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Trade Retrospective: Padres acquire Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton from the Braves

The Padres made the mistake of overpaying for a reliever, and the Braves turned that into a very effective salary dump.

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Brian Garfinkel/Getty Images

For the fifth straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.

The final big trade of the Padres’ instant rebuild took place at the beginning of the 2015 season. Once again they executed a trade with the Braves, acquiring Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton. In return the Padres sent Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin, Matt Wisler, Jordan Paroubeck, and a 2015 competitive balance round A pick.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation: process over results. Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for all parties.

The Deal

As I went over last week, the Braves did well in trading Justin Upton. The team was doing well in the early months of their rebuild, but they still had a couple players they needed to part with: Craig Kimbrel and Justin’s brother Melvin.

Kimbrel was arguably the best reliever in baseball at the time of the trade. He had finished a four-year run where he had a 1.64 RA9 while striking out a whopping 42 percent of batters faced, accumulating 11.3 WAR in the process. A reliever averaging 2.8 WAR per season is excellent. His 8.8 BB% over that four-year period is fine but a little deceptive. He had two seasons were he walk rate was below average and two seasons where it was well above average. Anyone familiar with his career knows that his control comes and goes.

Melvin Upton had just been a disaster for the Braves. The team handed him a five-year, $75.25 million deal during the 2012-13 offseason, which was then the largest in franchise history. It was not unreasonable at the time, given that he was 28 years old and could at worst be described as a solid everyday player. That might not sound like a ringing endorsement, but average players are still productive and worth paying for. The problem, of course, was that Upton’s production fell off a cliff in Atlanta.

In Upton’s two-year stint with the Braves, he hit a woeful .198/.279/.314, which is just a 66 wRC+. His -1.7 WAR over that span made him one of the worst players in baseball. It would have been prudent for the Braves to trade him even if he were productive, but as he was one would think that the team would have trouble getting anything at all for him.

Getting the Padres to take on the entirely of the remainder of Kimbrel’s and Upton’s contracts was nothing short of a coup. That combined for $80.35 million, but the Braves had to take on the rest of Quentin’s and Maybin’s contracts. Still, that netted them a savings of over $56 million. They really did an excellent job of leveraging A.J. Preller’s desire to return to competitiveness immediately. They got two prospects in the deal, too!

Wisler was not on a lot of top-100 prospect rankings, but he was still a prospect of note who could start for the Braves right away. Scouts saw Paroubeck as a great athlete, but there was a question of whether or not he could play center field. If he couldn’t, he would need to develop more power to be a starting left fielder.

It was odd for the Padres to part with the only center fielder on the team in Maybin, even if injuries had impacted his productivity and playing time. This was a nice opportunity for both him and the Braves to recoup some of his value. If he could be a productive center fielder, the Braves could flip him for more prospects.

Everybody knew that Quentin’s days in San Diego were numbered, especially after all the outfielders that were now on the roster. He had only played 218 games during his three seasons with the Padres due to injury, and it had come to the point where he was best suited for DH anyway. He hit only .177/.284/.315 in 2014, but he hit a combined .268/.368/.498 over the two years prior. Obviously the Braves don’t have a DH, so they designated him for assignment the same day they acquired him. He ended up retiring. He did attempt a comeback in the two subsequent seasons, but he was unsuccessful.

I was a little critical of the thought process behind the Justin Upton trade, because while it was a defensible decision on paper, Preller’s team-building strategy was not very sound. This trade, however, was just irrational. The Padres are the last team that should be taking on tons of money to upgrade its bullpen. Not only was Petco Park was one of the premier pitching parks at the time, their bullpen was really good anyway! Their 2.94 RA9 in 2014 was one of the best in the majors, and even if you adjusted that number for league and park effects it still didn’t change their ranking.

Yes, Melvin Upton was in the deal too, but even if he needed a change of scenery, how much better could you expect someone to be who had been one of the worst players in baseball over the past two seasons? And of course, he added to the glut of outfielders on the roster. He was more or less the full-time center fielder in Atlanta, but he really had no business playing there anymore. Regardless, the way he was hitting he’d have to play center field like peak Andruw Jones.

This trade made little sense for the Padres. They took on a lot of money to not even fill a need when they still needed a viable center fielder and shortstop. The Braves, on the other hand, did an excellent job in offloading a terrible contract and a closer that a rebuilding team doesn’t need. That alone was a win, but getting prospects on top of that was just gravy.

The Results

As I discussed last week, Preller’s big gamble didn’t pay off. The team won only 74 games in 2015, which was actually three games fewer than the year before. Kimbrel having a bit of a down year didn’t help, but obviously that doesn’t matter when a team wins only 74 games.

I actually saw Kimbrel’s first two appearances in person that year. The first one was at Dodger stadium, where he preserved a 7-3 win by striking out all three batters he faced. The second one was a few days later in San Diego. The newly acquired Wil Myers doubled in the only run of the game, and Kimbrel succeeded in holding the one-run lead. He didn’t strike anybody out, and he did allow a single, but he got the job done.

Kimbrel’s 2.88 RA9 that year is obviously excellent, but you have to keep in mind that he had a 1.41 RA9 over the three seasons prior, and that he pitched in a one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in 2015. Some of that was balanced out by the Padres’ poor defense, though. However, he also hurt himself with the long ball, giving up six that season when he had given up six total over the two seasons prior. He was worth only 1.3 WAR at Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, and less than 2.0 WAR at Baseball Prospectus.

If you want to argue that Kimbrel was better than his RA9 or WAR give him credit for because of how bad that defense was, that’s fair, but I don’t believe one can reasonably say that the Padres got what they paid for from him that year.

On the bright side, Melvin Upton miraculously brought his career back from the grave. He spent one and a half seasons in San Diego and hit a respectable .257/.313/.435 in 602 PA, accumulating 3.3 WAR in that time span. Considering that many saw him as a sunk cost at the time of the trade, the Padres had to be happy that he actually earned his pay during his time there.

As a result of the rebuild’s failure, Preller traded Kimbrel to the Red Sox where he spent three seasons before hitting free agency. He had a good run there, including a 2017 season that might be one of the best ever for a reliever. He had a 1.43 RA9 in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the majors, though the defense did help him out a lot. He had a career-best 5.5 percent walk rate, which is really good compared to everyone else, too, and he struck out nearly half of the batters he faced!

Kimbrel was part of the 2018 Red Sox championship team, but almost cost them dearly multiple times in the playoffs. As you likely recall, he had a lot of trouble during free agency following that season. To prevent losing a draft pick, no team signed him until June 7th of last year, accepting a three-year, $43 million deal with the Cubs.

It’s been a disaster so far. He made 23 appearances last year and had a 6.53 RA9 while walking 12.5 percent of batters faced. His 31.3 K% was bad for him. The biggest issue was his getting killed by the juiced ball more than anyone. He gave up nine home runs! To give that some perspective, he gave up home runs to 9.4 percent of batters faced. The league average was 3.6 percent. If he doesn’t figure things out, he could really hurt the Cubs in a shortened 60-game season.

Upton’s success in San Diego led him to getting traded to the Blue Jays during the 2016 season. Unfortunately, he reverted back to Atlanta Upton at the plate. The Jays cut him right before the 2017 season started, ending his major league career.

Maybin amazingly has played on seven different teams since leaving San Diego. He is currently on the Yankees after a shockingly good season with them last year, where he hit .285/.364/.494, good for a 127 wRC+ in 269 PA.

Wisler’s run in Atlanta was underwhelming. He got demoted to the bullpen in 2017, and somehow got worse. Overall he spent three seasons and change with the Braves, and had a 5.43 RA9 over 324 23 IP, while barely striking out only 16 percent of batters faced. He has played on four teams over the past two seasons. Currently, he is on the Twins. As for Paroubeck, he never made the majors and has been out of affiliated ball since 2016.

Padres Results

Remaining Control WAR
Remaining Control WAR
Craig Kimbrel 4 1.3
Melvin Upton 3 3.3
Total 7 4.6
Baseball Reference

Kimbrel didn’t perform to expectations, but Upton far surpassed them. It’s a little difficult to evaluate the above table in a vacuum, because it was part of a grand rebuilding effort that didn’t work out. As I mentioned in the Justin Upton trade, the production of some of these players is somewhat irrelevant as a result of Preller’s flawed and failed team building strategy. Remember, the Padres’ bullpen was already plenty good before the trade.

Braves Results

Remaining Control WAR
Remaining Control WAR
Cameron Maybin 3 0.6
Matt Wisler 6 0.2
Jordan Paroubeck 6 0
Total 15 0.8
Baseball Reference

That might not look very good, but remember that the whole point of the trade for the Braves was to unload salary. Not getting any production from the players they got back isn’t a big deal. Again, they did a great job with this trade. I don’t want to say that the Braves took advantage of Preller, but they expertly leveraged his desperation to compete immediately.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.