Another great pitching matchup, another brutal loss added to Shelby Miller’s resume – Miller wasn’t as sharp as he’s been at times during what should be deemed his breakout season, but he was once again much better than the results will reflect after Andrelton Simmons (of all unexpected people) put him behind the 8 ball with a couple boots last night. I really do think it’s time to shut him down in an effort to try to preserve some semblance of sanity following what has to rank up there with the unluckiest seasons for a SP of all time, but that’s not why we’re here today.
This column is another in our series looking to consider directions John Hart & Company could go this winter as they begin to step on the gas and return the big club to relevance by the time SunTrust Park opens in 2017. Even with the great strides they’ve taken to revamp the minor league system, the rebuild won’t be truly “complete” until they make the team a contender again. There are always several ways to do that, but to this point we’ve been investigating the trade route to do so and hopefully lessen the chance that the organization picks the wrong guy and is hamstrung by another B. J./Melvin Upton-like BAD free-agent contract. Of course we also all know that throwing money at someone to fill a position of need is also the best route to keep all the potential future valuable pieces they’ve stockpiled thus far, so we’re going to see what doing exactly that might look like this week.
As I’ve mentioned before, Hart’s sent mixed messages about what’s actually in the plans for this winter – being quoted as saying the Braves aren’t going to be in on the big free-agent bats only to have top assistant John Coppollela come out and reference the fact that several of the previous trades were made strictly to provide the organization with plenty of financial flexibility. One would assume that means to go after a big signing or two IF the right situations present themselves. If you remember, there was “no way” they were going to trade Craig Kimbrel – that is, until the Padres agreed to eat B. J./Melvin’s contract to get him. These are examples of what I’ve always called “GM-speak” – “we’re not interested in trading or signing so-and-so” mainly out of respect to the players involved. While there is obviously more to being a real GM than a fantasy GM, I’m willing to bet that everyone involved in player personnel decisions for a major league ballclub has always got that “I betcha if I offered the right package I could get that guy” in the back of their mind. Every player is “available” – if you’re willing to give me exactly what I want for him, of course.
The reason for all this rambling is that just throwing money at players has very rarely been much of a part of the “Braves’ Way”. Even though simply buying the best players remains the simplest and most direct route to building a contender at the major league level (tell me I’m wrong Yankee, Red Sox, and Dodger fans), it’s not economically feasible for most organizations and will eventually get you in trouble when the contract terms are based on past performance rather than what you project an aging player to produce AFTER their primes. This (IMO) is the reasoning behind Hart’s hesitancy to get into a bidding war for those seemingly perfect “right now” fits since they may not be quite so perfect 3-4 years from now.
That said, it IS still an option given the financial flexibility that has been created. Many fans I’ve talked to continuously discount it as one because that’s just not typically been the Braves’ M. O.. This is also perfectly understandable when they reference mistakes made on this front in the past and the painful steps taken to “fix” them, but as most Hart & Company supporters like to point out – Frank Wren’s not making those decisions these days. Don’t get me wrong, I think Wren did a pretty commendable job given what he had to work with – a team with a lot of pieces in place – it was just one with a short window to get over the top. He did what many fans wanted – add pieces you hope will get the team deep into October – unfortunately Dan Uggla and B. J./Melvin unexpectedly fell off a cliff and he wasn’t given the financial means to overcome the same types of mistakes made by the front offices teams with higher payrolls are usually given.
One thing I think everyone will admit is that in a perfect world, the Braves need a 35 HR right-handed bat hitting behind Freddie Freeman so that opposing teams can’t just pitch around him. If you’ll notice, the other trade targets I’ve taken a look at to this point are (or could be) those kinds of guys. Justin Upton was a perfect fit in that role when he was here and would be again, but I agree with many who simply don’t see a J-Up/Braves reunion in the cards. This brings us to the next best option – Cespedes. Many fear that he’s “not the player he is right now” and point out that he’s in the middle of an insane hot streak, and it’s hard to argue they’re wrong. In the 43 games since the Mets acquired him at the non-waiver trade deadline, he’s slashing .295/.345/.661/1.006 with 10 2Bs, 3 3Bs, and 17 HRs. No one expects him to be able to sustain that kind of production consistently, but he’s not just an “OK” hitter without the hot streak, having posted an OPS+ of 139, 103, 110, and combined 141 this season while hitting 23, 26, 22 and 35 HRs almost exclusively playing in big ballparks other than the partial season he spent in Fenway Park. He’s also got a cannon for a right arm, which would make him fit quite nicely in Atlanta assuming he’s willing to play “wherever he’s needed” as he has for the Mets – this would open the possibility of sliding Nick Markakis over to LF where his arm fits much better these days.
Given the buzz he’s created in New York, he’s definitely driven his price tag up and will likely cost a new team (or the Mets) substantially more in dollars and at least one more year of commitment than he would have not so long ago – but how expensive a player actually is is always relative. The 2016 Braves’ projected payroll (as currently constructed) is at roughly $90 million ($88,407,858 according to my projections, but who’s actually counting???). Hart mentioned last winter that the organization’s payroll would be “north of $100 million and south of $120 million” which is obviously a wide range. Using that $120 million as an absolute “cap”, that leaves ~$30 million in “wiggle room” for payroll moving forward (assuming there’s no increase coming when the new park opens). Mark Bowman evidenced that he had been led to believe the same earlier this week when he mentioned that he felt there was around $35 million available to be spent. My number includes Cameron Maybin in CF, Christian Bethancourt behind the plate (FINALLY!), and no rotation or bullpen upgrades (other than the eventual return of Jason Grilli, Shae Simmons, Chris Withrow, and Paco Rodriguez from injuries – which would be huge upgrades themselves – with Miller, Julio Teheran, and Matt Wisler fronting the rotation).
For argument’s sake, let’s say Cespedes’ hot streak has pushed his asking price into the Justin Upton AAV range (likely around $25 million per) over a slightly shorter commitment period. Offering 6 years and $150 million to land Yoenis would bring the total to $113,407,858 and would still leave the organization about $6,500,000 to offer to bring A. J. Pierzynski back to hold CB’s hand if he needs it and add another veteran to the pen – assuming Maybin’s not traded this winter. In this ideal world, the presence of another solid bat would allow the team the flexibility to move Cameron for a prospect (or two) and have Mallex Smith learn on the job as I’ve mentioned before to be able to add another veteran free-agent SP (Jaime Garcia/Brett Anderson/Mat Latos/Ian Kennedy/Doug Fister for example) for depth – even if only on a pillow contract to buy a little more time for Mike Foltynewicz/Manny Banuelos/Tyrell Jenkins to percolate at Gwinnett.
Signing the bat you need and only spending the available cash would give you an Opening Day 2016 roster that looks like…
(Contract expiration and future replacement with ETA)
1.) CF- Michael Bourn (2017…Mallex Smith – Late 2016)
2.) 3B- Hector Olivera (2020…Austin Riley – Late 2018)
3.) 1B- Freddie Freeman (2021…Juan Yepez – Early 2019)
4.) RF- Yoenis Cespedes (2021…Braxton Davidson – Early 2018)
5.) LF- Nick Markakis (2018…Connor Lien – Late 2017)
6.) C- Christian Bethancourt (2021…Lucas Herbert – Early 2019)
7.) 2B- Jace Peterson (2021…Ozhaino Albies – Early 2017)
8.) SS- Andrelton Simmons (2020…Derian Cruz – Early 2019)
SPs – Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran, Jaime Garcia/Brett Anderson/Mat Latos/Ian Kennedy/Doug Fister, Matt Wisler, Williams Perez, with Mike Foltynewicz, Manny Banuelos, Tyrell Jenkins, Ryan Weber, Andrew Thurman, Kyle Kinman, Rob Whalen, and John Gant for depth
Pen – Arodys Vizcaino, Shae Simmons, Chris Withrow, Mike Foltynewicz, Manny Banuelos, Andrew McKirahan, Paco Rodriguez, Matt Marksberry, Danny Burawa, and the rehabbing Jason Grilli and Daniel Winkler.
Bench – C- A. J. Pierzynski ($3,000,000), CF- Mallex Smith, INF- Daniel Castro ($530,000), 1B/OF- Nick Swisher, INF/OF- Adonis Garcia ($750,000)
and still leaves you with a projected payroll below the magic $120 million level while saving the cost of additional talent needed to acquire him.