You might hate this trade. I understand if you do. I hope you’ll understand when I say: I happen not to hate it.
On its face, it appears lopsided. I’ll grant that. The Atlanta Braves are giving up a good young pitcher and the infielder rated their No. 1 prospect before the season, plus their latest closer and a fairly reliable left-handed reliever. They’re getting a 30-year-old third baseman who hasn’t yet played in the majors and has had injuries to boot.
The Braves are also receiving a couple of pitchers — the reliever Paco Rodriguez and the minor-leaguer Zachary Bird from the Dodgers — and, from Miami, the 34th pick in next year’s draft. But basically they’re sending a slew of guys to Los Angeles for Hector Olivera, the Cuban for whom the Braves were believed to have bid $40 million over the offseason.
(As of this posting, the trades hadn’t been announced by any of the teams. But early Thursday morning, a major league source told Mark Bowman of MLB.com that it would happen.)
The Braves’ offer to Olivera paled alongside L.A.’s winning bid of $62.5 million. The Dodgers have already paid $28 million as a signing bonus. That would leave the Braves on the hook for $32.5 million over the next five seasons. That’s a lot of money. But this organization obviously liked Olivera, who becomes the most powerful hitter in the chain, enough to offer even more.
The subtext of this many-leveled transaction is that the Braves themselves mightn’t have valued some of their higher-profile talents as much as Braves fans believed. Jose Peraza was considered the prize of the Braves’ farm system before John Hart/John Coppolella took charge, but wasn’t it curious he was never promoted to the majors in this rebuilding year? Guys you’d never heard of were getting the call, but not Peraza.
Some of it was due to the early-season excellence of Jace Peterson at second base, but Peterson’s average has dipped to .244. Peraza was tried in center field at Gwinnett, but Cameron Maybin has been very good there for the parent club. Still, the Braves’ starting left fielder of late has been Eury Perez, and their starting third baseman — in the wake of last week’s trade of Juan Uribe — has been the just-promoted Adonis Garcia, who’s 30.
If the Braves really wanted Peraza in their big-league lineup, they could have made a place. They didn’t make a place. Peraza was hitting .295 in Class AAA, but his on-base percentage was .319. That’s not very good for a singles hitter. Is it possible that the Braves came to value Ozzie Albies, a singles-hitting middle infielder playing in Class A, more highly than their No. 1 prospect?
As for Alex Wood: He’s a good young pitcher on a team that’s building around young pitching. Why trade him? Surely because the Braves, in all their dealing for pitching over these past nine months, have come to regard other young pitchers as better. And maybe because the Braves, seeing Wood’s complicated delivery and knowing he had Tommy John surgery while at Georgia, weren’t certain he’s built to last.
Yes, the Braves have traded for pitchers — Mike Foltynewicz, Manny Banuelos, Chris Withrow, Max Fried, Arodys Vizcaino — who’ve had the surgery. Hart has conceded that deliveries aren’t necessarily a predictor of Tommy John. Still, Hart inherited a franchise that led all of baseball in TJ and saw two starting pitchers (Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy) undergo the procedure twice in four years. The new Braves have asked their medical staff and scouts to take a harder look at deliveries.
Check Brooks Baseball’s data for Wood. Note that his sinker — essentially his fastball — was thrown at an average of 92.52 mph in 2013, his rookie season. Note that it has been thrown at an average of 90.24 mph this season. That’s a 2.28 mph drop in velocity for a 24-year-old. Those who track pitchers’ injuries have a saying: When you see a loss of velocity, it’s usually the elbow. Sore elbows can lead to Tommy John, a second round of which is invariably a de facto sentence to the bullpen.
This isn’t to say Alex Wood won’t have 10 more splendid seasons as a starting pitcher and never pay another visit to Dr. James Andrews. But his strikeout rate has dipped from the 8.9 per nine innings of his first two seasons to 6.8 this year, and his WHIP (walks/hits per innings pitched) has climbed from 1.142 last year to 1.408. Opponents hit .239 against him in 2014; they’ve hit .288 this season.
With his Bulldog background and his bulldog temperament, Wood was a fan favorite. Hart and Coppolella aren’t paid the big bucks to be fans. Their mission is to cast a cold eye on their team and scheme to make it better.
Come 2017, would Wood be one of the Braves’ five best starters? (There’s Shelby Miller and Matt Wisler and Julio Teheran, assuming he sorts himself out, and Mike Minor, assuming he gets healthy, and Foltynewicz and Banuelos and Fried and Williams Perez and Tyrell Jenkins. Further down the road, there’s Touki Toussaint and Kolby Allard.) If Hart and Coppolella could answer, “Maybe not,” isn’t now the time to sell high?
Reports of the trade left many Braves fans apoplectic on social media. The most common plaint: “Our No. 1 prospect and one of our best young pitchers for a 30-year-old?” But what if the Braves no longer view Peraza as their top prospect? What if they don’t project Wood as one of their best starting pitchers in 2017 or beyond? What if their scouting of Olivera reveals a talent of the sort this organization doesn’t possess — a difference-making big bopper? (That’s really the only way this makes sense.) Would the deal be worth doing then?
Hart has admitted that part of the reason he has been buying young pitching is that young pitching can be used to buy other things. Last week, when the Braves traded Uribe and Kelly Johnson to the Mets for two more young pitchers, some among you asked, “When are they going to get a hitter?” Apparently they just did.
I can see why a lot of folks would hate this trade. Me, I’m starting to believe these Braves actually know what they’re doing.