December 3, 2016
Atlanta's Old-Fashioned Rebuild
The Braves didn’t give up anyone they’ll miss in this deal. That’s the only positive thing there is to say.
From the beginning, the Braves’ rebuild--embarked upon unnecessarily, because ownership was tired of spending money and saw an opportunity to avoid doing so until the opening of their new, ill-gotten boondoggle of a suburban ballpark could be constructed (at taxpayers’ cost)--has been a ham-fisted operation handled by people whose ideas about how to undertake such a project can most charitably be described as old-fashioned.
Now the team is ready to move into their new home, away from the unmoneyed and unwashed masses of the city, and they seem determined to turn the corner sharply toward contention. Their plan for doing so appears more half-baked with each passing transaction, and this one is no exception.
The Cardinals picked up Garcia’s $12 million option, but why they did so was never clear. Garcia started 20 games in 2015, which marked the first time he’d started even 10 games since 2012. He pitched nearly 130 innings, and had a stellar 2.43 ERA, but that was driven largely by the ability to totally prevent power. Then he started 30 games in 2016, which is the good news. The bad news is that he gave up 67 extra-base hits and collapsed down the stretch.
The Cardinals protected Garcia’s arm throughout 2015 (although even then, he missed roughly five weeks with a groin issue) by giving him extra rest between most starts. He started on four days’ rest just eight times, and only did so twice in a row once, in September. In 2016, he started on regular rest twice in a row by May 1, and did so three times in a row from May 22 through June 1. From there through the end of the season, Garcia allowed a slash line of .292/.349/.532, and had a 5.38 ERA.
Over the final six weeks, that ERA topped 7.00, and he allowed a slugging percentage on the wrong side of 1.000. His only good outing out of his final nine was a four-inning stint of mop-up relief in Colorado in mid-September, when the Cardinals yanked him from their rotation. Through it all, Garcia threw harder than ever. Velocity was never what made him good, though. His slider lost its bite, and became more of a sweeping, slurvy offering. He lost some of the natural sink on his fastball.
He remains very good at getting ground balls, but made way too many mistakes up in the zone in 2016. Perhaps a mechanical correction or one of the battery of mid-career changes pitchers sometimes make could eliminate those mistakes moving forward, but a $12 million bet on that happening felt like a strange choice by St. Louis, given that Garcia would have to not only improve, but defy his track record by staying healthy in the face of a full season’s workload.
Now, though, the Cardinals are out from under their obligation. The Braves took it on, for reasons surpassing understanding—unless, of course, you’ve been watching this team do business since it declared competitive bankruptcy two years ago. The Braves systematically and dramatically overvalue pitching, and moreover, misunderstand the way to build a winning team from the ground up in the modern game. They’ve been stockpiling pitching prospects as fast as they could gather them up for the entirety of this rebuilding project.
Jason Heyward brought back two pitchers, one of whom (Shelby Miller) the team was able to spin into gold because Ken Kendrick and Derrick Hall gave an unqualified former player the keys to their franchise. Evan Gattis brought back three players, two of them pitchers, one of them (Mike Foltynewicz) good. Justin Upton and Craig Kimbrel did net the team Mallex Smith and Jace Peterson, but they were much more focused on reeling in Matt Wisler (45 starts in the big leagues since, -1.9 WARP) and Max Fried (a below-average starter in the South Atlantic League last year, at 22). Andrelton Simmons brought back Sean Newcomb (still very promising, though fighting fringy command) and Chris Ellis, the latter of whom goes to St. Louis in this deal. They’ve spent their top two picks in each of the last two drafts on pitchers.
This is not how you do it. To whatever extent the Braves have signed the likes of Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey, and now have traded for Garcia, out of a belief that they can contend in 2017, they’re deeply deluded. Firstly, of those three, it’s very likely that only one will be any good in 2017. Secondly, the Braves around them are mostly going to be bad. Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson, and Ender Inciarte are the beginnings of a good team, though they can’t be the true core of one on their own, and Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis figure to each provide exactly half a good season of offensive production (while wearing out Inciarte with all the ground they don’t cover in the gaps), but there’s half a contending lineup missing here.
Maybe they’re planning to make a play for Chris Sale and Todd Frazier. That would change the look of the team. It would also pretty quickly undo 25 months of prospect hoarding, and leave them right about where the Diamondbacks were last season—projected to win about 81 games and finish either third or fourth in a division where one team isn’t even trying. Oh, and with the combined $35 million or so the team will pay Dickey, Colon, and Garcia this season, it also probably isn’t a financial possibility.
To whatever extent this is a plan for getting through a season, perhaps setting up a firewall against the risks associated with overusing their younger arms, the trio of moves makes a little more sense. Even then, though, these aren’t the right moves with which to do that. Despite their admirable and peculiar durability, neither Colon nor Dickey is a good bet to go the entire season without needing a trip or two to the disabled list. Garcia is a downright bad bet to do so. There’s potential July trade value only in Garcia, and given his track record, even that value is questionable.
More importantly, all that money the Braves are throwing at these three could have bought them Justin Turner, who would fill a huge long-term hole at third base. It could have bought them Dexter Fowler, but for the fact that their outfield is clogged already with the aging, underwhelming Markakis and Kemp. Half as much could have bought them two lower-profile free agent starters, who despite their lower cost and longer list of flaws might have been more likely to turn into valuable trade commodities this summer.
It comes down to this: elite position players, especially those who can be controlled at below-market costs for multiple years, are the building blocks of success in MLB today. “Grow the arms, buy the rest,” goes the old expression. The old expression is wrong. The old expression is disastrously misguided. The Braves have dived headlong into the philosophy laid out by that old expression, and if its incorrectness needed further proving, here’s exhibit no. infinity: a rebuilding team (we think?) has now spent a quarter of its projected payroll buying up mid-tier veteran starting pitchers to protect its bumper crop of more promising arms, who last season spread their wings—and bumped nothing but their asses.