via Star Tribune
Last week, I had the opportunity to play the part of Frank Wren over at Royals Review, SB Nation's excellent Kansas City Royals blog, where one of their contributors, Royals Retro, coordinated the second annual SB Nation Winter Meetings sim. A thread detailing the rules and guidelines of the process is available here, but I can explain the process fairly simply. We, the 30 GMs, had between 9 AM on Monday morning until 1 PM on Friday afternoon to complete offseason transactions, including extending qualifying offers to free agents, non-tendering and tendering arbitration-eligible players, signing free agents, and making trades. Almost nearly SBN MLB blog sent a representative for their team in the simulation, although I believe the Brewers, Pirates, and Cardinals were exceptions (what's up with that, NL Central?). I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with fans of different teams (many of whom head or write for their teams' SBN blogs) in an attempt to improve the fake Braves. Some decisions (extending a qualifying offer to Brian McCann, non-tendering Paul Janish, etc.) weren't tough at all, but others were extremely difficult and presented numerous advantages and downsides.
The fake Braves had a simulation budget for 2014 of $100 million dollars, per a report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's David O'Brien. This was an increase of slightly over $10 million dollars from the 2013 Braves, who spent right around $90 million dollars on payroll. Considering arbitration raises for players such as Freddie Freeman and Mike Minor, this $10 million cash windfall didn't exactly free up a ton of money to be spent by the fake Braves, so I went into the simulation with no expectation to sign a big-name free agent or acquire a costly player from another team in a trade. Rather, I would look to improve the team by making small to mid-sized free agent offers and by exploring trade opportunities for young, cost-controlled talent.
In chronological order, here are the transactions that I made during the simulation:
1. ATL declines Reed Johnson's 2014 team option
The first move I made during the simulation was a no-brainer to me. Reed Johnson struggled with injury in 2013, missing extensive time in the second half of the season with Achilles tendinitis, missing all of August and nearly half of September. Even when he did play in 2013, he wasn't particularly effective, putting up a .244/.311/.341 slash line and an 85 wRC+ in 136 PA. His most notable hit in 2013 was to the head of Brewers' outfielder Carlos Gomez after an overzealous home run trot. Johnson will be 37 in 2014, and I didn't feel like spending $1.5 million on an aging player with injury concerns who doesn't play particularly good defense. I wanted to find a better bench outfielder than Johnson who could play better defense and provide right-handed pop from the bench, and Johnson didn't seem like a good fit for that role. Consequently, I paid the $150,000 buyout for 2014 in his contract, making him a free agent.
2. ATL trades P Brandon Beachy to MIL for C Jonathan Lucroy and 2B Rickie Weeks (plus $4 million in 2014 and $1 million if his 2015 vesting option is picked up by Atlanta)
This trade offer was a bit stunning to me. Milwaukee's GM approached me trying to get rid of Rickie Weeks along with a portion of his contract, and I didn't have much interest in taking him on. However, I asked the Brewers' GM what he was looking for in return, and mentioned that he'd be willing to include catcher Jonathan Lucroy in the talks if I would be willing to send him young starting pitching in return. This immediately piqued my interest, as I believe that Jonathan Lucroy is one of the most massively underrated players in baseball, with an extremely team-friendly contract, the details of which are available at the bottom of the page here. The Brewers' GM requested Brandon Beachy, as well as the Braves' 2013 1st round draft pick, Jason Hursh, in exchange for Lucroy and Weeks (as well as the portion of his salary detailed above), and I (probably stupidly) tried to give up a lesser prospect than Hursh. The Brewers' GM and I tinkered and tinkered over the course of several emails trying to hammer out an acceptable deal for both sides, and eventually, I think he just got weary of dealing with the negotiations, so he offered me the original deal, except without Jason Hursh, which I immediately pounced upon.
Jonathan Lucroy is a solid offensive backstop at a position which doesn't produce a wealth of offensive production generally, posting a 118 wRC+ along with a .175 ISO and a modest 11.9 K% in 2013 (although his breakout 2012 season was even better offensively), as well as being one of the game's elite defensive backstops and receivers. Look at this masterful framing job by Lucroy to get an idea of the help he provides for a pitching staff:
I love Pence's reaction to the strike call, and the Braves' pitchers will love Lucroy's ability to turn borderline balls into strikes. Although it will certainly hurt to lose Brian McCann to an AL team in 2014 (the Rangers signed him to a 6 year/$110 million (!) deal in the sim), I feel as if Lucroy will provide similar, if not superior, value in the years going forward than McCann at a tiny fraction of the cost. Steamer projects that Lucroy will play in 117 games next season (seems extremely light) and post a 3.2 fWAR. Extrapolating that over 145 games (we'll assume a relatively healthy Lucroy) projects to right around 4 fWAR, although I believe Lucroy's value in terms of runs saved by pitch framing isn't properly accounted for in fWAR.
I'm not thrilled about taking on Rickie Weeks, as he's experienced a sharp decline in recent years and is owed quite a bit of money in 2014. The Braves will owe $7 million to Weeks in 2014, and that'll be their sole year of financial commitment to weeks, unless they decide to bring him back via the vesting option in 2015, which I can't imagine would happen. $7 million seems like an astronomical price to pay for a guy who would most likely back up or platoon with Tommy La Stella for my fake 2014 Braves, but considering the value I got in return, I'm comfortable with paying that. Losing Brandon Beachy was a bit of a dicey proposition, but considering his Tommy John surgery in June 2012, coupled with the complications and second elbow surgery he dealt with after his return in 2013, I was okay with giving him up. I don't think he'll ever replicate his out-of-nowhere 2011 campaign, in which he posted a K% of 22.4 and a 3.16 xFIP, making him probably a decent 3 or 4 starter in the bigs. Considering the quality and depth of near-ready starting pitching in the Braves organization, even if I weren't to re-sign Hudson in the sim (which I eventually did, more on that later), I was able to stomach the loss of Beachy for the great bounty of Lucroy. Have I mentioned that I sort of like him?
This move was made in order to provide the Braves with an option in case of rotation disaster in 2014. Floyd, who has been a mainstay in the Chicago White Sox's rotation for the past 5 or 6 seasons after coming up through Philadelphia's minor league system, underwent Tommy John surgery in May of this season, and is expected to be ready around mid-season in 2014. Floyd isn't going to wow anyone, but he has a respectable career xFIP of 4.14 and will be 31 heading into the 2014 season. Think of this as a better version of 2013 Freddy Garcia, I guess. For what it's worth, Steamer projects Floyd to be worth 1.7 fWAR in 96 major league IP in 2014, along with nearly 8 K/9, so I would feel comfortable with Floyd stepping into the Atlanta rotation were injuries to befall the rotation. He was definitely worth taking a flyer on, in my eyes, and I'm surprised he accepted a minor league deal considering his age and track record. But hey, I'll take it.
4. ATL trades C/OF (heh) Evan Gattis to MIA for P Mike Dunn and 3B Avery Romero
This transaction is the one that, in hindsight, I worry about having made a mistake. Gattis became expendable after trading for Jonathan Lucroy, so I floated him as being available in our simulation thread. Two of my objectives in the simulation were to acquire a left-handed reliever for the major league bullpen (Luis Avilan appears to be the only clear-cut LHP in the 'pen in '14 at this point, provided that the Braves don't tender a contract to Jonny Venters) and to increase the amount and quality of hitting and position player talent in the Braves' minor league system. The Marlins' GM, who runs the Fish Stripes blog on SBN that doesn't get nearly enough attention, in my eyes, contacted me about acquiring Gattis. I mentioned to him that I'd like to receive Dunn, a name who was targeted by the real life Braves at 2013's trade deadline, according to reports, as well as a prospect in return. I settled on Avery Romero, the Marlins' 2012 third-round draft pick out of Menendez HS in Saint Augustine, Florida, as the prospect in the deal, and we mutually agreed to complete the transaction.
I won't bore you with a breakdown of Evan Gattis' strengths and weaknesses. They're well-known at this point. Gattis has exceptional pop, is a fan favorite in Atlanta, and plays respectable defense behind the plate. He also doesn't take walks, hit for average, and he's old for a guy who'll be a second-year player in 2014. Although I would've loved to have retained his power on our bench, it would've complicated our bench composition greatly. Gerald Laird is here to stay in Atlanta through 2014, so get used to it. I couldn't feasibly carry 3 catchers, including Gattis, when Evan doesn't play a passable left field. He would provide no defensive utility on the bench, which is important in the National League especially. Mike Dunn is a solid left-handed reliever. He's nothing special. Despite posting a very good 2.66 ERA in 2013, the former Brave's peripherals indicate that he's a bit worse than that. He racks up quite a few strikeouts with a 25.5% K%, but also is prone to surrendering walks. He's also managed to keep hit HR/FB% low at around 6.3% during the past two seasons, despite being a fly ball pitcher. I ultimately am glad that he'll be in the fake Braves' pen, as he is a nice complement to Avilan as another LH option in the bullpen, but I'm not necessarily thrilled to add him. He's not Glen Perkins.
Avery Romero is far from a sure thing as a prospect, although he did post very solid offensive numbers in short-season A ball in the New York-Penn League in 2012 and 2013. He didn't fare as well after being called up to A ball in Greensboro, albeit in an extremely limited sample size (9 games). Romero will turn 21 next May, and was one of the oldest high school picks in the 2012 draft. Romero does a great job of spraying line drives all over the field, and has an impressive hit tool. Coming in at 5'11" and 195 pounds from the right side of the plate, he's probably never going to hit for a ton of power, but a lot of his development as a prospect hinges on the development of his power. To play third base, he's going to need to develop some strength to muscle balls out of the park. His ceiling seems like a ~20 home run guy as a starter in the MLB, and with decent defense and a good hit tool, that will play in the majors if everything comes together. It's nice to add a player like Romero who can swing the stick and field adequately, but it'll be a while before we see Romero start to advance near the big league level. Baseball America tabbed Romero as the Marlins' 9th-best prospect after the 2013 season, and I hope that Romero has the ability to become a key player for the fake Braves around 2017 or 2018. Here's a video of him hitting a home run for Greensboro this season, for fun. You can see some of Romero's quick bat speed in the video.
5. ATL non-tenders IF Paul Janish
Oh, Soft J. I can't say that I'll miss you too much, buddy. While you are quite good with the glove, I grew tired of watching you pop out and never get on base. Janish just doesn't bring enough to the table for me to hold onto him going into 2014, with the acquisition of Rickie Weeks, the return of Ramiro Peña, and the likely call-up of Tommy La Stella. Don't fret, though, Braves fans, as Yawnish was able to find a home in the Reds' minor league system, where the legend of the light-hitting utility infielder began.
6. ATL signs OF Chris Young to a 2 year, $9 million deal (with $2 million possible in performance bonuses, awarded in a sum of $1M for each year of his contract in which he achieves 350 PA)
I know what some of you may be thinking. "But Chris Young was terrible with Oakland in 2013. He hit .200, for Pete's sake! Why on earth would you possibly sign him?"
Well, despite his horrible, terrible, no-good and very bad year for the A's in 2013, I still think Chris Young has a lot to offer as a fourth outfielder for the Braves. Young put together some nice seasons for the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2010 to 2012 as a very good defensive outfielder with speed and power. He has never hit for a high average, and he likely never will, but a 10% career walk rate offsets some of the negatives associated with a low batting average, as does a career ISO of .196. Don't get me wrong here--I'm not saying that Chris Young is a great baseball player who should play a key role in the 2014 fake Braves. However, I do believe that he is a great fourth outfielder option who provides right-handed power off of the bench as well as quality defense and versatility. Sort of like a poor man's pre-2013 BJ Upton, to be completely honest. I would be shocked if Young didn't post a BABIP higher than .237 in 2014 (which was a major contributing factor to his putrid batting average in 2013), and I expect him to bounce back and have a good season as fake Atlanta's fourth outfielder in 2014. I would also feel comfortable with him filling as a starter in case of injury to the Upton brothers or Jason Heyward, and if BJ Upton's mammoth struggles continue, he'd be an option to replace BJ as a starter in the outfield. 2 years at $4.5 million per year isn't too exorbitant, in my eyes, and I'd be surprised if he were to meet the requirements for his performance bonuses. Without any bonafide options to fulfill the fourth outfielder role in 2014 (sorry, Slim Schafer, but I don't think you're that good), I'm happy with this signing and expect Young to be a strong supporting member of the team in 2014.
7. ATL non-tenders P Jonny Venters
I was a bit sad to let Jonny go, as it meant that the Vent portion of O'Ventbrel (along with the O' portion, as Detroit signed him to a 2 year/$5 million deal as a free agent in the simulation) has gone, leaving Brel as the only fragment of that three-headed monster of years past. However, I did not want to pay Venters $1.625 million in 2014 after his second Tommy John surgery and struggles with effectiveness in recent times. Venters hasn't pitched in the big leagues since September of 2012, and after struggling in 2012, I'm just not convinced that he'll be able to return to the major leagues and stay healthy and effective. After acquiring Dunn, it became even more evident that this would be the correct move to make, and I let Jonny go. He was able to sign a contract with the Cardinals, though, who will undoubtedly turn him into a Cy Young Award candidate in 2014, somehow.
8. ATL trades 2B Dan Uggla (plus $5 million in salary annually in 2014 and 2015) and P Cody Martin to NYM for OF Brandon Nimmo
Ah, how sweet it is. I was able to get rid of Dan Uggla and around 62% of his salary and acquire an intriguing outfield prospect in the process. During the process of the simulation, it became readily apparent to me that it'd be extremely difficult to unload Uggla and any significant portion of his remaining $13 million per year salary for 2014 and 2015. The Mets were interesting in acquiring some of the Braves' organizational starting pitching, and approached me with the proposition of taking on Uggla in exchange for some of our minor league pitching talent. I presented the Mets' GM with a list of three names (Martin, Gimartin, and Hursh) with whom I'd be willing to include in the deal, and his choice was Martin. Great. I stated that I'd just like to receive a positional prospect in return, and just threw out Nimmo's name for fun, not expecting the Mets' GM to want to give up one of their better prospects. Well, he did, and the deal was agreed upon.
The Mets' GM was high on Cody Martin as a future member of New York's rotation, and I don't blame him. Martin's numbers and peripherals alike in the minor leagues have been consistently great. While he isn't regarded as a prospect near Lucas Sims' tier or even JR Graham's tier, he certainly could find success as a middle-of-the rotation starter in the big leagues going forward. However, with the abundance of pitching in our minor league system, and considering the salary relief which the Uggla deal gave us, this was a small price to pay. The cherry on top of this deal was acquiring Brandon Nimmo. The 20-year old left-handed hitting Wyoming product, who actually didn't play high school baseball because that apparently doesn't exist in The Equality State, impressed scouts and GMs significantly at American Legion ballgames and showcases around the country, and was drafted by the Mets in the first round of the 2011 draft. The tall, rangy outfielder is thin at 6'3" and 180 pounds, but has room to add weight to his frame in the future without becoming too bulky. He has never put up stellar numbers in the minor leagues, which isn't all that surprising considering Nimmo was drafted as a fairly raw player and has spent the bulk of his time in the minors playing at MCU Park in Brooklyn and Grayson Stadium in Savannah, neither of which are kind parks for lefties to hit in. He also struggles mightily against left-handed pitching and definitely has some concerns considering whether or not he'll ever be able to overcome this difficulty against pitching from southpaws. However, Nimmo is another player who, much like Romero, has room to grow as a power hitter. Again, much like Romero, he's an adequate fielder at his position (Nimmo has played CF in the minors but could feasibly play any position in the outfield). Nimmo has taken a ton of walks so far in his minor league career, at a clip over 14% in both 2012 and 2013 (low-A and A ball, respectively), and that could play in the majors if his power continues to develop in the minors. I would be shocked if Nimmo were to become an all-star player, but I think he's a guy with potential to be a slightly above-average starting center fielder in the future.
Mostly, though, this deal was all about gaining financial flexibility by getting rid of Dan Uggla and most of his contract, so I will be satisfied with this deal even if Nimmo doesn't end up panning out, provided that Cody Martin doesn't turn into Adam Wainwright 2.0 (which he, uh, won't).
9. ATL signs P Tim Hudson to a 1 year, $10 million deal (with $2 million in incentives; $1 million if he pitches 190 innings, and $1 million if he pitches 150 innings with an ERA of 4.00 or lower)
I'll start off here by saying that I believe that I paid too much for Tim Hudson, although he's probably going to get 2 years at an even higher AAV in real life, but I digress. This seems less ludicrous, however, if you look at what some other pitchers in the simulation got. For instance, the Brewers gave Matt Garza 4 years and $75 million, the Giants gave Tim Lincecum 2/32, and the Twins gave Dan Haren 4/48. In fact, Hudson had an offer from a mystery team, that was later revealed as Grant Brisbee's Giants, which I believed would put me out of the running for his services. However, the Giants signed Hiroki Kuroda to a 2 year, $32 million deal, and the Hudson deal was off the table. That opened up the door for the Braves to slide in near the last minute to re-sign Hudson.
Tim's going to turn 39 next July, is coming off of a grotesque leg injury, and has had Tommy John surgery within the past 6 years. He's far from a sure thing, and the Braves do have some pitchers such as Sean Gilmartin and JR Graham who could conceivably fill the 5th starter void in 2014 after the Beachy trade, and were I to not re-sign Huddy. However, with no other pressing needs in 2014 after the rest of my transactions were completed and with around $12 million left to spend, I decided to make a one-year financial commitment to a pitcher who's been consistently effective when healthy for the Braves since he came to Atlanta in 2005. Although he struggled out of the gate in 2013, he performed much better in the starts leading up to his catastrophic injury at Citi Field, and his peripherals, including an increased strikeout rate, indicated that he was the victim of poor luck in 2013. Huddy is a known commodity for Braves fans who have watched him pitch for the past 9 seasons as a ground ball pitcher and innings eater who doesn't walk nor strike out many batters. There isn't anything flashy about him (except those annual home runs), but he simply gets the job done and is better than average as a starting pitcher in the major leagues. I feel confident that Hudson will pitch effectively in 2014 provided he feels comfortable pitching off of his surgically repaired ankle and arm issues don't arise. Considering the market for starting pitchers, I felt as if this deal was nowhere close to being outlandish, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to bring back the consistently decent Hudson. Plus, he's well-liked in the clubhouse, a noted prankster, and will definitely bring his veteran presents to Turner Field in 2014.
10. ATL signs IF Alexi Casilla to a minor league deal
This move was simply done for infield depth. Casilla is what he is--a weak-hitting (although not Janish-esque) utility infielder who should start the season in Gwinnett and possibly see major league action in case of injury. It's not a sexy deal, but it's extremely low-risk and could become useful down the road in case of unforeseen catastrophe. Please don't get injured, Simba.
11. ATL signs C Michael McKenry to a minor league deal
Once again, another depth move. McKenry is nothing special, but he's played in the majors and could be used in case of an injury to backup catcher Gerald Laird or new starter Jonathan Lucroy. This way, the Braves wouldn't be forced to start Christian Bethancourt's clock and make him play in the majors when he isn't ready. Welcome to Gwinnett, Fort McKenry.
12. ATL signs P Edinson Volquez to a minor league deal
Why not? He's got stuff, and Atlanta's pitching staff has been known to do some crazy stuff in the past. Maybe we can get his issues with walks and overall inconsistency worked out in Gwinnett and he could be called upon to replace an injured member of the Braves' staff effectively if the opportunity were to arise. This is a low-risk move that's not going to hurt anything, but could become useful.
All in all, I was happy with the moves I was able to make. I don't feel as if I made any huge gambles, and I made a point not to financially handcuff the organization in the future so that extensions with Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward, and Freddie Freeman, amongst others, become financially feasible. The only player with a contract and guaranteed money as it stands after the faux Winter Meetings in the 2016 season is BJ Upton. Extensions were not a part of this simulation, and thus, I didn't attempt to extend any players, in case you were wondering. I don't imagine the 2014 sim Braves being much better or worse than the 2013 edition of the team, and I believe as the team is composed, it should be the clear favorite to repeat as NL East champions in 2014 and contend for a World Series. Here's what I imagine the Braves' 2014 opening day roster would look like after the sim:
C: Jonathan Lucroy, Gerald Laird
1B: Freddie Freeman
2B: Tommy La Stella, Rickie Weeks
SS: Andrelton Simmons
3B: Chris Johnson
UTIL: Ramiro Peña
OF: Jason Heyward, BJ Upton, Justin Upton, Chris Young, Jordan Schafer/Joey Terdoslavich
SP: Julio Teheran, Mike Minor (L), Kris Medlen, Tim Hudson, Alex Wood (L)
RP: Craig Kimbrel, David Carpenter, Jordan Walden, Cristhian Martinez, Anthony Varvaro, Luis Avilan (L), Mike Dunn (L)
There was really only one deal which almost came to fruition in the simulation but ultimately fizzled out, and I'll give a brief rundown of that here. Many teams expressed interest in Evan Gattis, most notably the Marlins, Rays, and the Twins. The Twins' GM and I reached a deal in principle which would've sent Evan Gattis, Dan Uggla (plus $7 million annually of salary), Jason Hursh, and Cody Martin to Minnesota in exchange for P Glen Perkins and OF Max Kepler. Unfortunately, the Twins' GM backed out at the last moment, and this swap wasn't completed. Other talks happened, and some of the highlights were the Rockies attempting to acquire Kris Medlen, the Braves inquiring about Jeff Samardzija and Rick Porcello, and the Phillies trying to get me to take on Ryan Howard. Good lord.
In case you're curious, you can look at the wrap-up thread of the exercise over at Royals Review to view a team-by-team breakdown of transactions and vote on which team you think did the best. I'd implore you to check it out, as some interesting transactions occurred, including a straight-up Chris Sale for Yasiel Puig swap, a deal that brought Matt Kemp to Philadelphia, and a mega-trade which sent Giancarlo Stanton to the Cleveland Indians.
I'd like to thank Royals Retro for the opportunity to participate in the simulation and for his hard work organizing this. I'd also like to thank Talking Chop's very own Dan Simpson for functioning as a minor league talent evaluator and second set of eyes to look over my deals during the course of the simulation.
Let me know what you think of the job I did in the sim and what you would or wouldn't have done in my place. I'm curious to hear your thoughts.
Thanks, and Go Braves, as always.