Three Cuts: Braves forge ahead post-Freeman with Matt Adams trade
The Atlanta Braves salvaged what could have amounted to a disastrous week.
Alongside the organization-crippling revelation of Freddie Freeman’s fractured wrist — an injury robbing one of baseball’s best players of an MVP bid and forcing Atlanta’s offense to play shorthanded for approximately 10 weeks — bad news kept trickling in: Luiz Gohara’s bicep injury, Alex Jackson to the disabled list, Joey Wentz leaving the game after being hit by a baseball. Then the Nationals’ flight landed.
The Braves rebounded from an embarrassing conclusion to the costly Blue Jays series against their division rivals, taking two of three and nearly erasing a Stephen Strasburg gem in the late innings. Atlanta is not bailing on the 2017 campaign just yet. Here are three observations from an overloaded week:
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Matt Adams trade sends message and re-highlights successful trade blueprint
John Hart arrived with something to sell.
"This sends a message to our staff. I think this sends a message to our ballclub, to the players that are down there — you know, these guys have been grinding it out, we’ve had a tough schedule," the Braves president of baseball operations said on Saturday evening following the Matt Adams trade with St. Louis. "I think it sends a message to our fans that, look, we said we wanted to be an exciting club this year. We realize we’re not perfect. Our (farm) system is where we’re still emphasizing it, but this club is capable.
"It’s a very capable club and you try to protect it."
The Braves reached a veritable crossroads when MRI and CT scans confirmed superstar first baseman Freddie Freeman suffered a non-displaced fracture in his left wrist: To sell or not to sell. It was, potentially, a timeline-shifting injury. For a franchise still in the midst of a rebuild and sitting outside the early playoff picture, being first to market with attractive veterans offered its fair share of intrigue.
Instead the Braves hit the phones as buyers.
In Adams, a left-handed slugger under club control until 2019, the Braves followed a familiar blueprint: Find an established MLB contributor who has fallen out of favor with his current team. This same route helped secure Brandon Phillips for $1 million and zero prospect capital in the Sean Rodriguez injury fallout, and now it's helped the franchise not only shore up the Freeman void but, upon their best player's return, provide manager Brian Snitker with much-needed pop off the bench.
(To be clear, corner infielder Juan Yepez was a much higher price than the two pitching prospects shipped to Cincinnati for Phillips. After signing for north of $1 million as an amatuer free agent in 2014, Yepez popped up near the bottom of team prospect lists as an intriguing bat. Still, at 19 in A-ball, there's a reason Cardinals GM John Mozeliak referred to Yepez as a lottery ticket.)
For his career, Adams is hitting about 10 percent above league average per weighted runs created plus.
The Braves added that type of 28-year-old bat with club control for the price of, well, a lottery ticket.
Back to Hart's messaging: It's clear that after winning seven of 10 games, Atlanta still sees possibility with this roster — at least in terms of holding the fort until Freeman returns. It remains a long shot. However, with improved pitching — particularly at home, which arrived in the Nationals series — perhaps the thought of masking the offense's irreplaceable loss isn't entirely farfetched. We'll know more in three weeks: Atlanta's next 21 games come against teams with current records of .500 or lower.
In retrospect, the Adams decision was an easy call. His bat plays, and Yepez will not be the last well-liked prospect traded as the Braves attempt to push their way back to prominence.
The Braves need many of their possible trade chips to rebound from slow starts — hello veteran starters — and there's something to be said for putting those players in positions to succeed. Even while assuming that this organization will eventually end up sellers near the trade deadline, the Adams deal checks out. The Braves needed help at minimal cost and he fit the bill. Sometimes things are just that simple.
Hart is correct: This roster is imperfect and the ultimate promise lies in the farm system. But after years of selling Year 1 in SunTrust Park as a turning point, the Braves are not ready to bail 41 games into the campain with three teams looking up at them in the division.
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Jose Ramirez’s understated effectiveness
Atlanta’s bullpen pitched a combined shutout against the Nationals over the weekend, joining forces to not allow a single run over 9 1/3 innings pitched. Perhaps no member of that group’s top arms is less heralded than Jose Ramirez.
Ramirez, 27, followed a well-worn path to Atlanta. In the wake of the front office’s influx of New York Yankees influences during its scouting department overhaul in 2014, the former Yankees farmhand made his way south. Once traded to Seattle in the Dustin Ackley deal, the Braves secured Ramirez’s services by sending Ryne Harper — a 28-year-old reliever still awaiting his first big-league promotion — to the Mariners in 2015. Ramirez has generally been a positive force in the Braves’ bullpen ever since.
The 27-year-old posted a 117 ERA+ in 32 3/2 innings last season.
In 2017, he’s been even better.
The right-hander has allowed just two runs (one earned) since April 12. He owns an 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio over that stretch. A major reason for the production is Ramirez’s two-seam fastball and changeup combination which, based on PITCHf/x data, is quietly one of the most effective in the majors.
Among pitchers with at least 50 innings since the start of the 2016 season, Ramirez ranks top-15 in value per 100 pitches with both his changeup and two-seamer. His 16.1 percent overall whiff rate ranks 16th among all qualified relievers; as a reference point, AL Cy Young frontrunner Chris Sale draws a swinging strike on 16.3 percent of his pitches.
All of this amounts to a 1.37 ERA at the moment — and potentially a late-inning threat for Brian Snitker & Co.
One final note in Ramirez’s favor: Baseball Prospectus keeps a statistic called Deserved Run Average, considered one of the most accurate catch-all evaluations of pitcher performance out there. Ramirez ranks just behind Jim Johnson on the Braves’ leaderboards … and just ahead of Yu Darvish overall. He’s in a zone.
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The apparent inevitability of Emilio Bonifacio
This is a story about Hanser Alberto.
Standing 5-foot-11 and weighing in around 215 pounds, the Dominican Republic native broke in the Texas Rangers’ farm system in 2010 as a 17-year-old infielder. The glove was never a concern. Throughout his minor-league career, Alberto consistently graded out as a plus defender with the ability to move around the diamond — and when he broke in with the big-league club, he registered 17 total defensive runs saved in under 400 innings played. Elite production, even at premium positions.
Alberto’s problems always revolved around his bat.
After hitting the lower levels relatively well, he registered sub-league average production at nearly every single minor-league stop. His .311 on-base percentage with limited accompanying power offset his excellent glove, and that did not change when he was called up to the majors. Alberto, who opened the 2017 season on the disabled list, has yet to figure out major-league pitching. His 15 career OPS+ is practically unplayable.
Alberto is the only MLB position player claiming worse offensive numbers than Braves bench piece Emilio Bonifacio since the start of the 2015 season. Bonifacio’s 11 weighted runs created plus is the second-worst mark among hitters with at least 150 plate appearances over that span. The evidence is readily available: Bonifacio can no longer hit major-league pitching at an acceptable rate and, unlike the Alberto case, he offers no elite skill and youth is not on his side.
Yet he keeps surviving Atlanta Braves’ roster moves week after week.
From a financial perspective, this checks out. The moment Bonifacio made the 25-man roster after a surprising spring, the Braves were tethered to paying him a major-league salary. (The fact that he’s universally considered a strong clubhouse presence does not hurt.) As the Braves shuttle young players with options back and forth, Bonifacio stays afloat.
However, as Atlanta’s Matt Adams move underscores, the franchise wants to remain competitive … so how long will Snitker’s bench be shortchanged?
Barring another setback, the return of Adonis Garcia from the disabled list next week could provide the next litmus test for just how resilient the Emilio Bonifacio Era is in 2017.