Monday night after the Atlanta Braves traded Jason Heyward to St. Louis, an interesting headline caught my eye on ESPN.com: “Braves could be one of worst teams in 2015.”
This is debatable, and while I understand why the author would doubt how competitive the Braves will be next season, there still should be enough talent to keep Atlanta from being one of the worst teams in baseball.
But the headline represents something we’re not very accustomed to following this team. Since the 1992 season, the Braves have entered the year believing they would be championship contenders. It didn’t always happen, obviously, but it has been a while since we had to have the mindset that the Braves would not be fighting for a title.
The depths of their mediocrity last season forced the new front office to believe a restart was necessary. The farm system is just not where it has been in the past. While Christian Bethancourt will take over at catcher and at some point in 2015 Jose Peraza will take over at second base, it’s not like the farm system is prepared to rescue this team.
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That’s why the Braves had to trade Heyward to the Cardinals. They knew Heyward wasn’t going to re-sign when he became a free agent, and they had to get something more than a draft pick they would have received if he had played out his final season in an Atlanta uniform.
The pitching depth in the farm system is non-existent, which is something we’ve rarely said about the Braves. Abundance of quality pitchers is what has made this franchise special for the past two decades.
The Braves need a young pitcher like Shelby Miller, the centerpiece of the trade, to be part of the rotation for the next four years. He’ll be 24 next season, as will Julio Teheran and Alex Wood. As of now, Mike Minor will be the senior member of the rotation at 27 years old.
Miller has had two solid seasons with the Cardinals, and the stuff is there for him to become an elite pitcher. Scouts say he simply needs to learn more about pitching, instead of trying to use his mid-90s fastball to overpower every hitter he faces.
Plus, the Braves received Tyrell Jenkins, a former first-round draft pick who has battled shoulder issues but is now healthy. ESPN’s Keith Law wrote that Jenkins immediately becomes Atlanta’s best pitching prospect, which tells you how weak the Atlanta farm system is and how much potential Jenkins has.
But this trade is the first of many we’ll see this season. Justin Upton will be next. Like Heyward, Upton is a free agent after next season, and new man-in-charge John Hart said last week he doesn’t believe the team will have contract talks with Upton before he files for free agency. So if they traded Heyward to avoid losing him for nothing, the Braves aren’t going to let Upton walk away either.
Since they got pitching for Heyward, the Braves likely will try to get some position players for Upton, but don’t count out the emphasis to remain on pitching. The Braves need to get that leverage back by having quality and quantity on the mound. But they have to find some players to replace the outfielders they are trading away, either through these deals or using the money saved by trading these players on free agents.
Don’t buy the “Evan Gattis will play left field” talk. He’s likely to be traded, as well. Gattis has four years until he can become a free agent, so he has a lot of value for an AL team that could let him be the designated hitter, play some behind the plate or in the outfield in an emergency. And the return for Gattis could be substantial.
That’s what the Braves are aiming for in these deals -- substantial returns. They need to get more talent in this organization, and yes, the goal is to be ready to be more competitive once the team enters SunTrust Park in 2017. Will that mean the team has to take a step back before it takes a step forward? Probably so, but if there is hope and progress that fans can see, it will beat what they saw last season.
And that should make Atlanta better than one that could be one of the worst in baseball. Or so the Braves hope.
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 at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.