NASHVILLE — John Coppolella and the Atlanta Braves’ front office never wavered on their demands for any potential Shelby Miller trade. With the market price for starting pitching skyrocketing after the signings of Zack Greinke and David Price, among others, Miller’s stock coming off a strong third season was higher than ever.
So, Coppollella & Co. swung for the fences.
The Braves-Diamondbacks blockbuster trade on Tuesday night delivered on the Miller asking price, bringing back a high-quality young outfielder already producing at the major-league level, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft and another consensus top-50 prospect.
That is an absolute haul.
"Did they trade value back (for Miller)? Sure. We have high hopes for these prospects, but I don’t want this to get lost: They’re still prospects," Braves general manager John Coppolella said. "We don’t know. We have high hopes. Everything we’ve done has been about the future and we’ve seen it pan out, but it’s hard trading Shelby.
"It’s great getting somebody back in this deal, like we did in the (Andrelton) Simmons trade, that we feel is going to be a big part of our team for 2016. But it’s not like we can say right now that Aaron Blair is going to win a Cy Young Award. Or that Dansby Swanson’s gonna win an MVP award. They might. But we don’t know."
Losing Shelby Miller is going to affect the Braves’ rotation in 2016 (and potentially beyond), but the franchise significantly upgraded a problematic and aging outfield and plugged in two more prospects that project as major assets. The Braves front office repeatedly promised to upgrade baseball’s lowest-scoring offense this offseason. It delivered, and then some. Here’s a look at the return:
Throughout the past few weeks, Miller’s name has been linked to the Diamondbacks in a prospective trade that included All-Star center fielder A.J. Pollock. The Diamondbacks needed pitching — this dates back prior to their mega-deal with free agent Zack Greinke; these two organizations were in talks at the GM meetings in November — and the Braves needed all the positional help they could find.
The magnifying glass was simply on the wrong Arizona outfielder.
Inciarte, 25, has yet to reach Pollock’s heights, but he’s two years younger and a versatile outfielder that hit .303/.338/.408 with six home runs and 21 steals last season … good enough for 3.3 wins above replacement. (As a reference point, Miller posted a 3.4 WAR in 2015.) An amateur free-agent signing in 2008, Inciarte can play every outfield position at a high level. His solid minor-league numbers suggest he’s going to continuously hit big-league pitching.
"He’s a special player. He’s a one-plus guy (in terms of team control). He hit .300 last year, an energy player," Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said. "He’s going to make our club better in 2016."
Coppolella said Atlanta received 10 calls with six hours inquiring about Inciarte’s availability. The front office says it does not plan to move him.
On the surface, unless the Braves move left fielder Hector Olivera back to third base, Inciarte projects as the team’s Opening Day center fielder and leadoff hitter. That’s where the Braves front office seems to like him. This hypothetical would shift veteran Michael Bourn into a fourth outfielder role (or expensive trade piece) and perhaps delay the MLB debut of outfield prospect Mallex Smith, but this much is clear: Inciarte immediately becomes Atlanta’s top outfielder for the foreseeable future.
One last thing to note on Inciarte: He will not be a free agent until 2021, meaning he provides two years of club control more than Miller and Pollock.
The Vanderbilt product was the top overall pick in the MLB Draft just a few months ago and now immediately enters into the conversation as the Braves’ No. 1 prospect along with Sean Newcomb. The shortstop comes in as the 10th overall prospect in MLB.com’s prospect rankings after hitting .289/.394/.482 in his first 22 professional games.
Swanson was available for trade through MLB’s new rule that allows teams to trade recent draft picks before logging, as the old rule required, at least one year in their minor-league system. Hart noted that the fact that Swanson was a local product out of Marietta High School alleviated the process as the team’s scouting department was well-versed in his skillset.
The 21-year-old is a potential game-changer for a Braves farm system that was already widely considered the best in baseball, but was short on top-of-the-line position prospects. This addresses that issue with authority.
Adding Swanson also brings up a "good problem" for the franchise moving forward as it already has teenage shortstop Ozhaino Albies in the system. The team has some time before it needs to make any decisions, but the team could move either prospect — likely Albies, who remains a favorite among Braves executives — to second base down the line and form one of the most promising young middle infields around.
With Swanson and Blair in the fold, the Braves have now acquired the Diamondbacks’ past three first-round picks, including top-10 Braves prospect Touki Toussaint.
Blair would be the headliner in almost any other trade, but with the Miller-Inciarte-Swanson triumvirate the 23-year-old right-hander takes a partial back seat. Still, as the No. 61 prospect in MLB.com’s rankings, he’s a huge piece to this puzzle. And, unlike Swanson, he should be ready to compete for a roster spot in 2016.
"We think this is a very close to major league-ready pitcher, even above some of our other young upside guys like a (Sean) Newcomb or (Lucas) Sims, other guys that we like a lot," Hart said. "We think Aaron Blair is a special guy."
The 6-foot-5 power arm pitched well at the Triple-A level last season, posting a 3.16 ERA and 4.08 FIP in 77 innings, and he joins Newcomb, Tyrell Jenkins and Lucas Sims as high-profile Atlanta arms that could push for playing time.