The Braves are in the midst of what could be termed a reconstruction, a re-imagining, or a full on rebuild. The first move of the Braves off-season came before the season was even over when the fired General Manager Frank Wren towards the end of September. Just six short months before Frank Wren was being heralded as one of the best GM’s in baseball because of smart team friendly deals handed out to Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel, and Julio Teheran. The big reason given for Frank Wren’s firing was that he hadn’t done well in free agency. Seeing as Ervin Santana, Aaron Harang, and Gavin Floyd all helped to hold together a rotation beset by injury the reason wasn’t that all the free agent signings were bad, but that BJ Upton is terrible.
Building through the farm system and strong minor league depth are hallmarks of the Braves organization, and the vast majority of the Braves 2014 roster was either homegrown talent or talent acquired in a trade of homegrown talent. The Justin Upton trade was a masterpiece in which the Braves lived off the reputation of a strong farm system to trade nothing of significance to the Diamondbacks for Justin Upton. In all aspects aside from the BJ Upton signing Frank Wren had done a good job but the Braves were built to contend for the NL East and they hadn’t done that in 2014 and someone had to pay the price.
It could have easily been Fredi Gonzalez who is not regarded as one of the best tactical managers in the game and whose firing wouldn’t have as much of an impact as the loss of a good GM. Instead the Braves fired Frank Wren and replaced him with John Hart, the architect of the mid-late 90’s Indians teams that featured Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Sandy Alomar Jr., Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, and Omar Vizquel. John Hart is a good General Manager, but since he took over he took a team built to contend and has torn it down to the roots and may not be finished yet and it’s all BJ Upton’s fault.
In 2014 the Braves had four players with at least 400 plate appearances and a wRC+ of over 100 since the off-season began half of them have been traded (mostly for pitching) and one other is rumored to be on the trading block. The first move of the Braves off-season saw them trade Tommy La Stella to the Cubs for a relief pitcher. While La Stella wasn’t one of the few Braves with a better than average wRC+ his 84 wRC+ was average for the position of second base. In La Stella the Braves had a cost controlled young player with room to improve, but if he didn’t that would be fine too. La Stella was certainly an upgrade over Dan Uggla and the Braves had won a division title with Uggla at second in 2013. Out of all the Braves moves this might be the most puzzling.
After trading Tommy La Stella for a minor league pitcher they themselves once traded to the Cubs the Braves traded one year of the projected 5.0 WAR of Jason Heyward and serviceable reliever Jordan Walden to the Cardinals for five years of 1.0 WAR of Shelby Miller and minor league starting pitcher Tyrell Jenkins. Really this was Heyward for Miller and the other two pieces are as ancillary as they come. Miller is a two pitch pitcher that the league figured out last season and probably will have to move to the bullpen at some point while Heyward is the best defensive right fielder in baseball and a productive lead-off hitter, and Heyward would have certainly rejected a qualifying offer and brought back a first round pick with more upside than either of the players the Braves received.
When a team makes up their mind that they are trading a player they put themselves at a disadvantage and automatically lower the return. That happened with Jason Heyward and it happened again with Justin Upton. Like Heyward, Upton would’ve brought back a draft pick at the end of the year but instead the Braves traded him for a package that has been described as underwhelming. The prize of the package, pitcher Max Fried, is recovering from Tommy Johns surgery (which the Braves haven’t rehabbed well) and is described as having the ceiling of a mid to back of the rotation starter, and the other prospects picked up are described as utility men and bench bats at best. Not the return a team should get for one of the best right handed power hitters in the game of baseball.
Why are the Braves doing all this? Why did they trade Jason Heyward and then commit themselves to a declining Nick Markakis who needs neck surgery? Why have the Braves traded two of their four above average hitters and are rumored to be shopping a third? And why have they done this all for pitching which they already had? It all comes down to BJ Upton. Frank Wren signed him and he got fired and now the Braves are stuck with him, and if you can’t win with BJ Upton you might as well not even try.
With three years and a little over $46 million still owed to BJ Upton the Braves are committed to him being on the team, and if he is going to keep them from winning they will at least get something out of losing, and so they traded away two expiring contracts. The returns are substandard but only because everyone knew the Braves wanted to trade the players, and want to enter a rebuild. The Mets and Marlins now look like stronger teams than the Atlanta Braves and unless Freddie Freeman has a 50 homer season in him the Braves offense is going to struggle to even score the 573 runs they did in 2014, the second fewest in the NL.
Matching that will especially be difficult with Fredi Gonzalez still around as with Heyward and Justin Upton both gone BJ Upton is going to have to occupy either the first or second spot in the order and as we all know more at bats for a team’s worst hitter is a great way to score runs. BJ Upton might not be the worst contract in baseball but what other free agent signing has gotten a competent GM fired and convinced a contending team full of young talent that it was time to blow it all up and start over?