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Braves Throwback Thursday: Worst offseason trades in Atlanta history

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The Braves have made some bad deals over the years

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals
Shortstop Erick Aybar was at the center of one of the worst trades in Atlanta Braves history, when he was dealt from the Los Angeles Angels as part of the package for Gold Glover Andrelton Simmons. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

The 2020-21 hot stove season has heated up a little bit of late, and perhaps that “warmth” will even spread to Atlanta at some point.

Two weeks ago, we ranked the best offseason trades in Atlanta Braves history (that is, since the team moved from Milwaukee in 1966). Now it’s time to rank the worst such deals.

(For purposes of this article, we’re defining an “offseason trade” as one that takes place from the end of one year’s World Series until the opening of the next regular season. That includes deals made during spring training.)

As we did with our best trades article, we’ve taken a mathematical — rather than subjective — approach here, using a straight Baseball Reference WAR comparison to determine “good” trades from “bad” ones. If the Braves acquired more future WAR than they gave away, it goes down as a “good” trade; and vice versa.

Below are the five worst offseason deals in Atlanta Braves history, plus a couple of “dishonorable” mentions.

Kenny Lofton Braves
Kenny Lofton hit well in his lone season in Atlanta, but missed six weeks due to injury and then departed after the season as a free agent. (Getty Images)

Dishonorable mention: March 25, 1997 — Braves traded OF Marquis Grissom & OF David Justice to Cleveland for OF Kenny Lofton & RP Alan Embree

If you had to pinpoint a moment when the 1990s Braves went from free-spending mini-dynasty to budget-conscious mere contenders, this might be it. Desperate to clear the $27.7 million owed to Justice and Grissom over the subsequent three years with star pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux soon to be up for extensions, Atlanta dealt them to Cleveland for Embree and All-Star leadoff man Lofton, who was due to be a free agent after 1997. The disastrousness of the deal is mitigated somewhat by the fact that (a) the Indians traded Grissom away after just one season (in which he accrued 1.9 WAR) and (b) that Lofton was really good with the Braves in 1997, batting .333/.409/.428 and posting 5.0 WAR despite missing six weeks with a pulled groin muscle. But Lofton never really fit in with Atlanta (in particular clashing with manager Bobby Cox), and went back to Cleveland as a free agent the following winter. Justice, however, thrived with the Indians, posting 10.9 WAR over four seasons while staying mostly healthy. Embree put up 0.6 WAR in two seasons with Atlanta, making this deal a minus-7.2 WAR “loss” for the Braves. (Shortly after this trade, the Braves also dealt young outfielder Jermaine Dye to Kansas City. Dye would become a star with the Royals before moving on to the White Sox, but the Braves actually got decent production out of the two players they acquired, Michael Tucker and Keith Lockhart. Thus, that deal doesn’t end up on this list.)

Dishonorable mention: Jan. 24, 2013 — Braves traded 2B Martin Prado, SP Randall Delgado, minor-league SS Nick Ahmed, minor-league 3B Brandon Drury & minor-league RP Zeke Spruill to Arizona for 3B Chris Johnson & OF Justin Upton

This trade was widely hailed as a big win for Atlanta when it happened, but over the years has gotten worse for the Braves. That’s mainly because Ahmed has been outstanding in Arizona, accruing 12.0 WAR (and counting) — most of it with the glove. Three of the other four players who went to the Diamondbacks also posted positive WAR: Prado (4.0 in two years), Delgado (1.7 in six) and Drury (1.3 in three), with only Spruill (minus-0.4 in two years) coming up negative. On the Atlanta side, Upton was a very good hitter in his two seasons in Atlanta, posting an .826 OPS and a 129 OPS+. However, he gave back a lot of value with his poor defense, and wound up with an aggregate 5.9 WAR. Johnson was a good hitter his first season with the Braves (124 OPS+), but terrible in his second (84) and even worse in his third (64), winding up with a 1.7 WAR during his time in Atlanta. That makes this trade a minus-11.0 WAR loss for the Braves. Of course, Atlanta ended up getting quite a bit of value (mainly Max Fried) for Upton when he was traded away in late 2014, but we’re not counting subsequent deals as part of this equation.

Second baseman Quilvio Veras, left, posted a .413 on-base percentage for the Atlanta Braves in 2000, but played in only 84 games due to injury. (Getty Images)

5. Dec. 22, 1999 — Braves trade 2B Bret Boone, 1B Ryan Klesko & minor-league SP Jason Shiell to San Diego for 1B Wally Joyner, OF Reggie Sanders & 2B Quilvio Veras

Desperate for a leadoff hitter after Walt Weiss and others had failed in that role for the 1999 pennant winners, the Braves put together a mega-deal just before the turn of the new millennium. Veras had posted a .368 on-base percentage in San Diego in 1999, while Sanders had slugged .527 and stolen 36 bases. Joyner, an Atlanta native, was considered merely insurance against the return of first baseman Andres Galarraga, who had missed all of the previous season while undergoing cancer treatment (and Galarraga’s return also theoretically made Klesko — who had played out of position in the outfield for years — expendable). Veras posted a .413 OBP in 2000, though he missed about half the season due to injury. And rookie Rafael Furcal emerged that summer as a standout leadoff man, meaning the Braves didn’t really need Veras (who ended up posting a 3.3 WAR in two years with Atlanta). Sanders bombed in Atlanta in 2000, batting .232/.302/.403 with a 0.1 WAR in what was easily the worst full season of his 17-year big-league career (he left after that season as a free agent). Joyner posted a 0.2 WAR as a decent bat off the bench before he, too, left the Braves. Of the players San Diego received, two stayed there only one season. Shiell made it to the big leagues in 2002, posting a minus-0.1 WAR in 1.1 innings before he was waived that offseason. Boone put up a 94 OPS+ and 0.2 WAR with the Padres before moving on as a free agent to Seattle, where he became a superstar for about four years (including a third-place MVP finish in 2001). But it was the loss of Klesko that hurt the Braves most. The hard-hitting lefty put up 15.9 WAR in seven seasons in San Diego, averaging 26 homers and 92 RBIs from 2001-04. (Galarraga played one more season with the Braves, hitting well but not to the level he did before his illness. He left after the 2000 season as a free agent, and Atlanta seemingly had trouble finding a big bat at first base for most of the next decade. In all, this trade was a negative-12.4-WAR loss for the Braves.

4. March 17, 1969 — Braves trade C/1B Joe Torre to St. Louis for 1B Orlando Cepeda

This one-for-one spring training blockbuster made major headlines at the time, as we detailed in this space last year. Torre had come up through the Braves’ system as a catcher, but had run afoul of general manager Paul Richards due in large part to his activities with the nascent Major League Baseball Players Association. After Richards tried to cut Torre’s pay by $5,000 following a sub-par 1968 season, Torre held out for much of the following spring training. After first trying to trade him to the New York Mets (Torre’s hometown team), Richards dealt him to St. Louis for Cepeda, also a former All-Star who’d had a poor 1968 season. Cepeda was an above-average hitter (109 OPS+ and 3.2 WAR) for the Braves’ 1969 National League West championship team, and even better the following year (136 and 3.8). However, he faded quickly beginning in 1971 due to a series of knee injuries. The Braves traded him to Oakland in June of 1972, after he’d accrued 7.9 WAR in four seasons in Atlanta. Torre, meanwhile, was reborn with the Cardinals, who soon moved him out from behind home plate to third base and later first. He was the National League MVP in 1971, when he led the league in batting average (.363), hits (230), RBIs (137) and total bases (352). In six seasons in St. Louis, Torre totaled 22.5 WAR. That makes this deal a net negative of 14.6 WAR for Atlanta.

Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves
Andrelton Simmons won a pair of Gold Gloves with the Atlanta Braves, and two more after they traded him to the Los Angeles Angels in 2015. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

3. Nov. 12, 2015 — Braves traded SS Andrelton Simmons & minor-league C Jose Briceno to Los Angeles Angels for SS Erick Aybar, minor-league SP Chris Ellis, minor-league SP Sean Newcomb & cash

Of all the trades made during the madcap John Coppollela era, this one is easily the worst mathematically and remains among the most unpopular. Simmons — universally regarded as the best defensive player of his era — was under contract with the Braves through 2021 and was still a couple of years away from making anything close to “big money.” And it didn’t help that Aybar was a disaster in his brief tenure in Atlanta, posting a .607 OPS and accruing minus-0.1 WAR in 97 games before mercifully being traded to Detroit. Ellis never pitched for the Braves, getting traded a year later to St. Louis in the deal that brought Jaime Garcia to Atlanta. Newcomb has put up 3.8 WAR in four seasons with the Braves, enjoying some ups but more recently quite a few downs that have left his future with the organization murky at best heading into 2021. Briceno has developed into a solid back-up catcher, posting 0.5 WAR in two seasons with the Angels. Simmons, of course, continued to shine in Anaheim, putting up 20.9 WAR in five seasons and winning two more Gold Gloves (he’s currently a free agent). The postscript to this deal is that Atlanta traded for Dansby Swanson less than a month later, though Swanson will have to pick up his production (7.5 WAR in four-plus seasons thus far) to match what Simmons would have done. In aggregate thus far, the Braves have lost 17.5 WAR in the Simmons trade.

2. Nov. 17, 1975 — Braves trade OF Dusty Baker & 1B Ed Goodson to Los Angeles for IF/OF Lee Lacy, OF/1B Tom Paciorek, IF Jerry Royster & OF Jimmy Wynn

The Braves tried to sell this deal as an attempt to upgrade its speed, power and versatility, but what it really was was a response to a trade demand by Baker, a California native who desired to live on the West Coast. Baker was just 26, and coming off a four-year period in which he’d averaged a 118 OPS+. Whatever the reason for the deal, the results were calamitous for Atlanta. Baker went on to post 20.0 WAR in eight seasons with the Dodgers, helping them to three NL pennants and the 1981 World Series championship before embarking on a long career as a manager. Goodson had been a decent pinch-hitter early in his career with the San Francisco Giants, but didn’t contribute much in Atlanta or L.A., totaling -0.9 WAR in two seasons with the Dodgers. Lacy lasted just 50 games in Atlanta, posting an OPS+ of 84 with poor defense at second base before he was traded back to the Dodgers (he contributed minus-1.0 WAR with the Braves) for relief ace Mike Marshall. Paciorek was even worse than Lacy, totaling minus-1.6 WAR in three seasons before leaving as a free agent. Royster hung around the longest — lasting as a utility man until 1984 — but only once (1982) was he an above-average contributor. He totaled minus-0.3 WAR in nine seasons in Atlanta. Wynn, a former All-Star with the Astros, was essentially washed-up by the time he got to the Braves, but still had outstanding on-base skills. He led the league with 127 walks and hit 17 homers, but slugged just .367. The Braves sold his contract to the New York Yankees after the 1976 season, after he’d posted a 2.7 WAR. This trade wound up costing the Braves a total of 19.3 WAR.

Braves v Dodgers
JD Drew was outstanding in his lone season with the Atlanta Braves, who traded future All-Star Adam Wainwright as part of the package to get him. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

1. Dec. 13, 2003 — Braves traded RP Ray King, SP Jason Marquis & minor-league SP Adam Wainwright to St. Louis for OF JD Drew & UT Eli Marrero

If you’ve followed the Braves and the Cardinals for the last two decades, it shouldn’t surprise you that this is the worst offseason trade in Atlanta history. There are a few caveats, however. First, the Braves desperately needed a replacement for free agent departure Gary Sheffield in right field and in the middle of the order. Second, Drew was OUTSTANDING in his one year with Atlanta, enjoying the best season of his career with a .305/.436/.569 line with 118 walks, 118 runs and 31 homers. His 8.3 WAR is the fourth-highest of any Atlanta Braves hitter ever, after only Darrell Evans in 1973 (9.0), Lonnie Smith in 1989 (8.8) and Hank Aaron in 1967 (8.5). Marrero was also quite good, posting a 128 OPS+ with 2.3 WAR in 90 games as pinch-hitter and fourth outfielder. If the Braves made a mistake in acquiring Drew, it was thinking they had a chance to re-sign the south Georgia native to a long-term deal. That didn’t happen, and he signed a 5-year, $55 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in December 2004 after becoming a free agent. Marrero was also due $3 million in arbitration for 2005, so the Braves traded him away too, to the Kansas City Royals for forgettable reliever Jorge Vazquez. And we haven’t even gotten to what Atlanta gave up yet. King, a solid middle reliever who was traded away by the Braves twice, totaled 1.9 WAR in two seasons with St. Louis. Marquis, who’d been a back end of the rotation arm with the Braves, had a good first year with the Cardinals but got progressively worse and wound up totaling 1.4 WAR in three seasons. But the jewel of the deal was Wainwright, also a south Georgia native and a former first-round pick. He came back to bite the Braves as badly as any player they’ve traded away, first reaching the majors with the Cardinals in 2005, developing into a key cog on World Series championship teams in 2006 and 2011 and finishing in the top three of the NL Cy Young voting four times in six seasons from 2009-14. He’s still technically active at age 39, though he’s a free agent and it’s unclear at the moment if he’ll pitch for the Cardinals or anyone else in 2021. Either way, he’s totaled 41 WAR in 15 seasons. That makes this trade an absolute bomb for the Braves, costing them 33.7 WAR despite good performances from both players they acquired.

So there you have it, the worst offseason trades in Atlanta Braves history. May their like never pass this way again.

Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at darrylpalmerbraves4@gmail.com. No, that’s not his real name.

Sources: BaseballReference.com; Newspapers.com; ESPN.com; SABR Bio Project