The best organizations recognize when a particular window to win is closing and throw all of the valuable pieces out of it before it slams shut. Over the last two months, as they overhauled their front office, the Atlanta Braves weren’t too proud to see 2015 as a potential rebuilding year. And dealing outfielder Jason Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins on Monday signaled the first big move in a winter that may well include more.
Atlanta sees the loaded Washington Nationals and recognizes only a meltdown will keep them from winning the National League East. The Braves believe the New York Mets are a formidable threat, particularly if Matt Harvey returns from Tommy John surgery at even 80 percent of the best-pitcher-in-baseball level he performed at in 2013. The Miami Marlins boast a strong core of young hitters, power arms and an up-and-coming manager in Mike Redmond. And the Philadelphia Phillies … well, the less said about the Phillies the better.
More than that, the Braves see the greater marketplace at work and understand Heyward, a free agent after this season, was unlikely to re-sign with Atlanta. While much of Heyward’s value is tied up in the brilliance with which he patrols right field – a spot, sadly, that was Oscar Taveras’ before his death last month – the 25-year-old remains a tantalizing talent, the sort who, because of his age and ceiling, is almost assured of a $100 million-plus deal if he hits free agency following the 2015 season.
That possibility hinges on St. Louis’ tack. The Cardinals traded from a starting-pitching surplus, shipping off the 24-year-old Miller, who followed a stellar rookie season with a 2014 in which his strikeout rate dipped and walk rate jumped. He is the perfect change-of-scenery candidate, particularly after his burial in the 2013 postseason hung over him last year, and represents a solid return alongside Jenkins, a 22-year-old right-hander who will start the season at Double-A.
St. Louis is one of baseball’s great success stories, milking big-market revenues out of a small-market setting, and locking up Heyward would give the Cardinals a potential middle-of-the-lineup replacement for Matt Holliday, who could be gone after the 2016 season. The Cardinals’ long-term commitments are far from crippling – Matt Carpenter is signed through 2019, Adam Wainwright through 2018, Yadier Molina and Jhonny Peralta through 2017 – and give them ample room to weather the deluge of arbitration cases about to hit.
Next year, Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal, Matt Adams, Jon Jay, Seth Maness, Peter Bourjos and Daniel Descalso will be among those arbitration eligible. And the year after that, it’s Michael Wacha, Kolten Wong and Carlos Martinez. Drafting and developing a full core, as the Cardinals have done, comes with significant benefits, namely not having to jump into the money hurricane that is free agency. Once players pass their third year of service and hit the arbitration honey hole, it becomes tougher to juggle.
Hard decisions are coming for both teams. Do the Cardinals ship off a few more of their homegrown guys to lessen the 2017 arbitration onslaught? Should the Braves go into full dump mode, with Justin Upton a prime candidate considering his impending free agency after 2015? St. Louis at least knows its M.O. for 2015: win a championship. Atlanta is still weighing whether it wants to put on a small winter sale or go full Black Friday on its fungible pieces.
Trading Heyward wasn’t easy, even though the Braves knew it was their best option to get back something commensurate. The original sin was breaking camp with him in 2010 rather than parking him in the minor leagues for a few weeks and delaying his free agency by a year. It’s a hindsight’s-20/20 criticism, particularly since Atlanta bought itself a postseason lottery ticket that year with Heyward’s help, but so long as service-time manipulation is legal, it’s also a tool teams should use.
Had Heyward spent a few extra weeks toiling away at Triple-A, he wouldn’t be a free agent until after the 2016 season, and Atlanta could have fetched more or held onto him for a year. Instead, after Kris Medlen’s and Brandon Beachy’s elbows went kablooey for the second time, they thought it imperative to add to a rotation that already includes young arms Julio Teheran, Mike Minor and Alex Wood, even if it meant getting rid of the Georgia kid the Braves hid in a tree to get.
“It’s not something you like to do,” Atlanta president of baseball operations John Hart said. “But where the Braves are right now, this is a deal that really helps us short-term and long-term with players that we can control in an area where we are woefully, woefully thin in our minor league system.”
And thus came a classic baseball trade, with lots of talent going one way and lots the other. Skepticism exists on both sides, as it always will. Are the Cardinals too left-handed, with Heyward, Jay, Adams, Wong and Carpenter? Did the Braves err in not earmarking money for Heyward, like they did Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel and Teheran? Will Carlos Martinez or Marco Gonzalez or Jaime Garcia prove a sufficient replacement for Miller? Can Atlanta strike gold with Jenkins, who blew away scouts in the Arizona Fall League?
It’s all just speculation and dreaming, the two currencies of every trade. The Cardinals are one of the best organizations around. The Braves are trying to rejoin them atop that mountain. In baseball, windows open and shut with rapidity, and the teams that time theirs properly happily bask in a nice breeze.
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