines at some point during the season. They ranged from the regulars like Freeman and Markakis to part-timers like Jace Peterson, Gordon Beckham, and the quickly forgotten Reid Brignac and Matt Tuiasosopo. After Snitker arrived, five players were traded, beginning with Kelly Johnson on June 8, and ending with Beckham on September 27. While Freeman and Markakis appeared in 158 games each, only three others had more than 100 appearances.

The Braves had 13 players make their Major League debut in 2016, ten of whom were pitchers. Four debuted under Gonzalez (Mallex Smith and three hurlers) while Snitker introduced seven pitchers and two infielders, including Dansby Swanson.

What He Accomplished
With all of the roster turmoil, it’s instructive to compare the first 37 games of the season with the final 37 games of the season.

In the first 37 games, the Braves played 21 games against teams who qualified for the playoffs, going 4-17 against them. In the final 37 games, the Braves played 15 games against teams qualifying for the playoffs, and went 7-8 against them.

Some more numbers to compare:

  Runs/gm BA OBP GIDP/gm
First 37 3.08 .230 .323 .89
Last 37 5.35 .288 .409 .59

Scoring improved by over two runs per game as the batting average jumped. Extra base hits almost doubled, going from 66 XBH and only 10 HR during the initial part of the season, to 118 XBH, including 36 HR, at the end. Interestingly, the number of strikeouts per game hovered around 8.25 in both parts of the season. The most significant changes were the addition of Matt Kemp on July 30, and trading away Jeff Francoeur on August 24, when just 34 games remained.

The pitching record was more mixed.

Starters Runs/gm Go < 5 IP ≥ 5 runs /start
First 37 2.95 9 8
Last 37 3.19 13 13
Relievers Runs/gm Sv BSv
First 37 1.95 6 6
Last 37 1.54 12 4

While the starters’ record improved significantly, from 5-17 to 14-9, by other metrics, such as runs allowed per game, the number of games where the starter didn’t make it past the 5th inning, and giving up five or more runs in a start, the starters did worse at the end of the year than they had at the beginning. The pen got better, though. Their record improved from 4-11 to 9-5, the number of saves doubled, and runs per game and walks decreased, though the number of games when the pen held the opposition hitless decreased slightly.

Other than the improvements in batting, particularly with power, it’s difficult to identify why Snitker got such dramatically improved results over Gonzalez.

Looking Ahead
With the naming of Snitker as the manager for the 2017 season, history offers both hope and caution. First: Bobby Cox totally destroys any meaningful statistical analysis, since he returned to the dugout 65 games into the 1990 season, then won 15 division championships. But Fred Haney also replaced Charlie Grimm a third of the way into the 1956 season, then managed Milwaukee into the World Series in both 1957 and 1958. And in the 19th century, John Morrill (who managed Boston to first place in 1882 and then stepped down), replaced Jack Burdock halfway through the 1883 season and took the team to first place. Morrill then kept the Boston in first in both the 1884 and 1885 seasons.

However, in most instances, the replacement manager’s success was fleeting. In 1951, Tommy Holmes replaced Billy Southworth, but Holmes lasted just 35 games in the 1952 season before Charlie Grimm took his job. In 1961, Birdie Tebbets replaced Charlie Dressen, but Tebbets was replaced at the end of the 1962 season. And in the Braves’ first season in Atlanta, 1966, Billy Hitchcock replaced Bobby Bragan in August, but then got pink-slipped fired with just three games to go in 1967.

Other Atlanta changes include Eddie Mathews replacing Luman Harris about two-thirds of the way through the 1972 season. Mathews himself got replaced by Clyde King in the middle of 1974. King didn’t complete the 1975 season, getting the axe with 27 games left on the schedule. Finally, Russ Nixon replaced Chuck Tanner 39 games into the 1988 season, only to be replaced by Cox just before the mid-point of the 1990 season. Replacements often get replaced by replacements.

One can be hopeful, but experience shouldn’t lead to great expectations. Even if Brian Snitker is the best Atlanta manager since Bobby Cox, there are plenty of other positions that badly need an upgrade. The Johns have their work cut out for them.

14 Oct

Trade Recap: The Justin Upton Trade (by Rob Cope)

The Braves were in the middle of their teardown in the 2014-2015 offseason when they decided to deal one of their most valuable players: Justin Upton. Upton had one year remaining until free agency, and after trading Jason Heyward, they decided to go all the way and deal off Upton as well. This would pave the way for the eventual trades of Melvin Upton Jr., Craig Kimbrel, and Evan Gattis.

But the Justin deal would be the trade with the biggest prospect haul, as they weren’t looking to shed payroll (Kimbrel/M. Upton), nor were they looking to get back an established player (like Shelby Miller), or even a stopgap (Cameron Maybin). They were rebuilding, they wanted prospects, and that’s exactly what they got. They traded Justin Upton and Aaron Northcraft for Max Fried, Dustin Peterson, Jace Peterson, and Mallex Smith.

What we gave up:
Justin Upton: Upton had a power outage in his last year in Arizona (only 24 doubles, 17 home runs, and a .430 slugging percentage in a full season’s duty). His power rebounded in Atlanta where he hit 27 and 29 home runs in his two seasons, with a combined SLG of .478. Fine as he was, however, his overall production never quite reached the All-Star level many expected of him. His OPS never returned to its highest levels in Arizona, he stopped stealing bases, and his defense was still below-average-to-average.

He was still a valuable piece because of his contract, as he would only make $14.5M in his one season in San Diego, while generating 3.5 fWAR. Again, a very good player, but not quite a cornerstone. (He did make the All-Star team, but as a charity case: he was the only Padre chosen.)

He didn’t have the ideal “walk year” in San Diego, as he would have his second-worst OPS of his career in the cavernous park. Nonetheless, Detroit signed him to a 6-year contract at a $22M AAV. (In 2016, he had a lower OPS than he’d had in 2015, and Detroit may be ruing their generosity.) Atlanta would never have the resources nor the desire to sign him to that level of a deal.

Aaron Northcraft: Northcraft was a filler piece in the deal. A former 10th-round pick, he had a couple decent seasons in high-A and double-A, but he is now 26 and has yet to reach the big leagues. It doesn’t appear he ever will.

What we received:
Mallex Smith: Mallex is a burner. In the season before being traded for Atlanta, Smith hustled to 88 SBs, but also provided a .834 OPS and positively graded centerfield defense in A- and A+. Mallex spent 2015 in AA and AAA, and made his way to Atlanta in 2016. The jury is still out on him: it appears he can hit, run, and play defense, but how much of each remains to be seen. At worst, he’s a 4th OF at the major league level, but if he hits better than he did in 2016 and takes better routes to balls, he could be an above-average centerfielder as soon as next year. With Ender Inciarte anchored in center, his future in Atlanta is undetermined.

Jace Peterson: Peterson was the first player to reach Atlanta. He was mostly the age of his peers at his minor league stops, and he produced around an .800 OPS at most of his stops in the minor leagues. He graded out as average in most prospect reports as he progressed through San Diego’s system. His first big league season was one to forget as he was Atlanta’s primary second baseman and produced a .239/.314/.335 line in almost 600 PAs. (It was a tale of two seasons for him: in the first half, he put up a decent .255/.334/.358, but in the second half, he hit .220/.290/.311. That won’t cut it.)

When he began the 2016 season in a horrible funk (.182/.260/.205), he was sent to AAA. Upon returning, he showed some promise, hitting .265/.362/.389 while spending time at 2B, 3B, LF, and CF. He had some stretches where he was an above-average major leaguer, and based on what we saw in the second half of 2016, it’s possible that Jace could have a solid career as a super-utility player. But if his offense falls below his second half performance, he will struggle to remain on a major league roster. Still, he’s someone that will be penciled into the 2017 roster unless he’s traded.

Dustin Peterson: This particular Peterson — no relation to Jace, he’s the brother of Mariners prospect D.J. Peterson — was a third baseman when he was traded for, but the Braves moved him to left field before he ever played an inning for them. His 2015 was a forgettable season, but that can be said for many players who were involved in the Carolina Mudcats bus crash. Peterson turned a huge corner in 2016 at AA, where as a 21-year old, he improved his walk rate, power, and batting average while putting up on the best seasons of the Braves’ minor league hitters. He finished with a .282/.343/.431 line with a whopping 38 doubles to add to his 12 home runs. Since he was three years younger than his contemporaries, it’s easy to say that he’ll continue to mature and could see some time in Atlanta in 2017.

Max Fried: Max also took a huge step forward in 2016. Considered a “buy low” candidate because of his recent Tommy John surgery, Fried missed all of 2015 as his elbow recovered. He understandably started the season slow in single-A Rome as he had an ERA near 6 after 7 starts. However, he significantly improved his stock with a 2.74 ERA in 15 starts to close the year. During that period, the lefty had 108 strike outs in 85.2 innings, and he’ll likely move quickly through the Braves’ system going forward. It’s debatable whether Dustin Peterson or Fried have improved their value more since being acquired, but I’d give the edge to Fried considering he has the potential to be a top of the rotation starter while throwing from the left side.

So what?
There aren’t always winners and losers in trades, but it’s clear Atlanta got more value back in this trade. Though Upton had a very good single season in San Diego, it wasn’t enough to prevent an 88-loss season, and the once again rebuilding Padres will regret giving up so much talent. But credit the Braves scouting and player development departments: each of the four players have taken strides forward since the trade. Mallex and Jace are already in Atlanta, Fried is demonstrating major league talent, and Dustin Peterson could be a starting left fielder at some point in the near future.

08 Oct

The Mostly Terrible 2016 Braves

68-93.

After all of that, the Braves actually won one more game than they did in 2015, back when Andrelton Simmons was our starting shortstop, and our five-man rotation included Shelby Miller and Alex Wood. When Fredi Gonzalez got canned on May 16, the team was 9-28, a .243 winning percentage and a 39-win pace. From then on, they went 59-65.

It was a terrible year, and this year and the last made for the first consecutive 90-loss seasons since 1989-1990. But it was so much less bad than it could have been. That ambivalence — broad disgust tinged with mild hope — marked the year better than any individual moment ever could.

But there were still a few memorable moments. There was this:

 
And there was this:

Freddie Freeman had a magnificent year, one of the best anyone’s had in an Atlanta uniform since Zombie Chipper won the batting title in 2008 for a 72-90 team. Many of us vividly remembered Mac saying “this team doesn’t deserve him” about Chipper, and realizing it applies equally well to Freddie.

And then there were the fruits of the Shelby Miller trade. The jury’s still out on Aaron Blair, but he’s an afterthought. Despite missing a month due to injury, Ender Inciarte was the center fielder we’ve been looking for since Michael Bourn left, an outstanding defender who also served as an effective tablesetter at the top of the lineup. He’s also under club control until 2020. And Dansby, in a little over a month of work, demonstrated that he’s capable of being a league-average shortstop at 22. He’s pretty good at everything and isn’t bad at anything. One of these years, he could be an All-Star.

Barring the extraordinary, the Braves know who they can pencil in at shortstop, center field, and first base through the end of the decade. But there are question marks everywhere else. If Ozzie Albies comes back from his injury as the player he was before, he could be our second baseman. Mike Foltynewicz and Julio Teheran could very well be fixtures in the rotation for the same period of time.

But there are so many other questions. In all charity, it’s difficult to see Adonis Garcia, Jace Peterson, and Mallex Smith as anything other than bench depth, and the jury’s out as to whether Rio Ruiz can be anything better than a second-division starter. But corner infield and corner outfield are a lot easier to fill than the two most gaping holes on the field: the battery, pitcher and catcher. Matt Wisler, Tyrell Jenkins, Williams Perez, John Gant, and Ryan Weber each got a shot, and each finished with an ERA above 4.80.

Here’s a depressing stat: of all of the pitchers who took at least one start with the Braves, only three had an ERA under 4.00 with the team: Julio Teheran; Josh Collmenter, whom the Braves signed as a free agent on August 10; and Lucas Harrell, whom the Braves traded away on July 27.

Roger McDowell is out of a job because the starting rotation was a flaming disaster, and the Braves are going to need to find someone who can take the best collection of pitching prospects in the minor leagues and turn them into a real staff.

Oh, and I didn’t mention catchers because there really aren’t any to speak of. Tyler Flowers had better have as good a 2017 as you did in 2016, because there is no plan B.

This is a strange offseason, but not quite as bad as last year’s. Last year, we were looking over a cliff and wondering just how deep it was. As terrible a year as the Braves had, there is an enduring sense that it could have been worse, and with Dansby, there’s a glimpse of a brighter future, no matter how bad of a traffic jam we’ll have to sit through before we get there.

As I mentioned in the thread a couple of days ago, we’ll count down the days till April in the usual fashion: a series of “Where Do We Go From Here?” articles, player previews, probably a Keltner List, and whatever else may come to mind.

Anyone who’d like to write, whether you’d like to do one of those or to propose your own idea, PLEASE email me!

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