Braves’ offseason reshuffle highlighted by added organizational pitching depth
ATLANTA — Lodged in the center of an end-of-season reshuffling of the franchise and convoluted references to a specific way of building a baseball champion, Braves executives John Hart and John Schuerholz never disguised their intentions. In their first official joint public appearance, sitting alongside Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox at the firing of former general manager Frank Wren, the team’s president and its eventual president of baseball operations put their cards down on a cloth-covered table, directly in front of gathered reporters and a live television audience.
This grandiose plan to reinvigorate the Braves organization top to bottom — from its scouting department to its front office to its on-field MLB product — was never going be an unerring task. It was always going to get messy. There were ill-advised contracts on the books, expiring contracts with top players, a lack of depth and premier talent in the farm system and holes in both the major-league lineup and pitching rotation. That’s not to downplay the contributions of Wren, who constructed one of the winningest teams in baseball in his eight seasons at the helm, but simply to address the realities of an organization that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2001.
Whether it was Wren, Hart, assistant general manager John Coppolella or some other executive calling the shots, changes were on the horizon. As Hart so eloquently put it earlier this offseason, "It’s not like I’m breaking up the ’27 Yankees."
The Braves haven’t exactly taken any steps toward building a modern-day Murderers’ Row, either.
Two of their three best position players from a season ago, outfielders Jason Heyward and Justin Upton, were traded with one year remaining on their deals without, according to reports, serious extension talks. The biggest acquisition of the offseason might have been the most baffling, considering the franchise’s subsequent moves: signing 31-year-old Nick Markakis, a quality outfielder who underwent neck surgery last month, to fill Heyward’s void in right field for the next four years. The remaining moves addressing what was the second-lowest scoring lineup in baseball, namely veterans Alberto Callaspo and A.J. Pierzynski to one-year deals, are stop-gap in nature.
Outside of a few other minor signings and trade pieces, that’s the sum total of Hart’s focus on the lineup. On paper, somehow, one of the worst offenses around looks less daunting in 2015.
But that was never the primary focus.
This was a rebuilding assignment from Day 1 and, setting aside the signing of a surgery-bound 30-something outfielder to a four-year deal, every substantial move has been executed with at least one eye on the horizon. In his opening statement at the firing of Wren, Hart, even before accepting the de facto GM duties, publicly selected his strategy: "This is a franchise that is known for scouting, development, young players, a full pipeline of young players." The moment he traded Heyward, a 25-year-old star bound for a lucrative contract and arguably the team’s best all-around player, it was evident that the organization was turning its eye on acquiring new, cost-controlled talent, particularly by restructuring the scouting and player development department and infusing fresh talent in what many have referred to as one of the worst farm systems in baseball.
"Championship organizations do a lot of self-examination," Hart said at the time. "The game, I’ve always felt, is about the players. You need to have good players. You want to have them in your system. The ability to acquire those players comes from a variety of different ways, but generally from your scouting staff, the development people take the talent that you have."
His boss didn’t disagree.
"Scouting and player development is the lifeblood of any major league baseball organization," Schuerholz echoed. "You look at a major league organization and you see the top 10 percent of the iceberg when you see a major league team play. And then 90 percent unseen by most people is what goes on down in player development, scouting, international scouting, et cetera, et cetera. Where the organization is formed and where its strength is created, certainly we spent time looking at that and analyzing that and focusing on that. We’re doing that now."
In four of the team’s biggest offseason deals, the Braves have added top-15 organizational prospects from the Cardinals, Padres, Yankees and Angels. And if there’s one area that Hart, Coppolella and the front office deserve some positive recognition, it’s here: Atlanta has undoubtedly upgraded its overall farm system depth, particularly in regards starting pitching talent. Hart’s most notable accomplishment thus far in his three-month reign is re-stocking the rotation’s shelves — both present and future.
In the past 54 days, the Braves have acquired Shelby Miller, a 24-year-old known MLB commodity that will hold down the No. 3 or 4 spot in the ’15 rotation, Manny Banuelos (former No. 27 overall MLB prospect), Max Fried (former 55th-ranked MLB prospect), Tyrell Jenkins (top-15 prospect in Cardinals system) and Ricardo Sanchez, a 17-year-old gem in the Angels system. Throw in the low-risk addition of Daniel Winkler in the Rule 5 Draft, although he will sit out the 2015 season while recovering from Tommy John, and that is a borderline overhaul to one of the weakest minor-league systems around.
(Side note: The Braves did lose power arm J.R. Graham, who was curiously not protected in the Rule 5 Draft and selected by the Minnesota Twins, and Triple-A starter Aaron Northcraft in the process. While Graham could still end up in an Atlanta uniform if the Twins do not find a substantial role for him on their MLB roster, it’s still clear that the additions of Fried, Banuelos, Jenkins and, perhaps in particular, Sanchez are upgrades. And yes, a few of these acquisitions required dealing Heyward and Upton, but the team also received Banuelos and Sanchez for relievers and prospects.)
The short-term outlook for the MLB rotation is intriguing, albeit not risk-free.
Miller, the young right-hander who came over from the Cardinals in the Jason Heyward trade, is in need of a bounce-back season (3.74 ERA, 0.2 WAR in 2014), but his improved second-half numbers, fastball-dominant arsenal and the presence of top pitching coach Roger McDowell offer plenty of promise. If he ever matches the potential he flashed while vying for the NL Rookie of the Year alongside Jose Fernandez, Yasiel Puig and Julio Teheran, the Braves will feature one of the best under-25 1-2-3 punches in baseball. By all accounts, the left-handed Banuelos, who was once an untouchable piece in the Yankees organization before undergoing Tommy John in 2012 and struggling in the aftermath, will be given every opportunity to win the fifth spot on the ’15 staff.
For argument’s sake, let’s say the 23-year-old makes the 25-man roster coming out of spring training. (Keep in mind: Gordon Blakeley, the former Yankees scout and farm director who was a major piece of Atlanta’s scouting department renovation, had plenty of inside knowledge on Banuelos before the deal was struck. This Braves contingent knows what it’s getting here.) That would leave Atlanta’s starting pitchers, including three southpaws, with an average age of 24.4 years old and plenty of upside to go with it. There’s also the added bonus of cost control.
"They have good arms," newly signed backup catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. "It’s one of the things that excites you with this team, not only at the big-league level, but talking to John Hart and some of the other guys, they have other guys coming in the system and it’s exciting to be a veteran and want to help these guys."
Miller and Banuelos would be hard-pressed to match the production of Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang from a year ago, but — once again — that’s not the overall goal.
This isn’t about 2015. It’s about building a foundation for sustained success.
"Going into this winter we’d lost over 400 innings in our rotation and we didn’t have any players coming up in our system that were ready to provide those types of innings," Hart said after acquiring Miller. "We really needed two starting pitchers. As we went through the meetings, we went out there with the idea of how do we acquire starters. We sampled the waters, we talked to literally every club out there and weren’t looking for a one-year sort of fix."
The long-term outlook, in regards to starting pitching depth, is better in January than it was in early November. Hart & Co. must believe they have found some sort of market inefficiency with pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery — Banuelos and Fried, in particular, lost perceived value after the surgery — and have not shied away from injury histories. As a result, the Braves bought low on promising arm talent. Even considering their elbow problems, Banuelos and Fried project as MLB starters. Jenkins, 22, is a long-term project that has shown dramatic improvement in recent months.
The eventual steal might end up being the teenager. The Braves traded for Ricardo Sanchez, who was recently dubbed the No. 2 prospect in the Angels system with "tantalizing upside," last week for prospects Kyle Kubitza and Nate Hyatt, banking on the youngster’s long-range upside. Already possessing a plus fastball clocked in the mid-90s to go with a quality curve, Sanchez is still years away from a MLB debut, but it fits the plan.
All of this was necessary because outside of former first-round draft pick Jason Hursh, the Braves’ top pitching prospects have yet to pitch in the upper minors with only one (Lucas Sims) rated among the top 100 prospects in baseball. It’s an organization that has produced the likes of Teheran, Alex Wood and Mike Minor in recent seasons, but it’s also one that has watched former top prospects Graham, Randall Delgado and Sean Gilmartin fall short of expectations.
In Hart’s estimation, the pipeline was running dry.
That just will not fly in the National League East, arguably the best pitching division in baseball with the Nationals (Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez), Marlins (Fernandez, Henderson Alvarez, Mat Latos) and Mets (Matt Harvey, Jacob DeGrom, Zack Wheeler) — three organizations whose respective farm systems were ranked higher than the Braves with top-tier prospects climbing the ladder.
Bringing in pitching prospects, particularly prospects with injury history that may not even play in 2015, is not the avenue to inspire immediate hype. It comes with its own set of risks and challenges. And the procurement of assets is only half the battle, if that. The Braves are banking on this reinvigorated approach to player development to make this entire process worthwhile.
There’s ample room for concern with the Braves organization. After finishing with its first losing record since 2008, the team did very little to address what was its Achilles heel. Top players are gone. Question marks litter the lineup. The offseason’s highest-priced addition broke ranks and didn’t fit the rebuilding narrative, while the litany of trades and signings didn’t bring in a single top-end positional prospect.
Still, Hart has accomplished two things he set out to do from the very beginning: infuse the farm system with fresh talent and re-focus on the Braves’ long-term emphasis on pitching. There are now a few more potential building blocks around the foundation of the Teheran-Wood duo. The rewards might not truly pay off until a couple years down the line, if at all, but adding Shelby Miller, Manny Banuelos, Max Fried, Tyrell Jenkins and Ricardo Sanchez is the highlight of the Hart regime to date.