Today, the President of Baseball Operations for the Atlanta Braves, John Hart, held a conference call with media and select season ticket holders, during which he gave an update and an outlook on the upcoming off-season. There was no major news or earth-shaking announcement, but rather a series of updates and clarifications for this and upcoming seasons. This conference call comes on the heels of an interview last week by team President John Schuerholz. Outfield Fly Rule’s Timothy Peacock was present for the call and passed along some of the major points.
- Hart said that, despite stories to the contrary, there are no plans to trade Freddie Freeman or Andrelton Simmons. Hart elaborated that the plan last year was to unload the “one year guys”, and that there were never any plans or intentions to trade Craig Kimbrel. However, when the San Diego Padres called and offered to take ALL of Melvin Upton Jr.‘s money, the deal became too good to pass up.
- Hart was very non-committal on the catcher position. He stated that Christian Bethancourt‘s talent “hasn’t translated” to the major league level, and they may approach next season looking to platoon him once again. Hart stated that the Braves will approach A.J. Pierzynski about returning next season, but noted that he is a better fit in the American League at this point.
- Hart views starting pitcher Mike Minor as “an anchor” in the rotation next year, along with Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran. He suggested the team may pursue a free agent starting pitcher.
- Rebuilding and improving the bullpen is a top priority. Hart expects to accomplish this task primarily through free agency.
- Hart expects another platoon in Left field next season. It is doubtful that the Braves will make a “splashy” free agent signing, although they may address LF with another trade, if the opportunity presents.
- Hart rated prospects Braxton Davidson (Single-A Rome) and Austin Riley (Gulf Coast Rookie League) as the best power bats in the Braves’ minor league system. However, both are young, raw, and still have a little while before being major league ready.
- Reliever Shae Simmons should be “good to go” around May 1st, or possibly June 1st (Simmons had Tommy John Surgery on February 2, 2015).
- The team really likes reliever Chris Withrow, who was acquired from the Dodgers in the trade that brought Juan Uribe to Atlanta. Atlanta expects him to be ready to contribute at the big league level next season. Withrow is in the final stages of recovery following a surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back.
- Atlanta is “very high” on starter Max Fried, who was acquired in the Justin Upton trade with San Diego. Hart suggested Fried could be a “top of the rotation guy” as soon as 2018.
- Hart said that Hector Olivera projects as a number 5 or number 6 guy in the lineup. Atlanta has “their fingers crossed” that he will be more comfortable after playing winter ball and getting a full Spring Training under his belt.
So, what does all of that mean?
Recent stories suggesting that Freddie Freeman was ‘trade bait’ were woefully incomplete and misleading. In his interview with the Atlanta Business Chronicle last week, John Schuerholz had this to say:
Is Freddie Freeman the new face of the Braves?
I think that’s a fair thing to say if you look at who we have at our club right now. We signified our view of him as the face of the Braves by the contract we gave him among those that we extended. He’s such a talented guy and we believe that is a fair assessment of him. If you want to call him the face of the Braves we would be happy about that. He’s a good player, a good young man and the fans love him and relate to him. Why not have him be the face of our franchise right now?
In addition, the Jon Heyman piece that was used as a basis for the speculation makes no mention of Freeman being ‘trade bait’. It does mention that the Atlanta Braves have shown a willingness to trade almost anyone. However, the very next sentence (which was left out of many stories) says specifically say that Freeman is unlikely to go anywhere.
The Braves have showed a willingness to trade almost anyone. One guy who isn’t going anywhere, sources say, is Freddie Freeman.
The Braves also like Simmons. His bat has rebounded somewhat, and his defense is unmatched. Simmons would be worth his contract value if he were a ‘defense only’ shortstop. As it is, he’s slightly above average offensively among shortstops (though still a below average hitter overall).
Both Freeman and Simmons are extremely popular with fans. Craig Kimbrel was popular with fans as well. However, Simmons and Freeman have far more impact as everyday players. I can’t imagine a scenario where either is traded without a significant return that would make the team better.
In my humble opinion, the Atlanta Braves botched the catcher position this year. A. J. Pierzysnki was brought in ostensibly to be a backup and mentor to Christian Bethancourt. However, by the second week of the season, Pierzynski was starting more games than Bethancourt. Pierzysnki certainly earned his spot, as he has been a bright light in an otherwise dim season. However, once it became clear that the Atlanta Braves were out of the competition for this season, they should have begun planning for future seasons. Christian Bethancourt should, in my opinion, have been playing regularly in the second half. The team needs to find out if he is capable of being an everyday major leaguer, and as we can see from Hart’s statement on the conference call, they haven’t yet determined if he is. That’s a failure to plan, and it puts the Braves in ‘wait and see’ mode regarding a position that should have been settled already (either they have a catcher, or they need one, but not some ‘maybe we do, and maybe we don’t’ waffling).
Now, I will say that I always work from the premise that the team has more and better information available than we as fans and writers do. Perhaps the Braves have seen enough in non-game sessions to justify their position. However, I am usually very leery of giving up on highly rated prospects who have less than a full season of major league experience in games played.
Mike Minor is due an arbitration hearing this year if he and the Atlanta Braves can’t reach an agreement on a contract. Minor won his hearing last season, and then promptly went on the DL for the season. While the Braves may want to bring him back, they are prohibited by the Collective Bargaining Agreement from cutting his pay by more than 20%. Minor was clearly and easily thought to be a non-tender candidate as a result…until the recent announcement that the Braves were considering bringing him back. If he is healthy, Minor could be a stopgap answer for a season or two while younger pitchers further develop in the minors.
The bullpen will very likely be better next year. Jason Grilli, Paco Rodriguez, Shae Simmons, and Chris Withrow should all be available, and all are better options than anything we saw this season. A late inning threesome of Simmons, Arodys Vizcaino, and Grilli could bring back memories of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters, and Craig Kimbrel.
Braxton Davidson and Austin Riley were mentioned as the only power bats in the system. Davidson, so far, has been an on base machine, posting a .238/.382/.354 slash line with 32 doubles and 10 HR in 680 career minor league plate appearances. That’s not screaming power, but the OBP is very nice. However, that OBP is driven by a 17% walk rate that we can expect to fall as he gets away from young, learning pitchers. And, a little caution is warranted, as he has 177 strikeouts in 680 plate appearances (26.0% K rate). Davidson’s career .117 ISO so far doesn’t suggest a power plant is working its way up to the Braves, but he is only 19 still, and has plenty of physical maturing to go.
Riley has a much larger potential for power, as he has a .544 SLG and .240 ISO through his first 252 professional plate appearances. If you aren’t familiar with ISO, it is a measure of the ability to hit for extra bases. A .240 ISO in MLB is comparable to Anthony Rizzo (.234), Joey Votto (.235), or Paul Goldschmidt (.241). Riley, similar to Davidson, will need to work on his plate discipline as he advances through the system.
Hector Olivera’s lack of playing time has been a mystery. Fredi Gonzalez has at times said that he was ‘playing matchups’, while several other reports have suggested that the Braves are easing Olivera into MLB. Regardless of what the issue is, if Olivera is healthy, he should be playing. That’s the only way he will become accustomed to the American game. Again, working from the standpoint that the team has more information than us, they may be easing him in due to his injury history.
The left field platoon, unless it is addressed via trade, will very likely be a platoon of fan favorites Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Both are under contract for 2016, and both have vesting options that will kick in based on receiving 550 plate appearances. In order to manage those plate appearances in a manner to ensure the options don’t vest, I would expect to see Bourn and Swisher platoon in left field.
The ‘State of the Braves’ conference call didn’t contain any blockbuster information. but when taken in conjunction with other recent statements and interviews, we can sort of piece together a semblance of a road map this off-season. One thing we can tell already? It’s going to be a busy one, so buckle up!