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Brave Moves: January’s Transaction Roundup

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Recent transactions and why they matter (or why they don’t)

League Championship - Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Six Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Welcome to Brave Moves, a column where I round up recent transactions and proceed to discuss them. Sometimes it’ll get analytic. Sometimes it’ll ignore analytics. To be perfectly transparent, it may even sometimes ignore baseball. Brave Moves typically won’t be as long as this inaugural edition, so instead of rounding up an entire month of activity (“What activity?”, you’re yelling at me), it’ll pop onto your screens, in most cases, once or twice per week in slightly smaller doses. Let’s get started with a look back at the transactions that January brought us, and then we’ll hit a few rumored transactions that have yet to take place (and in most cases, probably won’t).

1/15: Signed international free agents SS Ambioriz Tavarez and SS Gabriel Liendo

Read this. I’m not an amateur scout, so there’s nothing you need to hear from me. By all accounts, Tavarez is an exciting signing for a franchise that’s just now allowed to really dip its toes back into international waters. I expect Tavarez’s future position to be somewhere other than SS, because Matt Powers said so and I have no reason not to believe him. What I do know is it’s nice to add international free agents of significance, and it’s important that Atlanta, even at 50% of the normal signing pool, is back in business on that front. It’s also important to remember these young players are typically raw, years away from being the kind of prospect you can start to reasonably project big league promotions for. There hasn’t been much ink on Liendo, but Atlanta obviously saw something in the young Venezuelan they like.

1/15: Signed arbitration-eligible LHP AJ Minter to a 1 year, $1,300,000 deal

League Championship - Los Angeles Dodgers v Atlanta Braves - Game Five Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

A year ago, I wrote that the key to Minter’s bounceback would be his four-seam fastball. I wondered whether Minter might be best served reducing his usage of the pitch. Luckily, Minter went in a different direction: he restored it, allowing just a .208 BA on the pitch, down from 2019’s .368. And remember that cutter-slider thing? It was much more, uh, slidery, dropping from 91.5 mph to 87.9 while moving more downward than before (from 25.2 in of vertical drop to 31.2). This gave Minter a true breaking pitch, and a nearly unhittable one at that (.152 BA against, 35.2% whiff rate). That very well may be what made the fastball so much more effective. It all made for a brilliant run for the southpaw, culminating in a heroicNLCS Game 5 start that saw him strike out 7 batters in 3 innings.

Matt Swartz’s arbitration prediction model had Minter projected at somewhere from $1.1-$1.6M, and this falls right in line. He hits arbitration as a Super Two, which is a big deal for all players, but particularly for relievers, whose careers and earning potential can be more volatile. Minter not only doubles what he earned a year ago, but gets onto a track for better future arbitration earnings than a typical player gets. This, of course, puts even more pressure on him to maintain the performance gains he made in 2020. That shouldn’t be an immediate concern, as Minter’s turnaround appears to be linked to real improvements in his process, with better fastball command, a harder breaking cutter, and better overall control. There’s no reason to expect anything other than this being a bargain for the 2021 Braves.

1/15: Signed arbitration-eligible LHP Max Fried to a 1 year, $3,500,000 deal.

The aforementioned arbitration model wasn’t quite sure how arbitration panels might handle the abbreviated 2020 season, so it projected anywhere from $2.4-$4.6M for Fried. Another Super Two, Fried started his arbitration track at the perfect time, coming off a sparkling 7-0, 2.25 ERA season that saw him finish 5th in the CYA race and 18th in the MVP vote, and he won a Gold Glove to boot.

Since you fine readers don’t need me to tell you how good Fried is, let’s instead talk about what Super Two could mean for his pre-FA earnings as compared to if he had to wait another year. In 2016, Kevin Creagh of The Point of Pittsburgh studied arbitration earnings as percentages of market value, and while it may not work precisely on every player, it is still generally illuminating. He finds that players in a traditional arbitration track earn around 25% of their market value in Year 1, after hitting 3 years of service time. They’ll get around 40% after 4 years, and 60% after 5 years. Super Twos, however, get 20% in Year 1, then 33%, then 50%, and then 70%. Let’s use Fried to illustrate. Using this framework, we can roughly guess Fried’s market value is $17.5M. It’s probably a bit more than that, but again, this is just to illustrate the significance of the process, not so much about nailing down a specific number for Fried. Assuming Fried’s value remains static until he hits free agency, here’s how each arbitration track could have realistically rewarded him:

Typical: 3 years ST: $4,375,000
4 years ST: $7,000,000
5 years ST: $10,500,000
Total: $21,875,000

Super Two: 2 years ST: $3,500,000
3 years ST: $5,833,333
4 years ST: $8,750,000
5 years ST: $12,250,000
Total: $30,333,333

So, while Super Two status is often framed as a one-time boost, this may very well be more than just the $3,500,000 stimulus to Fried’s bank account it seems. While it’s not quite as impactful as the service time manipulation that earns teams extra years of team control, this illustrates why teams still put some value on the timing of their call-ups as it pertains to Super Two status. Atlanta might have lost nearly $10M over their decision to bring Fried up as early as they did, but thanks to his performance since the start of 2019, they probably don’t regret it in the least. Whether he’s earning 25%, 40%, or 70% of his market value, Fried’s a bargain.

1/22: Claimed RHP Victor Arano off waivers from the Philadelphia Phillies

Atlanta has done a fine job in accumulating useful lefties in the bullpen, making what was a weakness not that long ago into a real strength. The pendulum swing has left the right side of the bullpen a bit more lacking in depth; Chris Martin is reliable, but Jacob Webb, Josh Tomlin, and Luke Jackson all carry uncertainties, and then it’s on to the Chad Sobotka section of the depth chart. Arano, who was DFA’d by the Phillies and picked up by Atlanta shortly thereafter, helps to provide some of that missing depth. While he’s probably not a favorite to earn an immediate spot with the MLB bullpen, I would imagine he’s now among the first in line if an injury to a right-handed reliever were to occur.

Prior to his 2019 elbow injury, Arano was off to a stellar start to his MLB career. As a 23 year old rookie for the 2018 Phillies, he posted an impressive 2.0 bWAR as a workhorse out of the pen, and he looked like a guy who could do all the things you want a pitcher to do: he prevented runs (2.73 ERA), struck out batters (9.1 K/9), and avoided walks (2.6 BB/9). All the things except stay healthy, that is. After a miserable spring training in 2019, he began the season in AAA, but found his way back in short time and managed to make three appearances before suffering a season-ending elbow injury. Arano’s inability to return from that injury perplexed and frustrated Phillie observers. While he had season-ending surgery, it wasn’t Tommy John surgery, and there was an expectation he’d be ready for 2020 in some capacity. That never materialized, and it’s not like Philly didn’t have incentive to bring him back. That staff was terrible, made trades to try to shore up the bullpen, and cycled through a plethora of disappointing options.

Given that the team with the most information on him essentially gave up on its once promising bullpen star, it is easy to wonder exactly how close the Arano coming to Atlanta will resemble the excellent rookie of 2018. If he does resemble him, here’s what to expect:

Arano’s calling card is his slider. Regardless of which side of the plate you stand on, it’s his primary pitch. Against righties, it might be all you see, as it makes up a healthy 23 of his repertoire. Batters whiffed against the pitch on 42.5% of their swings against it, and though he can occasionally get into some trouble against lefties, the 85 mph offering is his dominant pitch for good reason. Here he is striking out Marcell Ozuna:

It’s not a particularly bendy slider, but it’s one that fools batters due to its subtle, late movement.

Arano has a pair of fastballs, a 94 mph four seamer, and a 93 mph sinker/2-seamer. He’ll throw both to any hitter, but against righties, he prefers the four-seamer. It’s an effective off-balance pitch against righties, who are looking slider. Against lefties, it’s more of a putaway pitch, a non-sinker with a lot of movement to entice swings and misses (33% whiff rate). Arano is a pitcher who likes to mess with batters vertically, so while the slider lives down, he likes to attack up in the zone with the fastball. When he’s on, expect to see a lot of this:

The sinker, which isn’t used often against righties, is Arano’s secondary offering against lefties, whom it dives away from:

There’s a changeup he’ll use just enough for batters to have to keep in mind, but his game is all about making the fastballs and slider work in unison.

As I mentioned earlier, while this is an enticing profile, it’s hard to know if Braves fans will get to see that on a mound any time soon. Arano’s departure from Philadelphia could be seen as damning, but then again, that front office spends a lot of money to put together 80 win teams on an annual basis, so perhaps we shouldn’t always expect them to make the right decision. It’s a low-risk acquisition for the Braves, and a reliever to keep an eye on in Spring Training. If he’s healthy and back to his pre-injury self, Arano might be the second or third best righty reliever on the roster. That remains, however, a mighty big if.

1/22: Claimed OF Kyle Garlick off waivers from the Philadelphia Phillies

You might assume the presence of Garlick would ward off dangerous bats from getting into the stadium, but there’s a reasonable chance he possesses one. In 2019, at AAA, he slashed .314/.382/.675 with 23 HR in just 304 plate appearances. He’s even somewhat platoon neutral; in his last three full minor league seasons, his OPS against righties (.811, .768, 1.011) has been as good or better than against lefties (.790, .827, 1.072). That’s the reason for optimism. On the other hand, he’s 29, did most of that damage in the run-friendly Pacific Coast League, and in his 76 plate appearances in the big leagues, he’s failed to impress with just an 87 DRC+. Garlick’s biggest issue appears to be contact; he swings big, and when he connects he often finds success, but those connections are too infrequent. To go along with his career 34.2% strikeout rate, he does have three big league homers, so it won’t take long for you to watch them all:

Garlick probably isn’t going to be a key ingredient in Atlanta’s 2021 outfield, but you might see some plate appearances sprinkled in here and there. He’s the kind of useful corner outfielder every team seeks to stock the non-prospect section of its organizational pantry with, and given that he has an option remaining, the Braves should be able to do exactly that in 2021.

1/23: Signed free agent 3B/1B Pablo Sandoval to a minor league contract

According to the Quan, the three main sets of Shaolin skills are grouped as follows:

  1. Basic skills - There are 5 basic skills in baseball:
  • Hitting - Sandoval last posted a DRC+ at league average (100) or better in 2014
  • Hitting for power - Sandoval has had an expected slugging percentage higher than .400 just once in the Statcast era (2015-), but that was as recent as 2019’s .484 mark, which translated to a real life .507 SLG.
  • Running - Sandoval’s sprint speed, as clocked by sundial, is among the slowest in the game. In 2020, only three non-catchers under 35 were slower: Justin Smoak, Chris Davis, and Jedd Gyorko. He is slower than Tyler Flowers.
  • Fielding - In recent years, Sandoval has been below-average to average defensively, with -3 OAA over the last three seasons. He’s passable at either corner infield spot.
  • Throwing arm - You tell me:

2. Power Skills - This involves muscle-changing scripture known as Yijin Jing, which teaches the body to work as one fluid instrument. It takes precise muscle control to sneak a hit by pitch in the playoffs, as Sandoval did in what is, so far, his greatest moment as a Brave:

3. Combat Skills - Sandoval has a rather unique fighting style, preferring to gain the high ground, which he then leverages against his opponent:

Dodgers play the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

So, while some skills may have waned, it’s hard to deny there are still some glimpses of the true Kung Fu Panda between the foul lines.

Sandoval will be guaranteed $1,000,000 if he makes the big league club, and as Daniel pointed out in the initial article on the signing, it’s unlikely that Sandoval actually spends any time in the minors. His chances may depend on whether or not Atlanta carries someone capable of playing both middle infield and outfield, theoretically freeing up a spot for a bench bat without much defensive versatility.

1/26: Signed free agent SS Ehire Adrianza to a minor league contract

Detroit Tigers v. Minnesota Twins Photo by Harrison Barden/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Ehire Adrianza has played in eight major league seasons. First, to answer the big question on your mind, that means he’s only two years away from the minimum required to get onto your future Hall of Fame ballot. While the signing of Adrianza to a deal potentially worth $1,500,000 may not ever actually have ramifications on the interior design of Cooperstown, it could affect the 2021 Braves bench. That might say more about the state of the bench than Adrianza himself, but for now it’s fairly easy to find a place for him on this roster. 2020 was pretty terrible for the erstwhile Minnesota Twin, but just a year earlier, he slashed .272/.349/.416. He probably won’t drive the ball much, and he’s a little on the slow side for a utility type, but if the team needs a guy who can make contact and collect some base hits from either side of the plate, all while providing serviceable to even good defense at virtually any position, Adrianza can be that guy.

1/27: Released LHP Miguel Jerez

You know, between the Cleveland’s younger (by 11 days) version slashing .176/.288/.332 in his first taste of full season ball and then being moved to LF, and Atlanta releasing theirs, my dream of one day witnessing a Miguel Jerez-Miguel Jerez battery is looking less and less likely. The pitcher’s 2019 season (4.35 ERA, 9.9 K/9, 3.2 BB/9) was decent enough for him to probably land another gig somewhere. Since it won’t be here, let’s all root for that somewhere to be on the banks of the Cuyahoga.

1/27: Released SS Luidemid Rojas

Rojas scraped the bottom of a few of the very longest team prospect lists as recently as 2019, but even the sunniest outlooks saw him as a defense-only prospect. Rojas’s glove must be good, considering it got him onto even a top 50 prospect list a year after posting a .014 ISO. The bat never materialized, but at 21, he might get another shot somewhere to provide some organizational depth.

1/29: Signed free agent RHP Carl Edwards, Jr to a minor league contract (reported)

I’ll save the deeper delve on Edwards for when and if he’s added to the 40-man roster, but for now, here’s an all-time leaderboard you should take a glance at. Number Two may surprise you!

Whispers of Transactions to Come (But Probably Won’t)

  • Justin Turner - The Braves have reportedly kicked the tires on Justin Turner. Reports are he wants a 4 year deal to be lured away from LA, and I can’t imagine Atlanta would be interested in that. If the team wasn’t interested in handing 34 year old Josh Donaldson a 4 year contract a year ago, it’s hard to see them giving the same 4 years to Turner. If that’s all just blustery agentspeak, and Atlanta could talk him into something in the ballpark of 2/$26M or so, it’s a lot more believable.
  • Trey Mancini - Mancini is under team control through 2022, which will be his final year of arbitration. Having been Baltimore’s top slugger in recent years, with 83 HR from 2017-2019, and then having lost 2020 to cancer recovery (which seems to be going quite well, thankfully), it’s very likely Mancini might mean more to the O’s and that fanbase than he would to an acquiring team. After all, he’s a good slugger, but at around a 120 DRC+ in his best year, not a lineup-altering one. Mix in some bottom-tier defense, and you still wind up with a useful player, but one that the Braves shouldn’t pay an exorbitant price for. And, if you’re Baltimore, an exorbitant price might be the only thing at this point that justifies saying goodbye to two years of Mancini.
  • Brian Snitker - This isn’t a rumor as much as something I’m keeping an eye out for. Last year, Snitker received his now customary one-year extension in mid-February. Be on the lookout for another over the next few weeks.
  • Freddie Freeman - The relative quiet over a Freddie Freeman extension isn’t making me nervous, because relative quiet is exactly how the Braves conduct business. My pinch of concern, however, comes from the slow, forward lurch of the calendar. I can’t imagine the team wants to be embroiled in negotations with Freeman midseason, so I would guess that either an extension announcement is on the near horizon or the organization is feeling some anxiety over the ticking clock to Opening Day. In this economy, with a new CBA on the horizon, it’s anyone’s guess who has the leverage here or what Freeman is looking for. It’s hard to deny that the financial timing of his MVP win was impeccable, and if he really wanted, there’s no reason he couldn’t seek out and join the $30M club. Considering how much he’s already making, it won’t take too much of an additional annual investment to keep him around, even if he does make it into that upper echelon. Simplistically, you could re-allocate most or all of Ender Inciarte’s expiring contract toward a Freeman extension.