Many of us in the online baseball blogging community were a little surprised that Andrelton Simmons' name was being floated in trade talks at the start of the offseason. I guess it shouldn't have been much of a surprise: this is the season when plenty of star players are mentioned in deal discussions -- even if they're not eventually dealt. The shocker is that the Braves' 26-year-old star shortstop was dealt on Thursday, heading to the Angels for pitching prospects Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis, shortstop Erick Aybar, and $3 million.
Let's briefly break the deal down on the components before I get macro on us all. Simmons is a phenomenal defensive player at the second-most important defensive position on the diamond. He may not have won a Gold Glove this year, but most metrics pegged him as a truly elite defender. Possessed of a lethal arm, superhuman range, and general infallibility with his leather, Simmons has been worth two-to-three wins in each of the past three seasons, depending on your flavor of metric. In three seasons, Defensive Runs Saved has him at being worth nearly 100 runs.
Basically, this guy makes Manny Machado look like Manny from Modern Family.
So the Angels are upgrading from a perfectly decent shortstop in Erick Aybar to the world's greatest defender. There's got to be some sort of catch, right? Sure there is: Andrelton isn't very much of a hitter. He flashed some wacky power during his 2013 season (17 home runs!), but ever since then, he's been below league-average as a hitter. We're not talking about Billy-Hamilton-in-2015 levels of inadequacy, but he posted an 84 wRC+ over his career, or roughly 16% worse than league average.
Teams are more than willing to accept that from a shortstop when the defense is as good as Andrelton's. The thing is that defense tends to fail with age. Although Simmons is only 26, there's a legitimate fear that his defense will start to suffer in the next few seasons, and after that happens, he can go from All-Star to liability in a hurry.
Then there's the matter of his contract. Simmons is locked up on a deal through 2020, with $53 million still left to go for the next five seasons. At the way he's playing right now, that deal is a bargain. However, if his performance craters, a team could be left holding the bag at the end of this contract.
The return for the Braves isn't bad, either. Sean Newcomb was easily the best prospect in the Angels' system, and some talent evaluators are positively bullish on his future role.
I think Newcomb has a case is one of the five best pitching prospects in baseball, so Atlanta did well here.— Jeffrey Paternostro (@jeffpaternostro) November 12, 2015
Those I've heard from throughout the industry do not like this deal for the Angels. Feel they gave up too much. Time will tell.— Alden Gonzalez (@Alden_Gonzalez) November 13, 2015
The thought is that Newcomb has rare ace upside so long as he gets his control in order, but I'd expect him to be considered somewhere in the top-50 prospects on most prospect lists come this winter. More than likely, he will show in the top-25. As a lefty with three plus pitches and high-end velocity, he's a get for any team. He had much success in three levels and projects to reach the big leagues by 2017. So that's pretty cool.
Chris Ellis is not as good a prospect as Newcomb but comes from the same draft class (2014). He didn't have outstanding stats in his 2015 season, posting a 3.79 FIP at High-A and a 4.98 FIP at Double-A. He's certainly a work in progress, but he's also more than likely the second-best pitching prospect in a scary-bad Angels system. He's a wild card, a lottery ticket, pick your metaphor.
Aybar will function as a better-than-serviceable shortstop for the Braves for the next season (provided they don't flip him) and often gets overlooked for the flashier shortstops in baseball. 2015 was certainly a down season, as he hit about as well as Simmons but played much, much worse defense. (Note: everyone plays worse defense than Andrelton.) He's usually better than average defensively, but as I mentioned before, time can rob players of their defense. Either way, he's not likely to stick around past free agency, which is at the end of 2016.
So, what are the Braves trying to do here? I think everyone pretty much believes that 2016 will be a tanking season before Atlanta moves into their fancy new stadium. But Andrelton Simmons isn't exactly a one-year proposition -- he was poised to be a primary cog for his team for the next half-decade. So what motivated them to move him? Personally, I doubt it was the contract ... $53 million over five years isn't nothing, but this is a team that has taken on cash in the past in order to facilitate the acquisition of talent. Especially pitching talent.
No, I'll bet this deal was entirely about Sean Newcomb, because the Braves seem to be entirely about pitching prospects. Over the past few seasons, this is a team that has acquired Touki Toussaint, Matt Wisler, Manny Banuelos, Max Fried, Tyrell Jenkins, Shelby Miller, and Mike Foltynewicz in an attempt to basically corner the market on hard-throwing pitching talent.
It's easy to look at the success the New York Mets had this year and think "oh, they're trying to win with pitching, just like the Mets did." But I'm not certain that New York's surprise World Series run has anything to do with the Braves' strategy specifically. The Braves were going in this direction long before the Mets ran to the Series on the backs of young, homegrown starting pitching.
Here's the thing, though -- building through young pitching is incredibly challenging, as young pitching is still pitching, and therefore amazingly fickle. Whenever I think of young pitching that's supposed to succeed, I think of Generation K -- the combination of Bill Pulsipher, Jason Isringhausen, and Paul Wilson that was supposed to lead the Mets to greatness in the 90s. Perhaps a better, more recent example might be the 2012-2013 Cincinnati Reds.
Under Dusty Baker, this team built a foundational pitching staff based on a few "homegrown" or young pitchers: Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, and Mike Leake. These four all emerged as young starters of varying quality, but all were successful and under the age of 27 in 2012. The Reds were also a playoff team in both of those years, but it wasn't necessarily on the strength of those starters. While those four were worth about 24 fWAR in those two seasons, theirs was a team with some other pretty excellent performers rounding out their squad. Joey Votto was an MVP candidate, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Todd Frazier, and Shin-Soo Choo were all effective players, and Aroldis Chapman was pretty amazing.
If the Braves come out of this situation with 24 fWAR from four starters over two years, then you can probably call this some kind of win. If Newcomb is an ace, then you can definitely call this some kind of win.
The problem that the Braves have is that now, aside from Freddie Freeman, this is a team without any sort of position-player talent at all. Simmons would have been part of what the Braves expect to be their next competitive team ... even if that wasn't coming until 2018. Maybe if things break right at that point, they will have one of the single greatest rotations of all time. Maybe they won't need position players. More likely, though, is the fact that things will break *pretty well*, but this is a team that will still need to field competitive offensive and defensive talent to supplement these pitchers. And they'll need to do so during a sweet spot, when those pitchers are both healthy and effective.
Currently, the Braves don't have very many players at all who look like they'll be around in 2017 or 2018 ... and be effective to boot. They've bet big on Hector Olivera, but he's not even an infielder anymore, and he's relatively old. Christian Bethancourt could be very solid, or he could be a backup catcher by that point. Freddie Freeman might deliver similar value to Joey Votto, but he's not a team in himself.
The Mets of 2015 got very, very lucky -- they were able to strike during that sweet spot and achieve great things because they not only had a few competent offensive pieces (Curtis Granderson, Lucas Duda), but they also were able to acquire another very good one late in the game (Yoenis Cespedes). If the Mets would've acquired Carlos Gomez instead of Cespedes, they may not have been nearly as effective of a team. If the Mets never had Lucas Duda at all, they wouldn't have been as effective. A lot of things had to go right.
In the past 10 years, only three of the teams in the top-25 of starting pitching fWAR have made the World Series: the 2011 Rangers, the 2012 Tigers, and the 2015 Mets. Having an excellent rotation does not guarantee World Series success. It's just one factor, and it's a risky one.
To put it bluntly, position players are more reliable than pitchers. About a third of pitchers break down. They go through wilder performance swings than position players. What it seems like the Braves did here is that they bet on a higher-risk proposition, swapping one of their few known position quantities in order to add another high-end arm. If this experiment works out, or if Simmons sees his defense crater quickly, they could come out of this looking very sharp. It's likely that this team doesn't just need pitching, it needs everything. As it stands now, they're doubling down on a strategy that still needs support and poises them for a risky future.
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Bryan Grosnick is the Lead Writer at Beyond the Box Score and a columnist at Baseball Prospectus - Boston. He's not sure why a few other teams didn't outbid the Braves for Simmons, but hey, at least the Angels are going to be fun to watch next year!