Braves upgrade roster with trade for Upton & Johnson

Macon TelegraphJanuary 24, 2013 

The Atlanta Braves have had a revolving door in left field. Those days may be over now with Thursday’s blockbuster trade with Arizona that will unite the Upton brothers.

Almost two months after signing free agent center fielder B.J. Upton, Atlanta has acquired his younger brother Justin from the Diamondbacks in a seven-player trade.

The Braves will send popular left fielder-third baseman Martin Prado out west with starting pitcher Randall Delgado, pitching prospect Zeke Spruill, shortstop prospect Nick Ahmed and infield prospect Brandon Drury.

Atlanta also has a new third baseman, as Chris Johnson will also join the Braves and be the replacement for the retired Chipper Jones at the hot corner.

The Braves will have a new look lineup, with the Upton brothers and Johnson – three new right-handed hitters – joining Brian McCann, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman – three left-handed hitters.

Braves general manager Frank Wren has seen his own boys – twins Colby and Kyle Wren – play together at Landmark Christian School and then at Georgia Tech. So he knows what the possibilities are for the Upton brothers to play together on the same team.

Justin Upton is signed for three more years. He’ll make $9.75 million this season and then $14.25 million in 2014 and $14.5 million in 2015. B.J. Upton signed a five-year deal that will pay him an average of right at $15 million per season.

They’ll join Heyward in an Atlanta outfield that will arguably be the best defensive group in the major leagues.

Many fans will be upset that Prado is included in this deal. But the Braves were seriously concerned they would not be able to sign Prado to a long-term contract. He’s eligible for free agency after this coming season, and it is likely Prado will seek a deal near an average of $12 million per season.

The Braves and Prado were unable to come to terms on a deal for 2013. They were only $400,000 apart with the financial figures and were headed to arbitration.

Prado was never particularly happy with moving from second base. He was an All-Star at the position in 2010, and then Atlanta turned around at the end of that year and traded for Dan Uggla. When Prado moved to left field, he didn’t complain loudly, but he admitted in an interview with me in March 2011 that he would have preferred to stay at second base.

Prado was almost traded in the 2011-2012 offseason after a disappointing and injury-plagued 2011 season. The Braves talked with Colorado about a deal that would have sent Prado to the Rockies for Seth Smith.

If the Braves believed they could re-sign Prado, there is no way they would have included him in this trade with Arizona. They obviously had discussions with Prado’s agent and got a vibe that Prado’s asking price would be higher than they would be comfortable with moving forward.

Plus, we really never knew what Prado’s long-term position was going to be. If Justin Upton had been acquired without Prado in the deal, then we would have known that Prado was penciled in as the long-term option at third base. But the Braves might not have believed that Prado’s potential value at that position was going to equal what he would demand in talks for a new contract.

Prado will be missed in the clubhouse. He was respected perhaps more than any other player, and his work ethic and hustle was admired by all. This will sting a bit, but it is well worth it.

To acquire two players that are under control for the next three years, trading Prado is the smart thing to do. Plus, the financial flexibility that Wren retains is extremely valuable.

With Upton’s $9.75 million added to the 2013 payroll, along with Johnson’s recently agreed-to $2.2875 million, the Braves added $12.0375 million to the budget. But, subtract Prado’s potential $7 million salary and the Braves add a net of only about $5 million to the current payroll.

That puts the current total at around $89 million. Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk recently told the AJC that he expects the payroll limit to be near $98 million. So that gives Wren another $9 million or so to play with.

Wren could use part of that money to further improve the 2013 roster, and the Braves could still use another utility player. Or he could use some of the money to offer long-term deals to players like Craig Kimbrel, Jason Heyward or Freddie Freeman – three players the Braves want to have part of the core of the team for many years to come.

The Braves could also keep that flexibility in case they need additional help during the upcoming season.

But with the additions of the Upton brothers and Johnson, Atlanta has greatly improved the starting lineup. There is a question of how the lineup will be constructed, but manager Fredi Gonzalez will work that out in spring training.

Justin Upton has averaged 21 home runs and 70 RBI in his first full five big league seasons. His best year was in 2011, when he hit 31 home runs and drove in 88. Upton finished fourth in the NL MVP voting that season. In the last four years, Upton has averaged 19 stolen bases per season. He’s a career .278 hitter and has a lifetime on base percentage of .357.

B.J. Upton has a lower career batting average (.255), but he’s put up solid numbers as well. He just had his career-high in home runs last season with 28. He’s averaged 35 stolen bases over the last five years and has driven in an average of 71 runs per season.

Johnson had a very respectable season last year. He started with Houston and was then traded to Arizona in late July. Overall, Johnson hit .281 with 15 home runs and 76 RBI, with a .326 on base percentage.

All three of the new players strike out a lot. Justin Upton has averaged 131 strikeouts over the past five years. B.J. has averaged 156 strikeouts per year for the last six seasons. Johnson struck out 132 times last year.

But Atlanta’s new lineup will be a little more balanced, with three very good lefty hitters and three solid right-handed hitters. Then you add Andrelton Simmons, who could lead off now, and Dan Uggla. If Uggla bounces back offensively, the Braves could have the best lineup in baseball.

As far as what the Braves gave up besides Prado, let’s start with Delgado. He was scheduled to go to spring training to battle Julio Teheran for the fifth starter’s spot. The Braves did not want to send either pitcher back to Triple-A, so this allows Teheran to become the fifth starter and gives Delgado a shot with the Diamondbacks.

Delgado was pretty good as a starter last year for the Braves. He was replaced by Paul Maholm, but it was more of a numbers game than anything. Delgado can be a solid middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, but with Teheran around the Braves could afford to let him go.

It’s time to see what Teheran can do. The kid has been a top prospect for four or five years, and there was no way he needed to return for a third season to Gwinnett. This gives him his chance.

If Teheran fails, the Braves will have Brandon Beachy back in mid-season. Plus, they have Sean Gilmartin in Triple-A, and the lefty could be ready at any point this summer. The Braves will also have J.R. Graham, a top prospect who could also be in the International League this year.

The depth is there to not miss Delgado or Spruill, who was in Double-A last year and could have been scheduled for Gwinnett this season. Spruill is a marginal prospect, so he was expandable.

Ahmed is a good prospect, but he’s blocked by Simmons at shortstop. Therefore, in this type of deal, he was also expendable.

Drury is a good young hitter who struggled in Rome last season. But he’ll be given plenty of time by the Diamondbacks to become a more polished prospect.

So Atlanta traded one starter in the major league lineup that they may have lost after this season, a starting pitcher that they did not need, and three expendable prospects for two guys who will be in the starting lineup for at least the next three seasons AND still maintain financial flexibility.

Yes, that’s what you call a great trade.

 


Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at
www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill on twitter @BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

 

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