Baseball's offseason is shaping up to be quite entertaining. If the last several hours aren't enough to get you excited about The Hot Stove, you may have something wrong with you. I mean, the Marlins just gave Giancarlo Stanton the GDP of Micronesia, Russell Martin just made a lot Canadian dollars, and if that weren't enough, the Braves sent 25-year old RF stud Jason Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden to the Cardinals for former top prospect Shelby Miller and current wild card Tyrell Jenkins.
Of the three deals consummated in the last few hours, it's the latter that most intrigues due to the moving pieces and relative youth involved. Not only did good players get traded, but there's upside to consider here, too, along with payroll restraints, and of course, roster construction. And while this trade makes a lot of sense for St. Louis, I think it's Atlanta who has the most explaining to do.
Players Traded: Atlanta
Jason Heyward is a known commodity. He's also a valuable commodity. At just 25 with five big league seasons under his belt, he's put up 21.4 fWAR behind consistently above average offensive production (aside from a sophomore "slump" in 2011) and some tremendous defense in right field. Since entering the majors, he's been the third most valuable right fielder in the game behind Jose Bautista and Ben Zobrist (which might really make him the second most valuable). He's far and away the best defender over that time span, easily eclipsing Ichiro Suzuki, Nori Aoki and Jay Bruce. One would do well to argue that he's just entering his peak and that Heyward should not slow down any time soon.
*Steamer 2015 Projection: 4.8 fWAR
Jordan Walden is a 27-year old flame thrower who strikes out a ton of batters and can walk his fair share, too. He can also be fly ball prone at times but was incredibly tough to hit last season and has consistently put up FIPs in the low to mid 3.00s. WAR is hard on relievers, but Walden is in the top 15% of relief pitchers since entering the majors with the Angels in 2010, putting him in the company of Luke Gregerson and Daren O'Day. Should he continue generating grounders like he did in 2014, he's got a bright future ahead of him as the strikeouts don't appear to be going anywhere.
*Steamer 2015 Projection: 0.5 fWAR
Players Traded: St. Louis
Shelby Miller was once considered a top prospect for the Cardinals, and it wasn't even all that long ago. In 2013, he was just behind the late Oscar Tavares according to Baseball Prospectus, and given Tavares' status in the prospect world at that time, that was quite the commendable ranking. That same year, he was viewed by BP as the 16th best prospect in the game and had solid number two starter upside. He was solid, if not spectacular, in his first big league campaign, then scuffled last season at the age of 23. The strikeouts fell and the walks went up, leaving some to wonder just what his future held.
*Steamer 2015 Projection: 2.9 fWAR
Tyrell Jenkins is the youngest player in this deal at 22 and repeated High-A in 2014, making just 13 starts. His 4.31 FIP at that level wasn't necessarily inspiring, but was solid in the Arizona Fall League showing an improved sinker in the low to mid 90's (according to FanGraphs' Kiley McDaniel). He's a live, loose arm that has't generated a ton of strikeouts since being selected 50th overall in the 2010 draft. He has number four starter upside at this point with relief being a possible future destination.
Steamer 2015 Projection: n/a
Atlanta's Motivation to Deal Heyward and Walden
Given Heyward's prowess and Walden's consistent production, why would Atlanta accept a questioned starter and a project in return for two very viable big league pieces? This query was immediately asked about 100 times on Twitter within two minutes of the deal being announced and it's the one we're here to solve. After the initial reaction, this makes some sense for the Braves.
As previously constructed, Atlanta had a surplus of outfielders, particularly that of the left and right field type. Justin Upton was slotted to play left and is owed just over $14 million in 2015 before becoming a free agent next offseason. Evan Gattis was likely to catch more often than not, blocking Christian Bethancourt, who's long been considered one of Atlanta's best prospects. Bethancourt is just 23 but ready for a full time big league gig as a strong defender, although his bat remains underwhelming. With this move, Bethancourt likely becomes the full time backstop, Gattis brings his power bat (and poor defense) to left field and Justin Upton moves back to right field where he was with Diamondbacks. The Braves will get defensively better behind the plate and worse in the corners of the outfield while the offense takes a step backwards as well.
The above sounds like a bad idea, but this move wasn't made just for the hell of it. Atlanta's back was against the wall from a financial standpoint. Heyward was set to earn over $8 million in 2015 and, like Upton, become a free agent in 2016. It had long been presumed that the Braves wouldn't be able to extend both Upton and Heyward going forward, with a Heyward extension very unlikely. This doesn't necessarily mean that the Braves just chose Upton over Heyward, however, as trading both this winter has been discussed. Dealing away Jason Heyward is step backwards, but moving Justin Upton in the same offseason would signal a strong restructuring for Atlanta. We'll have to see what happens to the latter corner outfielder this winter.
This game of musical chairs wouldn't be on the horizon for the Braves if they weren't paying B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla obscene amounts of money in 2015, and in B.J.'s case, through 2017. Both players have underwhelmed tremendously, and while Upton will still man center field for Atlanta in 2015, Uggla was essentially given away for free this summer, hooking on with the Giants for a short time, then ultimately being released after rejecting an outright assignment to AAA. He's now a free agent that the Braves are paying $13 million to, at least until he latches on with another team who will relieve a very small portion of that commitment. Combined, the two former "stars" will eat nearly $28 million of Atlanta's budget, which should represent something near 30% of the pie.
A positional log jam, mixed with an ugly financial situation, necessitated this trade and forced Atlanta's hand. One could perhaps see the Braves keeping both Justin Upton and Jason Heyward if they hadn't committed to Uggla and B.J. Upton, but alas, bad deals always come back to haunt teams that aren't the Yankees and Heyward will certainly be missed in Atlanta.
The loss of Jordan Walden will hurt the bullpen to a degree, but if you don't recall, Atlanta flipped infielder Tommy la Stella to the Cubs last week to get Arodys Vizcaino back in the organization that developed him. Since Atlanta last saw Vizcaino on the mound out of their bullpen, the former top prospect has suffered elbow trouble, had Tommy John surgery and missed considerable time. He's no Jordan Walden, but he's still just 24 and remains a viable relief option for a bullpen with one of the best closers in the game. Best of all, he's cheap and saves the Braves a few million dollars over Walden, who was set to pass through arbitration for a second time this winter. Relievers are volatile and the loss of Walden is surely a step backwards for the bullpen, it's of lesser consequence and easier to mitigate than the blow felt by losing Heyward.
Atlanta's Motivation to Acquire Miller and Jenkins
The Braves had a glut of pitcher injuries last spring and it's taken it's toll. Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy both went down in March and should reappear in the Atlanta rotation at some point in 2015. Ervin Santana is going to go smell baseballs somewhere else next season as a free agent this winter and isn't expected to be retained. Alex Wood and David Hale have filled in somewhat admirably (Wood moving to the rotation from the bullpen and Hale joining the party from the organizational periphery), but may or may not hold on to their rotation spots once Beachy and Medlen return.
Shelby Miller fits nicely here as a young, cost controlled rotation arm that the Braves can continue to develop. With health uncertainty and some presumably shiftable roles in the rotation's future, Miller should slot in as a full time starter who can add at least average innings with room for growth in his game. Some of that growth was evident late in 2014 as FanGraphs' Eno Sarris noted last month, and while Miller's had his share of ups and downs, the talent is still in there. Whether he harnesses it or not is up for discussion, but the Braves seem to believe there's reason to believe he will. He fills Santana's rotation spot in the immediacy and will be under team control for four more seasons. Cumulatively, he fits the budget and fills a team need with an opportunity to really pay off should his game take a step forward.
What the Braves got in Tyrell Jenkins is less tangible. Should he remain a starter, he appears capable of filing a back end spot in the next year or two at a cheap price. He'll need to stay healthy first, having never logged 100 innings in the minors, and at least maintain his strikeout and walk rates as he has no margin for error there as things currently stand. A move to the bullpen, where his stuff could play up, is a possibility should he have any struggles. He won't see the majors until mid 2016 at the earliest, and making it there is no sure bet in the first place. Jenkins will be a work in progress for the Braves' player development department.
What It All Means for Atlanta
The Braves just got worse, but they didn't have a lot of choice in the matter given payroll constraints. The money currently committed to B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, mixed with the money needed to extend either Jason Heyward or Justin Upton, left them little choice but to alleviate the pressure. In doing so, they just grabbed a young, cost controlled arm with room for growth and lottery ticket that could pay dividends in the next two years. With the hand they've dealt themselves, the Braves did reasonably well in getting themselves a hopeful return that fills an immediate need. At first glance, this transaction looks unsavory for Atlanta, but taking context into consideration, they did themselves a favor, one that had to be made.
*Statistics via FanGraphs, contract data via Cot's Contracts
Jeff Wiser is a editor emeritus at Beyond the Box Score and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, an analytical look at the Arizona Diamondbacks. You can find his work on craft beer at BeerGraphs and follow him on Twitter @OutfieldGrass24.