Buy low, sell high. We’ve heard it. We understand the logic behind it. It’s obvious. Hell, it’s math. It is a very easy concept. That’s the rub, though. It’s easy because it’s a concept. When it’s an application of that concept, selling high becomes very, very difficult.
Andrelton Simmons is a special kind of player. This is something Braves fans don’t need to be told, but as we eulogize his Atlanta career, let’s talk about it anyway. Every Braves fan thinks of Simmons the same way. We have mental playlists of his greatest hits, and it plays like some band’s magnum opus. You talk about his plays with reverence and awe. From one track to another, he’s burning baserunners caught in unfortunate positions the way Exile on Main Street burns through each song with raw, bluesy genius. Simmons is an artist as much as Jagger and Richards, and like them, he amazes you with the effortless way he goes about it. He’s brilliant, he knows it, he’s gonna have fun with it, and so is everyone in attendance. It’s infectious. When he throws you out, you’re not even mad. How could you, dealing with a master at the top of his game?
But what if his future highlight reels aren’t quite the same? What if the next album is more, oh, Black and Blue? Or worse, what if it’s Undercover or Voodoo Lounge? When legends are in their prime – and make no mistake, Simmons’ defense is both legendary and in its prime – it’s hard to imagine what it’ll look like when the prime is a past tense thing. As humans, we’ll look for continued examples of that legend. Even when it starts to fade, we’ll still make ourselves see it. We’ll convince ourselves that It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll is another masterpiece, even when it’s not. How as fans, or even executives, can anyone pull the trigger at the right time? I’m telling you, it ain’t easy to sell high.
John Coppolella just sold high, and we should all be somewhat in awe of it. There are plenty of studies that tell us that shortstops peak defensively somewhere in their mid-twenties. Andrelton Simmons, at the time of this trade, is 26. Over his age 24 and 25 seasons, Simmons led all SS in Defensive Runs Saved, posting totals in the 20’s both years, but neither touched his historic, legendary age 23 season (41 DRS). Troy Tulowitzki, for example, had an amazing season age 22, remained really good through age 26, and then became mostly average. He’s a bit cherry-picked, but the cherry is awfully similar – he’s tall, rangy, and gifted athletically – and he’s hardly the only example. The studies were thorough. There’s a chance Simmons beats history – he’s a rare talent, of course – but there’s a better chance he settles in as a merely very good defender over the next 3 years. And because of his bat, the Braves couldn’t afford for his defense to merely be very good.
Andrelton Simmons is a bad hitter. For a shortstop, I guess he’s not awful. The average MLB SS batted .256/.307/.375 last year with a wRC+ of 85. Simmons hit .265/.321/.338 with a wRC+ of 82. He’s mostly average for his position, but overall, that’s a bad hitter. A friend mentioned last week that a player like Simmons is something of a luxury, and it’s true. His value is enhanced if you can hide the bat among good hitters. A rebuilding team can’t mask the offensive deficiencies like a contending team can. Simmons works on a roster like Los Angeles’, where others can reliably build the lead while Simmons and his pitchers protect it. It works a little less on a roster like Atlanta’s. He may be a 3 or 4 win player, although Fangraphs’ fWAR considers him more of a 2-3 win player over the last two years. But 3 or 4 wins probably won’t be the difference between the playoffs and going home for the 2016 Braves. And again, he’s not especially likely to be worth that much. In the short term, the period in which his defense was most likely to still be elite, he wasn’t likely to be a difference-maker in the big scheme of things. It would be very nice to have him for 2018 and beyond, but how good he’ll be at that point is a bit of a question mark.
Even as I type the words, part of me is skeptical, because selling high is really hard. In my head, I keep replaying the trials of Travis d’Arnaud, and I wonder if Simmons really will hit a mere “very good” phase any time soon. I do that because I’m human, I’m attached, and it’s anecdotal. That’s why it’s so impressive what Coppolella has done, whether you really like the trade or not. It’s damned difficult to bet on the data when the eyes don’t want to trust it. He’s thinking maybe the future albums won’t quite be Exile, and the Angels are willing to buy merely good albums for the price of a masterpiece. For that alone, I’m impressed. I don’t know that I could have done the same. I’d like to think so, but selling high isn’t as easy as it sounds. No one ever really expects their honeymoon to end.
I said it when Heyward was traded, and I’ll say it again: It sucks to say goodbye to this player. It just sucks. It’s potentially very smart to do so, but it still sucks, and we can’t ask people to be excited about it. Andrelton Simmons will always be one of my favorite baseball players. Nothing but great memories, Simba. Angel fans, let me paraphrase “Torn and Frayed” and impart this advice: it may have seen much better days / just as long as the glove plays / let it steal your heart away. It damned sure stole mine.
So, I guess we should talk about the return, right?
Erick Aybar is a one year rental, and the Braves may very well ship him off to another team, but I imagine they’ll let his value build a bit. Aybar is coming off his worst season in ages, but that came off the best season of his career, so a rebound may very much be in the cards. Either that, or he’ll continue his declining in his age 32 season. There’s not much to it. He’s a buy-low candidate to be flipped at a later date for more talent if it all breaks right.
Chris Ellis is a solid prospect, though not a top one. Here’s what current Braves employee Kiley McDaniel had to say about Ellis a year ago:
Ellis has 1st round hype after an excellent summer on the Cape, but his curveball deserted him for the entire draft spring at Ole Miss, allowing him to last until the 3rd round last summer. The breaking ball was back in instructs, though it had morphed into a hard slider at 83-85 mph and it flashed above average at times. Ellis works 90-94 mph and his best pitch is an above average to plus changeup. He made the most positive impressions in instructs of all the non-Newcomb picks from the 2014 draft and could be moving up a few spots on this list next year.
He’s a converted reliever, so the workloads of starting are still a question mark for him, but his frame and multiple usable pitches indicate that he’s got a starter’s upside. Ellis should be a decent #5 with the upside of a low-end #3 starter or good #4.
The story of the haul, however, is Sean Newcomb. The big lefty owns a lively fastball, which sits in the low 90’s with movement and in the upper 90’s as a 4-seamer. It has the potential to be one of the best fastballs in the game. Newcomb, like any good power lefty, features a curveball that’s already pretty impressive. It’ll be a good pitch. Scouts don’t think his changeup is quite as far along, but it has the potential to become at least useful, if not a weapon. His command isn’t fully there, struggling at times with walks last year, but it’s not expected to be so bad it’ll prevent him from MLB success. I think it was linked more to mechanical inconsistency, which the Braves should be able to work on. The biggest long-term knock on Newcomb seems to be his Maddux-esque inability to prevent stolen bases. I’m sure the Braves will work on that, but when that’s one of the biggest problems with a AA pitcher, you’re talking about a really good AA pitcher. He could be a #1 starter, and he’ll be in the rotation even if things don’t work out perfectly. Newcomb instantly becomes Atlanta’s best prospect. He’s not a sure thing, but there’s really a lot to like about the lefty who struck out 11.59 batters per 9 in high-A ball last year.
It doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye to a favorite, but let’s not pretend the Braves came away with nothing useful. While it’s not probable, it’s very possible that Aybar is as good as Simmons next year, in terms of all-around value, and the Braves netted one elite pitching prospect and one good pitching prospect as well. For a player that’s a luxury, that’s not a bad return. It’s not the kind of return where you think the Braves swindled the other team (looking at you, Dave Stewart), but it seems pretty fair.
The Braves sold high, which is tough to do. Maybe now it’s time for us do something equally difficult – buy low on the future of this team. It’s a gamble, sure, but a gamble beats the heck out of this miserable place Braves fans want to reside. I can’t stay in that place. You got to roll me, and call me the tumblin’ dice.
Farewell and best of luck, tormentor of baserunners. The mental playlist will never die.