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Braves acquire Jaime Garcia in puzzling trade

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Jaime Garcia is an interesting buy-low candidate, but ideally for a team other than the Braves.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday, the Atlanta Braves dealt three prospects for Jaime Garcia. On the surface, it seems like a normal trade — a player with one year of team control before hitting free agency is moved for prospects that come with six-plus years of control, but aren’t guaranteed bets to last in the majors that long or produce as much as the veteran.

The oddity behind this is the teams making the move. The Cardinals and Braves are at respective places on the win curve where they should both be on opposite sides of this veteran-for-prospects type of swap.

In this particular instance, though, the deal makes sense for the Cardinals. Their projected 2017 rotation includes Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Mike Leake, and a returning Lance Lynn, not to mention young fireballer Alex Reyes. They had to trim someone, and it was always (probably) going to be between Leake and Garcia. The one significant edge that Leake has over Garcia is durability, which is an important consideration in a rotation that includes many other hurlers with significant injury histories.

The Cardinals ended up dealing Garcia, and they don’t care whether they’re trading him to a team that’s rebuilding or projected to contend, so long as they receive what they’re looking for in return. Obviously, they must’ve felt that they did, and this deal can easily be explained from their perspective.

The Braves’ end, on the other hand, is much murkier. Ignoring contract status, team, and health, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with targeting Jaime Garcia strictly for his pitching ability. In fact, he’s one of my favorite buy-low candidates out there.

On the surface, Garcia’s jump in ERA from 2.43 in 2015 to 4.67 in 2016 seems rather large, even when considering the random machinations of ERA. Sure, his walk rate took a step back, from 5.9 percent up to league average, but along with that came an uptick in strikeouts (up to 20.2 percent in 2016). Most of the damage in terms of runs allowed came from an unexpected jump in BABIP and HR/FB rate. Now, his BABIP was only .305 last season, which may seem normal for someone who generates a lot of ground balls. However, Jaime Garcia doesn’t just generate a lot of ground balls, he generates a ton of them. There have been multiple studies done to show how BABIP tends to run a lot lower at the extremes of batted ball distribution, and Garcia is an extreme grounder-inducing machine. In fact, since Garcia’s debut in 2008, he leads all active pitchers in groundball percentage (among pitchers with at least as many innings) with a 56.5 percent mark. Lowering the inning limit to 750, only Dallas Keuchel tops him. Garcia’s GB percentage sat at 56.7 percent last season, so we would theoretically expect his BABIP to be lower than it was. For reference, it was .270 in 2014 and .267 in 2015. One last thing to keep in mind is that BABIPs for groundball pitchers continue to decline, around the league as a whole, as teams continue to gather more accurate data and employ more shifts. That was a roundabout way of saying that, yes, I’m aware his career BABIP against is .302, but most of that came before the explosion of the shift.

The BABIP wasn’t even the flukiest thing about his season, however. Take a look at his HR/FB percent, which was a whopping 20.2 percent in 2016, over double that of his career 9.5 percent heading into 2016. Regressing that rate back to his career norms brings his home run rate back to an elite level, since he hardly allows any fly balls to begin with. xFIP is a stat that normalizes home run rate, and Garcia’s was at 3.77 in 2016, which was his highest mark in the last seven years, but it still represented a major upgrade on the Braves’ 4.51 team ERA and 4.48 team xFIP last season. Also surprisingly, Garcia is somehow only 30 years old and will be for most of 2017. To make a long story short, if Garcia stays healthy next year, he should make for an interesting buy-low.

But health is quite a big “if” for Jaime Garcia. He’s never topped 200 innings in a season for his entire career, and his 171.2 last season actually represented his second-highest mark. Over seven full big league seasons, Garcia has averaged fewer than 130 innings per season, which is pretty scary for a pitcher that you’re penciling in to start every five days for six months.

And health isn’t even the biggest problem that I see with this deal, from the Braves’ perspective. Answer me this: what is the best possible result on this deal for Atlanta? I can only see two scenarios in which this deal ends up as a win for the Braves.

1) Garcia has a rebound season and the Braves either flip him at the deadline for better prospects than the ones they just gave up, or they tender him a qualifying offer at season’s end and pick up a draft pick.

2) Garcia has a rebound season and the Braves contend this season, with Garcia helping contribute to/through the playoff push.

Scenario #1 is certainly possible, as seen most recently by the Yankees with the acquisition of Aroldis Chapman. They acquired him for middling prospects, benefited from four months of his services, then flipped him for much better prospects. Between the possibility that Garcia’s stock rises and the mid-season multiplier where contending teams pay much more at the deadline than in the offseason, it’s possible that the Braves are just treating him like a stock. Or, it’s also possible that the end-of-year draft pick ends up being worth more than the prospects given up by Atlanta.

However, scenario #1 is also an incredibly risky gamble, especially for a team like the Braves. There are so many endings in which Garcia does not generate much value by the deadline, or he’s hurt, or the Braves don’t want to extend him the qualifying offer at year’s end. Why, exactly, would a rebuilding team like the Braves want to gamble prospects on that chance? Also, there may be an in-season multiplier on rentals in trades, but keep in mind that Garcia also holds inherently less value in late July than he does now. A team acquiring Garcia at the deadline, versus the Braves now, receives one-third of the service time and is unable to offer Garcia a qualifying offer after the season.

Scenario #2 is also possible, but it’s even more unlikely. This scenario is probably the reason that the Braves made this trade, and they’ve also been mentioned in rumors for bigger fish such as Chris Archer and Chris Sale. However, it’s rather delusional. I can see the front office’s logic — they look at Atlanta’s 37-35 record after the All-Star break, and they’re also eager to christen the new stadium with a good on-field product to really attract the fans. But it’s probably wishful thinking; FanGraphs projects the Braves to go 76-86 next season, and while that’s still a healthy eight-win improvement over 2016, it’s nowhere near the record of a team that should be trading for a one-year rental. Obviously, it’s early in the offseason, but Atlanta’s offense, rotation, and bullpen all project to be below-average.

Now, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the youngsters take big leaps forward, and the Braves make a magical run to the playoffs. But even considering the possibility that the rebuild may be more accelerated than most people expect, the Braves should be operating this offseason the way the Cubs did before the 2015 season. Chicago made acquisitions that helped its 2015 team but also projected to be productive and under team control in future seasons, when the rebuild was expected to be finished; an example of this thinking was the signing of Jon Lester. And the Cubs ended up grabbing a wild card spot that season on the way to the NLCS. Of course, that signing was also with future seasons in mind and didn’t mortgage future assets in the form of prospects.

I haven’t even gotten into a breakdown of the prospects in this Jaime Garcia trade, and I don’t plan on doing so. You can find others online that will have more accurate scouting reports than I will. From my vantage point, it looks like all three are interesting in their own right and are more than non-prospects; however, none of them were anywhere close to sniffing Atlanta’s top 10. But at the end of the day, the issue is that the Braves shouldn’t be making moves for one-year rentals. Whatever the price was for Garcia, even if you think it was cheap in terms of prospects, remember that it was the relative market equilibrium price. The only way that it wasn’t is if the Cardinals didn’t do their due diligence shopping him around the league (doubtful) or if the Cardinals vastly overrated Atlanta’s prospects compared to the industry (possible, but also unlikely).

Pitchers such as Chris Archer, Anthony DeSclafani, Junior Guerra, or Jose De Leon make a ton of sense for the Braves to be targeting (note: I haven’t heard anything connecting them to those pitchers, specifically, besides Archer) because they come with four-plus years of control. However, Garcia doesn’t fit into this mold, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around why the Braves’ front office thought this move made sense.