The Atlanta Braves are usually an interesting team to watch during the season, but this year, it’s the club’s offseason intrigue that has become the talk of Major League Baseball.
In a potential rebuilding mode under new President of Baseball Operations John Hart, a lot of questions remain…the biggest being will, when, and where will he trade the right-handed power he currently possesses in C/OF Evan Gattis and OF Justin Upton.
Hart has already made a couple of big moves thus far during the hot stove season by dealing away homegrown talent Jason Heyward and setup man Jordan Walden to the St. Louis Cardinals for SP Shelby Miller and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins. At first glance, many Braves fans (including myself) scoffed at the news of the trade, but after digging a little deeper, the trade is a great one for both sides. The Braves obviously felt they weren’t going to be able to re-sign “J-Hey” past the 2015 season, and even if there was mutual interest, the Braves probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable dishing out a $100-million plus contract for a player who has never quite lived up his potential in fives seasons with Atlanta.
The Braves have already found Heyward’s successor in right field after inking long-time Oriole Nick Markakis to a deal of four-years and $44 million. While Markakis is a little older than Heyward, he’s also a more polished at the plate, and more equipped to hit at the top of the lineup. Markakis hit to a .276/.340/.386 slash-line with 14 HRs and 50 RBIs in ’14 compared to Heyward’s .271/.351/.384. 11 HRs and 58 RBIs. Pretty close right? They both also won the second Gold Glove Awards of their respective careers as well, and to top it all off, Markakis donned the number 22 during a visit to Turner Field on Friday afternoon. The upside for the Braves is that Markakis hit to a .290/.358./.435 career slash-line compared to that of a .262/.351./.429 for Heyward. Heyward has also had a run of injuries through his career in Atlanta while Markakis has averaged 152 games per season for his career. Not to mention, Markakis also handles left-handed pitching well, which sometimes a hole in Heyward’s game.
With Right field squared away for the next four years, Hart will now turn his focus to the financial strains the club is currently experiencing as he tries to figure out to do with underachieving B.J. Upton, his brother Justin, and the Paul Bunyan-esque Evan Gattis, who is seemingly out of a place to play for the time being. Then there’s the need for pitching depth…a perennial strength of the club, which has taken a hit after the departure of Ervin Santana and the resurgent Aaron Harang to free agency, and the recent decision to not tender contracts to the arbitration eligible Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, both of whom missed the entire ’14 season due to a second Tommy John Surgery.
There’s definitely a market for Gattis and Justin Upton…B.J. though? Well, a trade involving him is something that is obviously going to be easier said than done.
A number of teams are said to be interested in the right-handed power of Gattis and/or Upton, including the Mariners, Astros, Rangers, Padres, Orioles, Giants, Reds, Tigers, Blue Jays, and probably some others.
Teams like Upton’s track record of hitting in the middle of a lineup, but he’s only under contract for the upcoming 2015 season before hitting free agency and inevitably commanding one of the aforementioned $100-plus million contracts that are handed out like candy these days. Some trade scenarios have made their way through the rumor mill over the past few weeks such as Upton to the Mariners for either SP Taijuan Walker or SP James Paxton. The deal probably sounds great to Braves fans, but the question is whether or not Mariner signal caller, Jack Zduriencik, will be willing to part with either prized arm for a one-year rental of Upton. There’s always the possibility that Upton could resign long term there, but there’s no guarantee. Power arms with top of the rotation potential don’t come around everyday, so for Seattle it’d be a win now decision similar to one the Braves made a few years ago when they traded Adam Wainwright to the Cardinals for one year of J.D. Drew. Granted, Drew had arguably the best year of his career that season in Atlanta, but there isn’t a Braves fan on earth that doesn’t watch all of Wainwright’s success and get sick to their stomach at the thought of what could have been. The Padres are a little intriguing with the pieces they are said to have available. Ian Kennedy is a veteran starter, but he too is entering the final year of his contract. Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner are said to be available, but while very talented, neither pitcher has shown the consistency a guy like John Hart would want in return. Ross bursted on to the scene last year with a great stretch for the Friars, but faded in August and September. Cashner on the other hand, has all the talent in the world, but seems to get derailed by injuries on a consistent basis. He’s never made more than 26 starts in a season. The Padres are also said to be looking to deal C Yasmani Grandal, which could interest Atlanta as they look for a backup catcher to replace Gerald Laird behind projected starter Christian Bethancourt. I’m a little unsure of the Reds’ interest in a guy like Upton seeing as how they just dealt away Chris Heisey, and are said to be dangling Jay Bruce this offseason, but all things the same, a guy like Mike Leake could really interest Atlanta.
In my opinion, Gattis might bring back the biggest return for the Braves if they do in fact deal him. He’s got more power than the law should allow in a hitter, and he’s not even arbitration eligible yet. In game that seems to pay players with unfathomable monopoly money, four years of control of a player is still something to be valued. Four years of Gattis at a cheap rate would be a bargain for a team especially since he has clobbered 43 HRs and 117 RBIs over his first 783 career at-bats. The ideal trade partner for Gattis would be an American League team where he could DH, as his defensive skills are “still developing” to put it nicely. He can still play catcher or potentially left field if a team wants his bat bad enough, but he translates better as a DH in my opinion. The Orioles could be in play after losing Nelson Cruz and Markakis this week. Baseball aside, such a trade could lead to epic weight room clinics by Gattis and Chris Davis. Yikes. Long-time baseball columnist Ken Rosenthal reported last week that a deal with the Astros was at least discussed recently involving Dexter Fowler and prospects, but that the deal fell through when the Braves insisted that expensive B.J. Upton be packaged with cheap and productive Gattis. The deal could be looked at as paying B.J.’s money to Gattis and Gattis’ money to B.J., but that type of thinking will be void in a year or two when/if Gattis starts earning significant raises through the arbitration process. To me, the best destination would be to the Texas Rangers. If the Braves could somehow swing a deal involving Gattis (a Texas guy) for a guy like Jurickson Profar, a pitcher and a prospect, I think both sides would be happy with the deal. Besides, who knows the Rangers players and farm system better than Hart, who worked there as a special adviser before coming to Atlanta.
The Braves could ultimately decide to keep one or both of the players, but at the same time, it may be better to get value for Upton now as Hart did with Heyward before he exits town via free agency. Also, with Markakis now in the mix, it would be awfully hard to either A: keep B.J. Upton and the 3-years and $46 million of his remaining contract on the bench, or B: not have Gattis’ bat in the lineup somewhere. The Braves brass seems content to enter 2015 with Bethancourt behind the plate, which further creates the logjam that is the Braves’ outfield. Already having swallowed the bad contract of Dan Uggla, which is in the $14 million range on the 2015 payroll, it’s highly unlikely the Braves would entertain another such fate with B.J.’s albatross of a contract. Another option would be to trade bad contract for bad contract with another team, but those avenues are extremely limited given the years and dollars B.J. is owed.
All in all, it’ll be interesting to see which teams pony up the goods to acquire the two middle of the lineup hitters the Braves are currently dangling on the market.