The day they traded Jason Heyward, president of baseball ops John Hart said the Atlanta Braves “have the flexibility to go either way” — meaning rebuild or reload. Trading Heyward, I submit, gave the indication they’d already chosen the former. Subsequent doings have muddied the waters.
The Braves traded Heyward and Jordan Walden for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins, two young pitchers who won’t cost nearly as much and will be under club control for much longer. Then they spoke with Jon Lester, a free agent who would have cost a ton. Then they decided they wouldn’t make an offer to Lester because he’d be too expensive, which anyone could have told them before they sprang for lunch.
They’re also said to have pursued Yasmany Thomas, the Cuban outfielder/slugger, to the extent that they were briefly identified, along with San Diego, as one of the co-favorites to sign him. He signed with Arizona for $68.5 million over six years.
On Saturday morning, the baseball world was aflutter with the possibility of the Braves trading Justin Upton and/or Evan Gattis to Oakland for pitcher Jeff Samardzija. (This after the A’s traded third baseman Josh Donaldson, their best player, to Toronto, which seemed to suggest another move was close at hand.) On Monday, Hart told Jim Bowden and Jim Duquette on MLB Radio that the Braves have not made one call regarding J. Upton and don’t plan to make any.
(Maybe it’s just me, but the wording — “have not made one call” — struck me as noteworthy. Have they received calls regarding J. Upton? Surely they have. Do they hang up immediately when someone says, “I want to talk about Justin Upton”? Surely not.)
Oh, and this, too: Hart also told Bowden/Duquette that the Braves are “toying” with Gattis playing left field, at least for the moment.
On Tuesday, the Braves non-tendered Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. This made sense, given that both are coming off a second round of Tommy John surgery and precedent holds that pitchers don’t recover from TJ II nearly as well as TJ 1. Non-tendering them, however, doesn’t mean they can’t re-sign either/both. They’ll just have to re-sign them as free agents who’ll be willing to take less money, and other teams might be willing to offer more money.
The Braves are also said to have had dinner with the free agent Nick Markakis, a 31-year-old outfielder who has a good glove and who doesn’t strike out much. (He’s not much a run-producer, though.) If nothing else, the Braves are willing to spend on meals.
If you can discern a grand design in all this stopping-and-starting, you’re a better analyst than I. If you trade Heyward (and the Braves just did), you’re no longer in win-now mode (or so it would seem to me). If you’re no longer in win-now mode, you might as well trade Justin Upton, who can become a free agent at next season’s end and almost certainly won’t re-up here, while the trading’s good. And you might as well see what you can get for Gattis because the notion of him as an everyday left fielder inspires no confidence in anyone.
(An aside: If ever there was a classic A’s/Billy Beane player — a guy who can do one thing very well but not everything, a guy who’d shine as half of a platoon — it’s Gattis.)
If you’re still in win-now mode, you probably tender Medlen if not Beachy. That the Braves tendered neither suggests that Hart and Co. are indeed treading the path of rebuilding, as suggested by Heyward-for-Miller. The Thomas pursuit suggests the same. (He wasn’t going to come cheap, but $10 million a year is already less than Justin Upton makes and figures to be much less than he’ll demand as a free agent.)
As for Markakis: I don’t know what that courtship, if that’s what it is, means. He’s older than you’d like, but he’s a lower-strikeout guy, which fits the profile of what the Braves in post-Wren configuration would like to be. He’d be a useful piece at the right price, but he’s not a difference-maker.
As for B.J. Upton, about whom there has been almost no postseason conversation: Good luck finding a taker at any price.
For a team that won 96 games and the National League East in 2013, a team that moved to re-up four key members of its young core long-term last winter, the Braves appear in great disarray. The reason the Braves fired Frank Wren and turned to Hart was because they believed the bottom was about to fall out. At the current rate of comings and goings, the Braves appear to be the fourth-best team (ahead of only Philadelphia, where the bottom has already fallen out) in the division.
If that’s the case, it’s better to tear things down and start again, as opposed to applying patches here and there. But we’ll know the Braves are committed to rebuilding when they get serious about trading a certain member of those Core Four re-uppers. As Mike Petriello suggests on FanGraphs, it’s time to trade Craig Kimbrel.
If you’re truly rebuilding, you’re not planning on winning many games. If you’re not going to win many games, you don’t need the best closer in the business. As great as he is, Kimbrel would be a luxury a fourth-place team cannot afford.