Former Braves standouts Craig Kimbrel and Justin Upton became valuable assets to trade for prospects once the team decided to rebuild. The timing of those moves seemed fortuitous for the Braves when neither was quite as good after leaving.
It turns out Kimbrel and Upton still have great seasons left. Both will play for the American League All-Stars against the NL on Tuesday at Marlins Park.
Kimbrel, the Red Sox closer, will play in the showcase game for the first time since the Braves traded him to the Padres prior to the 2015 season. He made four straight All-Star teams with the Braves but knee surgery forced him to miss last season’s game.
“It’s good to be here,” Kimbrel said Monday. “It’s better than being at home on the couch, I can tell you that.”
It’s the fourth All-Star selection for Upton, the Tigers left fielder. He went twice with the Diamondbacks (2009 and 2011) and returned with the Padres in 2015, the season after his trade from the Braves.
Before the 2016 season the Tigers signed Upton to a six-year, $132.75 million free-agent contract.
“Making one in Detroit is special,” Upton said. “I started in Arizona and made an All-Star team there. San Diego was kind of a pit stop. This is going to be my home for a while here so to make an All-Star team with Detroit is pretty cool.”
Getting back to the All-Star game is a sign that Kimbrel and Upton, both 29, still are in their prime of their careers.
Kimbrel has never had a bad season. He was still very good for the Padres in 2015 and for the Red Sox in 2016. Kimbrel just wasn’t dominating like he did for most of four seasons with the Braves.
He started walking batters and giving up home runs a bit more often. In 2015 he blew four of 43 save opportunities. In 2016 Kimbrel took six losses against two wins with a full-season low of 31 saves in 33 chances (though he was more consistent after the knee surgery).
“Looking back, at times last year I got myself in trouble putting guys on base,” Kimbrel said. “But overall, as a whole, if you take out a few outings from last year there were stretches where I felt like I was at my best. But also had my stretches where I wasn’t at all.”
This season Kimbrel may be even more dominant than he was with the Braves.
He’s struck out 50.8 percent of the batters, walked just 3.7 percent and is allowing a .157 on-base percentage . All those numbers would be career-bests if Kimbrel can maintain them. His current 1.19 ERA would be second-best for a full season behind the 1.01 ERA he posted with the Braves in 2012.
The average velocities this season for Kimbrel’s fastball (98.7 mph) and change-up (87.3) are higher than they’ve ever been. He said experience has taught him how better to preserve his body.
“The difference between then and now is a (better) understanding of what I should and what I can do and not pushing myself to the limit,” he said. “Understanding that I’ve got quite a few games to go or more pitches I need to throw. It’s just being smart and not overdoing (it).”
Upton’s production slipped a bit in his one season with the Padres. Some of it was probably bad luck: He walked more and struck out less but was less fortunate on balls he put in play.
This season Upton has seen an uptick in his power numbers while increasing his on-base percentage from .310 in 2016 to .350.
“Getting into a rhythm in Detroit and feeling more comfortable in the American League, I think that helps out,” he said. “I’d say it’s moving in the right direction.”
The Braves so far haven’t gotten much return on the Upton trade.
Jace Peterson has been up and down between the Braves and Triple-A Gwinnett over the past two seasons. The Braves later swapped Mallex Smith for a pair of Mariners prospects (Smith is playing well for the Devil Rays this season). Left-hander Max Fried is at Double-A Mississippi, overshadowed by prospects the Braves have acquired since, and Dustin Peterson is at Triple-A Gwinnett.
For the Braves, offloading the onerous contract of Melvin Upton along with Kimbrel so far has been the main benefit of that trade.
Another player acquired by the Braves in the deal, right-hander Matt Wisler, appears stalled in his development after showing promise as a starter for much of the 2015 season. The Braves used a competitive balance draft pick acquired in the trade to select high school infielder Austin Riley, a top 100 prospect who is with high Single-A Florida.
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