In The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver looked at several different fields of prediction to illustrate both the power and the limits of trying to peer into the future. Some fields, like meteorology, have progressed to the point where you can know with reasonable accuracy what the weather in your town will be like in three days. Others, like seismology, can give you a rough sense of where an earthquake is more likely to happen at some point, but don’t offer much in the way of guidance in terms of exactly when and with what force that earthquake will strike.
We know the Braves have some money left to play with — as much as $14 million in the 2013 budget if DOB’s recent chat with Terry McGuirk is to be believed — but trying to figure out what they’re going to do with it is more a matter of seismology than meteorology.
“The U.S. Geological Service’s official position is that earthquakes cannot be predicted [a definitive and specific statement about when and where an earthquake will strike]. They can, however, be forecasted [a probabilistic statement, usually over a longer time scale].” — Silver, p. 149
Even if we can’t necessarily predict exactly who the Braves will acquire and when, we can forecast, based on what we know about how the Braves’ organization operates, some general ideas about what the team will seek to do with the remaining budget. In the era of limited budgets over the last decade, the Braves have seemed to abide by the following principles:
- They’re OK going into a season with a question mark at a key position (think closer in 2006, 1B in 2007, CF in 2009 and 2011, or SS in 2012).
- They’re also willing to admit a mistake and acquire a reinforcement via midseason trade if the question mark doesn’t pan out (think Wickman in 2006, Teixeira in 2007, McLouth in 2009, or Bourn in 2011).
- They budget for question marks that weren’t necessarily apparent when the season started and acquire help as necessary (think LaRoche in 2009, or Maholm in 2012).
- If a big-ticket player who fills a need becomes available via trade, they’re willing to pull the trigger (think Teixeira again, Hudson back in 2005, or Uggla in 2011).
So what will the Braves do? The first three principles seem to suggest that they’ll be happy to go into the season with the roster as-is, evaluate who is and is not working through the first half of the season, and acquire players as teams fall out of contention and become sellers. The last principle suggests that if a “home run” trade is available at the right price, the Braves will be in on it. There’s one on the board.
Justin Upton is exactly the sort of player a mid-market team like Atlanta would love to get in a trade: 25 years old, under team control at a reasonable salary (three more seasons at an average annual rate of $12.8MM), talent and tools that suggest MVP upside, and a situation with his current team that could lead to a trade for less than market value. The Diamondbacks have four starting outfielders and only three places to put them, Upton had a down year last year by his standards, they’ve already traded him to Seattle (and had the deal vetoed), and they’ve dismantled his fan section at their home park.
With spring training still a month away and the season still more than two months away, the Diamondbacks haven’t entertained any 60-cents-on-the-dollar offers yet. The Seattle trade was for premium talent, they’ve told the Cubs that Starlin Castro would have to be the centerpiece of a trade there, and they apparently want Andrelton Simmons from Atlanta. It’s safe to say that the Braves will not be trading six cost-controlled years of a potential Gold Glove shortstop for an expensive outfielder, even one of Upton’s considerable talent.
But ultimately, the Diamondbacks need to trade Upton more than the Braves need to trade for him, which is a nice position to be in. If Kevin Towers’ price for Upton drops — say, to Randall Delgado or Julio Teheran, a major-league relief pitcher, a minor-league infielder, and a low-minors lottery ticket — then the Braves should, and probably will, sign off on the deal.
The other name that keeps popping up as the offseason winds down is Michael Bourn. Perhaps because of his .225/.325/.311 second half last year, no one has given Bourn all of the money in free agency yet, and the list of potential suitors is dwindling to where a one-year, make-good contract is at least a possibility in play. If that happens, and if the price of Upton remains too high, another year of Bourn might be in order. They probably shouldn’t pay for too much more than that.
Unless a figurative earthquake hits out of the blue, if the Braves pass on both of those players they’re probably going into the season with the roster they have. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the only known question mark on the roster is whichever position between 3B and LF that Prado isn’t playing on a given day, there’s an in-house plan to cover that which might work, and the financial flexibility to address an injury or prolonged slump in mid-season is a major asset. The lists of remaining free agents at those positions don’t inspire spending money on anyone but bench bats. (I wouldn’t mind having Andruw back for cheap, though.)
Who becomes available is mostly a function of which teams fall out of contention at the time the Braves are looking to deal. This is a situation in which a forecast is more useful than a prediction; while Corey Hart, Alex Gordon, and Josh Willingham would all look good standing under the 755 Club, there’s no indication any of them are currently available. (And Hart will be out for a chunk of the first half, anyway.)
Alfonso Soriano probably is available on a Derek Lowe-style salary dump, but he’s signed for two years through his age-38 season, and you can expect the age cliff to hit any day now. Dexter Fowler is out there, but he’s a career .248/.331/.367 hitter away from Coors Field. I’d stay away. It’s unlikely, but if the Yankees want to rent out Curtis Granderson in the second half of the season, I’d listen. I’m sure someone in the comments will want to float Giancarlo Stanton’s name, but let’s be real: he’d cost the entire Braves’ farm system, the Falcons’ next three first-round draft picks, and the Sweetwater Brewery.
On that farm system: It seems clear that if and when the Braves do trade this year, they’ll do so out of pitching depth. The major league bullpen is stacked to the point that Cory Gearrin probably doesn’t have a spot right now, so everyone short of Craig Kimbrel is probably on the block. Between Delgado, Teheran, Sean Gilmartin, and Zeke Spruill, there’s enough top-flight pitching talent in the minors that they can probably swap one of them for a bat and not take too much of a hit in terms of organizational depth.
Overall, the Braves are in a pretty strong position going into the season for a mid-market team: in on trades but not necessarily desperate for one, with financial flexibility and organizational depth in the area teams covet most. They’ll make a move at some point, but at the moment they can wait for the deal to come to them.