In October 2014, the decision was either already made or being made that the Braves would sell off most players with value and enter a rebuild. They were coming off a 79-win season, and they had determined that the farm system was barren, they had bad contracts dragging down the payroll (BJ Upton, Chris Johnson), and if they were going to do it, they had better do it now since Jason Heyward and Justin Upton would undoubtedly leave in free agency the following winter.
At the time, they had a solid core of players. Andrelton Simmons was the best defensive shortstop in baseball and signed to a long extension. Freddie Freeman was 24, also signed to an extension but a more favorable one, and after contributing 4.1 fWAR that year, he was on his way to becoming one of the more valuable players in baseball. Julio Teheran was only 23, and he contributed a 3.2 fWAR season. Alex Wood was 23, and Craig Kimbrel was the best closer in baseball and signed to a team-friendly deal for an elite closer. So you had a lot of pieces in place.
I mentioned the issues of impending free agency for its top players and the bad contracts, and the farm system looked bleak as well. If you looked at a prospect list at any point of the last few years, you’d see a depressing contrast if you look at the 2014 lists. The top prospects were Sean Gilmartin, Lucas Sims, Christian Bethancourt, Jason Hursh, and Jose Peraza. That’s a depressing list, but if you squint really hard, you saw some pieces who ended up being very interesting down the road. Baseball America listed the best defensive infielder as Johan Camargo. Best fastball was Shae Simmons. And it’s extremely important to remember that there were two players signed by the previous administration that would play a significant role in the future of the team: Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies. Acuna was only 16 years old at the time, and he had not played an inning of professional baseball. Ozzie Albies was 17, and he had already had a very good season in Rookie ball for his age. By the next year, Ozzie Albies was the #3 prospect on many lists, and was only #3 because the Braves would eventually trade for Dansby Swanson and Sean Newcomb. Ronald Acuna would not be on even a top 30 prospect list until 2016.
The purpose of this post to examine whether or not they should have, based on the information and resources the Braves had at the time, rebuild the club. There are a few presuppositions in place:
• Frank Wren is still fired, and John Coppolella would still become the GM.
• Payroll would stay the same, but draft position would have diminished had the Braves not rebuilt
• All players would have continued their development track.
• Sun Trust Park would have still been build (it was already in development when the rebuild started)
• The economics of baseball would be the same
So we’re picking back up at the end of the 2014. You have your farm, you have your roster, and you have a team coming off a 79-83 season. There were some expiring contracts at the end of 2014: Ervin Santana’s $14M, Aaron Harang’s $1M, and Gavin Floyd’s $4M. But arb raises and escalating contracts would also cost the Braves $12M or so from 2014 to 2015. So you would only have an additional $5M or so to add to a roster that would have looked like this:
C – Evan Gattis
1B – Freddie Freeman
2B – Tommy La Stella
SS – Andrelton Simmons
3B – Chris Johnson
LF – Justin Upton
CF – BJ Upton
RF – Jason Heyward
SP – Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Mike Minor (they expected him to be back for 2015 before they decided to rebuild), Question Mark, Question Mark
RP – Craig Kimbrel, Shae Simmons, David Carpenter, Jordan Walden, Anthony Varvaro, David Hale, and Luis Avilan
So, you have a 79-win team that loses 2/5 of its starting rotation, and they will later find out Mike Minor wouldn’t be ready to start the season, and then they find out in May he’ll need his second Tommy John surgery. They didn’t know that definitively at the time, but that’s what ultimately happened. And as it plays out, the only prospect from their list to make a positive contribution to a team is the eventually traded Sean Gilmartin with the Mets. I assume they would have tried Gilmartin in the rotation. So they probably sign another journeyman for the rotation, and they max out that $5M on another starting pitcher. I have to throw a caveat in here that inevitably there will be improvements to the roster through flyers, Spring Training invites, etc. In reality, they signed AJ Pierzynski for $2M, and there’s probably room in my potentially incorrect budget to do something like that. They traded a pile of slop for Juan Uribe and Chris Withrow. Because they’re contending, you have to think they’re more willing to part with parts to improve the 2015 roster.
And so continues my speculation for what happens next. They’re trying to contend, so they trade some of their top prospects to potentially get another starting pitching. We’re coming off offense being down league wide, so they probably are able to trade from their prospects to get another starting pitcher.
So they set tail for 2015. Jason Heyward and Justin Upton have the contract years they end up having. Andrelton’s bat continues to develop and he has his 3.2 fWAR year. The rotation holds together, the bullpen pitches how it ultimately pitches, the Braves actually win 92 games, and whatever happens in the playoffs happens.
Now the bloodbath starts. Jason Heyward and Justin Upton leave for free agency. Mike Minor is done forever as far as Braves purposes are concerned. But you didn’t sign Nick Markakis, you didn’t trade for Hector Olivera and thus trade away Alex Wood and Jose Peraza (though you may have traded Peraza and others to get a SP in the previous offseason, so I’m going to say he’s gone). But you still signed Kolby Allard because the draft position didn’t change, and you still drafted Mike Soroka because Ervin Santana had left the previous offseason. Oh, and you signed Kevin Maitan during the year.
So Heyward, Upton, and the SP rental are gone, so you’ve cleared around $25-27M from your payroll, and your roster looks like this:
C – Gattis
1B – Freeman
2B – La Stella
SS – Simmons
3B – Johnson
LF – HOLE
CF – BJ Upton
RF – HOLE
Rotation: Teheran, Wood, SP you traded prospects for, Gilmartin (I deviate from history here because the Braves are desperate), HOLE
Bullpen: Kimbrel, Luis Avilan, Walden, Carpenter, Varvaro, HOLE, HOLE
Top Prospects: Albies, Allard, Maitan, Soroka, Sims, Acuna, Herbert, Sanchez (they still trade Kubitza for Sanchez in this; that just seems like something Coppy would have done anyway), Weigel, Pache, Cruz, Camargo
You still have a solid farm regardless of whether they rebuilt. And remember, you get two comp picks because of Upton and Heyward. But for clarity, because you either didn’t trade for them or get a pick associated with a trade, you don’t have Dansby Swanson, Sean Newcomb, Max Fried, Luiz Gohara, Mike Foltynewicz, Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair, Ender Inciarte, Alex Jackson, Rio Ruiz, Dustin Peterson, Anfernee Seymour, and AJ Minter.
The Braves then undoubtedly spend around $18M in free agency after paying for arb raises and escalating contracts (Andrelton, Kimbrel, and Teheran all tick up in salary). But your guess is as good as mine what they do. They need a left fielder, right fielder, another starter, relief help, and even with all of that, it’s a very mediocre roster. But you’re trying to compete, so you probably trade from some of your prospect surplus (not like today where the prospect vault is puckered up tight). And because you have those comp picks, the Braves know that they’ll draft something similar to Ian Anderson, Kyle Mueller, Joey Wentz, Bryse Wilson, Brett Cumberland, and Drew Harrington even if they have a much lower draft position. You have to adjust considerably there, but like I said, they still draft similar to how Coppy drafted, so you have to feel like they would be pretty confident in their draft coming up.
At this stage, the 2015-2016 offseason, it gets far off from reality where I feel it best just to highlight the condition of the time based on the payroll, roster, and prospects they have at these junctures and pause here to let you decide what they should have or should not have done. I personally think that it wasn’t a slam dunk to rebuild. I think had they made some smart trades, found some relievers here and there, and developed a reclamation project or two, they would have still been competitive in 2015, and they would use their resources to continue to keep the team competitive.
Part 2 focuses on what 2016 and beyond look like, but in the meantime, what say you?