Braves could be busy at Winter Meetings
SAN DIEGO — The Atlanta Braves contingent touched down on the West Coast on Sunday evening, checking into the Machester Grand Hyatt to begin what could be the club’s busiest Winter Meetings in recent history.
Some call it a rebuild, but this new regime seems to have something more than that in mind. Tearing it all down to start over has never been the design. Thus, new president of baseball operations John Hart finds himself in the peculiar position of being charged with fielding a competitive big league club in the midst of attempting to strengthen the farm system. Being competitive for 2017 was a much talked about goal when Hart took on a newly created full-time roll, but it’s not the only objective here.
A talented core is in place, and the blueprint is vaguely reminiscent of Hart’s formula for constructing the Cleveland Indians two decades ago. With Hart in an advisory role last winter, the Braves signed Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran and Andrelton Simmons to long term deals. All of those men are under the age of 26. What’s more, prized prospect Jose Peraza is on the cusp of bringing his talents to the big league level.
Atlanta has a young rotation led by Teheran, Alex Wood, Mike Minor and the recently acquired Shelby Miller. They’re seeking a fifth man, but starting pitching was not a detriment for the 2014 team.
It was a scuffling offense that eventually forced Atlanta out of contention in the second half. That, however, is a point that’s been recapped sufficiently since season’s end. The current focus has turned to improving the big league roster for 2015 and beyond, a process which will be carried out over the coming years rather than weeks or months.
The initial moves have raised a few eyebrows.
Facing the possibility to of losing him to free agency next winter, the Braves traded right fielder Jason Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals for Miller and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins. It’s rare that a deal can be both surprising and expected, but somehow it was. Heyward, 25, was supposed to be a cornerstone for the club, but the narrative seemed to change as the years wore on. Great defense coupled with unfulfilled expectations on the offensive side, Heyward possesses the talent be a star. That quite simply became a question that won’t be answered in Atlanta.
Last week, the Braves dipped into the free agent market to sign right fielder Nick Markakis to a four-year contract. It’s a somewhat puzzling move, but not one without merit. Atlanta seems convinced that a possible neck surgery will not hinder Markakis’ availability for opening day. Regardless, that signing gives the Braves three corner outfielders with only two spots to go around.
Now the team is in San Diego with a shopping list that includes at least one starting pitcher, some help at second base and a back-up catcher. Adding depth to a bench that left much to be desired in 2014 is also a priority, as is strengthening the bullpen leading up to Kimbrel. Signing former All-Star Jim Johnson in hopes of a return to form was a calculated risk, a move that could pay dividends. There’s more to accomplish though.
Filling those remaining needs is largely dependent on how actively the Braves continue to pursue trades. The big chips are obvious, with Justin Upton and Evan Gattis among the hottest commodities out there. They share a common thread – power – but Upton stands a year away from free agency and his chances of signing an extension to stick around are slim. Meanwhile, Christian Bethancourt is primed to take over the regular catching duties. Trying Gattis in the outfield again was something manager Fredi Gonzalez said they’d consider back in October.
Sending Heyward to the Cardinals netted Miller and a prospect, but could the slugging Upton bring more? Some, if not most, believe he could, but finding the right offer could be a little more complicated writes Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.
Rival executives agree with that. Upton, due to better power and overall offense, is worth more than Heyward.
But here’s the problem: Executives also believe the Braves got too much for Heyward, a defensive specialist whose offensive numbers are declining a bit. They see young pitcher Shelby Miller as an overpay, so no one wants to do better than that yet.
The Mariners declined to include Taijuan Walker (who interestingly was offered two years ago for Upton), and the Orioles won’t give up Kevin Gausman.
Heyman cited a tweet by the New York Post’s Joel Sherman which listed a number of teams linked to Upton:
That’s a slew of clubs, but the Indians may well be out of the running after acquiring Brandon Moss from the Athletics on Monday morning. The Padres have the kind of pitching that the Braves desire, but they’ve been linked heavily to Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp. That could make Upton a secondary pursuit for San Diego.
Kemp, 30, is due $107 million over the next five seasons while the 27-year old Upton is a short term commitment who makes a reasonable $14.5 million in 2015. That could make him more attractive to some contending clubs that may feel they’re missing that one big bat to make an immediate difference. That seems like an ideal fit for a team like the Royals, which is searching for a right handed power hitter. As noted, those are in short supply.
Another plus for any club that does go the Upton route is the opportunity to either extend him or extend a qualifying offer as he heads for what is likely to be a big deal in free agency next winter. None of that lessens the fact that a short term add like Upton won’t necessarily garner an overpay from teams hesitant to part with highly regarded young pitching prospects. Those are likewise in short supply.
Other clubs that could make sense on the Upton front are the Orioles and Mariners, even though the latter just plucked last season’s MLB home run champ Nelson Cruz from the former. If Cruz slots in at DH, which is best for all parties involved, then Seattle could still be in the market for a left fielder. Should their free agent pursuits fail, perhaps the M’s would revisit acquiring Upton. Baltimore’s need stems from losing Cruz and would actually be a similar situation to filling the void he left with another slugger on a one-year deal.
Another of Cruz’ former clubs, the Texas Rangers, remains on the radar. His power could play even bigger in Arlington. Ravaged by injury last season, it’s unclear whether or not they’d be willing to pay the price to land any trade target with just one season remaining under contract.
The Evan Gattis rumblings have been fewer and further between. His considerable power and four years of team control remaining are the selling points. Gattis, 28, has mashed 43 home runs in 783 PA in his first two season with Atlanta. American League clubs should be lined up, given the DH option which would get his bat in the lineup on a more regular basis. Hard to say the return would be greater than Upton, but it should be considerable if the right party decides Gattis is the piece they need. The fact he’s immediately cheaper than Upton on the salary scale is something that factors into Atlanta’s interest in trying him in left field should Upton be dealt.
With the free agent market for top tier starting pitchers putting those arms out of Atlanta’s financial reach, filling that final spot in the rotation with a young high-upside arm hinges on those trade talks. However, there are some free agents worth noting.
Veteran righty Jake Peavy has long been linked to the Braves. At 33, Peavy no longer possesses the front of the rotation stuff that earned him the 2007 NL Cy Young award and made him a coveted target for Atlanta in years past. He is still a fierce competitor and could be the right kind of veteran to put in the mix with Atlanta’s current young and talented quartet.
There’s always a chance that Aaron Harang could return after impressing during a bounce back campaign. Harang, 36, had his best season since 2007, going 12-12 with a 3.57 ERA and 161 K in 204.1 IP for Atlanta. He won’t be a $1 million bargain this time around, and he’d like to have the stability of a multi-year offer, but Harang makes sense on some levels.
Speaking of bounce back seasons and pitchers who could use one, Justin Masterson qualifies. After winning 14 games in an All-Star season for the Indians in 2013, the two sides broke off extension talks last spring. What followed was an injury-filled 2014. Masterson struggled mightily (7-9, 5.88 with in 128.2 IP) and was eventually traded to the Cardinals prior to the non-waiver deadline. Several clubs are in the derby according to Heyman, though the Braves haven’t emerged as a suitor. Masterson is the guy who helped new Braves starter Shelby Miller add a sinker to his arsenal in St. Louis. He’s an intriguing name, but may be more speculation than anything at this point.
Atlanta non-tendered right-handers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy last week. It’s possible one or both could return on a lower guarantee with some incentives built in. What’s hard to ignore is that both are coming off their second career Tommy John surgeries and would not factor into rotation plans until late May at the earliest.
There will be plenty of non trade-related names that could be or have been explored by the Braves. That’s where the search for a second baseman and fortifying the bench is likely to be found. There’s no pressing need to find anything more than a place filler at second base with Peraza’s star on the rise. Just 20 years old, he slashed .339/.364/.441 in 499 PA while stealing 60 bases between Lynchburg and Mississippi last year. Bringing him along at the right pace is part of the equation, as is keeping an eye on his arbitration clock. Those two factors could keep Peraza in the minors, likely Gwinnett, until June.
Stephen Drew turns 32 years old in March and had a disastrous 2014 season which was put on hold thanks to a rejected qualifying offer. With no multi-year deal to be found, the longtime shortstop eventually signed back with Boston, but ended being traded to the Yankees and shifting to second base. Drew finished the year with a .162./.237/.299 line in 300 PA. Hardly encouraging numbers, but he could be had for a lower base deal which would allow him to rebuild his value and test the market again sans qualifying offer.
The Braves already have versatile infielder Phil Gosselin, but could seek another multi-positional player to add to the mix. Gordon Beckham, 28, might fit that bill. Recently non-tendered by the Angels, Beckham spent the bulk of his career with the White Sox, morphing from a highly regarded prospect into a perennial underachiever. He’s a .245/.307/.375 career hitter in 2,958 PA across six seasons. Beckham will latch on somewhere, with Atlanta on a list of possible landing spots.
As Bethancourt takes the reins behind the plate, Atlanta is in the market for a veteran backstop to pair with him. Among the names mentioned have been former back-up David Ross, who turns 38 in March, who played with the Braves from 2009-2012. Well liked and well respected, he spent the last two seasons with the Red Sox. Batting just .197 with 11 homers in 86 games over that time, Ross is unlikely to command anything close to the two-year, $6.2 million deal that lured him to Boston.
Mark Bowman of MLB.com listed Ross among the top targets to serve behind Bethancourt:
With more story lines than most clubs, it should be an interesting week for the Braves. Whether they complete all their deals here in San Diego or simply lay the foundation for moves to come, John Hart and company will be very busy during the Winter Meetings.
Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter @grantmcauley.