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Brave Moves: On the Lamb

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Why Recent Transactions Matter (Or Why They Don’t)

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Welcome to Brave Moves, where we take a look at recent Braves transactions. The last edition can be found here.

February 11: Signed free agent C Hendrik Clementina to a minor league deal

MiLB: JUN 23 Florida State League - Tortugas at Threshers Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Clementina showed a bit of promise as recently as 2018, when he slashed .268/.327/.497 in his first taste of A-ball. His plus power has always provided the attraction, while his defense has typically been the dealbreaker. Scouts had their doubts about his ability to stick behind the plate, but he’s reportedly a hard worker and made some defensive strides in recent seasons. Unfortunately, just as the defense improved, Clementina’s bat took a step backwards; in Clementina’s High-A debut in 2019, he hit .249/.296/.411.

Even though he’s flirted with prospect status at times, Clementina comes to Atlanta to help with organizational depth. Outfield Fly Rule’s system depth article recently projected a AA catching tandem of Shea Langeliers and Logan Brown, and while both gained solid development time while in Atlanta’s player pool last season, it would be an aggressive placement. The two have just 181 plate appearances at High-A, and all 181 belong to Brown, who hit .240/.269/.280 there. My suspicion is that Clementina will head to Mississippi, where he’ll be a buffer of sorts to keep the Braves from the temptation to promote their more promising prospects too early.

Clementina also helps maintain Atlanta’s longtime Curacao connection. Of the 16 Curacaoans that have played in the big leagues, 6 have been employed in the Atlanta system at some point or another: Ozzie Albies, Andruw Jones, Jair Jurrjens, Randall Simon, Andrelton Simmons, and Hensley Meulens. Additionally, none of the 16 have ever played catcher, so Clementina has a chance to break some ground if he re-establishes his one-time track toward backup catcherdom.

February 18: Signed OF Terrance Gore to a minor league contract

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

When teams acquire players, you spend time thinking about what kind of role that player could play, what they can do on the field, and what they can’t do. With Terrance Gore, you don’t have to spend much time in thought. Gore is seen by some as contemporary baseball’s closest equivalent to Herb Washington, but unlike Hurricane Herb, who scored 33 runs and swiped 31 bases without ever stepping to the plate, Gore actually wields a bat from time to time. His teams have typically tried to limit those occasions as much as possible - in 6 of his 7 MLB seasons, Gore accrued 5 or fewer plate appearances. The 2019 Royals, on the other hand, mired in passivity along the way to a 59-103 season, forgot all about his restrictions and gave Gore 58 PA. Incredibly, he rewarded them for it, posting a .362 OBP. That’s probably just some good old fun “you can’t predict baseball” weirdness, as Gore had a .248 xwOBA in that same season. In Atlanta, he’ll provide some AAA depth and get called up when rosters expand. He’s used to that schedule, receiving first week of September promotions in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. Once he arrives in Atlanta, he’ll serve as a pinch runner extraordinaire (40/49 career SB in just 85 career SB situations) and excellent late inning defensive replacement (roughly 1 OAA every 9 chances).

February 21: Outrighted OF Travis Demeritte to AAA Gwinnett

We discussed Demeritte’s contact issues in our last little fireside chat, so there’s no need to delve deeper there. He never really had a realistic shot at an MLB assignment any time soon in this organization, so when the team needed some 40 space, this was an easy decision. Atlanta also knew they could reliably push him through waivers, considering every AL team and most NL teams had passed on Demeritte just days earlier (that is, if MLB waiver rules are back to normal after getting funky in 2020).

February 21: Released RHP Jason Creasy

The Braves are clearly looking for a righty to claim a spot in this bullpen, but nobody said it was going to be Creasy. Creasy’s statistical history is a nice visual example of something you already knew: baseball gets harder as you climb the organizational ladder! Glance at his career ERAs by level:
A: 3.52
AA: 4.45
AAA: 5.05

Invited to camp this year, the timing of Creasy’s release comes as a slight surprise, so it’s easy to wonder if there was some issue upon his arrival. The former Pittsburgh farmhand once had some upside as a middle relief arm with mid-90s heat, but he’ll be 29 in May, and he has yet to find any success at MLB’s doorstep. Still, his most recent MiLB action was at AAA, where he threw strikes and kept a lot of balls on the ground. Those that didn’t, however, left the park at an alarming rate, but that was during the 2019 minor league bouncy ball epidemic that turned Rafael Ortega into a 21-HR hitter, so maybe it’s unfair to judge him on that alone. I guess this is a roundabout way of saying I think Creasy can latch on somewhere in a similar capacity. At his age, he’s starting to run out of chances to make an imprint in the major leagues, but AAA teams need fungible middle relievers too. This means a dynamic of organizations frequently finding room for a guy, but never finding reasons to necessarily keep him around. So goes the life of a minor league journeyman. Creasy come, Creasy go.

February 22: Claimed OF Phillip Ervin off waivers from Cubs

San Francisco Giants v Seattle Mariners Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Letting go of Charlie Culberson has been hard for many Braves fans. It’s apparently been harder for the front office, which continues to acquire bench players with pitching histories. Ervin pitched 13 of an inning in 2018, throwing three glacial changeups to Devin Mesoraco to induce an inning-ending groundout in an 8-0 blowout loss. He can now spend camp time sharing his mound memories with Pablo Sandoval, Ehire Adrianza, and Travis Demeritte. We knew Atlanta was on the hunt for cheap right-handed relief options, but I’m not sure this is the market inefficiency we’re looking for, Mr. Anthopoulos.

While he may not fix the bullpen, he could help as a role player of sorts in the outfield. Ervin has a career .277/.352/.459 line against major league southpaws, so there’s some utility there if you can shield him from same-sided pitching, against whom he hits .230/.303/.374. He’s an asset defensively, with great reactions, good speed, and 6 OAA in 161 chances over the last two seasons. He hasn’t always been a great defender, as Ervin once squandered his speed with mental mistakes, but he seems to have fixed that. With Marcell Ozuna seemingly in left this year, the desire for a late inning glove with a situationally useful bat is palpable, and Ervin fits that bill.

The problem, of course, is that Atlanta’s roster doesn’t set itself up nicely for such a player, unless Atlanta wants to carry five outfielders. The $9,025,000 elephant in the room is the remaining sum of Ender Inciarte’s contract, which limits Atlanta’s flexibility considerably. With a probable outfield of Ozuna, Cristian Pache, and Ronald Acuna, Inciarte will likely find himself occupying a bench role for much of 2021. Inciarte’s contract gives him an edge on the spot Ervin is likely seeking to fill. Inciarte hasn’t hit either side particularly well recently, so the team would likely prefer Ervin’s bat coming off the bench. However, you have to imagine the team will be tempted to see if Inciarte can hit his way back into usefulness, since they’re already paying for the privilege.

Ervin’s 2020 numbers were anemic, but he only stepped to the plate 89 times, and despite the generally atrocious results, there were some encouraging signs, if you’re looking for them. Ervin laid off the garbage, chasing just 20.3% of pitches outsize the zone (MLB average is 28%), and was more selective inside the strike zone; he swung at fewer strikes, but made career-best contact when he did. That selectivity also resulted in an astronomical 15.7% BB-rate, nearly double his career best. Again, it’s important to remember the small sample size, but it does look as if Ervin was trying something a little different last year. If circumstances were to allow Ervin to spend some time at Truist Park, he could bring something useful to this roster.

February 23: Signed free agent IF Jake Lamb to a 1 year, $1,000,000 non-guaranteed contract

Wild Card Round - Chicago White Sox v Oakland Athletics - Game One Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Speaking of players with some nasty looking recent results, the 3rd annual Jake Lamb Bounceback Year Spring Festival and Revue announced a residency at Truist Park for 2021. A 2017 All-Star who hit 30 HR, bad habits and injuries have halted his rise to stardom. First, the injuries - on April 3, an AC Joint sprain took a month-sized bite out of his 2018 before a shoulder contusion ended the campaign for good in July. 2019’s April afforded him just one more injury-free day than the last, as Lamb hit the IL with a quadricep strain, keeping him out until June 26. There’s certainly an argument that Lamb’s struggles over those seasons can be attributed to not being able to get on track early. After all, we speculated last year that AJ Minter’s 2019 debacle could be linked to the accident he suffered in spring training. Perhaps it’s confirmation bias, but 2020 went much better. Perhaps Lamb just needs a fresh, healthy start.

Alternately, it’s hard to completely ignore the results at the plate. Since the All-Star campaign of 2017, Lamb has slashed .205/.309/.351. Unlike Ervin, there’s no silver lined platoon split on this could. Over this same span, Lamb has batted just .205/.308/.339 against righties. After crushing fastballs in 2017 to the tune of a .543 SLG and 17 HR, Lamb has treated the hard stuff more gently; he hasn’t topped a .340 SLG against the pitch since.

This contract isn’t so much about bringing Lamb’s present or recent skills onto the roster as much as it is a hope that Kevin Seitzer can identify and fix what is broken. It’s an upside play, a lotto ticket, a hopeful insurance policy against Austin Riley regressing. Ideally, you don’t want your insurance policy to need its own insurance policy, but a million bucks doesn’t buy what it used to. This deal isn’t guaranteed, so there’s a ticking clock. If, by the end of spring training, Atlanta isn’t convinced that the bat is back, he’ll be gone in two shakes, with the Braves only having to write a partial check:

The Braves also seem to be taking this same approach with some of the more surprising arbitration signings like Johan Camargo and Luke Jackson, and it’s an easy strategy to question. With each of these players, Atlanta has committed to pay several hundred thousand dollars just to have the right to see what’s in the tank this spring. In a vacuum, that’s not bad at all, but the looks do add up. For a team operating on a 2021 budget with room growing scarce, I can’t help but wonder if this half a million dollars would be better served going towards slightly outbidding a competitor for a reliever than procuring exclusive tryouts for three players who struggled mightily in 2020.

But let’s finish on an optimistic note. The Braves brought in a somewhat recent All-Star 3B to either compete with Austin Riley or serve as a platoon partner if circumstances demand. Competition is a good thing, and with a fresh start and an introduction to a hitting coach with a very good recent track record, Lamb might rediscover his power stroke and become a vital member of this bench. Conversely, given the Braves’ relatively easy exit strategy here, if he fails to rediscover the magic by the end of March, Lamb is sure to go.

February 23: Designated LHP Philip Pfeifer for assignment
February 26: Outrighted Pfeifer to AAA Gwinnett

The Braves are filthy with southpaws, and Pfeifer was too far down the depth chart to realistically factor into 2021 in a big way. When news of the DFA hit, I hated the idea of seeing Pfeifer go, because he’s been easy to root for in recent years, overcoming a substance abuse suspension and the devastating loss of his father to finally land on Atlanta’s 40 man roster. He also overcame on-field issues, finally learning to love the strike zone in 2019. He passed through waivers, which is somewhat bittersweet. While Pfeifer is a nice asset to have in the system, I also can’t help but hope he gets a big league shot at some point in the near future. Atlanta is looking less and less like the place that will happen. For now, provided he’s healthy - always a question mark in a new spring, but particularly so after a 2020 where prospect development occurred in the shadows - he’ll head to Gwinnett and await news of an injury or a trade.

February 23: Signed OF Travis Snider to a $600,000 minor league contract

Texas Rangers v Kansas City Royals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Last year, Alex Anthopoulos finally reconnected with the one that got away, bringing the prospect he once traded, Travis d’Arnaud, to his new team, and the results were spectacular. As with any hugely successful romantic comedy, the masses demand a sequel. Snider represents that sequel, albeit in a more straight-to-DVD package.

AA traded Snider to Pittsburgh in mid-2012 for a year and a half of reliever Brad Lincoln, who promptly rewarded Anthopoulos with a 5.65 ERA to finish out the year. In ‘13, Lincoln allowed roughly four score and seven walks per nine innings, while Snider OPS’d .776 from afar. You’ve seen this second act, where our protagonist realizes the new flame isn’t so special; she tries to change him, doesn’t mesh with his friends, gives up walk-off bombs to Jose Lobaton - you know all the tropes. This new relationship inevitably ends, and he meanders for a few years. He changes jobs, gets his life together, and finally finds some success in a new town. Finally, the denouement. In a bar in South Sarasota County, he sees her, the one that got away. She tells him about how she moved from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis, then Altoona, Baltimore, back to Pittsburgh, then on to Omaha, Round Rock, Las Vegas, Long Island, and Reno, wandering the country, always looking for what she had on the shores of Ontario so long ago. He tells her how impressed he is with that .294/.402/.497 line in Reno in 2019, but since those are PCL numbers, he can’t really commit to more than a minor league deal. She accepts the reality of a new life in Gwinnett County as they ride off into the Floridian sunset. As the screen begins its slow fade to black and a Carly Rae Jepsen song begins to play, our protagonist thinks about how she mentioned some time in Reno, leans in, and slowly whispers, “How do I fix Jake Lamb?”

February 24: Claimed OF Guillermo Heredia off waivers from the Mets

MLB: AUG 23 Rays at Orioles Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you’re a defensive stalwart who can’t really hit all that well, and your team places you on waivers, you should probably go ahead and pack your bags for Atlanta.

Obviously this is an area where Alex Anthopoulos feels the Braves could use some help. Let’s try to make sense of all these OF options, as they’re easy to lose track of. Ronald Acuna Jr and Marcell Ozuna are really the only OF guaranteed to be on the opening day roster. Cristian Pache is an unsure thing at the plate and comes with some temptation to manipulate service time. Ender Inciarte isn’t the hitter or defender he once was. There are myriad new faces to account for.

Using PECOTA (yes, the evil robot that hates our team) projections of DRC+ (where 100 is a league average hitter) at the 30th and 70th percentiles, we can create a snapshot of realistic ranges of performance to possibly expect from all these options:

Phillip Ervin: 91 | 104
Guillermo Heredia: 91 | 103
Ender Inciarte: 84 | 94
Jaycob Brugman: 83 | 96
Travis Snider: 81 | 94
Trey Harris: 80 | 94
Abraham Almonte: 75 | 87
Travis Demeritte: 67 | 79
Drew Waters: 59 | 72
Terrance Gore: 55 | 66

It’s easy to see why AA stays so active on the market. It also appears Heredia could be a strong contender for the 4th OF slot. He’s a lefty who hits from the right side, but don’t mistake him for Rickey Henderson -he’s an abysmal 8 for 20 in SB attempts during his career. At the plate, however, he does have something to offer; Heredia is the hitter that does many things passably without doing anything exceptionally. He makes decent contact, lays off bad pitches, takes some walks, and cracks the occasional homer. Defensively, he has an impressive 12 OAA in 425 chances over the last three seasons, making him all the more contender alongside Ervin and Inciarte for the nightly duty of relieving Marcell Ozuna.

February 24: Designated 2B Jack Mayfield for assignment
February 25: Traded 2B Jack Mayfield to the Angels for cash.

As we discussed with Demeritte, if waiver rules are back to normal, Atlanta knew there wasn’t much of a market for Mayfield and had a good chance of slipping him through waivers. That chance was stymied by the Angels, who earlier this offseason passed on acquiring Mayfield for nothing, opting instead to trade cash to Atlanta for the exclusive rights. Once Ehire Adrianza and Jason Kipnis arrived on the scene, Mayfield’s fungibility was clarified. And Atlanta was able to spin that waiver claim into quite a windfall! Let’s check the Braves transaction page to see how richer the Braves are:

Well, that certainly makes the word “traded” a bit more versatile.

In reality, it’s probably just a transaction page snafu, but the wisest most fun course of action is to treat this as real and factor in this possibility in all future trade speculations.

February 25: Signed 2B Ryan Goins to a minor league contract

Oakland Athletics v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

Immediately after trading Jack Mayfield, Anthopoulos quickly hit the phones in the desperate hope of finding a Jack Mayfield type. Goins isn’t quite that, but he has a bat containing occasional homers and a glove that can play at least passably all around the infield. The Braves hope that infield remains one of the minor league variety.

February 26: Signed RHP Benjamin Dum to a minor league contract

Come for the dumb puns, stay for the 14 innings of 20 K, 0 BB baseball Dum debuted to in 2019 rookie ball after the Twins rescued the former VCU reliever from Indy ball’s Southern Illinois Miners. I found very little written on him or his offerings, so there’s a chance the secondaries of Ben Dum don’t break, but until the prospecty folks tell me otherwise, I’ll stick to the numbers. He may not be the next Rick Wise, but it’s easy to see why those 14 innings made the Braves think Dum could immediately improve a minor league bullpen. In college, he was a crafty righty who threw from a sidearm angle. Here’s a VCU featurette on him:

Predictions for next time on Braves Moves:

  • Brian Snitker’s extension, which I wanted to cover here, but AA bloated the transaction wire this time around, and I want to give this one a bit more attention.
  • Braves announce Freddie Freeman’s 6 year, $150,000,000 extension
  • After collectively going 0-22 in a single split squad day, but really getting after some line drives out there, six different Pittsburgh Pirates outfielders are acquired by Atlanta for $0