There’s been a lot of discussion lately in these parts and elsewhere on the interwebs about improving the current Braves’ roster through a trade or trades. That’s what happens when you find yourself in first place in mid to late June. When teams are in this position–certainly unexpected and unfamiliar territory for Braves fans lately—they inevitably explore what it will take to remain on top the rest of the way.
I’m not smart enough to advise AA regarding whom to trade for whom. What I do know is that there is a lot of risk in these types of trades. It’s a complex decision with many variables and competing values at stake. Most obviously, making a shrewd trade of prospects for established stars requires looking into a crystal ball, and as Yogi Berra (or was it Niels Bohr?) said, predictions are difficult, especially about the future.
But even if you could predict the future with any accuracy, you still must deal with the values question: Is it more important to win this year, regardless of the impact on future seasons? Or do you prioritize keeping a strong core of players for multiple seasons? One the one hand, flags fly forever. On the other hand, would you rather be a Marlins fan between 1993-2005, or a fan of the Braves of the same era? I know the Fish won two World Series to the Bravos’ lonely championship, but from a fan standpoint there is something to be said for being in a pennant race every year.
I know whereof I speak. I was an Atlanta Braves fan for the first 25 years of their existence; between 1966 and 1990, they had only one season in which they won more than 90 games, and they were in contention in September no more than three or four times.
Anyway, sometimes mid-season trades of prospects for stars work, and sometimes they don’t. (How is that for profound?) I assume pretty much all of you on BJ remember the trade for Teixeira in 2007. Obviously that is one of the failures—to understate the case. Although Tex was quite good for the Braves, the team didn’t make the playoffs, he was gone a year later, and the team failed to make the playoffs the next three years. Four of the prospects traded for Teixeira–Andrus, Perez, Harrison, and Saltalamacchia (still holds the record for the most syllables in any MLB player’s surname—I dare you to find a longer one)–went on to productive major league careers and three of them were valuable contributors to a Rangers world series team just three years later. The Braves, you recall, did finally begin to turn it around in 2009 and were in the pennant chase for the next four years. Would have been nice to have at least some of those players who were traded to Texas.
Many of you remember the polar opposite of that deal. The epitome of successful prospect-for-star trades was the trade for McGriff in July 1993. The Braves in 1993 had the best starting pitching in a generation, but in July they were still nine games behind the Giants because the offense was only ordinary. We’ll always love Sid Bream for the slide, but by 1993 he was not a good hitter. Everyone knew for weeks that the Braves were after the Crime Dog, who was just about the best power hitter in the game. Rumors were that the Padres were demanding Klesko or Javy Lopez or even Tony Tarrasco. Scheuerholz held firm, refusing to trade any of them. The three Braves farmhands who went to the Padres never made any significant ML contributions. Without McGriff, the Braves would not have won the greatest pennant race in Atlanta Braves history, and of course he also contributed when they won it all two years later.
Not as many of you were around for what I think was the biggest disaster of this genre. The trade in late 1983 for Len Barker was an unmitigated disaster. At the time, it did make some sense. The Braves were in the thick of a pennant race, trying to repeat the success of the year before, and this time hopefully going further into October. The Braves did need another good starting pitcher, and Barker had been good (hell, for one game he was perfect!) but he was experiencing elbow soreness in 1983. The two position players traded for Barker were a center fielder and a third baseman; the two best Braves (Murph and Horner) played those positions, so they were deemed expendable.
Barker actually pitched OK for the Braves down the stretch in ‘83, but the team fell short. Barker was signed to an expensive extension that offseason, and he was pretty much terrible for the rest of his career. The Braves dipped below .500 in 1984, and from 1985-1990 they were the worst team in the league. Believe me, that five year stretch was a lot worse than 2015-2017. Murphy and Horner, as good as they were, both were done as excellent players much earlier than could have been expected. Meanwhile, Brett Butler and Brook Jacoby went on to have very good to excellent careers. Jacoby played a decade as a third baseman and made a couple of all star teams. Butler was the third best leadoff man of his generation, which is damn good considering his contemporaries Henderson and Raines may be the two best leadoff men of all time.
Now for a midseason trade that virtually none of you remember. The Braves’ best season before 1991 was 1969. Hall of Famers Henry Aaron and Phil Niekro led the team in bWAR, with 8.1 and 6.3, respectively. The team also included: Rico Carty, one of the great hitters of his generation, who had an OPS of .951 that year; former MVP and future HOFer first baseman Orland Cepeda; Felipe Alou, who had been the Braves second best player after Aaron in the first three years in Atlanta; all star starter and gold glove second baseman Felix Millan; 18 game winner Ron Reed; side wheeling closer Cecil Upshaw, who was second in the league in saves; Clete Boyer, who is one of the top 3 or 4 defensive third basemen of all time; Milt Pappas, who although he really wasn’t very good for Atlanta does have the distinction of having been traded for all time great Frank Robinson, and who is one of the few pitchers in history who won 100 games in each league (109 in the NL, and 100 in the AL).
So out of all these luminaries, who was third on the team in bWAR? None of the above. Do you remember outfielder Tony Gonzalez? I do, but only because I was 14 that season and was a fanatic Braves fan. On June 2, centerfielder Felipe Alou was hit by a pitch and broke a finger. Eleven days later, the Braves acquired Gonzalez from the Padres. Tony had had several good seasons for the Phillies in the previous decade, but was left unprotected and taken by San Diego in the first expansion draft. The Braves gave up three prospects, none of whom ever did much in the big leagues. At the time, I hated giving up one of them, a guy named Finlay who had been a first round pick a couple of years before; that guy never made it to the big leagues. Shows what I know. Another guy traded was Walt Hriniak, who couldn’t hit but later became a highly regarded hitting coach. How does that work? Anyway, Gonzalez played most of the games in center or in left the rest of the season, and he accumulated 3.5 WAR in just 89 games. He was a big reason the Braves took the pennant.
Over the years, other late season deals have been crucial to winning the pennant. Forty-eight year old HOF reliever Hoyt Wilhelm had an ERA under 1.00 for the Braves in 1969; likewise Alejandro Pena was phenomenal down the stretch in 1991 (he was acquired after Senor Smoke, closer Juan Berenguer, was out for the season.)
Don’t believe the talk that the Braves plan to stand pat between now and the trade deadline. I fully expect Thoppy to acquire some veterans, even if not Manny Machado. I’m just glad it’s him and not me making the call.