Editor’s Note: Roger, a frequent commenter, has laid out his reasoning that the Braves most likely didn’t intend to complete crater the team in a rebuild.
This offseason has to be the most boring offseason in years. So what could be a better way to make the offseason more interesting than to look at more interesting offseasons. The rebuild is over, but when did the rebuild begin? We have all done our share of evaluating the transactions the Braves have made since the end of the 2014 season. We can all run statistics and say this was good or this was bad but we can’t really understand without adding context. Does this change how we evaluate what the Coppy years were about?
The success of the 90’s was built largely on drafts from the mid-80s and a couple of shrewd trades and FA signings. The Braves created a core by the early 90s and kept that core together for an outrageously long period. The late 80s and 90s produced a minimum of decent players but they were enhanced by strong international signings. Continued key FA signings and trades kept the winning going all the way through 2013 and most of 2014. Prior to the 2014 season, the Braves tied up their core to long term extensions and everything seemed set for a long winning streak.
So what happened? The drafts since 2001 produced only 8 players whose career WAR is above 10 through 2014 and a few of them earned that with other teams. And for some reason the International talent seemed to dry up, too, from about 1997-2005 (see Marte, Andy). In 2014, the team was winning but there were insufficient offensive pieces to support the pitching. The hitting further collapsed around the end of July (specifically, Gattis and Simmons with Freddie going powerless and Johnson already a bust). The Braves made no moves except to add a reliever (Russell) who wasn’t really needed. They were a half game out of first when they launched the fateful 0-8 West Coast road trip. If they had added a hitter or two, especially a 3B, who knows what might have been. Martin Prado (D’Backs) was traded for virtually nothing on July 31st and he was a stud the rest of the year.
At the end of 2014, the Braves were left with several key pieces departing, a few more pieces with one year of control left, and a farm system that was bereft of immediate help. Choices had to be made. Yet, the core was intact. There was reason to believe that the Braves could “retool” – both keep a competitive product on the field and rebuild the farm. Looking at the actions the Braves made make this intent obvious – that a “retool” could be done – and that retool was never a “rebuild” until one obviously stupid action forced the issue and dragged the team down into the depths of purgatory.
During the 2014 offseason, the Braves not only had to decide what to do with players in their final year and how to fill the holes generated by FAs leaving. The process was complicated since the holes were in the hitting with no one set to leave. Further, the team had had a top pitching staff but Santana and Harang were leaving and Minor was down for the count – they need a TOR pitcher or two or three.
The first step taken was
Tommy LaStella for Arodys Vizcaino.
On the surface this trade makes no sense unless you feel that LaStella is not a good enough fielder and his hitting didn’t compensate. Vizcaino is a solid bullpen piece, young and allowing other assets to be traded. Pretty much equal for equal value – a positive for the Braves if you have faith that Tyler Pastornicky would eventually pan out.
Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden for Tyrell Jenkins and Shelby Miller.
The first big trade – this was a fantastic trade for the Braves and was all about retooling with the additional benefit that Jenkins might turn into something. Jenkins, in fact, was a “near ML-ready” asset which was clearly the focus of many of the trades during the 2014/15 offseason in order to retool. In Miller, the Braves added a proven SP who quickly became a TOR ace. Heyward was on the way out anyway and Walden was an injury or two from being out of baseball with his unorthodox delivery. Viz made Walden expendable. And the next step for the Braves was to sign Nick Markakis to take Heyward’s place.
This was the clearest sign of a retool as the Braves sent out a core piece for another core piece. This trade combined with the Markakis signing was a competitive move. Everyone seems to think the Markakis deal made no sense, but I think it makes perfect sense and, in hindsight, was the one longer term contract the Braves made that never turned into an albatross (see Johnson, Chris and Upton, Melvin). Ultimately, the primary loss for the Braves was Heyward’s defense. Markakis’ offense was not too different from Heyward’s. Also, in hindsight, the Braves got one big year from Miller and the Cards got one big year from Heyward before he became a Cubs albatross.
The subsequent trades were not as easily explainable as the first.
Continuing the discussion of the Braves’ retooling for 2015 brings us to:
Braves signed Jim Johnson and selected Dan Winkler in the Rule 5 draft. Lots of bullpen moves. Subsequently, Varvaro was traded for Aaron Kurcz. Kurcz had a big arm and zero control. This was a small rebuilding move which ultimately didn’t pay off. It didn’t hurt as the Braves seemed to know Varvaro was at the end of his useful service.
Justin Upton and Aaron Northcraft to the Padres for Max Fried, Dustin Peterson, Jace Peterson, and Mallex Smith.
This may be more controversial. Justin Upton is the piece that the major league team didn’t have a replacement for and couldn’t find one for – making a weak hitting team one of the worst in the league. So this was nearly a pure rebuilding move and turned the team from a potential playoff team to a potentially average team.
It’s hard to say this was a bad trade because all the prospects received were highly rated with Fried as a #1 and Jace as a #10 in the Padres system. Jace was the piece that most helped the team immediately in that he competed with Pastornicky to replace LaStella and won. He couldn’t have been a long-term solution with Peraza and Albies already in the system, but I’m sure the Braves hoped for more production from a top 10 prospect. The real value of this trade cannot be assessed until we know how valuable Fried and Gohara will be. However, there is a sure matter for debate whether we really needed to trade Mallex for Gohara. Mallex would sure look good now in our outfield hole and as a pure leadoff hitter.One might argue, with the difficulty in turning our pitching prospects into hitters and the shear quantity of pitching prospects in the system that we might have been better served with one less pitching prospect. Dustin Peterson was one bus ride and a hamate bone away from being our OF solution.
Evan Gattis and James Hoyt to the Astros for Andrew Thurman, Mike Foltynewicz, and Rio Ruiz.
The Braves continued with retooling moves soon after while also trying to build for the future. From the Braves point of view, this looks like a steal considering Gattis’ defensive issues. But the Braves turned right around and signed A.J. Pierzynski while hoping Christian Bethancourt would actually turn into the catcher he was supposed to be (please remember Bethancourt when placing so many hopes on Contreras, who is probably the third hotshot catcher we have supposedly had after Jonathon Morales and Tanner Murphy – we need Realmuto….. TINSTAAP).
David Hale and Gus Schlosser to the Rockies for Jose Briceno and Chris O’Dowd.
More bullpen depth via a trade with the Rockies. Of course, with the exception of a few starts in 2014 by Hale, none of the four have done much. In this instance, Folty went straight into the rotation in 2015 after a few aborted attempts at deploying veterans (including the trade for Trevor Cahill). This move was both a retool and a rebuilding move. Folty was not very good in 2015 but showed flashes of what he would become. Unfortunately, Thurman washed out and Rio never did become the next Chipper and Hoyt has become nearly serviceable in Houston, so this trade looks worse on the back end but it is still a great trade for the Braves.
Before diving into the next and final big move prior to the 2015 season, I wanted to highlight a couple of small moves of the kind the Coppy made dozens of times over two years for what reason I’ll never know.
Anthony Varvaro for Aaron Kurcz.
Another bullpen dump. I’m not sure why he did this as Varvaro was a solid MR and Kurcz was a big, wild arm. Of course, Kurcz flamed out, but, oddly, Varvaro was done, too, so it became a wash instead of the negative it should have been seen as.
David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve for Manny Banuelos.
Another flier on a top prospect that looked like he was going to flounder, another shot-in-the-dark move that failed. Of the three youngsters inserted into the Braves rotation in 2015 – Folty, Wisler, Banuelos – Banuelos was by far the worst. Carpenter didn’t have anything left but Chasen has turned into viable asset. Might have been better to keep him; the 2015 bullpen sure could’ve used him. Every lefty reliever tried in 2015 was a horror show except for Luis Avilan, and we’ll get to him.
Overall, this is just another example of the Braves seeing relievers as a fungible asset, which becomes the opening theme for the next post.
The next big move is the ultimate proof of the “reliever as fungible asset” thinking:
Craig Kimbrel and the Melvin for Matt Wisler, Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin, Jordan Paroubeck, and a 2015 Comp Round A pick (Austin Riley).
In Braves Nation, this trade was the first big betrayal and was especially so as the media at the time in 2014 described Kimbrel’s contract as “team friendly” even though the underlying trend was already developing about how closers were overvalued and the best relievers should be deployed in the highest leverage situations.As this trade was made right at Opening Day, you can pretty much infer that it was a trade the Braves never intended to make. The Padres ultimately made an offer that was of the “blown away” variety as this trade is extraordinarily good for the Braves and a breakdown shows why. The fact that the Braves kept Kimbrel up to Opening Day is further proof of the idea that the Braves had no intention of “losing” big in 2015.
The combined salaries remaining for Kimbrel ($36M) and Upton ($46M) compared to the salaries for Maybin ($16M) and Quentin ($9M) would make this trade a good deal for the Braves if they received nothing else back. This part of the deal was an obvious attempt to improve for 2015 as they received a better CF than they gave up (Maybin).The Braves had just traded for Viz and signed Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli so they had closer and the back end of the bullpen covered. Further, if Grilli hadn’t ruptured his Achilles in July (when the Braves were still in contention), his stats might have ended up looking as good as Kimbrel’s. Even if you consider the salaries of the three – Grilli at $8M, Johnson at $1.6M, and Viz as pre-arb – it doesn’t make the deal look any worse.
But, wait. On top of that the Braves received Wisler to round out the rotation as a ML-ready asset who was, in fact, the #1 prospect at SD that replaced Fried as the #1 prospect. Paroubeck was a top 20 at the time and the Comp pick was the first of four comp picks the Braves secured and arguably the best as it turned magically into Austin Riley.In terms of value at the time, this may have been the best trade Coppy made. Funny that, after SD failed to do much winning even though Kimbrel was fine and Melvin had an uptick in performance, they turned around and sold Kimbrel and got back their #2, #7, #17, and #20 prospects in return. Apparently, it never hurts to trade out a top closer….
Victor Reyes for a competitive balance pick.
Apparently, Coppy must have had a revelation that he could trade for a draft pick, so the day after the Kimbrel trade, he sold one of the Braves’ few OF prospects, Reyes – a top 20 prospect at the time — for a 2015 Comp Round B Pick which magically turned into A.J. Minter, who will eventually become our next elite closer to be traded for hot prospects (sarcasm alert…).
Now, Reyes was a long way from being useful and is just now finished being a Rule 5 draftee by the Tigers, so this trade is looking pretty good too. The day after the Reyes trade, the Braves signed Adonis Garcia off waivers from the Yankees. Garcia had performed well in the upper minors for the Yankees and became a useful piece for the Braves later in the year.
With that, the roster was set for 2015. The season got off to a hot start and the Braves were competitive all the way past the All Star break.In late May, after the first set of shots-in-the-dark turned into pumpkins, the Braves traded some of them, specifically, Alberto Callaspo, Juan Jaime, Eric Stults and Ian Thomas to the Dodgers for Juan Uribe and Chris Withrow.So, Withrow became the second TJS case after Fried that the Braves hoped to acquire on the cheap, but Uribe was only intended to be useful in 2015 and was certainly not a rebuild-type move. Uribe turned out to be a fairly useful piece and helped keep the Braves competitive. Of course, Freddie came down with his near annual wrist/hand/something injury and the Braves offense turned into jelly. Kelly Johnson, Uribe, the annual hot start from Markakis, and unexpected juice from Pierzynski helped keep the Braves somewhat afloat until the second disaster struck just before the All Star break when Jason Grilli tore his Achilles in an eventual walk-off loss to COL in the middle of a COL sweep. What happened next was the first dump trade of the rebuild.
And this is the depressing part of the 2015 season.
Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe to the Mets for John Gant and Rob Whalen.
There’s nothing wrong with this trade, which turned out pretty well for both sides but does represent the difference between trying to go for it and packing it in. The Braves went 12-40 from July 21 – Sept 17. The Mets went 35-17 from July 21 -Sept 17 and won the division with 90 wins in that year’s weakest division. What’s worse is that the Mets also made it to the WS.Gant was a solid prospect and was later flipped into Jaime Garcia in 2017. Whalen was less so but was eventually useful in being flipped for Alex Jackson. At the time of the trade, the Braves were separated from the Mets by 3.5 games. Were Johnson and Uribe the keys to the Mets turnaround into NL Champs? Of course not. It was their next trade of Luis Cessa and Michael Fulmer for Yoenis Cespedes. Were Johnson and Uribe the cause of the Braves collapse? Of course not. The Braves collapse can be directly tied to:
Even if you think the earlier Arroyo trade of Gosselin for Arroyo and Touki was inspired in order to make this trade, it’s not any better. As I mentioned before from earlier, the Braves collapsed going 21-50 from July 21 to the end of the season. I also believe this trade was a key reason the Braves went 37-68 in 2016 before Olivera was traded to the Padres who originally signed him before trading him to the Dodgers. That’s 58-118. That’s historic awfulness. If you look at it from a money standpoint, it’s a clear loss too. Olivera cost nearly $35M while Arroyo offset about $14M and Johnson, a fraction of $1.6M, so say $15M total. The Braves were ready to spend $25M to get Olivera.Olivera was ticketed directly for the majors so this was supposed to be a “win now” move. To add insult to the injury of $25M, the Braves sent the Dodgers three legitimate Major Leaguers and a top prospect. Even if you think Peraza was expendable, even if you think Johnson was useless and Avilan was in decline and Wood was made of glass, I can’t remember a trade since Babe Ruth where that much talent and money was sent for so little return. Olivera was already 30 at the time; he’d have had to be Mike Trout for five years to make this trade even close. But the fact was that Avilan, Johnson, and Wood were making legitimate critical contributions to the Braves. What if the Braves had traded Allard and Peraza to Detroit for Cespedes? That would have been more than the Mets offered. The Braves would have filled a legitimate hole in the OF and used Adonis at 3B and still had Wood in the rotation and Johnson to help close. And Freddie got back in the lineup at the end of July.If the lineup had responded the same as when Kemp was added, the Braves might have ended up winning as many as 85 games which would have been enough to win the division (taking Cespedes away from the Mets). We really could have won and rebuilt at the same time except we rolled with the wrong Cubans – Olivera and Garcia vs Cespedes.
Regarding the impact on 2016 and the flip from retool to rebuild, the Braves had only dealt 2 of the 4 original core pieces (Heyward and Kimbrel) but had received one core player in return (Miller).
Along with Wood and then Folty and Wisler, the Braves would have been set in the rotation. Would the Braves have even considered trading Simba away? With Wood, there would be no need for Newcomb. If the Braves traded Miller to the D’Backs, would they want Swanson or might the Braves have settled for, say, Mitch Haniger, who the D’Backs traded to the Mariners for Taijuan Walker (the Mariners might have been just as happy with Swanson). Maybe keeping Wood would have spared us the Williams Perez or Joel de la Cruz or Bud Norris experiences. The possibilities are endless – all wiped away by the Olivera trade. The Olivera trade not only wiped out the 2015 season but also turned the retool into a rebuild and destroyed the 2016 season before it was even conceived.
Looking back at the players acquired during the 2015 season (Oct 2014 – Jul 2015) as listed below, the ones bolded were players that had at least a peripheral role in 2015 and would be considered part of a “retool”. The remainder are “rebuild” players.
In my estimation, 37 out of 58 players, nearly two-thirds, who were brought in for 2015 or during 2015, were intended for immediate benefit. Granted that the vast majority were reaches, flyers, patches, or just plain desperation, I believe the intent was to try and compete while building the farm at the same time. This intent was ended by the Olivera trade which so decimated the team that the next year became a full on tank job. That belief is further supported by the later Simmons trade which was the only trade of a core player that did not produce a clearly immediately viable player while each of the others did (Heyward, Kimbrel, Miller).