• Jace Peterson

    4 Ways the Kemp Trade Makes the Braves Better … This Year and Beyond

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Say this for Alex Anthopoulos. He’s a creative fellow.

    His first deal as general manager of the Atlanta Braves is just the latest example of Anthopoulos making the implausible possible, turning the strange into sensible, building by taking a road few could even imagine, let alone travel to completion.

    For the thought of Matt Kemp playing limited innings in left field to keep his power bat in the lineup in 2018, the Braves were best served by moving the oft-injured veteran. Anthopoulos did just that in a stunning deal Saturday that draws as much attention to next winter as it does to the approaching spring and summer.

    Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos

    Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos

    Kemp heads back to Los Angeles, where I doubt he plays an inning with the Dodgers given his defensive limitations. In return, the Braves received four players – three of whom could contribute to Atlanta next season; one who already has been designated for assignment. The contracts of Adrian Gonzalez (released upon request), Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir will be absorbed by the Braves in return for Kemp going to the Dodgers.

    This is a good move. It is not addition by subtraction in the sense of dealing one player for, in essence, three players: McCarthy, Kazmir and Charlie Culberson. But look closer, and you see this deal works for Atlanta in several ways:

     

    1. The Budget

    The Braves would have owed Kemp $31.5 million over the final two years of his current deal. In taking on three players entering the final year of existing deals, Atlanta will pay Gonzalez ($22.357 million), McCarthy ($11.5 million) and Kazmir ($17.66 million) a total of $51.517 million. The Dodgers kicked in $4 million in the deal, but the biggest thing is at the end of next season, all that money comes off the books.

    Entering the 2018-19 offseason, one that is chock full of marquee stars (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw, etc.), the Braves are going to have enormous flexibility. The only guaranteed deals on the Atlanta roster after next season are for Julio Teheran, Freddie Freeman and Ender Inciarte. There always is a chance Teheran could be shipped elsewhere.

    Despite solid offense, Matt Kemp struggled to stay healthy in a Braves uniform and weakened the outfield defensively

    Despite solid offense, Matt Kemp struggled to stay healthy in a Braves uniform and weakened the outfield defensively

    Even if the Braves were to make long-term offers to a couple of their core internal pieces (say, Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna), Atlanta still will have a massive amount of money freed up to play in the free agent market in maybe the most intriguing offseason in years.

    2. The Outfield

    Speaking of Acuna, moving Kemp now frees up a corner spot for the top prospect in the Braves organization. Acuna boat-raced through three levels of the minors as a 19-year-old, then won MVP honors in the Arizona Fall League.

    Yes, the Braves may opt to keep him at Triple-A Gwinnett for the first few weeks of the season to gain an additional year of control. Culberson gives you a viable option in left field for that timeframe, but make no mistake. Acuna will be up and contributing early in 2018, and now he has a spot.

    3. The Rotation

    Yes, we all know how that worked out last season. Jaime Garcia was serviceable before netting a prospect in a trade deadline deal. R.A. Dickey pitched well at times and really helped the rotation’s younger members by serving as a mentor. Bartolo Colon was a disaster and eventually was sent packing.

    RHP Brandon McCarthy

    RHP Brandon McCarthy

    McCarthy made 19 appearances (16 starts) with a sub-4 ERA last season. A decent showing in spring training slots him into a rotation spot, helping to anchor a group that figures to include two rookies who debuted last season in Sean Newcomb and Luiz Gohara. It also moves a couple of younger arms, most notably Max Fried, into the bullpen to further bolster a group that struggled mightily at times a season ago.

    Kazmir is best described as a flyer, the left-hander missing all of last season with a hip injury. If he is healthy and can produce anything, it would be a bonus.

    4. The Bench

    Culberson, a graduate of Calhoun High, comes home to fill the role Jace Peterson held before the Braves non-tendered him earlier this offseason. Culberson hit .455 in the NLCS and was 3-for-5 in the World Series, and has made 29-plus career appearances at shortstop, second base, third base and left field. Anthopoulos said Saturday that Culberson plays “Gold Glove caliber” defense at shortstop, which largely explains his interest in adding the utility man to Atlanta’s bench.

     

    I have a feeling the Braves are not done yet. There still is the thought of a bridge at third base to get to Austin Riley, especially a right-handed bat with power to slide behind Freeman. Atlanta still could look to move Nick Markakis from right field, but would need now to get an outfielder in return (I know a guy on South Beach who would great in left field with a tomahawk across his chest). The Braves could benefit from another veteran arm or two for the bullpen.

    But after bemoaning the lack of action at the Winter Meetings, the Anthopoulos Era kicks off with a bang: A creative, compelling deal that should show Braves fans the new guy is pretty sharp.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Trades and aquistions paying off for Atlanta

    Coming into the 2015 season, the Atlanta Braves had a lot to prove. On the eve of Opening Day they said goodbye to fan favorite and closer extraordinaire Craig Kimbrel. They had already traded the bats of Justin Upton and Jason Heyward. They let go of a big chunk of relievers. But they also made trades that restocked the farm system and signed talented players in Shelby Miller and Nick Markakis. As it stands, the signees and trades have made a big impact on the club, keeping Atlanta around the .500 mark all season.

    Uribe

    Uribe (36) holds a .257 BA in 15 years in the big leagues. He put up a .311 average in 2014 over the course of 103 games.

    Let’s talk about the newbies: Juan Uribe, the latest to suit up in a Braves uniform, came to the Braves with 1st round draft pick Chris Withrow at the cost of Alberto Callaspo, Eric Stults, Juan Jaime and Ian Thomas. While Callaspo and Stults had brilliant moments with their new club, the trade worked out well for Atlanta. Juan Uribe, long remembered for his key hits against the Braves, still has pop in his bat and a surprising amount of agility and range at third base. Withrow is coming back from Tommy John surgery and won’t be on a big league field anytime soon, but come time for the new stadium opening, he may be a hurler the Braves can count on.

    Nick Markakis came back to the state where he played high school ball after a successful career with the Baltimore Orioles. The former 1st round pick put together a gold glove career in the field and a steady .291 average at the plate in 9 years with the O’s. With the loss of Jason Heyward, the Braves were looking for a more consistent presence at the plate, someone who could lead off and defense that was adequate. What they got was all of those things plus the gold glove caliber play that Markakis brings to the club. He has been everything they hoped for. His batting average sits at .305 going into the weekend, with a .792 OPS and 34 walks to 33 strikeouts (compared to Heyward’s 12 walks to 41 strikeouts thus far in 2015). He has provided a spark in the lineup and leadership in the clubhouse. The sting of losing Heyward seems to be wearing off.

    Coming to the Braves in the Justin Upton trade was a promising young infielder who everyone expected to head to Gwinnett. Jace Peterson played 27 games for the struggling 2014, hitting .113. He impressed Fredi Gonzalez at camp and was slotted in from Opening Day. He has put together a stellar start to the season with 53 hits and 23 RBIs in 219 plate appearances. His .275/.349/.347 line has been a consistent bright spot for a club that has at times struggled for runs. Peterson looks to have a solid career ahead of him with the Braves, evidenced by the willingness of the club to move prospect Peraza to the outfield and utilize Ciriaco off the bench.

    Atlanta has also seen unlikely production from Cameron Maybin (.298/.370/.417), opening the door for the release of Eric Young, Jr., baby Brave Kelly Johnson (.273/.319/.511), and backup catcher A.J. Pierzynski (.276/.320/.745) who had a torrid April.

    BRAVES DEALT BLOWS TO ROTATION AND ABSORB CHANGES IN ‘PEN…

    As much change as the lineup has undergone, it in no way compares to the complete overhaul of the pitching staff. With Kimbrel, Walden, Carpenter, Harang, Santana, Varvaro, Thomas, Simmons, Schlosser and Shreve leaving via trade and free agency and Minor and Simmons going down with injury, there were a lot of holes to fill to put together the puzzle that is the 2015 staff. Additions of Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli shored up the closer spot. Trades that brought Shelby Miller, Mike Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos to the club were hopefully going to pay off in the rotation, but the Braves bet on Eric Stults over Foltynewicz out of camp. Injury to Minor and inconsistency from Teheran in the beginning opened the door for Folty.

    Mike Foltynewicz has been impressive for a guy who came to the Braves with the question mark next to his name regarding where he would fit in. Bullpen? Maybe. Triple-A? Likely. Now? He is one of the shining stars on the staff. With his regularly lowering 4.72 average in 8 starts (3-2 record), he’s had 45 K’s in 47 2/3 innings. In the control of Atlanta for the years going into the opening of Sun Trust Stadium, his career is promising and looks to pay dividends to a club that took a chance.

    The new ace of the staff is without question Shelby Miller. Miller came to the club looking to continue his young career out of the shadow of Adam Wainwright and consistently good St. Louis staffs. It’s incredible that in 78 1/3 innings pitched he has only recorded a 1.84 ERA. A 5-2 record doesn’t do justice to how good Miller has been. The run support has not always backed his strong effort. With the early struggles of Julio Teheran and the attempts by Alex Wood to understand his role and settle into it, Shelby’s success has been the balance required for the rotation to go forward.

    Nobody can replace the numbers that Craig Kimbrel put up for the Braves. As the club’s all-time saves leader, Kimbrel’s loss was huge. Jim Johnson’s 3.18 ERA in 28 1/3 innings pitched is hardly reflective of his good outings. A few rough weeks for the ‘pen have ballooned his ERA. His 22 K’s and 3 saves combined with Jason Grilli’s 3.38 ERA, 16 saves and 28 K’s in 21 1/3 innings are pretty comparable to the numbers Kimbrel has put up for San Diego (3.91 ERA and 34 K’s over 23 innings). They don’t bring the heat or the “Welcome to the Jungle” hype, but as replacements go, they hold up.

    It was no secret that Atlanta was looking to restock the farm in the offseason as they geared up for the move out of Turner Field. It did come as a surprise that the pieces they added to the roster for the here and now turned out to not only be adequate but fun to watch as they scraped and clawed for every run and every win.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter@framethepitch.

    Braves start season with sweep and new closer

    Still reeling from the news that the Braves had traded former Rookie of the Year, perennial all-star and all-time club saves leader Craig Kimbrel to the San Diego Padres, the Braves embarked on the first series of the season in Miami lacking some of the cohesiveness they had broke camp with. Despite the startling news to Kimbrel’s former teammates, they took to Miami with confidence and walked away with a series sweep.

    Pierzynski

    A.J. Pierzynski, the 38-year-old backup catcher, launched a 2-run blast off Koehler in the 7th inning of a no-score game.

    The story of the series wasn’t the remaining members of the 2014 Opening Day roster (Avilan, Freeman, C. Johnson, Simmons and Teheran), but the newcomers to the club. Backup catcher A.J. Pierzynski came through in the final game of the series with a 2-run homer that put the Braves on top and unreachable by the scuffling Marlins. Pierzynski appears to be an addition that can provide offense if given proper rest, an arrangement that is perfect for a club with Christian Bethancourt as its everyday catcher. Pierzynski was signed as the veteran catcher that could mentor the young Bethancourt, any offense he provides is a bonus in the eyes of the club, a bonus that will endear him to fans quickly.

    Fredi Gonzalez announced on day one of the new season that he would turn to veteran closer Jason Grilli to come in for the club in save situations with the possibility of another veteran closer, Jim Johnson, getting a few saves when Grilli needs a day off. Grilli stepped in without hesitation and has notched 2 saves on the season thus far. Grilli, who made his MLB debut in 2000, is no stranger to closing and made a name for himself and an all-star appearance in that role with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

    It wasn’t only the veterans making their mark in the first 3 games of the season. Jace Peterson, who came to the club in the trade that sent Justin Upton to the San Diego Padres, made a splash with a few impressive defensive plays at second base. Peterson was named the starting second baseman over veteran Alberto Callaspo and fellow rookie Pedro Ciriaco. He recorded 2 hits, 2 walks and 2 runs scored in his debut series. His bat will need improvement, but the young man has a promising future and looks to be a great add for a club that has struggled at second base going back to the trade that brought Dan Uggla over from the then Florida Marlins.

    Perhaps the trade that will pay the highest dividends for the club this season was the swap with the Cardinals that brought starting pitcher Shelby Miller to Atlanta in exchange for Jordan Walden and Georgia’s own Jason Heyward. Miller brings with him to Atlanta a record 25-18 record over 370 innings pitched. Young and with loads of potential, Miller will be with the club for far longer than Jason Heyward would have been (Heyward becomes a free agent at the end of the 2015 season) and can slot in nicely in the rotation in either the 2 or 3 spot. In his first start with the club, Miller pitched 5 innings of scoreless ball while striking out 4. Miller looked sharp despite only lasting 5 innings.

    Something that was quickly obvious in the first 3 games of the season was the lower strikeout rate of the roster and the ability to move base runners over. They were 10-for-23 with runners in scoring position in Miami, already a huge improvement from the 2014 Atlanta Braves. The rally that they put together in game 2 that gave them a 7-0 lead after the first inning was a sight for the sore eyes of fans who watched many a rally killed last season. The final 12-2 score was a credit to the entire lineup with contributions from Markakis, Freeman, EY Jr., Bethancourt, C. Johnson and newcomer Maybin.

    BRAVES HOME OPENER BRINGS OLD FOE TO TURNER FIELD…

    The home opener in Atlanta looks to be full of familiar faces as former Braves descend on Turner Field to mark the season in which the Braves left Milwaukee for Atlanta. Bobby Cox, Fred McGriff, Henry Aaron and Chipper Jones are expected to be in attendance.

    Friday’s opener will feature Niese v. Stults. Saturday pits Gee vs. Teheran (1-0, 1.50 ERA). And Sunday’s finale will feature a yet to be named Met vs. Wood (1-0, 3.60 ERA).

    Eric Stults had a solid spring with his new club, beating out Wandy Rodriguez for a spot in the rotation. Stults isn’t necessarily a name familiar to the casual fan as he really struggled through most of last season with the equally troubled Padres. However, with the help of changed mechanics, he put up a 2.74 ERA in the final 11 starts of his Padres tenure. The Braves toyed with the idea of putting Stults in the ‘pen, but his strong spring would not allow for it. He has a lot to prove to his new club with this start, but with the injury to Mike Minor and the time Mike Foltynewicz needs at Triple-A, Stults won’t be facing competition for his starting job. Stults brings a career 4.12 ERA and a 35-43 record to the club.

    With both a righty and a lefty taking the mound, look to see a mix of outfielders with Eric Young, Jr. facing his old team as well as fellow newcomers Cameron Maybin, Jonny Gomes and Kelly Johnson. Gomes and perhaps even Gosselin will get a chance against the lefty.

    One other note on the flexible outfield that Fredi Gonzalez has at his disposal: The Braves got word this week that $7.5 million dollar man Dian Toscano has finally arrived in Florida. The Cuban defector had been in limbo in the Dominican Republic while awaiting a U.S. visa. He will attend extended spring training at the Wide World of Sports complex in Florida before being sent to Triple-A Gwinnett.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter@framethepitch.

     

    Springtime surprises for revamped Braves

    When the Atlanta Braves arrived at Champion Stadium this spring, nobody in baseball knew what to expect of the revamped, ragtag group of players assembled by the team’s front office in the offseason. In fact, many of the players themselves didn’t know what to expect, but were excited about the talent and youth coming together. The team looked so different that Craig Kimbrel had shirts printed for all of the players with the humorous ‘My Name Is ______’ tag. Humorous as it may have been, it turns out there are many players that not only broke camp with the club that no casual follower of the club has heard of or knew was with the team but many of those players look to be on the opening day roster.

    Coming into camp, the common wisdom was that there would be one roster spot up for grabs. This changed when Mike Minor began his throwing program and reported shoulder discomfort and tightness. Minor is no stranger to this ailment, but the timing of it made for an unexpected battle for not one but two rotation slots. The news now is that Minor has begun a throwing program after a series of exercises prescribed by Dr. Andrews improved his range of motion. The hope is that what plagued Minor throughout 2014 will no longer bother the lefty. But even with his progress, Minor is expected to miss at least a month of the season. This has opened the door for none other than veteran Wandy Rodriguez.wandy2

    You’ll remember that Wandy Rodriguez was cut loose by the Phillies’ front office after failing a physical as spring training was getting underway. The Braves signed Wandy to a minor league contract with an invite to camp. If he makes the 40-man roster on opening day, he will received $2 million for his services in 2015. This, of course, is no longer an if. Barring any catastrophic outing between now and opening day, Wandy has secured the 4th rotation spot after a fantastic spring with his new club. Rodriguez holds a 91-94 record with a 4.06 ERA in his career. Additionally, he posted 6 consecutive seasons with an ERA under 4.00 while playing for the Astros and Pirates.

    With 2 rotation spots, the battle for the 5th roster spot continues. Another surprise this spring is the promise of Mike Foltynewicz. When the Braves made their trade with the Houston Astros sending away Evan Gattis, it wasn’t expected that any of the prospects coming back would be big league ready. Despite a tough outing Tuesday when he was lit up by the Phillies, Folty remains in the mix for a rotation spot. Also fighting for the spot is former Padre Eric Stults, veteran starter Chien-Ming Wang and former Yankee Manny Banuelos.

    ATLANTA’S ROSTER COMING TOGETHER ON BOTH SIDES OF THE BALL…

    Coming into camp, the Braves expected big stories from some of their newest acquisitions. What nobody expected was for Andrelton Simmons to walk into camp with his offense and defense firing on all cylinders. In 10 games and 30 ABs, Simba is hitting .467 with a club-leading 12 RBIs.

    Joining the hot bat of Simmons are the two guys battling for the spot as his double-play partner. The Braves signed Alberto Callaspo in the offseason with the assumption that he would be their opening day second baseman, but his presence in camp has not yet materialized in much positive. Instead, Jace Peterson and Pedro Ciriaco have stepped up in big ways. Showing adequate defense for their age and lack of experience, the true test was whether either player had progressed at the plate. In 41 ABs over 16 games, Peterson has 14 hits and 8 walks with a .341 average. However, with those astonishing numbers come 11 strikeouts. Ciriaco has a comparable 41 ABs in 17 games. Over that span he has put together 15 hits, 9 RBIs and a .366 average. The major difference between the two 2B candidates is OBP. Jace at .449 and Pedro at .372.

    The biggest acquisition for the offense over the winter was veteran outfielder Nick Markakis. It came as both a surprise and a blow immediately following his signing when he underwent cervical spinal fusion surgery. For much of the winter it was unclear when Markakis would be able to return to full baseball activity. That he wouldn’t be ready for opening day seemed a foregone conclusion until he made his spring debut this week and put all doubts to rest. In his first 2 games and 6 ABs, Markakis has 2 runs, 2 hits and a .333 average. His progress on the field seems to indicate that he will be ready for the April 6th first game against the Marlins.

    A regular that came into camp with something to prove that has remained unproven is third baseman Chris Johnson. Johnson had a major fall off after his first remarkable year with the club, but the Braves remain hopeful that last season was the anomaly and not his successful batting title-contending year. However, Joey Terdoslavich has been given some time at the hot corner to determine whether he can pick it. With Terdoslavich in the mix as well as veteran Callaspo, Johnson’s starting job looks not to be as solid as previously thought. As we saw more and more at the end of 2014 with B.J. (now Melvin) Upton and former (and still on the payroll) Brave Dan Uggla, the team will not allow for one player to bring down the lineup day in and day out.

    Still in contention for bench spots are the aforementioned Terdoslavich, the rejuvenated Kelly Johnson and Almonte. Much of what happens with the bench will come down to who wins the 2B starting position, whether Eric Young, Jr. is the starting center fielder and how much the Braves think they can rely on Alberto Callaspo and Johnson.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter@framethepitch.

    J. Upton, Northcraft traded to Friars for 4 prospects

    In a much anticipated move, the Braves traded away slugger Justin Upton for a package of prospects. Friday the front office completed a 6-player trade with the San Diego Padres. Joining Upton in the trade to San Diego is Aaron Northcraft, minor league RHP prospect. In return from the Padres, the Braves receive much-touted prospect Max Fried (LHP), Jace Peterson (INF), Dustin Peterson (INF), and Mallex Smith (OF).

    northcraft

    Aaron Northcraft was ranked 14th among Braves’ prospects prior to the trade and won’t be in the top 20 prospects of the Padres’ organization.

    The headliner headed to San Diego is Justin Upton, of course. But the Padres also receive 24-year-old pitching prospect Aaron Northcraft. Northcraft had a rough 2014 season when he went from a pitcher with a 7-3 record and 2.88 ERA while at Double-A to an 0-7 pitcher with an elevated 6.54 ERA at Triple-A Gwinnett. He never had the speed or power to be a piece of the Braves’ bullpen and given his struggles in AAA, he wasn’t projected to be a possibility for the rotation. While he could add depth eventually to the Padres’ young rotation, his loss isn’t one the Braves can’t absorb.

    In 2 seasons with the Braves, the 27-year-old Upton hit 27 and 29 home runs, some would say at the cost of 160+ strikeouts per year. His .263 and .270 averages came up short of the marks he tallied the previous 4 seasons in Arizona. His defense seemed to be down while in Atlanta, though that could arguably be due to the shadow of the greatest defensive right fielder in the league–Jason Heyward–to compare him to. While playing with his big brother B.J. didn’t seem to hurt or help his game, the opposite was true for B.J. There is always the possibility that B.J. might play better without his brother on the roster with him. Time will tell.

    Upton’s bat will be replaced in the lineup by the full-time bat of Evan Gattis, presumably. Gattis will man LF while rookie Bethancourt takes on the responsibility of being behind the plate full-time.

    BRAVES MOVE AHEAD IN PUSH FOR 2017 STADIUM OPENING…

    For fans who don’t quite grasp what the Braves are doing with their offseason moves, it is helpful to understand that in 2017 the Cobb County stadium (SunTrust Park) will open. This isn’t the type of fire sale that would see the team sell off their highest valued pieces for a load of young prospects to restock the farm. This is simply letting go of players that they would otherwise only have control of for a year before they left for free agency, the case with both Heyward and Upton. In return, the Braves may not be receiving pieces that are big-league ready (which is the case with all but Max Fried in the Padres trade), but they will be by 2017 when the team hopes to have a club that can not only only compete, but can win it all.

    That said, don’t count Atlanta out. Adding Shelby Miller makes for a young, talented rotation with Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Alex Wood and possibly David Hale. Adding Nick Markakis gives the Braves’ lineup some pop, pop that will come with less strikeouts than the Braves’ OF has brought to the equation in the last 2 years. With the signing of Callaspo, the Braves add a sure hand that can provide leadership for the up and coming young players like Pastornicky, Gosselin and Perraza.

    Trading with the Padres brought 4 prospects to the club that will help in various ways with the current plan to build for a great 2017 run. Max Fried, the prospect most likely to break into the big leagues first, had Tommy John surgery near the end of the 2014 season. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing for Atlanta, however. Fried was the No. 7-overall pick in the 2012 draft by San Diego and with the TJ surgery behind him, he could prove to be similar to Alex Wood in his availability once healed. At 20-years-old, Fried had a successful 147 innings in Class A rookie ball this year before being shutdown with elbow soreness. He posted a 3.61 ERA in 38 appearances.

    With Fried come 3 fielders. Jace and Dustin Peterson, of no relation, are both infield prospects. Jace played 27 games with the Padres last season and Dustin was the second round pick of the Friars in 2013. Mallex Smith is the 3rd position player in the group and was drafted in 2012. He hit .327 in 55 games in A-ball in 2014. All 3 of the fielders are 24 or under.

    Going forward John Hart hasn’t ruled out additional trades, but he has suggested that they’ll “circle back” on free agents. For now and likely for the 2015 season, Evan Gattis and Chris Johnson will remain with the club.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.