The Braves made a plethora of trades in the past 12 months, most of which I thought made sense, given the team’s situation. But a couple of those deals -- the one that sent away Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, and the one that brought Hector Olivera to Atlanta -- didn’t make much sense to me, and I asked Braves officials John Hart and John Coppolella about both during a Monday interview with us reporters who cover the team.
I’ll give you their responses below. But first, a bit of background or refresher: The Braves, after firing general manager Frank Wren near the end of the 2014 season, set about on a mission to get out of their rut of mostly mediocre-to-good performance in recent years – the team hasn’t won a playoff series since 2003 – by restocking the farm system with high-level prospects, almost all of them pitchers, as the Braves weren’t able to acquire top position-player prospects despite looking to add some of those as well.
While acknowledging a continued shortage of position-player prospects in the high minors, the Braves believe they can eventually add bats at the big-league level by using some from their stockpile of pitchers as currency, or enter the free-agent market, though they won’t get involved with the highest-priced hitters in that pool.
But going back to the outset of this venture they began 12 months ago, the Braves wanted to get back to the pitching-first blueprint that made them so successful throughout the ‘90s, to have a serious contender in place by 2017 when they move into a new ballpark. They decided they would do it by biting the bullet, taking a step or three back for the present in hopes of improving significantly in the not-too-distant future.
And that meant trading away some assets, but primarily those players with expiring contracts and an onerous contract (or two), in exchange for mostly prospects and solid young talent.
“At the end of it, I think we all feel that we’re in a much better position sitting here than we were at this time last year, in spite of the fact that we had 90-plus losses,” said Hart, Braves president of baseball operations. “We’re in a much better position. We have a level of financial flexibility. We have absolutely grown our farm system between the trades that we made and the draft, and international. You don’t just snap your fingers and have it work. It wasn’t without pain, I’ll say that. We certainly feel for – I do – our fans, to have to go through that six- to seven-week period that we did. It was tough. It was tough for all of us in here as a group. But we kept our eye on the mark, and we think we’re positioned much better to go forward than we were a year ago – we know we are; there’s no we think we are. We know we are.”
As I’ve said before, there were only a few prominent deals I didn’t think too highly of. First, I questioned trading Evan Gattis last winter because he still had four years of contractual control, possesses the kind of big right-handed power we don’t see so much in the so-called post-steroid era, and I just thought, while he’s a below-average left field for sure, he’d at least serviceable enough in left and could hold up well enough to catch at least 30-40 games a year without putting too much stress on his knees/back, and maybe play a little at first base in a pinch.
But if one of two from the prospects they got – right-handers Mike Foltynewicz and Andrew Thurman, third baseman Rio Ruiz – develops into a frontline guy, well, then the Braves will feel good about that trade. They didn’t think Gattis could hold up to the rigors of playing every day in the National League, and the Astros have used him almost exclusively as a DH in his 27-homer, 88-RBI season in 2015, using him for only 11 games in the field (those games in left field).
So put aside the Gattis deal, and the bad timing of the Craig Kimbrel trade (on the eve of opening day), which I understood because the Braves jumped at finally getting a team to take Melvin Upton Jr.’s albatross of a contract. Put those aside, and the other two prominent trades the Braves made in the past year that I just didn’t think -- and still don’t – were good baseball trades were the last two they made, deals that only exacerbated the downward spiral that saw the Braves produce an unbelievably bad 15-48 record between July 8 and Sept. 17.
The deals that I refer to:
July 24: Braves trade veteran infielders Kelly Johnson and Uribe to the Mets for pitching prospects John Gant and Rob Whalen, neither regarded as an elite prospect.
July 30: Braves trade left-handers Alex Wood and Luis Avilan, right-handers Jim Johnson and Bronson Arroyo and highly-rated infield prospect Jose Peraza to the Dodgers for 30-year-old Cuban rookie third baseman Olivera (and lefty reliever Paco Rodriguez), part of a three-team, 13-player trade. The Braves also got left reliever Paco Rodriguez, minor league pitcher Zach Bird, and a 2016 competitive-balance draft pick (No. 34 overall) in that deal.
I didn’t get trading Johnson and Uribe to the Mets, thought it was going overboard with the wheeling and dealing at that point. The Braves, who had just begun to struggle, traded away two of their most productive hitters at a time when Freddie Freeman was injured. Beyond that, they also traded two veterans who were good with young players and might have helped stabilize things before the season completely snowballed.
I just felt that if you’re going to trade KJ and Uribe from a team struggling mightily to score runs, then the Braves needed to get sure-fire prospects, not a couple of pitchers who may or may not ever make an impact at the big-league level. (However, Gant went 4-0 with a 1.99 ERA in seven starts for the Braves' Double-A Mississippi affiliate, with 43 strikeouts and 14 walks in 40 2/3 innings, so he's off to a promising start in his new organization.)
As far as the second trade was concerned, I was shocked that the Braves traded Wood, which to my flew in the face of everything the Braves and many other teams have preached in the past: Don’t trade good young starting pitchers with multiple years of contractual control remaining, particularly not left-handed ones as good as Wood. And the bullpen was already hurting badly after Jason Grilli's season-ending Achilles injury just before the All-Star break. Trading both Johnson and Avilan just gave it another hard shove toward the bottom of the big-league rankings.
Also, while I knew Peraza’s stock had dropped with the Braves since his lackluster spring training and continued lack of walks – if you’re not going to hit for any power, you need to get on base more – I still was surprised they’d include him, along with Wood, in a deal for a 30-year-old who’d had several health issues and hadn’t played an inning in the majors.
So, on Monday, I mentioned this to Hart and Coppolella, the newly named GM (promoted from assistant GM after working closely with Hart on all moves during the past year). I explained what I questioned about those deals, and both guys were candid and forthcoming in their responses, as they were in just about everything we asked them Monday.
Here are the responses, verbatim:
Coppolella: “As we looked at the (upcoming) free-agent market, there weren’t any real impact bats out there. Olivera, I think you’re going to see him get better and better each year. It was his first year here, I think it was tough for him. There were some things on the field and off the field. For us, we feel like we’ve added a lot of young arms. We feel like he can be real good for us in that lineup. Dodgers signed him for $62 million, $28 million of that as a signing bonus. We’re on the hook basically for five years, $32 million. We felt that was a really good value for what we think he will be. Based upon our scouts, and based upon what he’s doing when he’s played, in Cuba and all that, we thought that was a really good value there.
“Alex Wood is great; we didn’t want to trade Alex Wood. We just couldn’t have gotten him in that trade without putting Wood in it. Actually at first they wanted (Andrelton) Simmons, and we said we can’t put Simmons in that deal.
“Second trade, when we made that deal with the Mets, we were 2-9 over our last 11 games. We had just lost Grilli, (Freddie) Freeman was hurt – you know, it wasn’t a tough trade for us in that we like both prospects we got; we think they’re both in our top-20 prospects. Gant pitched really well when he came over here. He could be up here at some point next year. For us, just seeing the way the team was starting to struggle, we felt it was a good opportunity to stay with the plan and keep adding young players that we really like a lot.”
Hart: “I don’t disagree with what you said, Dave. For me, the Uribe-Johnson trade was the most difficult, because it was like, OK, if this continues where we’re going – we’re not getting back major league players, we’re getting rid of two nice pieces here – that one was a tough trade in the short term. That was probably as tough a trade, for me personally, to have to agree on that one. And I think John accurately portrayed the Olivera deal. There’s a bit of an unknown, but I think with the eyes that we had on – Roy Clark, Gordon Blakeley, Fredi (Gonzalez) saw him – we had multiple, multiple looks at the guy, and knowing the market, that if this guy hits like he’s hit before and is the player that our guys have said that he is, then we’ve ended up making a nice deal.
“We ended up getting a five-, six-hole type hitter that we’re going to control affordably, and we can add other pieces. That’s the risk that you take, because there’s a level of unknown with the Cuban players that are out there. And I think if you also look at the (free agent) market this year, there’s two or three high guys that, their dollars are going to go well beyond where we wanted to go. So, those probably, those two deals, I would say if you looked at it from my perspective at the time, those were the two deals that were the toughest ones to make, for me.”
Coppolella was then asked if he’d found it hard to keep the big picture in mind at the time of the deals, particularly the Johnson/Uribe trade to the Mets, which clearly was going to make the Braves worse at that time:
“Obviously we want to try to win every game that we can,” Coppolella said. “I think we’re all kind of build that way. I think it’s a trade that you feel better about on Oct. 5 than you do on Aug. 5.