The news about the trade Braves’ Nation has been waiting for since word first began to leak out last winter that the organization was considering a retooling/reloading/rebuilding period began to circulate around 8:15 eastern Tuesday night. Speculation about whether the Braves would trade Shelby Miller has been all over the place for the last 10 days or so, and grew louder and louder once teams began to see what the going rate for higher-end Pitchers was on the free-agent market following the David Price, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmerman, and Jeff Samardzija signings.
Ken Rosenthal broke the news that Atlanta had agreed to send Miller to the Arizona Diamondbacks during the MLB Tonight telecast on the MLB Network moments after news that the Cubs had agreed to terms with another of the most sought-after players known to be available in Nashville this week – super-utility whiz and 2015 World Series hero Ben Zobrist – but his sources had not yet confirmed the pieces the Braves would be getting in return. Soon after, analysts and pundits alike were stunned to find out exactly how much some clubs value what I’ve been talking about since the rebuild began – young, high-end, controllable starting pitching.
While one can argue that the deal made sense for an Arizona club that appears to be “all-in” for the next couple of seasons, it’s hard not to look at the return as a HUGE win in the long run for the Braves…
If you’ll forgive the “Six Degrees Of Separation” reference, the Braves’ new brass has now traded one year of control of fan-favorite Jason Heyward and two years of control of oft-injured RP Jordan Walden for a career year of Miller, six years of a potential rotation piece in Tyrell Jenkins, six years of another potential rotation piece in Aaron Blair, six years of a potential franchise SS (and local hometown product) in Dansby Swanson, and five years of a similar light-hitting but superior defensive OF who can play all three spots in Ender Inciarte. Inciarte likely opens the 2016 campaign as the club’s starting CF and leadoff hitter and Blair probably begins the season as the Braves’ number three starter. Which minor league level Swanson begins the season at won’t be determined until spring training, but he’s already on the fast track to Atlanta without putting a uniform on and could potentially be ready sometime in 2017 – if not potentially in time to be in the starting lineup the day SunTrust Park opens. The largest chunk of that haul is obviously tied to Miller, but he’s the player many disgruntled fans were screaming wasn’t nearly enough of a return when the Braves shipped Heyward and Walden to St. Louis last winter. This is yet another example of why you should never look at individual trades in a vacuum and get too worked up when they’re initially made. While admitting it’s a bit premature (yet) to call this a completely franchise-altering deal, it’s awfully tough not to think it very well could be.
Here’s some info (along with personal speculation) about just what the team landed on December 8th in order of immediate impact…
1.) Ender Inciarte – The acquisition of Inciarte could lead to a couple of options. Given the fact that there aren’t many inexpensive everyday RF options currently available on the free-agent market, the Braves could choose to shop current RF Nick Markakis for another prospect return or controllable bullpen pieces that could step in now to make the 2016 Braves pen much better. This would allow them to clear even more money to spend on other needs moving forward. The likelier move however is that they utilize him in CF to begin the season, returning Michael Bourn to a 4th OF role to insure he doesn’t come close to reaching any of the incentives that would cause his 2017 option to vest. If Mallex Smith proves ready to step in by midseason they could shop Markakis at the trade deadline, slide Ender over to RF, and plug Smith in in CF at that point. Inciarte is a much better offensive option than Bourn these days, and playing him in CF would make the lineup much deeper than giving Bourn those ABs since he no longer seems capable of hitting at the top of the order. A lineup of:
CF- Inciarte, SS- Erick Aybar, 1B- Freddie Freeman, C- A. J. Pierzynski/Tyler Flowers, LF- Hector Olivera, RF- Markakis, 3B- Adonis Garcia, 2B- Jace Peterson
is MUCH stronger than any offensive combination the team cobbled together last season, and would give them a lot more chances to score runs and be more competitive this season. Ender finished 5th in 2014 Rookie Of The Year balloting, and is coming off a bit of a breakout season in 2015 where he slashed .303/.338/.408/.746 with 27 2Bs, 5 3Bs, 6 HRs, 21 SBs, and a 26/58 BB/K Ratio in 524 ABs. While the naysayers will say he’s not Jason Heyward, they might be surprised when they glance at the defensive leaderboards and find out that Ender was actually better last season – posting a total of 2.8 defensive WAR compared to Heyward’s 2.0. The kicker? Inciarte’s agent doesn’t get the chance to ask teams for a $20 million/year contract until 2021.
2.) Aaron Blair – Blair will be one of the Pitchers competing for the (now) three available rotation spots in 2016, and is the odds-on favorite to replace Miller. Armed with a fastball that sits 91-93 mph (touching 95), a curveball that flashes plus at times and should be no worse than an average MLB offering, and a plus changeup that he utilizes effectively to keep the ball in the lower half of the strike zone consistently. Much like Miller when he came to Atlanta, he has the upside of a #2 SP if the development of his breaking ball continues to make strides (Baseball America’s most recent projections for the Diamondbacks had him as their #2 for 2019), and he should at worst be a solid middle of the rotation arm for the Braves through 2021. His addition also creates opportunities to improve the club in other ways as well. The current projected 2016 rotation looks like…
Julio Teheran, Bud Norris, Blair, Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz/Manny Banuelos/Williams Perez/Ryan Weber
With recent acquisition Sean Newcomb, Lucas Sims, and Jenkins ticketed to open the season in the Gwinnett rotation (but not far away), this could present The Johns the perfect opportunity to seriously upgrade the on-field product in 2016 by shifting Folty and Banuelos to the pen as substantial upgrades while bringing in Scott Kazmir to provide both veteran leadership for the young guns as well as a very tough left-handed starter. While that might not be enough to make the team a legitimate contender this season, it would be a huge step towards making 2016 much more interesting to watch than the 2015 Braves were.
3.) Dansby Swanson – Swanson is the first potential impact bat the Braves have acquired since the makeover began. The former Marietta High star and 2014 College World Series Most Outstanding Player with Vanderbilt was drafted first overall in June of this year. He’s been compared favorably to Derek Jeter and received the sixth-highest signing bonus in history when Arizona paid him $6.5 million not to go back to Nashville for his senior season. The addition of Swanson and Blair brings the current number of Braves’ prospects listed in mlbpipeline.com’s Top 100 to 6 – Swanson (#10), Newcomb (#19), Ozhaino Albies (#30), Blair (#61), Touki Toussaint (#69), and Kolby Allard (#88). Considering the fact that Albies’ 2015 season already had him firmly on the fast-track, the assumption is that they’ll begin the 2016 season together as the Hi-A Carolina Mudcats’ middle infield. They’ll likely each spend time at both 2B and SS so the Braves’ evaluators can decide which one should man which position moving forward. The year plus playing together as a double-play combination before reaching “The Show” will make them that much better, and potentially gives the organization one of the most dynamic middle infield combinations in the game. Assuming the team is completely out of it prior to the deadline Aybar could join Markakis as someone the front office could dangle for additional prospect depth, or he could be extended a Qualifying Offer following the season to provide the perfect bridge to whichever one remains at SS long-term in the event he’s not ready to begin the 2017 season in the majors and could still be shopped prior to the 2017 trading deadline when they show it’s time for them to step in. Neither Swanson or Albies will make Braves’ fans forget Andrelton Simmons’ defensive exploits (no one will accomplish that of course), but both players project to be more than capable of handling the position while providing much better offensive upside.
No matter how you slice it, this trade goes a LONG way towards outlining the Braves’ future.