Timing of Kimbrel trade made it even worse

 MIAMI – The timing was awful. Period.

And the Braves know that when they traded Craig Kimbrel early Sunday night, on the eve of Opening Day. Bad, bad, bad.

If they could have dumped the albatross contract of Melvin Upton Jr. -- or B.J. Upton, since that’s what we knew him as during his two terrible seasons with the Braves – by trading Kimbrel two weeks ago, two months ago, it would’ve been far more preferable and, I’m thinking the Braves almost certainly would have done it.

Craig Kimbrel was traded on the eve of Opening Day. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

But when the Braves called around for months and months trying to get some team to bite, there were none willing to take on the more than $46 million that Upton was owed over the next three seasons, under any scenario. Much less a team calling the Braves to discuss such a proposal.

Until last week.

Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said this deal came about in the past three or four days, and insisted that the Braves weren’t the ones who started the discussion. One of the first questions to him on our conference call last night after the trade was announced was, what had changed since this winter when Hart said repeatedly the Braves had no intention of trading Kimbrel.

“We’ve had numerous opportunities along the way (to trade him) during the winter, and we never really explored anything with Craig,” Hart said Sunday night, “ and I think this is something, we’ve been very consistent in our approach in that we weren’t going to talk about these guys. But as this thing began to take shape -- we were certainly pursued, we were not the pursuers in this – and as this began to take shape there was an opportunity that we had to examine.”

(As an aside, at this point I pictured one of those thought bubbles over Hart’s head, filled with dollar signs and exclamation marks, as the Padres discussed their willingness to take on the entirety of Upton’s contract.)

Hart continued: “As we talked through this with the key people in the organization, upper level all the way from scouting to development, at the end it was unanimous, that with the approach, this was something that we had to consider. Again, this is something that came our way over the last three or four days. We just felt  it was the right time and it was the right piece for us, and we were able to accomplish several things within this.”

(Again, that thought bubble, with $ and !! and Upton’s cringe-worthy .198 average, .279 OBP, .593 OPS and 324 K's in 910 at-bats as a Brave.)

"Certainly we lost Craig Kimbrel, but we freed up some financial flexibility," Hart continued. "What we’re going to do with that financial flexibility is still to be determined, but we’re going to be very aggressive in our approach and it will give us an opportunity to do that a little bit quicker. In addition, we continue to stockpile young players. One of the key pieces in this deal certainly was Wisler. This is a guy we’ve liked for some time, we attempted to get him in the Justin Upton deal. This is a young pitcher we think is close.”

Wisler, 22, goes to Triple-A Gwinnett, which should have an impressive team this season, loaded with many of the Braves’ top prospects including starting pitchers Mike Foltynewicz, Wisler and Manny Banuelos.

The Braves’ upper-level minor league teams will be well-stocked for the first time in a while, and there are now plenty elite prospects bubbling just below the surface, ready to potentially contribute at the major league level in the coming months and certainly in the coming years. The future is bright for  the Braves, who certainly have freed up plenty of cash to pursue some free agents, here or internationally.

But the present?

It could be a real struggle.

Unless all the improved team chemistry and better hitting approach, and all the enthusiasm and energy we saw on and off the field during spring training, unless all that stuff is sustainable over the course of 162 games, it could be another tough season.

I still say this will be a more interesting and enjoyable team to watch than last year, and possibly even flirt with .500. Possibly. And I have no doubt in my mind about that more interesting and enjoyable part. Last year’s team was dreadful to watch more often than not. Strikeout, runner(s) left in scoring position with less than two out, strikeout looking, glare at umpire, ground into double play with runner in scoring position, strikeout, no-hit until the fifth or sixth inning, strikeout, “there’s still plenty of baseball to be played,” strikeout, strikeout, strikeout….. You get my point.

This team will play with more energy and play the game a lot closer to the way it’s supposed to be played. It will not be noteworthy every time they get the runner over and get the runner in, as it was with last year’s swing-from-the-heels-and-situational-hitting-be-damned squad.

But again, the timing of this move couldn’t have been worse. It sucks so much of the good vibe that the Braves had begun to rebuild with a segment of their fan base that was furious over one or more of the offseason trades of Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis. Those fans had heard, read or seen the strides the Braves made this spring, the good news coming out of camp.

They had read and heard about the team coming together, getting along and being confident with a prove-the-skeptics-wrong chip on their shoulder. They know about Jace Peterson, one of those prospects who came from the Padres in the Justin Upton trade, emerging as a better-than-expected second baseman ready to step in right now and fill a gaping hole at that position and in the 2-hole behind Eric Young Jr., who surpassed expectations this spring after moving to center and the top of the order when Melvin/B.J. got hurt the first day of full-squad workouts. With Young and Peterson, the Braves finally have a more prototypical 1-2 combo at the the top of their order, both with speed.

Fans have read about all this stuff, and even some of the most hardened skeptics were starting to believe, based on my Twitter timeline and blog and Facebook comments.

And now this. Trading Kimbrel. A punch in the face. Or at least the gut.

No more LED fire and “Welcome to the Jungle” intros at Turner Field, one of the few consistently satisfying moments that Braves fans had to look forward to a year ago. Kimbrel was practically a superhero to younger Braves fans, from his arm-dangling-at-the-side stare to the radar-gun readings flirting with 100 mph, to the legion of batters walking back to to dugouts after swinging feebly at at Kimbrel slider or swinging ferociously and missing a heater that looked so enticing coming in but proved completely unhittable going by at 99 mph, chest-high.

All that’s gone now, along with the chance for the Braves to watch a closer try to become the first in the history of the game to record a fifth consecutive 40-save season.

Not to mention the optimistic vision that many fans probably had of Kimbrel mowing down a hitter for the final out in the opening game at the new ballpark in 2017, when he would have been in the final guaranteed year of his contract, with the Braves still holding an option for another season in 2018.

All gone now. Maybe, instead, Wisler will be the starting pitcher that night when the Braves open at the new ballpark. Maybe by then he’ll have established himself as one of the top young pitchers in baseball, and maybe he’ll pitch a great game that night.

But those are a lot of maybes. In Kimbrel, the Braves had not a maybe, but a pitcher who was as dominant as we’ve seen in many years, and the only question was whether he could stay healthy. So far in his career, he hasn’t had a single significant injury, and those tree-trunk legs and the nature of his role seem perfectly suited to making him one of the few guys who can throw in the high-90s for years to come. He might just be one of the rare closers – like Mariano, Hoffman, Wagner -- who piles up saves for more than a decade.

If so, it’ll make it hurt even more than it does now for a lot of Braves fans. And it hurts plenty.

“Dirty C” was his nickname to teammates. They loved him. They felt good, much like all the Braves fans who poked their chests out and maybe felt goosebumps or the hair standing on their arms, when Kimbrel entered a game. Inside, fans and teammates alike surely were saying to opponents, “Here he comes, dudes. Good luck. You’re gonna need it.”

No more.

It might be a stretch to say that B.J. Upton’s five-year, $75.25 million contract is what got Frank Wren fired. Or that it’s why other players were traded or let go in the past year. Or that the game’s dominant closer wouldn’t have been traded if it weren’t for that Upton contract, that immensely regrettable, head-scratching overpay of a contract that Wren and Co. gave Upton.

But if it’s a stretch, it ain’t much of a stretch.

This much is clear: The Braves landscape would look significantly different today if they had never signed Upton to that deal.

And this: #ReleaseTheKimbrel is no more. Not in Atlanta.

• Let's close with this tune for the Alabama boy, Kimbrel. From another Alabama boy, and a huge Braves fan, Jason Isbell.

"ALABAMA PINES" by Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell

I moved into this room, if you could call it that, a week ago.

I never do what I’m supposed to do.

I hardly even know my name anymore.

When no one calls it out, it kinda vanishes away.

I can’t get to sleep at night. The parking lot’s so loud and bright.

The a/c hasn’t worked in twenty years.

Probably never made a single person cold,

but I can’t say the same for me. I’ve done it many times.

Somebody take me home through those Alabama pines.

You can’t drive through Talladega on a weekend in October.

Head up north to Jacksonville. Cut around and over.

Watch your speed in Boiling Springs.

They ain’t got a thing to do. They’ll get you every time.

Somebody take me home through those Alabama pines.

Somebody take me home through those Alabama pines.

If we pass through on a Sunday, better make a stop at Wayne’s.

It’s the only open liquor store north, and I can’t stand the pain

of being by myself without a little help

on a Sunday afternoon.

I needed that damn woman like a dream needs gasoline.

I tried to be some ancient kind of man,

one that’s never seen the beauty in the world,

but I tried to chase it down… tried to make the whole thing mine.

Somebody take me home through those Alabama pines.

Somebody take me home through those Alabama pines.

I’ve been stuck here in this town, if you could call it that, a year or two.

I never do what I’m supposed to do.

I don’t even need a name anymore.

When no one calls it out, it kinda vanishes away.

No one gives a damn about the things I give a damn about.

The liberties that we can’t do without seem to disappear

like ghosts in the air.

When we don’t even care, it truly vanishes away.

About the Author

David O'Brien
David O'Brien
David O'Brien covered the Atlanta Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for more than a decade.