An Early Look Ahead to the Braves’ 2018 Trade Deadline

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It’s been a long time since the Braves have been trade deadline buyers. The last time they ended up in such a position was back in 2014, when they were still hanging around the playoff chase in mid-summer before falling off of the face of the Earth in August and September. Back then, however, the Braves didn’t have much prospect capital with which to improve the team. If you’ll recall, the Braves’ only move at the deadline that year was to trade Victor Caratini to the Cubs for Emilio Bonifacio and James Russell, a utility player and a LOOGY that combined to contribute absolutely nothing to the team.

This year, however, things look to be different. Not only have the Braves flown out to a 26-16 start, the NL’s best record, they also have a bevy of young prospect capital that will allow them to make impactful moves as the season grows older should they stay in contention and solidify themselves as a playoff contender.

The Braves haven’t really moved any significant prospects in a trade for established talent since the Chris Johns—sorry, Justin Upton trade back in January of 2013, when they sent Nick Ahmed, Randall Delgado, Brandon Drury, and Zeke Spruill to the Diamondbacks along with already-established Major Leaguer Martín Prado, unless you count the mid-season 2014 disaster of a trade that sent José Peraza as part of a package to the Dodgers for Héctor Olivera as one. To find the last time that the Braves parted with any significant prospects at the Trade Deadline in order to improve with the goal of making the postseason, you’d have to go all the way back to 2007, when the Braves decided to part with Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Jarod Saltalamacchia, Matt Harrison, and Beau Jones in exchange for Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay. In short, it’s been over a decade since the Braves felt compelled to send away some of the organization’s premier farm talent in order to make a splash at the Major League level, which is hard to believe.

Now, with a still-loaded farm system despite the debuts of youngsters such as Ozzie Albies, Mike Soroka, Ronald Acuña Jr., and Luiz Gohara in the past year, the Braves and Alex Anthopolous could choose to position themselves for a playoff run. Atlanta has young prospects such as Kyle Wright, Cristian Pache, Kolby Allard, Ian Anderson, Touki Toussaint, Joey Wentz, all of whom have been considered top-100 prospects in baseball by various outlets, that they ostensibly could consider expendable as the summer progresses if the right opportunity for big league upgrades presents itself.

New general manager Alex Anthopolous has shown himself to be more than willing to deal away prospect talent in order to gear up for a playoff run, even at mid-season, as his trades for David Price and Troy Tulowitzki proved during his tenure at the helm of the Toronto Blue Jays. His track record on trades like these is somewhat mixed, as his decision to trade for Tulowitzki and to trade away Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud as part of a package for RA Dickey doesn’t look so great in hindsight, but he also hit some home runs, such as the David Price and Josh Donaldson deals. At any rate, he certainly isn’t afraid to exchange prospects for established talents. Whether or not this tendency manifests itself in 2018 is yet to be seen, but considering the Braves’ current holes and the strong possibility that this team continues to contend, it’s worth exploring some of his options this summer.

Let’s take a look at some positions at which Atlanta could be inclined to upgrade as July approaches and some possible candidates for whom Atlanta could attempt to deal. It’s worth noting that the lists of potential upgrades listed at each position are by no means exhaustive. It’s still early in the season, and the picture of who’ll be selling and who’ll be buying is far from clear.

Third Base

The Braves’ most murky position at this point is at the hot corner. While the rest of Atlanta’s seven non-pitcher positions look to be pretty much set, third base is a bit of a question mark. Ryan Flaherty started hot, but has quickly fallen back down to Earth and isn’t a realistic starting option going forward. Anthopolous has publicly stated that he would prefer to see another option at the position, Johan Camargo, in a utility role, and it’s doubtful that he has the bat to entrench himself as the starter at the position. José Bautista has recently supplanted the two aforementioned players as the Braves’ primary third baseman, but his defense has been disastrously bad, and there are legitimate questions as to whether or not his offensive production will outweigh the negative of his glovework going forward. I think his days as a consistent offensive threat are gone, as he now simply just pops ups and swings and misses too much, overtaking the value of his still-present power.

21-year-old third sacker Austin Riley, however, is lurking in the shadows and destroying the ball in the Minors so far this season. He’s one of the system’s top prospects, and there has been rampant speculation that the Braves could see if he sticks if Bautista proves unfitting at the position. While I think Riley certainly has a Major League future ahead of him, I could also see the Braves playing it cautious and keeping him in the Minor Leagues this season given his pedigree. Defense is still a concern for Riley, and I’m not sure if the team is comfortable taking the chance that he’ll be able to swim at the plate at such a young age. Or, he could even come up sometime in June and indicate that he simply isn’t ready yet. For these reasons, I think that if the Braves make an upgrade at a position this summer, it will almost certainly be at third base, barring an unforeseen injury. So, let’s take a look at some potential targets for the Braves at the hot corner:

Mike Moustakas – Kansas City Royals

This is one option that seems to make a whole lot of sense for Atlanta. Moustakas is only owed $5.5 million this season, and then has a $15.5 million mutual option with a $1 million buyout for next season. It’d be a cheap, short-term option that would seem to certainly seem to hold a lot of appeal. Moustakas is one of the most dependably good third basemen in baseball, posting a 119 wRC+ since his breakout 2015 season and playing average defense at the position. He’s gotten off to a hot start this season, with a .363 wOBA and 10 home runs already. He’ll certainly have a lot of suitors as the Royals trudge through a lost season, but Moose’s power and quality overall skillset would be a welcome addition to the Braves.

Jed Lowrie – Oakland Athletics

I’ve long been a Jed Lowrie fan, and he’s another potential solution to the Braves’ third base dilemma. While he hasn’t played the position consistently since 2015, he has the arm and range to do so without a problem. He’s also versatile, which would have its own utility, as he could also play second base or even shortstop in a pinch. The 34-year-old takes his walks and is now hitting for more power than he has at any point in his career, despite playing in a brutal park for hitters. This is the last year of his contract with Oakland, and he’ll become a free agent at the end of the season. This could be one of Atlanta’s most attractive options for a third base upgrade if the A’s end up selling.

Matt Duffy – Tampa Bay Rays

Duffy missed the 2017 season with a torn Achilles after being traded at the 2016 deadline to Tampa, but he has a track record as an above-average hitter and defender at third base. Advanced stats haven’t liked him as much defensively this season so far, but at the plate, he’s doing what he’s typically done throughout his career—hit for a high average, even though it doesn’t come with a lot of power. It’s a bit worrying, though, that he seems to be swinging and missing more nowadays than he used to. Could Tampa look to move him, even though he’s under team control through 2021? I don’t love Duffy, but if push came to shove, the Braves could view him as an upgrade.

Manny Machado – Baltimore Orioles

Okay, I have to mention him. While I don’t ultimately think that he’ll end up with the Braves, he is forecasted to be the biggest name on the market at this year’s trade deadline. The Oriole star will be a free agent at the end of the season and would be a rental, but a rental that’s one of the best talents in the game. Machado is a fantastic defender at third base and he’s absolutely obliterating the baseball so far this season to the tune of 13 home runs and a 181 wRC+. It’s probably a pipe dream, but if the Braves really want to go big and make a splash, they’d have the prospect capital to do it.

Bench/Utility

As always, it could be a possibility for the Braves to try to make a move for a useful utility or bench piece at the deadline. It’s worth noting that these spots on the roster are extremely fluid. There are a couple of spots that I think are pretty much fixed on the bench, with one of Tyler Flowers/Kurt Suzuki and Johan Camargo as players that should be in this role all season. However, other bench options currently in the organization such as Charlie Culberson, Preston Tucker, Phil Gosselin, Rio Ruiz, José Bautista, and Ryan Flaherty are certainly up in the air. They don’t really have any outfield defensive stalwarts or any strong right-handed bats on the bench at the present time (with the caveat that Bautista could end up occupying that role this season). Here are some players with whom the Braves could improve their bench at the trade deadline:

Leonys Martín – Detroit Tigers

Martín fascinates me as a potential fourth outfielder for the Braves. The 30-year-old Cuban signed a dirt cheap $1.75 million deal with the Tigers this offseason after a disappointing 2017 in Seattle, but he’s turned it around this season in Detroit by slashing his strikeout rate and, like so many other players, deciding to hit more balls in the air and thus, for more power. Martín is a great defender that can play anywhere in the outfield and would be a potential late-game defensive replacement for Nick Markakis. If I were Alex Anthopolous, this is a player that I’d definitely target at the deadline.

Josh Harrison – Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates might not end up selling, but if they do, Harrison could make some sense as a versatile utility piece for the Braves. He is a bit expensive this season, as he’s owed $10 million, and he does have two option years left on his deal with modest buyouts. Harrison is pretty much a league-average hitter, and while he isn’t spectacular defensively, he’s a quality defender at both second and third base and can play both outfield corners in a pinch as well. I wouldn’t necessarily want him starting for my playoff team, but utilized correctly, he could be an interesting piece to have.

Danny Valencia – Baltimore Orioles

Valencia can hit. This we know. He brings some pop from the right side of the plate and would be an intriguing option to have as a bench bat. Steamer projects him for a 103 wRC+ over the rest of the season. He’s a bit of a liability in defense, as you’d be asking him to play either third base or left field, neither of which he’s particularly good at. Nonetheless, if the Braves want to add a veteran hitter to their bench, they could look to Baltimore for Valencia.

Starting Pitching

The Braves’ rotation has held its own to this point this season, even if it’s been unspectacular. Sean Newcomb has broken out and is finally showing why he was a highly-touted lefty arm in his Minor League days, Mike Foltynewicz is pitching better than ever, and Mike Soroka has shown flashes of brilliance in his three Major League starts so far, with the team publicly stating that he’s in the rotation to stay. It remains to be seen, however, whether these young starters will continue pitching at their current level. I think Julio Teherán’s days as a reliable starter are just about over, as he continues to lose velocity and stuff, walk too many hitters, and consistently give up too many home runs. I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable with him starting a playoff game at this point. Brandon McCarthy is the only other veteran in the mix other than Teherán, and his sketchy track record of health plus a 4.57 current FIP plus a 4.36 ROS projection doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence either. Luiz Gohara, Kolby Allard, and Max Fried are lurking in the background as well, but one or both may end up in the bullpen this season. And if you think that Aníbal Sánchez is going to be a long-term option for this team going forward this season….well, I dunno. I guess Freddy García did start the Braves’ last playoff game.

Anyway, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see Anthopolous and the Braves target starting pitching upgrades during the summer. Who could some options be?

Chris Archer – Tampa Bay Rays

Archer could be the biggest name on the pitching market this trade deadline. Tampa considered dealing him last offseason, but he’s hung around so far, and he’s still a marquee arm, despite what his modestly rough start to 2018 might tell you. Steamer likes him for more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings and a 3.30 FIP for the rest of the season, and any division in baseball is more favorable to pitchers than the AL East. If the Braves want to get him, he won’t be cheap, as he’s currently signed to an extremely team-friendly contract, owed just $6.5 million this season and $7.5 the next. The 29-year-old Raleigh, NC native also has two cheap team option years left on his deal, at only $9 million for 2020 and $11 million for 2021, an absolutely insane bargain in today’s market. He wouldn’t be a rental addition, but rather an addition that the Braves would be able to slot into their rotation for these next few years of contention. He’d cost a lot, but man, it would be fun to see Archer join the Braves’ rotation.

Danny Duffy – Kansas City Royals

Duffy has gotten off to a rocky start in 2018 after two years as a solid mid-rotation starter for the Royals in 2016 and 2017. He’s striking out fewer hitters, walking more batters, and giving up more home runs, which has led to an ugly 6.51 ERA and undoubtedly depressed his trade value. Nonetheless, if the Braves think that they can get him back on track, he’d be another starting pitching possibility at the deadline. Duffy, like Archer, is under contractual control through the 2021 season for $15 million per season, which might scare the Braves considering his current form. Keep an eye on how Duffy looks as the summer progresses.

Michael Fulmer – Detroit Tigers

The Braves have been linked to Fulmer in the past, and with the Tigers looking like a team that might not contend for a long time, they could decide to part with the righty in the right deal this summer. Fulmer is only 25 years old, but already has two seasons of 3 and 3.5 fWAR baseball on his track record. While he doesn’t strike out enough hitters to be a top-flight guy, he would be another quality mid-rotation piece to the rotation that’s under team control until 2023. As with Archer, this would mean that he will not be cheap. If the Braves want to acquire Fulmer, it would likely mean parting with a similar cache of prospects that they’d have to give up for Archer. Would they make that move? Will the Tigers part with the anchor of their rotation? Time will tell.

Tyson Ross – San Diego Padres

Ross wouldn’t be the same type of addition as Fulmer, Duffy, or Archer would be, as he’d be a rental. He signed over the offseason for only $1.75 million on a one-year deal with the Padres after a ghastly injury-filled 2017 with Texas looking for anything. Ross has rebounded phenomenally, however, finding the form that made him baseball’s best starters between 2013 and 2015, when he posted a FIP just over 3 over those three seasons. He’s striking out a ton of batters and keeping the ball in the ballpark, which has already led to him accumulating 1 fWAR of value in just 8 starts of 3.40 ERA/3.27 FIP ball. He is a very intriguing option that could end up being quite enticing, not only to the Braves but any team looking for starters this summer.

Relief Pitching

The Braves’ bullpen has been a pleasant surprise to this point this season, ranking 9th in baseball with a 3.55 ERA (by FIP, it’s also 9th but with a 3.71 mark). Players such as Dan Winkler (please read more about him here), Shane Carle, and Jesse Biddle have been pleasant surprises in a solid bullpen to this point so far in 2018.

However, as we all know, a team’s bullpen becomes even more crucial in the postseason. As managers tend to pull starting pitchers earlier in games in order to prevent them from turning over a lineup too many times, we’ve seen teams decide to focus on building their bullpens in order to find playoff success, with the Indians of late being a prime example. As with the bench, it’s another fluid position that is in constant flux. The Braves could opt to put a young starter like Luiz Gohara or Kolby Allard in a long relief role in the postseason if that’s how the season shakes out, á la David Price with the Rays back in 2008. While there are some pretty set bullpen members, like AJ Minter, Winkler, and Arodys Vizcaíno, the Braves could be on the hunt for middle relievers from both sides at the deadline. Here are some potential trade candidates, with the obvious caveat that this position is notoriously hard to get a read on:

Kelvin Herrera – Kansas City Royals

The Royals reliever looks to be one of the most coveted relievers on the market this summer, as he’s owed only $8 million on a one-year contract this season and has been absolutely lights-out to this point in the season. The flame-throwing righty might be out of the Braves’ comfort zone in terms of what they’d have to give up in order to acquire him, but that’s what you have to do if you want to acquire one of baseball’s better right-handed relief arms. There’ll be a lot of teams with Herrera on their radars, so the Braves will have to be pretty serious if they want to add him to their bullpen.

Raisel Iglesias – Cincinnati Reds

Iglesias began his career as a starting pitcher, but the Reds decided to convert him to a reliever back in 2016, and he’s become one of baseball’s best out of the bullpen since then. His career strikeout rate out of the bullpen pushes 30%, and he does a fantastic job of limiting home runs, especially considering his home stadium. This would be a long-term addition, though, as the Cuban closer is under team control until 2022, meaning that the Reds won’t be giving him away. It seems like a long shot for the Braves, but then again, I’m not discounting anything considering who’s at the helm now.

Brad Hand – San Diego Padres

Hand is one of the very best left-handed relief arms in all of baseball, and he’s been absolutely insane in 2018. He’s striking out 2 of every 5 hitters he faces and is making the Padres look like geniuses for having signed him on a $20 million, 3-year contract last offseason with an option for a fourth year. He, like Iglesias, would cost a pretty penny, but it’s fun to dream. He and AJ Minter would give the Braves two arms that would amount to death on lefties in late game situations.

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