Trading the Once-Untradeable
Erick Aybar, unfortunately, won’t be remembered fondly in Atlanta. It’s a shame, because he seems like a likable enough guy who tried his hardest. From the moment of his arrival, Aybar never really had a shot. Acquired in the Andrelton Simmons trade, Aybar was a veteran on a one year deal, coming off a bad year, coming in to replace Atlanta’s most popular remaining player. Nope. It just wasn’t going to happen. Had he been the Erick Aybar we expected him to be, he wouldn’t have been embraced by the fanbase, and it’s hard to have really expected that of fans.
The season started, and after a few weeks, any remote chance he had of wooing the fans to his side quickly evaporated. Through his first 9 games, he batted .167/.184/.167, and the team went 0-9. Through his first month as a Brave, the slash line “improved” to .169/.186/.205. Another month didn’t help much – he stood at .182/.225/.209 through May 27. On May 19, he took the phrase “struggling at the plate” to a new level, choking on a chicken bone and missing a game. On May 27, he was placed on the DL with a foot contusion, and at the time, there was a reasonable argument that Aybar had been 2016’s worst major league baseball player (I would have argued that honor belonged to his teammate, A.J. Pierzynski, but it’s nitpicking – they both stunk).
Aybar returned from the DL on June 12 and found himself as a new hitter. Well, in Aybar’s terms, maybe he was an old hitter. He hit like Erick Aybar was expected to hit. It was hard for fans to notice, because a season of solid hitting couldn’t fully undo that miserable batting line that appeared on television screens every time he stepped into the box, but the change was there. From June 12 until his trade on August 14, Aybar batted .289/.346/.396, even better than the .278/.321/.379 he posted in 2014 as an American League All-Star. Aybar was back to his old self. Because of the inauspicious start, Atlanta was unable to trade him until after the first trade deadline, but Aybar slipped through waivers and the Braves found an interested party in Detroit, a team that has lost infielders Nick Castellanos and Jose Iglesias to the DL over the last 11 days. While Aybar wasn’t exactly the player many fans hoped for, he did help Atlanta salvage something in the end. He rebuilt his value and prevented himself from becoming an albatross, an untradeable contract on a losing team. It’s a smaller victory than we probably hoped for the day of his acquisition, but it’s a victory nonetheless.
In return for Aybar and around $1.5M, Detroit sent Atlanta infielder Mike Aviles and catcher Kade Scivicque. The inclusions of Aviles and the money are there so Detroit can afford Aybar without adding any salary – all the money shakes out pretty evenly for both teams in the swap. This is key, because if Detroit were adding money to the payroll, they might have been less likely to include Scivicque. Aviles was mired in a miserable season on par with Aybar’s early struggles, and Atlanta quickly DFA’d the veteran infielder the day after the trade.
The key for Atlanta is Scivicque. First off, according to fellow OFR writer Tim Peacock, the name is pronounced Suh-Vick. Practice saying it a few times. I can wait. I must offer thanks to Mr. Peacock, because Scivicque was inevitably going to give me problems in the absence of guided pronunciation.
Scivicque is a 23 year old catcher, drafted 130th overall in 2015 out of LSU, where he slashed .355/.398/.521 as a senior last spring. In high A ball this year, Scivicque has hit .282/.325/.380, which is an improvement on his first year of pro numbers. He’s not a significant prospect, and will likely provide organizational depth with the upside of a AAAA guy who bounces up and down, but it’s not impossible for him to develop into something more. Fangraphs’ KATOH minor league projection system can be hit or miss, but this preseason it projected Scivicque to have 1.0 WAR over his first 6 major league seasons. I know that seems pretty minimal, but it’s suggesting Scivicque will be a better than replacement major league player. For a prospect most analysts have never heard of or haven’t followed since his draft day, that’s good. Also, considering how well he’s hit this year at high-A ball, such a projection would probably be even more optimistic at this point. At the cost of 5 weeks of Erick Aybar, it’s a possibility worth taking a chance on.
And that’s all the trade really is. It’s 5 weeks of Erick Aybar gone from a team that had no real use for him, and in return it got up to 6 major league seasons of a decent hitting prospect at a position where the organization lacks depth. It’s not a flashy trade, and it’s not one that we’ll likely be talking about in years. But it’s still a good trade, because the thought process behind it is sound.
The Aftermath – Dansby Time
While removing Aybar didn’t create an important hole for an important team, it left a hole nonetheless. Probably against the better judgment of everyone who isn’t into sadomasochism, Atlanta is still required to start 9 players every game. One shortstop option would have been the return of Daniel Castro. Castro is a consummate teammate who did more to make Aybar feel comfortable than anyone – he managed to out-stink Aybar at the plate, batting .182/.220/.190 in his brief time in Atlanta. So, why was he an option? Well, inserting Castro into the lineup would cause no concerns about defense – his glove is nearly as good as his bat is bad (maybe he should try swinging that glove at fastballs instead, because it can’t really get much worse). He’d help pitchers, and he has already logged time on the team. It would have been a move very much like the ’16 Atlanta Braves – forward-thinking, patient, and not at all exciting.
The Braves chose the other option. Arriving in Atlanta on Wednesday was Dansby Swanson, #1 pick of the 2015 MLB draft, elite prospect extraordinaire, etc, etc. It’s less of a baseball move as it is a PR move. Swanson’s arrival is a Thank You note from GM John Coppolella to the fans. Thanks for dealing with this rebuild the best way you could. It’s not over, but we’re at least past the pinnacle of the selling, it seems, and here’s a shiny prospect to lead the way. If you’re going to pick one guy to trot out first in the parade, Swanson is it. Regardless of whether or not he’ll be any good in the short term, he’ll be liked. Scouts rave about his baseball IQ, his feel for the game. He plays good defense, puts the bat on the ball, and plays with enthusiasm. Plenty of dads will point Swanson out to their kids and say, “play like him”. He’s that type of player.
The debut, like seemingly so many Braves debuts, went well. In his first plate appearance, with a runner on third, Kyle Gibson attacked him straight down the middle, and Swanson hit a sharp liner to center that was unfortunately tracked down for the final out of the 2nd inning. In his second at-bat, Swanson smacked a line drive to the opposite field for his first major league hit:
Seriously, dads and little league coaches around the southeast couldn’t have drawn up a more teachable first hit. In at-bat number three, he chased some sliders low and away and turned himself into an easy strikeout victim. Swanson got another try in the 9th inning of a 10-3 game, singling hard up the middle for his second hit. It wasn’t Heywardesque, but it was a nice debut.
I don’t know how good Swanson will be in the short term, but I lean towards thinking he’s not quite ready to be productive on the offensive side of the ball. The defense is not an issue in any way, and though he got no chances to prove it in the debut, the glove is ready for showtime. The bat, though, could see some inconsistencies over the next few weeks, or however long he stays with the team this season. That’s through no real fault of Swanson’s. He’s just young, with little to no experience facing advanced pitching. It’ll probably be fine for a bit, while he sees a healthy dose of fastballs in the zone, but as his 3rd at-bat showed, if pitchers get tricky, the breaking pitches will tie him up. They won’t always, but they probably will right now. It’s not something to worry about.
In baseball’s current state, the service time discussion must be had with the promotion of any top, potential star prospect, and Swanson is that. If Swanson is up permanently, he’ll become a free agent after the 2022 season. Had Atlanta waited until midway through next April to promote him, he’d have been guaranteed to be under Atlanta’s control through 2023. The kneejerk reaction is that it’s probably a bad idea to trade a season of his prime, which could potentially be played for a World Series contender, for 5 feel-good weeks to help make fans of a bad team feel better about their bad team. And hey, it might be. But after thinking about it more, I think there could be some shrewdness in the timing.
First, let’s establish some known facts that I don’t think anyone would dispute. #1 – Dansby Swanson is a premier prospect. #2 – Delaying the promotion of a premier prospect at the conclusion of Spring Training in order to manage his service time and ultimate free agency generates bad press. Teams are only dealing with the rules that have been implemented on them, so the bad press is probably undue, but teams bear the brunt of it. If you never noticed, go check out the op-eds on Kris Bryant‘s time in AAA to start the 2015 season. The press and fans understandably don’t like having to wait to see the next big thing in action just so a team can take advantage of the language of the law. All sides’ actions and reactions make sense, and the rule is a bad one. It incentivizes teams to not put together their absolute best teams, and that’s a problem. Ok, back to Swanson.
Let’s say Atlanta left Swanson in AA to finish out 2016. In Spring Training 2017, he performs really well, and looks the part of a major leaguer. But, in order to delay the start of his free agency clock, Atlanta sends him to AAA for a few weeks. Start the editorials. There’s a shiny new stadium, but the shiny new superstar is stuck 40 minutes up I-85 for the next two weeks. It’s justfiable, sure, but it’ll tick some people off.
By bringing up Swanson now, however, Atlanta gives itself some more options. If Swanson struggles here in 2016, the team can understandably point to his lack of AAA experience. They can sign a one-year shortstop in free agency in the offseason, and Swanson can get back to his minor league double play partner, Ozzie Albies, and the two can continue progressing together in Gwinnett. Fans won’t mind as much, because they will have seen Swanson struggle a bit in the majors. Atlanta then gets to delay Swanson’s free agency with fan and press approval, and they get to keep their top prospects together to boot. It’d be a nice result if Swanson turns out to not be ready for the big leagues. We tried, he’s not quite ready, and we’ll see if we can get him back up here next September.
If he is ready? Well, the Braves have an All-Star on their hands, and they’ll later have to worry about how to keep him in the long run. There are worse problems to have. Either result works well for Atlanta, but the timing of Swanson’s call-up allows for a more flexible offseason and spring in Atlanta.
Either way, stop worrying about service time and just enjoy what this means. The rebuild isn’t over, but Dansby’s arrival in Atlanta signifies the point where the light at the end of the tunnel might be at least visible, even if not close. Watch baseball how Dansby inexorably will play it – The Right Way: call your dad, grab a beer, and enjoy having the newest in baseball’s legion of phenom shortstops wear the right uniform.