Braves trade star shortstop Andrelton Simmons to Angels

Shortstop Andrelton Simmons led the National League with 25 defensive runs saved in 2015.

Brad Penner/Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Andrelton Simmons is on his way to Los Angeles.

The Atlanta Braves traded their 26-year-old star shortstop, the two-time National League Gold Glove winner and arguably the top defensive player in baseball, to the Los Angeles Angels for two highly rated prospects and veteran shortstop Erick Aybar, the teams announced on Thursday. Braves catching prospect Jose Briceno was also sent to Los Angeles, while Atlanta received $2.5 million in cash.

The prospects included in the deal are Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis, two highly regarded arms in the Angels organization. Both former college arms pitched at the Double-A level last season and were considered the top two prospects in the Angels organization — adding more depth to arguably the deepest pitching farm system in the majors.

"It’s a very tough trade, a painful trade, as there have been other tough, painful trades," Braves general manager John Coppolella said on a conference call. "We did not want to trade Andrelton Simmons. But we felt that this was too good for us to pass up. We felt like we were getting so much talent back in this deal that if we didn’t make this trade it would be very tough for us to keep going forward with our plans."

Newcomb is the headliner.

The 6-foot-5 left-hander rocketed up through the Angels system in 2015, posting a sub-3.00 ERA at each stop. The former 15th overall draft pick has drawn comparisons to Jon Lester and adds a rare southpaw to Atlanta’s overflowing surplus of high-ceiling arms in the farm system. (Manny Banuelos and Max Fried, two pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery, are the only two left-handed prospects close to the majors for Atlanta. Kolby Allard, the team’s 2015 first-round pick, has shown tremendous promise but is only 18 years old.) Newcomb posted 168 strikeouts in just 136 minor-league innings last season.

Ellis, a third-round pick in the 2014 draft, is a 6-foot-4 right-hander who posted a 3.92 ERA in Double-A last season.

Trading Simmons, one of the organization’s last remaining pieces of a promising young corps along with first baseman Freddie Freeman and starter Julio Teheran, was never going to be simple. He’s a fan favorite and perhaps the greatest defensive player of his generation at a premium position on a team-friendly deal.

Simmons was signed through the 2020 season, and while the contract escalates over time he was still a bargain given his season-by-season value.

The rebuilding move appears to be a clear indicator that Coppolella and Atlanta’s front office had concerns over Simmons’ bat. While the glove provided more than enough value at his current salary, the former second-round pick has hit below league average for three straight seasons — and for a team that ranks dead last in runs scored over the past two years, that’s become an issue. The Braves simply have had too many holes in the lineup to bury a defense-first shortstop at the bottom of the order.

"Andrelton is a very special player. He’s one of my favorite players. He’s a pure joy to watch play and he’s a great person, too," Coppolella said. "But with where we’re at as a team, having lost 97 games, we need more talent. Sometimes you can’t get that talent right here, right now. But we think that all three players in this trade will have an impact on our major league team for the 2016 season."

Simmons’ departure will not leave a gaping hole to be filled by the Braves’ farm system, however, thanks to Aybar, the 31-year-old shortstop entering the final season of his contract. In terms of value, Simmons and Aybar have lined up over the past two seasons — both have posted a 5.2 WAR over that span — and if Aybar hits near his career averages he could provide an offensive upgrade for the 2016 roster.

Aybar’s contract is worth $8.5 million next season.

"He was an All-Star player last year in 2014 and a former Gold Glove winner. A .276 lifetime hitter. A very, very good player and he will hit for us," Coppolella said of Aybar. "He will be a real good add for our team."

The inclusion of Aybar in the deal also buys the franchise one more year as it waits on top prospect Ozhaino Albies to develop in the minors. Albies could challenge for the Braves’ everyday job at shortstop as early as 2017.

Trading young stars is difficult — and risky. If Simmons ever figures things out at the plate, he could become one of the most valuable players in baseball. That’s the risk the Braves took on Thursday. Still, with two more promising arms in Newcomb and Ellis and a placeholder at short, Atlanta continues to compile assets for the future.