grisson-justice-lofton-embr

Seventeen years ago today, a trade that changed everything

Imagine if you woke up tomorrow to learn the Braves had traded Jay Hey and J-Up to the Pirates for Andrew McCutchen. How would you react?

When I heard JS had swapped Marquis Grissom and David Justice to the Indians for Kenny Lofton and Alan Embree, I was thrilled. My reaction had nothing to do with Marquis and DJ, who were instrumental in securing the Braves’ only world championship. But Lofton, coming off a season in which he hit .317 with 14 homers and 75 SB, was the Rickey Henderson of his time and a Gold Glover to boot. Though it was widely assumed Lofton would be in Atlanta only one year, Andruw was waiting in the wings and the money saved in the deal made it possible for the Braves to re-sign Maddux and Glavine.

Of course, Lofton was no Rickey. Yes, he hit .333, with a .409 OBP, but played a pedestrian CF and was successful on only 27 of 47 SB attempts. He also managed to run afoul of Bobby, which is virtually impossible.

The Braves would’ve been better off trading either Marquis or DJ for a second baseman, assuming one was available, or a top prospect. This was a team that should’ve been playing for its third consecutive World Series title — instead they began a run of early playoff exits, losing 4-2 to the Marlins and Eric Gregg in the NLCS. No need to remind you who won the AL pennant.

JS’ bender continued three days later when he dealt Jermaine Dye to the Royals for Michael Tucker and Keith Lockhart, a trade that particularly irked Braves fan Elton John.

You could argue those three days in March 1997 derailed a dynasty. “This was the break-up of a very functional family,” wrote the AJC’s Steve Hummer, a prophetic description.

JS had better weeks, to say the least.

Braves trade former No. 1 pick for 32 yo reserve catcher w/ a concussion

Despite the headline, trading Sean Gilmartin for Ryan Doumit is a decent move. Doumit gives you power from the left side and can play LF if you’re desperate. Doumit, a defensive liability, shouldn’t be viewed as competition for Gattis behind the plate; instead, think of him as the the 2014 version of the White Bear. The career .268 hitter slumped to .247 last year, with 14 homers and a .314 OBP.

Because he was  first-round choice, Gilmartin was still considered a prospect. But that’s overstating his potential. Gilmartin regressed badly last year at Triple-A Gwinnett, posting a 5.74 ERA and 1.593 WHIP.

dye

Offseason off to uninspiring start, but it could be worse

We’re not expecting any big moves, but if FW doesn’t lock up any of the young core and ship Dan Uggla elsewhere, this offseason will be an abject failure. As bad as the offseason following the ’96 season — unlikely. 

That winter started off pretty uneventful: Greg McMichael was traded for Paul Byrd, Smoltzie was re-signed and Steve Avery was let go. Then, one week before Opening Day, JS dealt Marquis Grissom, David Justice for Kenny Lofton and Alan Embree. The trade was made in part to free up salary to keep Maddux and Glavine, free agents the following year. So that part of the transaction was a success, but Lofton flopped in Atlanta and there was no attempt to re-sign him. JS would’ve been better off trading Justice and Grissom for prospects or more affordable pieces.

There’s no excusing the trade made two days later: Jermaine Dye and Jamie Walker to Kansas City for Michael Tucker and Keith Lockhart. Dye went on to his 313 homers with a .829 OPS. Tucker and Lofton were platoon players at best.

Sometimes, doing nothing ain’t so bad.

The first of many Uggla trade proposals

To trade Dan Uggla, the Braves will either have to eat most of his remaining contract ($18 to $20 million of the $26 mil he’s still owed) or package him with affordable, attractive talent. Bad options, but retaining Uggla is a worse one.

PROPOSAL

Uggla, Kris Medlen and David Hale  to Toronto for R.A. Dickey, Brett Lawrie and Jeremy Jeffress

Medlen, an Office favorite, met expectations this year — realistic expectations, somewhere between his 2012 season and the ones that came before. I’d hate to see him go, but he’s a free agent in 2016, beating Minor by two years and Teheran by three. Do you really think he’ll be re-signed?

The Jays could use some pitchers under 35. Since their bid to return to relevancy went flat, it doesn’t make much sense to build around a 39-year-old due $24 million over the next two years. That’s $2 million less than Uggla — I’d be glad to start collection to make up the difference. Dickey was a disappointment in 2013, but he wasn’t  striking out 177 in 224.2 innings with a 4.21 ERA. He’d probably benefit from a return to the NL, and the Braves’ track record with aging knuckleballers is pretty good.

Lawrie’s BA, OBP and slugging percentage have decreased each year. But he’s still only 23 and was much better in the second half last year,  hitting .283 with a .764 OPS. There was talk last year of moving him to second and he’s got the athleticism to make the switch. He can’t be worse than Uggla,

Hale may be a sleeper, but it’s more likely that his value may never be higher. Jeffress has a great arm but nothing to show for it but a couple of drug suspensions.

This would leave the Braves with an estimated $15 to $20 million — enough to fortify the rotation and bench.

 

Nate McLouth may not be through haunting us

If the Braves draw the Pirates in the NLDS, Charlie Morton would likely get the start in a Game 4, behind some combination of Liriano, Burnett and Gerrit Cole. While Morton had done little to impress before this year, the former Braves farmhand — traded along with All-Star Jeff Locke for McLouth in 2009 — is finally producing results to match his stuff.

Last night he twirled a beauty for the Bucs in Wrigley, allowing three hits and walking none in 7 shutout innings. It does not appear to be an aberration. Morton has a 3.12 ERA in the second half, though he’s been consistently solid all season.

Whether this holds long-term remains to be seen. Morton has been injury-prone throughout his career — he’s surpassed 100 innings only twice in his career. But he’s coming into his own at just the right time, supplanting Locke — whose 6.12 second half ERA indicates the league has caught up to him — in the rotation.

Too bad he can’t supplant Freddy Garcia or Paul Maholm, his likely mound foe if the Braves and Pirate meet in October.

Scouring the OF market

There are options, and with Schafer and Gattis regressing and B.J. a non-factor, there’s no debating the need.

Some possibilities, in order of preference (all of the players on this list are in the last year of their contracts, unless otherwise noted):

Will Venable. Max’s son is having the finest season of his career, hitting .268 with 18 HR, 17 doubles, 7 triples and 14 steals. I’m not sure Venable has cleared waivers, or would, as he won’t be a free agent until 2016. We include him because he’s a left-handed hitting OF on a bad team. And the Braves have shown interest in him before.

Nate Schierholtz. Similar questions as Venable, re: waivers. Schierholtz won’t be a FA until 2015, and he’s a decent transitional player for a team in perpetual transition. The LH corner outfielder has been a major surprise this season: .273-19-61-.841 OPS.

Raul Ibanez. Forget that he’s 41 and mired in a major slump since the All-Star game. Ibanez still has 25 HR — 16 at Safeco, a notorious pitcher’s park. And he’s left-handed. Plus, he’s shown a knack for hitting in October.

Alejando De Aza. Merely competent, but that’s not such a bad thing. His .269-14-52, 16 SB line is on par with his his career numbers. He’ll be a FA in 2016.

Rajai Davis. You’d prefer a lead-off with a better OBP than .322, but the 32-year-old journeyman is a pest on the bases, stealing 40 bases in 44 opportunities. Those who dismiss the importance of speed must not have watched the ’03 World Series, when Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo made the Yankees look decrepit en route to the Marlins’ second world championship. Davis is hitting .272 this year and is, by reputation, solid with the glove.

Marlon Byrd. His career-best .860 OPS merits a higher ranking, but this list is about what the Braves need. And the Bravos have enough right-handed free swingers. But I’d take him.

Hunter Pence. Overrated. I’m with the stat geeks on this one.

Braves claim middle IF w/ lower BA than BJ

Elliot Johnson, claimed off KC’s DFA list, is no Elliott Maddox. Or Ramiro Pena.

But he’ll be asked to fill Pena’s role for the Bravos, joining the team in St. Louis tomorrow, according to Carroll Rogers.

Johnson has been awful this year, compiling a .458 OPS in 173 ABs. The switch-hitter, who can play anywhere in the infield, wasn’t bad in 2012, hitting .242 with 6 HR and a .654 OPS. On a positive note, he’s stolen 32 bases in 38 opportunities the last two seasons, including a perfect 14-for-14 in 2013.

A fiery sort, Johnson’s 2008 home plate collision with Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli — during a Spring Training game — is credited with helping the Rays develop a “backbone” en route to their first World Series appearance.

The move is a bit discombobulating — the Royals are supposed to take on the Braves’ castoffs, not the other way around.

Braves acquire Scott Downs

Nice pick-up by FW. Downs is a veteran lefty who, in his prime, was an AL-version of Eric O’Flaherty, though he’s not quite at that level these days. The 37-year-old has averaged 8.7 H, 3.5 BB and 6.9 K’s per 9 IP over his career, virtually identical to EOF’s numbers. Downs has a 1.84 ERA this season, holding lefties to a .196 BA, and a 2.10 ERA in three seasons with the Angles.

The cost was minimal: Cory Rasmus, who projects as a 4-A reliever. He didn’t show much in a cameo with the Bravos, allowing 4 homers in 6-2/3 IP.

I hope Downs is viewed as a complement to Avilan and Walden, who’ve earned their late-inning roles, instead of a replacement. Frankly, Luis and Jordan are better at this point. Avilan has given up five fewer hits than Downs despite pitching 13 more innings, while Walden, with 39 K’s in 34 IP, is the kind of hard thrower that excels in October.

As with just about every player, you can find something troubling if you dig deep into their stats. For Downs, it’s his 2013 home/road splits: 0.49 ERA and .129 opponents’ average in 24 games at the Big A; 4.09 ERA and .400 opponents’ average in 19 games elsewhere.

Don’t read too much into that — he was better on the road (2.70 ERA) than home (3.51) last year. Downs, whose contract expires at season’s end, will only cost the Braves about $2 mil, leaving them with more than enough money to add another bat for the bench or, perhaps, rotation depth.

Don’t be surprised if the Braves acquire …

Ervin Santana. Before the recent series against the Royals Fredi talked about how the Braves had previously tried to trade for the Kansas City right-handers, who’s been quite good in 2012.

Santana is available but the price will be steep, say insiders. With Huddy done for the year, it’s a price the Braves may be willing to pay.

Joba rank

According to the New York Post, the Braves are interested in acquiring oft-injured Joba Chamberlain. Why?

Once considered the team’s seventh-inning specialist, Chamberlain appears to have lost his spot. He’s been usurped by right-handers Preston Claiborne and Shawn Kelley.

“Somehow, we have to get him going,” manager Joe Girardi said. “To me, his stuff is too good not to help us. Right now, he’s making mistakes.”

Besides the on-field mistakes, Chamberlain has thrown a wrench into the team’s hopes to improve before July 31. To be sure, a reliever approaching free agency can only fetch so much in a trade. But Chamberlain has effectively extinguished all his value on the market.

And then there’s this.

 

Where’s Randall Delgado?

He’s at Reno, pitching horribly.

Randall has 0 wins and a 9.09 ERA in 8 starts with a 1.933 WHIP. As for the other prospects shipped to Arizona:

*Zeke Spruill has struggled since his promotion from Double-A Mobile, striking out only 6 in 18 IP.

*Don’t expect Nick Ahmed to get promoted any time soon — he’s hitting .162 with 1 XBH in 111 AB’s at Mobile.

*Brandon Drury is raking at Single-A South Bend but the third baseman is a marginal prospect at best.

Randall surprises me. He had his moments last season but those may have been the highlights of a briefer than expected major league career.

JV to Detroit?

The Tigers need a closer. The Braves need to unload Dan Uggla’s onerous contract.

So how ’bout this: JV and Uggla for Phil Coke and Omar Infante, with the Braves agreeing to pay a portion of Uggla’s contract.

Detroit would receive more talent but a larger financial burden. They have shown a willingness to spend big, though I doubt they could stomach an infield of Fielder, Peralta, Cabrera and Uggla.

Another option? Third baseman Nick  Catellanos, ranked 21st in MLB and Baseball America’s prospect rankings. He hit .320 last year divided between Single-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie.

Braves willing to listen on JV, but should they?

Depends on what you could get in return. Venters should net more than a LH pitch-hitter.

I’d be surprised if FW trades him, however. Jordan Walden, who’s held lefties to a .206 BA over his career, is nursing a sore back while EOF has yet to pitch this spring. Both are supposed to be fine, but until they prove it JV ain’t going nowhere.

Keep in mind that EOF is a free agent after this season while JV isn’t eligible for f ree agency until after 2016. If you’re going to trade a left-handed reliever, wouldn’t it make more sense to deal O’Flaherty?

Head, heart divided on Prado deal

Do the intangibles matter? Do strikeouts not? Depends on your school of thought.

I think they can both be true. Having a player who serves as an example for others by the way he plays the game is a plus — but it doesn’t compare with talent. Justin Upton could win an MVP this year. Martin never will.

Yes, an out is an out but some outs are productive. Strikeouts never are — but they are better than double plays. A strikeout-heavy line-up is prone to collective slumps, and this one should be no different.

Upton’s 121 K’s aren’t bad fora power hitter; I’m more troubled by Chris Johnson’s 131 K’s in 136 games. He’s likely to be platoon with Bigger Frank, who struck out 70 times in 192 AB’s. McCann and Andrelton are the only line-up regulars who won’t top 100 K’s.

Defensively, the Braves have gotten worse. The outfield is a little better but third base could be a nightmare. Chris Francisco is likely to be to 3B what Uggla is to second.

I’m glad the Braves didn’t trade any of their best pitching prospects. If I wasn’t so attached to Martin I’d probably like this trade.

Instead, I’m conflicted

Justin Upton will be a Brave by Friday

There’s good reason to be optimistic.

Scribes Rosenthal, Heyman and Olney all report the Braves have offered a “strong package” of players for Upton. DOB says the offer likely involves Teheran plus two-to-three additional prospects. Among the names bandied about: Gattis, Ahmed, Gilmartin, Spruill …

Bet on it happening by Friday, an artificial deadline favored by the D’backs, according to reports.

If it does the Bravos will boast the game’s most gifted outfield, one that combined for 72 homers, 227 RBI and 70 steals in 2012 — and that’s with Justin Upton having an off year.

My concern is what impact this will have on extensions for Jay Hey and Medlen. I’d rather lock those two up than acquire Upton. Hopefully it’s not an either/or proposition.

Still, I’d rather be talking about the possibility of another Upton than trying to rationalize  the signing of Delmon Young.

Is Justin Upton to the Braves inevitable?

Baseball scribes seem increasingly convinced that the D’backs star will end up in Atlanta. I’ve been skeptical but am beginning to think that the Uptons will join the Aarons, Niekros, Torres, Mahlers and Drews as siblings and teammates on the Braves.

Justin Upton just turned down a deal that would’ve sent him to Seattle in exchange for a top pitching prospect, Taijuan Walker, SS Nick Franklin, who projects as a Blauser-esque middle infielder, and relievers Charlie Furbush and Stephen Pryor.

That’s a lot to give up for Upton, especially for a team like Seattle which is more than one player away from contending.

The Braves are contenders with only one Upton. Two Uptons could put them over the top. Plus, I don’t think they’d have to surrender as much as the Mariners offered (which equates to something along the lines of Teheran, Nick Ahmed, Juan Jaime and Luis Avilan).

Arizona is in a bind, having signed Cody Ross to join an already crowded outfield. They’ve been shopping Upton since last year’s All-Star break, so bringing him back would be problematic. And word that Texas has dropped out of the bidding leaves the D’Backs with few suitors.

The Braves could swing it financially, as Upton will make $9.75 million in 2013 (then $14.25 mil in ’14 and ’15, the same total and years Boston gave to Shane Victorino). That would leave zero wiggle room payroll-wise, though including Eric O’Flaherty, a free agent in 2014, in a deal would free up roughly $4 million. No doubt O’Flaherty would appeal to Arizona GM Kevin Towers, whose bullpen lacks a solid southpaw.

I’d hate to lose EOF, but he’ll be gone in a year anyway. And the Braves would still have Venters, Avilan and newly acquired Jordan Walden, who’s held lefties to a .202 BA in his career.

I’d offer Delgado, O’Flaherty and Ahmed and work from there. Considering the difference Upton would make for the 2013 Braves, I’d be prepared to give up more.

The former overall top draft pick battled nagging injuries in 2012, likely accounting for his decline in power. But not all was lost, as Upton showed better plate coverage, striking out 121 times in 150 games — a big improvement from 2010, when he was rung up 152 times in 133 games.

His home/road splits are troubling, though Arizona is not Colorado. Not sure what explains the disparity but I have a hard time believing Upton will never produce outside of Chase Field.

Best to remember we’re talking about a player one year removed from a 4th place finish in NL MVP balloting. It would surprise no one if the 25-year-old veteran finishes first in the near future.

Why not 2013, in Atlanta? It’s not as unlikely as we once thought.

Why are the Rockies so stubborn?

The Braves have what they need, and Colorado has Dexter Fowler, the lead-off hitting outfielder who would complete a formidable line-up.

The Rockies are desperate for pitching and could use a corner infielder. How many homers do you think Juan Francisco would hit playing half his games in Coors? More than Colorado’s projected corner infielders — Todd Helton and Jordan Pacheco — combined, I’d bet.

Pacheco, a converted catcher who hit .309 last year with little power, would also be a nice fit in Atlanta as jack of all trades backing up at first, third and behind the plate. Here’s my proposed deal, which should be more than enough but is unlikely to satisfy Colorado, which tends to over-value their talent:

Fowler and Pacheco 

for

Randall Delgado, Sean Gilmartin, hard-throwing reliever Juan Jaime and Juan Francisco. 

Fowler, an Alpharetta native, finally fulfilled his potential last year, posting a .389 OBP — more than 40 points better than Michael Bourn — and .474 slugging percentage. Sure, his home/road splits are troubling, but an OF of Fowler, B.J. and Jay Hey — all 28 and under — excites the hell out of me.

If only the Rockies would cooperate.

Are the Braves resigned to their small-market fate?

Increasingly we’re hearing management say it’s okay with internal LF/3B options, as if there are any. I’m encouraged by Juan Francisco’s development, but there’s nothing to suggest he won’t add another 150+ strikeouts to a line-up that could easily lead the league in K’s. Jose Constanza is a 4-A player at best, Evan Gattis is a DH who may or may not hit big league pitching and Jordan Schafer has blown every chance he’s received.

Meanwhile, the Reds are on the verge of acquiring Shin-Soo Choo (career .289 BA, .381 OBP, .465 slugging, 20 SB a year) in a three-team deal  that would net the Indians Drew Stubbs, who’s fallen far short of expectations, and a minor league pitching prospect. I’m not saying the Braves could’ve topped that offer, but Cleveland needs pitching and the Braves have it.  Choo is a FA after this season, and, though he strikes out plenty, gets on base at a clip Francisco will never match. And the Reds aren’t gutting their farm system to get him.

An NL competitor is about to get better, and right now the Braves are worse than in 2012. B.J. Upton does not equal Chipper and Bourn. Not even close.

More troubling is the lack of any movement on extensions for Martin and Jay Hey. Prado, a free agent after next season, has indicated a desire to re-up and likely won’t drive an impossible bargain. But this market would tempt anyone, and the Braves better not let Martin’s agent drive up the price.

Hard to believe but Jay Hey is just three years removed from free agency. The closer he gets to 2016 the less interested he’ll be in passing up a potential bonanza for short-term security. By the way, Kris Medlen will also be a FA in 2016.

Hell, even Tampa managed to lock up its franchise player, Evan Longoria, through 2023. Such commitments are not without risk, but the alternative is the Pittsburgh Pirates. FW better get moving or it won’t be long before we find ourselves in the same boat as Pirate fans, desperate for mediocrity.