This is what the Braves are selling you now: Hope. Dreams. …. Prayers?
The Braves are like a lottery ticket, and the odds of hitting it big with either one in 2015 seem commensurate right now.
They traded Jason Heyward, the one-time expected franchise centerpiece, for a young pitcher (Shelby Miller) who’s projected to be a No. 3 or No. 4 starter. They signed an outfielder (Nick Markakis) who’s a solid, even if unspectacular, player — although post-deal neck fusion surgery seldom comforts the masses.
Now they’ve have traded Justin Upton, their best home run hitter and run producer on an otherwise offensively challenged team, to San Diego. And for what? Numbered ping pong balls. In return, this is what they get: four prospects, the best being a pitcher, Max Fried, who is only four months removed from Tommy John surgery. (The good news: He’ll fit right in.)
This is where the Braves are now. In 2013, they excited you with a starting outfield of Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward. Two years later and barring changes, they will go to spring training with the projected suspect trio of Evan Gattis, B.J. Upton and Markakis.
Justin Upton and Heyward are gone because they had value on the open market. B.J. Upton is still here because he has none.
Braves president of baseball operations John Hart maintained Friday night that the team “will be very competitive.” He said there “was not a deal out there that would allow us to get a now-ready guy” in return. He reiterated that the Braves felt the need to deal Upton and Heyward because of a belief they would lose both in free agency, referencing the “long-term health of the franchise.”
“We realize we’ve lost power with the trade of Justin, but along the way we’ve been able to give ourselves financial flexibility going forward in 2015,” Hart said.
Here’s the thing: Fans don’t start waves in stadiums because of financial flexibility. They start waves because of runs and wins.
The week wasn’t a complete loss. The Braves’ closed a sweet land deal near the location for their new stadium that will allow them to build a parking lot. Then again, the way this winter’s roster strip down is going, parking and traffic might not be nearly the problems we’ve expected.
Hart and his general manager-in-waiting, John Coppolella, are in a tough spot. I get that. The Braves won only 79 games last season. They’ve missed the playoffs in six of the past nine years.
They haven’t won a postseason series since 2001. Former general manager Frank Wren inherited an aging team, faced budget cuts from owner Liberty Media and had to rebuild. He did a number of things right, but had some prodigious missteps.
Now Hart and Coppolella are forced to go backward before forward. That means acquire young, cheap players.
It just would be nice if the immediate future didn’t appear so bleak. Nobody wants a roster teetering on “Four A” in the majors. The Braves struggled to score runs in 2014 — as Hart so eloquently put it last week, “Let’s be honest: This team finished 29th in offense. It’s not like I’m breaking up the ’27 Yankees” — and the projected lineup for 2015 looks worse.
Friday’s deal was technically a six-player trade, but Upton is the only proven commodity in the deal. The Braves also sent the Padres pitcher Aaron Northcraft, who was 0-7 with a 6.54 ERA at Triple-A Gwinnett. They’ll receive a package of four prospects that includes Fried, a former first-round draft pick, who had 100 strikeouts in 113 2/3 innings in Single-A in 2013, but struggled with arm problems last season, leading to elbow reconstruction.
At least this time, a pitcher had major surgery before become a Brave, although it’s debatable if that’s progress. He’s at least a year away from the majors, more likely two.
Three other prospects reportedly in the deal: second baseman Jace Peterson, third baseman Dustin Peterson and outfielder Mallex Smith. None appear to have star stamped on their foreheads. They are names on an organizational spreadsheet who may or may not crack a lineup. A trade about hope.
Upton and Heyward weren’t two of the Braves’ problems. They were top three in every major offensive category last season. They weren’t problems in the clubhouse. But they were impending free agents who weren’t likely to re-sign.
In theory, their exits put $22.3 million back into the budget. But this is like cheering for salary-cap space in the NFL or NBA. It’s only a positive if it opens the door to something good.
Hart might not be finished. There’s interest in Gattis, a budget-friendly power hitter. There’s some interest in third baseman Chris Johnson. (Possible destination: San Francisco.)
In San Diego, they are celebrating an outfield of Justin Upton, Wil Myers and Matt Kemp. In Atlanta, we get a parking lot. Anything else is a guess.
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