After saying they had no plans to trade Craig Kimbrel, the Braves traded him Sunday.
Their offseason overhaul continued unabated with a seismic deal on the eve of the new season as the Braves traded their premier closer Kimbrel, along with maligned center fielder Melvin Upton Jr., to the Padres for outfielders Cameron Maybin and Carlos Quentin, top pitching prospect Matt Wisler, outfield prospect Jordan Paroubeck and the 41st pick in the June amateur draft.
Despite Braves president of baseball operations John Hart’s insistence during the offseason that they had no intention of trading Kimbrel, who is signed through 2017 with an option for 2018, the Braves dealt him in large part because it was a chance to dump Upton’s burdensome contract.
“It was a hard thing to do,” Hart said of trading the four-time All-Star closer, whom he told of the trade via phone call. “He was just a consummate professional. This is a guy, you want him to be your son, you want him to marry your daughter. He’s just an outstanding young man. He was very respectful of the opportunity to play for the Braves; he love loves the Braves. He understands the dynamic. He was just absolutely professional and classy.”
Hart said the Braves had not entertained any of the multiple trade inquiries the got from teams about Kimbrel during the offseason, but when the Padres approached in the past several days, they listened. It’s believed the tipping point for the Braves was being able to dump the remaining $46.35 million owed to Upton on his five-year, $75.25 million contract.
“That certainly was a consideration,” Hart said. “Look, we had high hopes for B.J. (Melvin). He worked hard this winter. But I think It’s just something that just wasn’t working here…. I wish B.J. the very best as he goes forward. He’s still a young guy. But it’s just something that wasn’t working in Atlanta.”
They shed Upton, but now the Braves start a new season without their most dominant performer. Hart said they will fill the closer role from within, for now using former closers Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli, who had been in line to be setup men for Kimbrel. Hart mentioned hard-throwing rookie Juan Jaime as a possibility for closing down the line.
“There’s no question this puts a hole in our bullpen,” said Hart, adding that Fredi Gonzalez and perhaps Hart himself would talk to the rest of the team Monday in Miami to discuss the situation and answer any questions they have.
The Upton deal had become an albatross after two dismal seasons since former general manager Frank Wren signed him. Wren was fired in the last week of the 2014 season after the Braves were eliminated from playoff contention, and the organizational rebuilding — or revamping, as Braves officials call it — soon commenced with a string of trades.
The Braves have now traded away their entire outfield from the past two seasons: Jason Heyward and the Upton brothers, Melvin (formerly known as B.J.) and Justin. Melvin Upton was the only one that most Braves fans wanted to see go, but the Braves justified trading the other two because they were a year from free agency.
However, they also traded slugger Evan Gattis, another fan favorite, who had four years of contractual control, and now Kimbrel, their marquee talent who had three plus an option. It’ll be tough to sell this as anything but rebuilding.
Kimbrel, who led or tied for the National League lead in saves in each of his four seasons as closer, was owed a minimum of $33 million over next three years, including a $1 million buyout of his $13 million option in 2018 if it’s not exercised. And so, the Braves shed about $80 million in payroll commitments for those two, while gouging their bullpen and the faith of plenty of fans who considered Kimbrel their favorite Brave.
The Braves continued what has been five months of moves aimed almost entirely at competing in the future, trading some of their top players for mostly prospects. In this case they also got a couple of major leaguers: light-hitting, defensively solid center fielder Maybin and fading slugger Quentin, a salary dump for the Padres. The Braves might possibly designate Quentin for assignment, even though he’s owed $8 million this year to complete his contract.
Maybin, an Asheville, N.C., native, happens to be a mentor to Braves outfield prospect Braxton Davidson, their first-round draft pick in 2014 out of T.C. Roberson High School, Maybin’s alma mater.
The draft pick the Braves got in the deal was also important to Hart, who said the Braves are excited about the upcoming draft in the hands of their overhauled scouting and baseball operations departments.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said Saturday night he hadn’t decided how he would use Maybin, 28, who played for Gonzalez with the Marlins during parts of the 2008-2010 seasons. Maybin, who has just a .246 career average and .309 OBP in parts of eight seasons, is owed $7 million in 2015, $8 million in 2016 and has a $9 million option with a $1 million buyout. He would presumably split time with or back up center fielder Eric Young Jr.
Maybin hit .235 with a .290 OBP, 18 extra-base hits (one homer) and three stolen bases in 95 games (272 plate appearances) for the Padres last season, his speed having declined considerably since he stole 66 bases in 2011-2012.
Trading Kimbrel, on the eve of opening day, will test the patience of fans who had finally, during a mostly upbeat spring training around the team, come to grips with trading Heyward, Justin Upton and Gattis in the offseason.
If there’s any solace for fans, it’s that many wanted to see Melvin Upton gone at any cost. Without eating any of the money he’s owed, the Braves got rid of the center fielder, who’s currently recovering from a foot injury and not expected to play before May.
The Uptons will be reunited with the Padres, while the Braves added a pair of outfielders — only one of which they’re likely to keep — and two highly regarded prospects, as well as high draft pick, no small matter in the deal.
The Braves traded Justin Upton to the Padres in December for four prospects including Jace Peterson, who’ll be in the lineup at second base in Monday’s season opener against the Marlins. The other prospects from that trade are still probably a year or more away including left-handed starter Max Fried, who’s recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery, and speedy center fielder Mallex Smith.
In Sunday’s trade the Braves got Wisler, 22, rated the Padres’ No. 1 prospect — and the No. 34 in the sport — by Baseball America, after going 10-5 with a 4.42 ERA in 28 games (all starts) between Double-A San Antonio and Triple-A El Paso in 2014, with 136 strikeouts in 146.2 innings.
He had a 2.78 ERA and 131 strikeouts in 136 innings in high-A and Double-A in 2013.
Paroubeck, a 20-year-old switch-hitter, batted .286 (40-for-140) with 14 extra-base hits (four home runs), 24 RBIs and a .346 OBP in 34 rookie-league games in his first season of pro ball. The 69th overall selection in the 2013 draft out of a San Mateo, Calif., high school, he wasn’t rated yet among the Padres’ top 30 prospects by Baseball America, but was rated 15th by another service.