Braves’ rebuild will hinge on success of young pitchers

Star outfielders Jason Heyward and Justin Upton have been replaced in Atlanta by a handful of talented but unproven young pitchers.

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It has become a common refrain among rival executives this offseason:

“I love John Hart, but . . .”

But I don’t like his offseason.

The Braves’ strategy under Hart, their new president of baseball operations, seemed reasonable enough:

Trade outfielders Jason Heyward and Justin Upton, both potential free agents. Rebuild a bottom-five farm system. Avoid an Astros-like crash while retooling for the opening of a new ballpark in 2017.

Yet the Braves, in the opinions of some rival execs, have made a series of curious decisions, from the players they got back for Heyward and Upton to the signing of free-agent outfielder Nick Markakis to a four-year, $44 million contract knowing he needed neck surgery.

Time will tell whether Hart still has his fastball and whether the Braves’ evaluations proved correct. But the questions are fair, considering the high level of risk in a number of the team’s moves.

The way the Braves see it, they’ve acquired five pitchers 24 and under: right-handers Shelby Miller, Tyrell Jenkins and Arodys Vizcaino, plus lefties Max Fried and Manny Banuelos. All are or were top prospects. All but Miller were buy-low types due to injuries. 

Of the group, Fried was perhaps the most debatable choice. Yes, he has the most upside of the four players the Braves acquired for Upton. But he also will miss the entire 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

The Braves had told rival clubs they wanted more for Upton than the package of Miller and Jenkins that they got for Heyward. It didn’t happen, in part because Upton will earn $14.5 million next season and Heyward $7.8 million. In the end, the Braves failed to land any of the Padres’ top prospects — righty Matt Wisler, catcher Austin Hedges or outfielder Hunter Renfroe. 

After Fried, the most intriguing player in the deal was outfielder Mallex Smith, who had a .403 on-base percentage and stole 88 bases at two levels of A ball last season and could turn into another Michael Bourn. Infielder Jace Peterson, however, might prove nothing more than a utility type, and third baseman Dustin Peterson is a long-term project at best.

Much then, depends upon Fried, who was the seventh overall pick in the 2012 draft. New Braves exec Chad McDonald, previously with the Padres, had special insight into Fried, just as Gordon Blakeley, previously with the Yankees, had special insight into Banuelos.

The Braves likely would have received a compensation pick in the 30-to-35 range if they had made a qualifying offer to Upton. Fried clearly represents greater upside, but some execs note that he was less than dominant even before he got hurt while pitching in the Midwest League in 2013.

Teams gamble all the time now with pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery — two of the top 18 picks last June, the Blue Jays’ Jeff Hoffman at No. 9 and Nationals’ Erick Fedde at No. 18, actually had their surgeries just before the draft. Banuelos and Vizcaino also had TJs, as did righty Daniel Winkler, whom the Braves selected from the Rockies in the Rule 5 draft.

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Banuelos is further along than Fried in his recovery from the surgery, which he underwent in October 2012 — he struck out 71 in 76 2/3 innings last season, touching 94 mph. Ditto for Vizcaino, a reliever who returned to the majors with the Cubs last season. Jenkins, though, has never pitched more than 100 innings in a season, in large part due to shoulder trouble.

Risk and more risk — and yet the Braves failed to protect righty J.R. Graham, a former top prospect who has dealt with shoulder trouble the past two seasons, and lost him to the Twins in the Rule 5 draft.

Again, the Braves’ overall strategy made sense — Hart and Co. correctly figured the club, even with Heyward and Upton, might finish fourth in the NL East, behind the Nationals, Marlins and Mets.

And while the offense looks rather feeble, even with the additions of contact types like Markakis and Alberto Callaspo, how much worse can it get? The Braves were next-to-last in the majors in runs last season.

The real question, as always, is whether the Braves evaluated properly. By ’17, if not before, we’ll have some answers.

PHILLIES PECKING AWAY

AROUND THE HORN

The Phillies, like the Braves, have spent the winter trying to increase their pool of young pitching talent. None of their acquisitions is a lights-out prospect, but the Phils could not have expected to hit the jackpot in trading left-hander Antonio Bastardo, outfielder Marlon Byrd and even shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

Actually, the Phillies did better than expected for Byrd, acquiring right-hander Ben Lively after kicking in $4 million of Byrd’s $8 million salary in ’15. Lively was the Reds’ No. 9 prospect entering last season, according to Baseball America. Both pitchers the Phillies acquired for Rollins — lefty Tom Windle and righty Zach Eflin — ranked in their respective organization’s top 15.

A trade of lefty Cole Hamels presumably would yield a bigger and better return, though the difference with Hamels is that he is owed at least $90 million over the next four years. Those numbers would increase to $110 million over the next five years if Hamels were sent to one of the nine teams on his no-trade list, requiring that club to pick up his vesting option. 

The Red Sox are one of the teams that Hamels must approve, but whether they are willing to absorb his contract and part with the necessary prospects remains to be seen. Outfielder Mookie Betts probably is untouchable, but perhaps the Phillies could land a combination of young pitchers and left-side infielders; the Sox are deep in both.

The Cardinals potentially are another interesting suitor, given the physical questions surrounding right-handers Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha and the pending free agency of righty John Lackey. Then again, it would be out of character for the Cards to part with say, a pitcher such as Carlos Martinez or Marco Gonzalez plus an outfielder such as Randal Grichuk or Stephen Piscotty.

Keep in mind, the Cardinals have traded pitchers Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins in the past six months. They also might want to extend right fielder Jason Heyward, whom they acquired to replace the late Oscar Taveras.

In any case, the Phillies should be motivated to move Hamels sooner rather than later. They might state publicly that they are willing to carry Hamels into the season, but their optimal plan would be to trade him before spring training, then peddle lefty Cliff Lee before July 31.

Q.O. FOR ZO?

A rival executive poses an interesting question: Would a team that acquired Ben Zobrist from the Rays make him a qualifying offer next fall as he enters his age 35 season? 

The answer probably is yes, assuming Zobrist stays reasonably productive in 2015.

In three years under the current system, five players 35 and over have received qualifying offers: Michael Cuddyer, Victor Martinez, David Ortiz, Carlos Beltran and Hiroki Kuroda (twice).

The difference between Zobrist and the hitters on that list is that his power is in decline. Also, the qualifying offer next offseason likely will increase from $15.3 million to the $16 million range.

Still, some teams inquiring about a Zobrist trade likely view the possibility of a qualifying offer as a plus. Combine his $7.5 million salary with the offer, and you’re looking at a one-year bargain with a draft pick or a two-year deal in the $23 million range.

Another option would be for an acquiring club to negotiate an extension with Zobrist at a lower average annual value than the qualifying offer. The offer hardly ensures that a team will retain control; all 34 players to receive one have rejected it. Zobrist likely would jump at the chance to be a free agent for the first time.

WHY THE LOVE FOR RASMUS IN BALTIMORE?

The Orioles’ preoccupation with free-agent outfielder Colby Rasmus might seem odd, but Delmon Young was an example of a player with questionable makeup who adapted well to the Orioles’ culture. Manager Buck Showalter evidently believes Rasmus can do the same. 

The Orioles’ clubhouse is full of leaders who set strong, positive examples — Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, J.J. Hardy, Darren O’Day, etc. Showalter, meanwhile, has proven he can handle different personalities. If he can get more out of Rasmus, the Orioles could end up with a bargain.

That said, the list of available outfielders does not end with free agents such as Rasmus and Nori Aoki. The Dodgers remain more than willing to trade Andre Ethier, who also is on the Orioles’ radar, as first reported by MASN’s Roch Kubatko. The D-backs’ Mark Trumbo and Angels’ Josh Hamilton are others who should at least merit an inquiry from Baltimore.

MORE ON TRUMBO

The D-backs are reluctant to move Trumbo, and for good reason – he is under club control for two more years and seldom was in the same lineup as Paul Goldschmidt last season due to injuries to both players.

Only six times, all in July, did Trumbo hit fourth behind Goldschmidt; former manager Kirk Gibson also used Trumbo in other spots. New manager Chip Hale, on the other hand, could be juggling three right-handed power threats – Goldschmidt, Trumbo and Yasmani Tomas.

The D-backs, though, are woefully short on left-handed power. The three left-handed hitters on their 40-man roster — David Peralta, Ender Inciarte and Jake Lamb – have 16 career homers combined. The team’s leading left-handed “slugger” by that measure actually is switch hitter Cliff Pennington, who has 22 career homers batting left-handed.

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AROUND THE HORN

*Wil Myers is holding off public comment until his introductory news conference in San Diego on Tuesday, but he already has told the Padres that he is excited and motivated to play center field.

It will be interesting to hear if Myers is adjusting his conditioning to prepare for the position change. Ethier lost weight last offseason knowing the Dodgers again would use him in center, wanting to become lighter so he could better handle the position.

*Though the Blue Jays inquired about the Astros’ Dexter Fowler last summer, they are content with their current options in center, according to major-league sources.

The Jays plan to use Kevin Pillar and Dalton Pompey and also are bringing Ezequiel Carrera to camp on a minor-league contract. At the very least, Pillar and Pompey figure to play solid defense, and both also hit well in the minors.

Some teams view Pillar as more of a fourth outfielder, and that ultimately might prove the case. But he routinely proved his doubters wrong in the minors and could become the Jays’ version of Kevin Kiermaier – or at the very least, someone like Reed Johnson.

*Sure the Rockies would trade Wilin Rosario, but as one club official puts it, “everyone wants him for nothing.” Rosario clearly is not viable defensively at catcher, and his OPS has declined from .843 to .801 to .739 over the past three seasons.

The best move for the Rockies might be to rebuild Rosario’s value at other positions. They could use him at first to spell Justin Morneau against certain lefties. They also might want to stick his right-handed bat in the outfield on occasion; Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson all are left-handed.