Eyes on new front office to spark Braves renaissance
For a team that came to despise its own farm system, the Braves sure generated a lot of major-league talent.
In fact, over the last five drafts, only the Tigers selected a greater number of players who reached the majors, producing 15 to the Braves’ 13, according to STATS LLC.
Yet, the Braves justified their front-office overhaul and subsequent gutting of their major-league roster in part because they believed their system was not good enough.
This is how it works in baseball and other industries — new management takes over, promising a better future, pointing out the previous regime’s deficiencies.
I get it. I also get that the Braves, due to the pending free agencies of outfielders Jason Heyward and Justin Upton, needed to reconfigure their roster.
But as the team’s deconstruction continues, most recently with the trade of closer Craig Kimbrel to the Padres, I’m not convinced that the Braves were in such bad shape to begin with. I’m also not convinced that they will be in better shape in the future.
The Braves’ selections from 2010 to ‘14 under former scouting director Tony DeMacio included shortstop Andrelton Simmons (second round, ‘10), outfielder Evan Gattis (23rd round, ‘10) and left-hander Alex Wood (second round, ‘12). During that period, the team also signed its top prospect, second baseman Jose Peraza, out of Venezuela.
Not bad, considering that the Braves’ average first-round position in that five-year stretch was 29th, and that they rarely went above the commissioner’s recommended bonuses under a system that was in effect until 2012.
Yet there was team president John Schuerholz at the news conference announcing the dismissal of general manager Frank Wren last September, saying, “It’s our goal to find that Braves Way again and invigorate it.”
The Braves, as part of their purge, also fired assistant GM Bruce Manno and reassigned DeMacio. Roy Clark, the scouting director who oversaw the signings of Kimbrel, first baseman Freddie Freeman, right-hander Julio Teheran, Heyward and catcher Christian Bethancourt, among many others, returned as a special assistant. Brian Bridges became the new scouting director.
Funny, for all the changes, the Braves Way seemed pretty healthy the previous spring, when the team awarded contract extensions to four homegrown players — Simmons, Kimbrel, Freeman and Teheran — not to mention Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez.
If the Braves want to blame Wren for his high-priced investments in B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, fine. But the team’s farm system grew thin in part because the Braves traded several youngsters and accelerated the developments of others.
Frankly, even the idea that the system had fallen into disarray is in the eye of the beholder. Baseball America ranked the Braves’ system 29th this season, but MLB.com’s Jim Callis rated it the third-most productive of the past five years.
Whichever party you believe, the new regime will need to be even more adept at identifying young talent, or the team will remain in rebuilding mode when it moves into its new ballpark in 2017.
John Hart, the team’s new president of baseball operations, was wise to trade Heyward and Justin Upton, neither of whom the Braves intended to re-sign. Once Hart went into retreat – save for the signings of a few free agents, most curiously right fielder Nick Markakis – it made sense for him to move Gattis and Kimbrel, too.
The question, of course, is whether the new regime — led by Hart and assistant general manager John Coppolella — will be proven correct in enough of their player moves to spark a Braves renaissance.
New front offices often make ill-advised decisions when they are unfamiliar with the players they inherit. Coppolella is a holdover from Wren’s front office, so Hart is not exactly flying blind. But some of the team’s lesser moves already look debatable:
● The trade of right-hander David Carpenter and left-hander Chasen Shreve to the Yankees for left-hander Manny Banuelos.
Both Carpenter and Shreve opened the season as part of the Yankees’ powerhouse bullpen. Banuelos, a top prospect before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012, struggled this spring and will start the season at Triple-A.
● The trade of infielder Tommy La Stella to the Cubs for reliever Arodys Vizcaino and $832,000 in international bonus pool money.
La Stella appears to be a mere stopgap until the Cubs promote their younger infielders, and Peraza likely would have blown past him with the Braves. Vizcaino, though, has struggled since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012, and recently was suspended 80 games for using performance-enhancing drugs.
● The loss of right-hander J.R. Graham to the Twins in the Rule 5 draft.
Graham, once considered a top prospect, was slowed by shoulder trouble the past two seasons. The Twins grabbed him when the Braves left him unprotected, and he cracked the Minnesota bullpen with a big spring. He must remain with the Twins all season and stay active for 90 days, or be offered back to the Braves for half his $50,000 fee.
● The trade of right-handers David Hale and Gus Schlosser to the Rockies for minor-league catchers Jose Briceno and Chris O’Dowd.
If the Braves had kept Hale, who began the season on the DL with a strained left oblique, they might not have needed to trade for right-hander Trevor Cahill, a move that will cost them $5.5 million but also helped land them the No. 75 pick in the draft. Briceno is typical of many of the players the Braves have acquired, talented but a long way from the majors.
Hart and Co. also traded Kyle Kubitza, a player the Angels believe could be their next third baseman, as part of a deal for a high-upside left-hander, Ricardo Sanchez, who turns 18 on Saturday.
Obviously, it’s too early to pass judgment on any of the above moves, and in the trades with the Yankees, Rockies and Angels, the Braves clearly were pointing to the future.
The verdicts, as always, will come down to evaluation. But the notion that the Braves had stopped producing young talent, well, it’s simply incorrect.
To get Justin Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson, the Braves traded infielder Martin Prado and four prospects, including 2011 second-rounder Nick Ahmed, the Diamondbacks’ current shortstop; Panamanian right-hander Randall Delgado, who is part of the D-backs’ bullpen; and 2010 13th-rounder Brandon Drury, who ultimately could enter the team’s infield mix.
Meanwhile, the Braves’ current roster features nine homegrown players, four of whom came in the last five drafts. Two of the team’s top pitching prospects, right-handers Lucas Sims and Jason Hursh, also were part of those drafts, and still other youngsters could emerge.
No front office is perfect. But when it came to producing young talent, the Braves’ previous one wasn’t so bad.