The Atlanta Braves finally pulled the trigger on a deal that appeared to be in the makings for the better part of the offseason, sending outfielder Justin Upton as well as a player to be named later to the San Diego Padres for pitcher Max Fried, shortstop Jace Peterson, third baseman Dustin Peterson, and outfielder Mallex Smith.
While the Padres are preparing to fight in the tough NL West, the move by the Braves fits the pattern that president of baseball operations John Hart had explained would be the team’s strategy in order to get better a few years down the road.
With Upton due to be a free agent following the 2015 season, it was imperative that the Braves moved him in order to get a return other than just a top pick if they extended a qualifying offer following the season. It was clear that the amount of money that Upton would be able to command in free agency was well past the numbers that recently departed Jason Heyward aimed at, meaning that there was just no way he could come back to Atlanta.
The youngest of the Upton brothers that patrolled the Braves for the last two seasons, Justin quickly proved that Atlanta held the upperhand in the deal that brought him and third baseman Chris Johnson to the team from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for a number of players, including Martin Prado and Randall Delgado. Upton delivered in his two seasons with the team, batting .267 with 300 hits, 56 home runs, and 172 RBIs. Although he never made the All-Star game as a Brave, Upton did reel in a Silver Slugger award for his contributions in 2014.
The Braves were fishing for a big return for Upton, and it looks like they have reeled in quite a combination of prospects.
The headliner heading to Hotlanta appears to be Fried, a 6’4” twenty-year-old with a mid-90’s fastball that some project to be a top of the rotation starter one day. San Diego’s top pick in the 2012 MLB Draft, the major concern on Fried at this point is his health, as his 2014 season came to a close in August due to Tommy John surgery. Prior to that point, the Encino, California native had 5 starts in 2014 with an ERA of 5.06 in 10.2 innings of work and holds a career 3.61 ERA in the minors.
Unfortunately, the Tommy John surgery means that it is highly unlikely that Fried will pitch anywhere in the upcoming season, meaning that the fans will just have to wait and see if the buildup surrounding him is accurate.
Atlanta has made several changes on the bench during this offseason, and the addition of Jace Peterson may eventually help the team fill out one of those openings. Rated as the Padres’ best hitter for average, best strike-zone discipline, best athlete, and best defensive infielder by Baseball America one year ago, Peterson delivered again and again in 2014, hitting .294 with stops at AA San Antonio and AAA El Paso before getting a call up to the Big League squad. Although his time in San Diego was forgettable (.100 batting average with 5 hits and 18 strikeouts), the twenty-four year old still shows a tremendous amount of upside and should be properly groomed behind perennial All-Star Andrelton Simmons.
Meanwhile, Dustin Peterson (no relation to Jace) has shown signs of success in his two seasons in the minors. A former shortstop and younger brother to Seattle Mariners minor leaguer D.J. Peterson, the twenty-year-old is still lacks the power numbers that are necessary to move quickly up the ranks, hitting just ten home runs last year in a season that included 137 strikeouts. Peterson is a prospect included in this trade that will have to make significant strides in the lower levels of the minors over the next few seasons in order to ever sniff a major league roster.
Speed is something the Braves have lacked for far too long, with just a handful of base stealers–Jason Heyward, Michael Bourn, Rafael Furcal, to name a few–inhabiting the roster over the last ten years. Atlanta may have found their next speed demon in Mallex Smith, a Tallahassee, Florida product that has been a thorn in pitchers’ sides since he was drafted in the fifth round back in 2012. Smith had a great year on the basepaths in 2014, swiping 88 bases while hitting for a .310 average in his stops at A level Fort Wayne and Upper A Lake Elsinore. Smith led all of minor league baseball with his steals a season ago (sixteen ahead of the closest competition), and if he is able to continue his progress at the plate, the Braves may possess the next Billy Hamilton.
This deal between San Diego and Atlanta is one that matches one team going for it all in 2015 with one team content on building for 2016 and beyond. The Braves set their sights on young players and pieces that still need time to develop going back to their acquisition of Shelby Miller in November, and the haul that they just received for an outfielder that may be one and done in San Diego is not one to scoff at. Even though Atlanta will miss Upton, who led the squad in dingers and RBIs in 2014, it was clear from the onset of the offseason that what occurred a season ago no longer matters.
The departure of Upton signals another significant change for the new Braves roster, which looks to be shying away from the home run in order to instead bring in runs with a mixture of singles and doubles. The new strategy will undoubtedly be more successful that what took place a year ago, which was in essence a home run-dependent team that failed to hit home runs and ultimately lost 83 games. If the team is able to see bounce-back seasons from Andrelton Simmons and Freddie Freeman while seeing decent production from the new outfield trio of Evan Gattis in left field, BJ Upton in center field, and Nick Markakis in right field, then the Braves may tread water a little longer than the baseball world currently believes they are capable.
So, what’s next on the Braves’ offseason to-do list? The major focus at this point will be acquiring another starting pitcher to fill out a rotation that currently consists of Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Shelby Miller, and Mike Minor.
It appears that the team does not prefer to simply put middle reliever David Hale at the end of the rotation, leaving the team to search around for a veteran that can work adequately every fifth day. With Ervin Santana now a Minnesota Twin and Gavin Floyd now calling Cleveland home, options from last season appear to be limited to Aaron Harang, who has not gotten very much mention during this winter frenzy. If Harang opts to go elsewhere or retire, prepare for the Braves to target pitchers such as Seattle’s Chris Young or Philadelphia’s Kyle Kendrick to finish off the rotation.