November 18, 2014
Travel back in time with me to July 31st, 2014, when the Braves traded a minor-league catcher for James Russell and Emilio Bonifacio, and the Cardinals welcomed into their clubhouse the sinkerballer Justin Masterson, acquired one day earlier for a minor-league outfielder. The two teams were each seven games over .500, tied for the second wild card spot, a half-game behind the Giants. Their playoff odds were roughly the same: 60 percent for the Cardinals, 50 percent for the Braves. And, in other ways, they were also alike: They began the year with Opening Day payrolls just $700,000 apart; they were the two winningest teams in the National League over the previous half-decade. Each was poised to lose just a mid-rotation starter in the 2014-2015 offseason, with the rest of each team’s core locked up and more or less in its collective prime.
Now join me here today. The Cardinals went to the NLCS and the Braves collapsed, finishing under .500 and editing their front office masthead. Suddenly, they’re playing two very different archetypes: The one trading three years of club control for 10, the other acquiring a superstar on the cusp of free agency. Have the Braves really reimagined themselves so thoroughly based on just two months? Whether this is the proper way to view today's trade—a punter matching up with a contender—depends on what you think of the two players at the top of the ticket. And, in particular, whether you think Miller can still be a star, or just a club-controlled common you collect in bulk.
Miller, like a lot of pitchers, has a pitch that is just so-so. For him, it’s the curveball. This one will look much better than so-so
but since arriving in the majors Miller hasn’t had the same pummel with the pitch that he flashed as a prospect. In 2014, his curveball was… well, it might have actually been the worst in the game, among right-handers who throw curveballs regularly. His whiff-per-swing rate with the pitch—13 percent—was the lowest among 74 qualifying righties. (The bottom 10—Miller and Mike Leake, Kyle Lohse, Jeremy Guthrie, Colby Lewis, Lance Lynn, Nick Tepesch, John Lackey, David Phelps, Kyle Kendrick—isn’t the leaderboard snapshot you’d like to kick it with.) Further, his swing rate itself—his ability, in other words, to get batters to chase the pitch—was in the 30th percentile. And his line drive rate with the pitch was in the 85th percentile (though that’s too small samply to really take seriously). So when Miller threw his curveball, batters a) rarely swung, and when they did they b) usually hit it and when they did they c) hit it hard. It was a lousy pitch.
Like I said, a lot of pitchers have some pitch that they throw that is merely so-so. For five-pitch pitchers it’s their fifth-best pitch; for four-pitch pitchers it’s their fourth-best pitch. Miller’s problem is that he’s basically always been a two-pitch pitcher, and his so-so pitch is his second-best pitch. Remember that leaderboard of bad curveballs?
Now, part of the reason Miller’s curveball doesn’t work so well could be that Miller throws it this much, and loses the element of surprise. But part of it is also that, as Miller noted in September, “He didn’t have a feel for a curveball until recently.”
It’s building confidence” in the curve, Miller said. “It’s the second best pitch that I have. … I’m not saying it’s the best pitch ever right now. Just mixing it in.
This is a lot of time to spend on a guy’s curveball, I realize, but for Miller the story has always been about his inability to do more than one thing with a baseball. He has a good fastball. It’s hard, it has a relatively strong whiff rate, he has (whenever I’ve seen it) commanded it well, and he can maintain the velocity deep into games. It’s why he was a top draft pick, why he was a top prospect, why he so completely dominated the NL in his first trip through the league as a rookie in 2013. But throughout the draft coverage, the prospect coverage, the rookie year coverage, the same worrisome fissure:
Without a better third pitch, his curveball plays down. Without a better curveball, his fastball plays down. He has spent his two full seasons in the majors tinkering, trying to add something that could be a third effective pitch into the mix. Not just the changeup, which he basically pocketed as 2014 went on, throwing it as many times in the entire second half (seven) as he did in his first start of the year. He has tried to incorporate a cutter, throwing that 20ish times per start late in 2013 but, as with the changeup, abandoning it for long stretches this year. And last summer, prodded by Masterson, Miller began fiddling with a two-seamer—he threw it 40 times in one August start, but it’s not a real heavy pitch and it was an afterthought in most of his starts down the stretch. That’s a lot of pitches that could come together, but also a lot of tinkering that hasn’t come together. At the moment, he’s still what he has been: A two-pitch pitcher who, because he struggles to execute those two, is really a one-pitch pitcher.
So what projection do you visualize for a guy like this? Frontline fastball, a curveball that doesn’t get nearly the results that you would expect from the visual, and a lifelong quest for a third direction he can put on the pill. It sounds like one of three things: An incredible reliever; a back-end innings eater; or a guy who is literally one bullpen breakthrough away (okay, maybe two) from being a no. 2 starter.
To a Braves fan, that probably sounds pessimistic. But Miller comes with four years of club control, a floor (assuming no ligament sproings) of a one-and-a-half-win player, and a lot of opportunities for that bullpen breakthrough. My guess is he produces about five or six wins in the four years the Braves have him under control, but there remains some realistic, if fading, dream that he becomes much more. —Sam Miller
Despite missing a year’s worth of developmental time between 2013 and 2014 due to shoulder surgery, Jenkins still offers a lot to like. From his ideal pitcher's build—6-foot-4, 204, with long limbs that generate a good downward plane—to his supplemental first round pedigree, to the fact he will likely take on Double-A next season at age 22, Jenkins has a lot of what you look for in identifying a premium pitching prospect. The skill set at present, however, sits a notch below premium, pointing toward a mid-rotation ceiling and perhaps a more likely destination in a major-league bullpen.
Jenkins’ arm works beautifully, generating easy velocity with limited effort in his delivery. He sits 92 to 94 mph with his fastball, touching 96 as recently as this fall and even higher in the past, and appears to be progressing well in building up his arm strength post-surgery. Not all starters gain velocity when they pitch in short stints, but it's easy to dream on Jenkins sitting at, or even beyond, his present peak velocity if he didn't have to worry about pacing. Jenkins throws strikes with the fastball, but not always good strikes---a problem that could catch up to him when he reaches Double-A and gets out of the pitcher-friendly Florida State League.
His curveball has the makings of a second plus pitch, but despite five professional seasons under his belt it remains a work in progress. When on, it’s an impressive breaker that should be a highly effective pitch against right-handed hitters. However, he doesn’t yet throw it with consistency and he has a tendency to bury the offering.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for Jenkins to overcome if he wants to avoid the bullpen is the development of his changeup. At present he doesn't have a dependable weapon with which to combat left-handed hitters. The pitch shows some good arm-side fade, and he is regaining feel for the offering as he continues to put distance between himself and last summer’s surgery. But he will need to further improve his ability to throw quality strikes with it to project to a big-league rotation.
In Jenkins, the Braves are receiving a good arm with an uncertain future. He's likely to be a major leaguer, and potentially a pretty good one. But without steps forward in his fastball command and a solid third offering, he may be destined for relief, where the consistency of his curve will determine whether or not he can handle a high-leverage role. —Jeff Moore
I wrote extensively about Shelby Miller’s fantasy prognosis in our Fantasy Spotlight series last month, and the move to Atlanta has a further net-negative impact on my already lukewarm prognosis from that piece. A quick glance at last year’s pitch-framing data suggests that the move from Yadier Molina to Christian Bethancourt represents a gigantic downgrade, but, according to pitch-type data by our own Harry Pavlidis, Bethancourt actually framed fastballs quite effectively last year. Given how fastball-dependent Miller is this downgrade might end up being much less significant than the topline numbers suggest. Still, there’s a palpable sting here for a pitcher like Miller to move on from Yadier Molina to a 23-year-old rookie, even one as defensively touted as Bethancourt. In terms of ballpark there’s again a “down” arrow here. Both Atlanta and St. Louis played as largely league-average parks with ever-so-slight pitching advantages last year. But as an extreme fly-ball pitcher Miller might be hurt a bit more than most by this move, as he’ll lose a bit of Busch’s helpful home run suppression. The fly-ball theme is perhaps most key as it relates to defense, and it is in this area that the move hurts Miller most. The Cardinals were a top-10 defensive unit last year, checking in seventh in overall defensive efficiency. The Braves, on the other hand, were a bottom-third unit. And that was before they went an swapped out Jason Heyward’s best-in-baseball 26.4 FRAA in right for Evan Gattis’ -.04 figure from his efforts in left two years ago. Miller was already a less-than-tantalizing fantasy prospect on account of his fly-ball-heavy profile and evaporating strikeouts, and this move puts up even more roadblocks for him to develop into a useful fantasy piece. He’ll remain an upside flier relevant to most leagues come spring time, and if the price is low enough there’s certainly still enough talent in his right arm to warrant investment.
Gattis acquitted himself well at the dish in his sophomore season, and with the departure of Heyward it looks like the Braves are going to follow through on their threat to deploy him in left field with greater regularity. While that’s likely to make life for Atlanta hurlers a bit more stressful, it’s excellent news for Gattis’ fantasy owners. After being poised to lose his OF eligibility this offseason he’ll now figure to regain it in April, adding a nice element of positional versatility. And from a counting stat accumulation perspective the additional at-bats are huge. At a per-550-at-bat rate he’s averaged 33 homers, 89 RBI, and 65 runs thus far in his career, all with a won’t-kill-you .253 average. So after finishing as a top-10 catcher in standard leagues last year the potential is here for him to vault into the upper tier of catcher-eligible fantasy monsters.
With Gattis spending more time in left field it opens up the lion’s share of playing time behind the dish for Bethancourt. That’s good for owners in deeper two-catcher leagues, because warm bodies with playing time have value. But as Bret noted in the Braves’ Top Ten Bethancourt’s offensive ceiling is quite limited—particularly in the shorter term—by a highly aggressive approach at the plate. The bump in probable playing time makes him more fantasy-relevant, but he still doesn’t hold much more than afterthought appeal on draft day.
It looked pretty likely that the Braves were going to bring Medlen back after his second Tommy John surgery, and he’d be a nice injury-stash for NL-only leagues in that scenario. But now that becomes much less clear. The righty is projected to earn somewhere in the $6 million range in arbitration, and given the uncertainties of the second surgery and now a surplus of rotation options he becomes a likely non-tender candidate. In a best-case scenario he's probably forced into competition for a rotation spot with Brandon Beachy, who's on a similar early-2015 timeline in his own Tommy John recovery.
As the cheaper of the two injury-return options for the Braves, Beachy is in the safer position, and nothing should really change regarding his ETA or the expectation that he’ll rejoin the rotation when he’s ready. If Atlanta does re-sign Medlen it’ll ding Beachy's stock a bit, but overall there’s not much in this acquisition to change to his status as a deep mixed and NL-only injury flier on draft day.
Jenkins wasn’t a particularly enticing fantasy prospect before the trade, and he remains best suited for the deepest of deep leagues after the deal. He passes the eye test of a premium pitching prospect, but he’s still quite raw and now coming off shoulder surgery. Raw pitching prospects with shoulder surgery on their resume do not equal quality fantasy league prospects. In leagues with 15 or 20 prospects rostered per team, his upside is probably still worthy of a spot for the time being, but he’s far enough away and with enough questions about his health and development that it’s to hard justify owning him in leagues shallower than that. —Wilson Karaman
Acquired RF-R Jason Heyward and RHP Jordan Walden from Atlanta Braves in exchange for RHP Shelby Miller and RHP Tyrell Jenkins [11/17]
We tend to give teams a little extra deference when they trade away an asset, understanding as we do that they have an information advantage not just on us but on their trade partners. The Cardinals know more about Miller’s coachability than the Braves, for instance, and they know more about Tyrell Jenkins’ shoulder than the Braves. But it works on contract issues, too. The Braves—particularly after pushing hard on every extension candidate on their roster last winter—were exceptionally attuned to the likelihood that Jason Heyward will pursue free agency. They were probably especially aware of the binary situation they were in: If Heyward is amazing this year, they wouldn’t be able to re-sign him. If he’s not—if his defense drops to +5 runs or something, and he keeps hitting like John Jaso—then they just might get more value (especially given their depth chart) out of Shelby Miller this year, and be thrilled with the exchange.
So the Cardinals probably know that this is a one-year acquisition, and it’s a sexy one. Part of the subtext of the Giancarlo Stanton Transaction Analysis today was the appreciation that players like Stanton are practically impossible to acquire; “the best player this front office will ever employ again.” By some total-value metrics, by some analysis, the Cardinals just got one, and, while it seems like the Braves got a solid return, it simultaneously doesn’t feel like the Cardinals had to give up much at all.
The contours of their WARPs are different, so here’s a question: Which type of WARP would you rather acquire? No knock intended to Heyward, and there’s something to be said for the presumably more slump-proof nature of defense, but I’ll take the hitter going forward. The 25-year-old hitter is entering his physical peak; the 25-year-old defender is leaving his, for one thing. But the +30 defensive ratings of Heyward also seem to lack a certain internal logic—how can a guy be so good at a position and not be an obvious candidate to shift immediately to a more difficult position? Is it realistic to think Heyward would be a +20 center fielder, as positional adjustments would suggest? Or even a +10?
For what it’s worth, FRAA has historically been much more moderate on Heyward’s defense—+1.7, +3.0, +15.4, +6.9 in his first four seasons—and even it bought into the bubble this year, assigning him a +27. So it’s definitely possible that Heyward really is just that good on defense, was that valuable last year, saved that many runs. Definitely. But we all appreciate how much easier it is to put faith in the story that a .271/.351/.384 slash line tells.
Jordan Walden used to sit at 99 and now he sits at 96, but the drop in velocity hasn’t done much to either his strikeout rates (still good!) or his control (still bad). Both equilibriums are held in place by increased usage of his slider and changeup, which have grown into competent, unexciting pitchers. He hits the DL once a year but never for anything serious. His leverage graph last year is a dead ringer for a jump hill in some sort of web-based Flash game involving skiing, boulder-shoving, or a scooter.
There's not a dramatic shift in value. The Cardinals figure to have a better supporting cast, but Turner Field is a slightly better home park for lefties than Busch Stadium. It’s tough to know exactly where Heyward will bat in the Cardinals lineup, but assuming it's up the order, he could be looking at 90-plus runs supported by Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta. Heyward could also get the green light to steal more often from Mike Matheny than he did from Fredi Gonzalez, though the disparity in quality baserunners on the two teams in recent years makes directly comparing their running tendencies difficult. That's too many coulds and too many contextual factors that can change quickly to make a sweeping statement one way or the other. If I have to lean in one direction I'm going arrow up here, but really, this is a lateral move. It wouldn't have been lateral if Heyward was going to Fenway but hey no I'm not bitter.
Cardinals Outfielders Not Named Matt Holliday
Randal Grichuk probably suffers the most here, since he figured to see a ton of time in right field before the deal but will probably see next to zero time there now. Jon Jay should tentatively still be seen as the center fielder, but he faces more competition. Peter Bourjos looks trapped as the fifth outfielder and pinch-runner, which means he's really just NL-Only fodder. Stephen Piscotty's short-term value takes a ding too, though he's still the right fielder of the future if the Cardinals don't sign Heyward long term.
Adam Wainwright, John Lackey, and Lance Lynn are assured of starting spots, and if he's healthy (and he probably won't be), Jaime Garcia should factor into the equation, too. But with Miller out of the picture, both Martinez and Gonzalez figure to get legit shots to start at some point in 2015, and I'd bet on Martinez getting the first crack. That's great for his fantasy value, as he can still be a no. 3 fantasy SP in standard leagues if he hits his ceiling, and I labeled him as one of my favorite post-hype sleepers last week. Gonzalez has less upside but is a safer bet to be a starter long term.
Walden isn't much more of a threat to supplant Rosenthal than Martinez ever was, but it's interesting that the Cardinals felt the need to bolster their bullpen. Don't worry yet, but understand that Rosey's job security probably isn't what it used to be. —Ben Carsley
Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @SamMillerBB