The Atlanta Braves traded Evan Gattis to the Houston Astros Wednesday, receiving three prospects and sending a suspect minor-league pitcher to complete the transaction. In another NL East-AL West swap, Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane shipped shortstop Yunel Escobar to the Washington Nationals in exchange for erstwhile Nationals relief ace Tyler Clippard. Together, these moves reminded me of something: I’m really bad at pegging the MLB offseason.
See, every winter, I go in seeing five or six major moves for nearly every team. I don’t necessarily expect them, but I believe they should happen, in an efficient marketplace, so I hold out very real hope. Every year, those pieces begin to fall into place during a flurry of activity between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’m always caught off-guard by the moving and shaking, and I tend to get riled into thinking that a truly huge, landscape-changing winter is in store.
Then, things go quiet over the holidays, moves I really thought made sense go by the wayside, and I start to doubt it all. Teams’ rosters reach a point at which I itch to improve them, but can see how they might decide to go into Spring Training with them, especially given payroll constraints and other internal factors into which I simply can’t have insight. Moves start to feel like rounding-out things, not precursors or first steps. Free agents left on the market become stragglers, and while their landing spots become unpredictable, their impact becomes very isolated: Player X adds Y wins to Team Z, and that’s as far as analysis of this move goes.
I forget that there’s practically always a January thaw. Over the past few years, that thaw has tended to be especially pronounced, because some big-name free agents have ended up stranded on the market, and because of the shifting competitive landscape of the game. This winter, that thaw might downright melt and reshape a couple of divisional races, depending on what comes next. All I know for sure is this: there is something coming next.
Adding Gattis leaves the Astros flush with options, which is weird, because Gattis isn’t exactly Ben Zobrist. He’s a one-dimensional offensive force, having walked 5.5 percent of the time in each of his first two big-league seasons. He utterly lacks defensive value. The only sense in which he has versatility is that he’s about as atrocious at catcher as he is in left field or at first base, so moving him around changes the positional asset value of his bat without drastically changing the degree to which he kills a team’s run prevention. (Also, now that he plays in the AL, he has the DH slot into which to slide on occasion, when Chris Carter misses the team bus or something.)
Yet, Gattis does give Houston options, primarily because of the way the team was built before he got there. With George Springer assured of one spot in the outfield and Gattis a new option to fill another, the Astros have the following options for either right or center field, depending on their configuration, and on how much Gattis really plays in left: Dexter Fowler, Jake Marisnick, L.J. Hoes and Domingo Santana. Hoes and Santana are fringe guys, likely to be used as bench pieces, but Fowler and Marisnick are both players the team proactively acquired—and in whom they expressed faith—within the last year. Fowler becomes an immediate, high-value trade candidate if Gattis is the team’s everyday left fielder (or any close facsimile thereof).
If Gattis sees more of his time behind the plate, he exacerbates what was already a logjam. Jason Castro will be 28 and two years from free agency in 2015. Hank Conger will be 27 and three years away. Gattis will be 28, and four years away. Castro and Conger each have a little offensive upside, though neither was good in 2014. Each is a very good receiver, including framing pitches well. Castro bats left-handed. Conger is a switch-hitter. The Astros also have Carlos Corporan (a solid 31-year-old switch-hitting backup backstop) and Max Stassi (24, the youngster of the bunch) on their 40-man roster. If Gattis is even remotely to be considered a catcher now (no sure thing), he makes retaining all four of the others utterly untenable. Even if he’s principally the left fielder, he provides the flexibility to make any move that presents itself to the Astros.
The next fortnight or so will tell us a lot about what the Astros think of their own chances to win in 2015. They have a non-zero chance of floating to the top of a division in which no contender has separated themselves, even if that chance is slim. If they think they can turn that slim chance into a fatter one, they should and will make an aggressive play to get better where they are currently weakest: third base, and at the back of the rotation. The issue at third is that Matt Dominguez, while gifted defensively, is no longer a plausible everyday guy. His bat is too empty, especially against right-handed hurlers (though he also doesn’t mash lefties the way one might hope). Houston could resolve that problem easily, though. A trade of Fowler for the Chicago Cubs’ Luis Valbuena, a left-handed hitter who owns a 106 OPS+ since the start of 2013, would both loosen the team’s budget and make them at least a win or two better immediately.
As for the rotation, the best way the Astros (or any team, really) can improve the back end is by shoving someone from the front half back there. In this case, specifically, it would mean Houston ending up as the high bidder for the services of Max Scherzer or James Shields, and solidifying what would become the best or second-best rotation in the AL West. It’s a long shot, but the idea has been tossed out elsewhere.
Anyway, whatever the Astros make of themselves for 2015, they now have Gattis under team control through 2018, and it’s not hard to see why he appeals to them. He might fit them as well as any hitter they could possibly have acquired, based on their home park and his specific skill set.
People often make the mistake of saying that short porches or cozy power alleys favor power hitters. It’s not so. Short porches and cozy power alleys favor fly-ball hitters, and particularly (because it’s excruciatingly hard to consistently hit the ball hard enough the other way to make it matter how far away the fences are), they favor guys who pull the ball in the air a lot. Evan Gattis pulls the ball in the air about as often as anyone. Since the start of 2013, the league-average fly-ball rate on pulled balls is around 20 percent. That is to say, the huge majority of the balls most batters pull are on the ground, and the majority of the balls most batters hit the other way are in the air. (Hence the widespread use of infield shifts.) Gattis, though, has a 33.7-percent fly-ball rate when pulling the ball, more than half again the league average, and he also pulls the ball very frequently, relative to hitting the ball the other way.
Over the two-year span we’re talking about, Gattis put 264 pitches in play to his pull field. Of all batters who put at least 150 balls in play to their pull field, Gattis’s fly-ball rate on those balls ranked sixth-highest, right behind new teammate Chris Carter. Gattis is exceptionally well-suited to take aim at the peculiarly arranged, cramped left field he might also call home defensively. Don’t think about the impact this will have on Gattis’s raw numbers, or even his value. Both changes are small. Think, instead, about the relatively large gain the Astros make by adding a player so exquisitely qualified to take advantage of their home park, replacing players (like Robbie Grossman and Alex Presley) who couldn’t do so at all.
The Braves, of course, got two pitching prospects in exchange for Gattis. I say ‘of course,’ because accumulating pitching prospects appears to be John Hart’s only goal for this offseason in Atlanta. The Braves managed to get a surefire MLB-ready starter, albeit a flawed one, when they targeted Shelby Miller in the Jason Heyward trade, and they did get some positional help in trading away Justin Upton, but even so, Hart has landed the following arms this winter:
- Arodys Vizcaino, a former Braves farmhand and (more recently) Cubs relief prospect, for Tommy La Stella
- Tyrell Jenkins, who got his career on track just this fall, along with Miller, for Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden
- Aaron Kurcz, a reliever of moderate upside, for Anthony Varvaro—an MLB reliever as good as Kurcz might ever be
- Dan Winkler, who had Tommy John surgery in June but had been a mid-level prospect in the Rockies organization prior thereto, in the Rule 5 Draft
- Max Fried, an erstwhile top-level prospect who had Tommy John surgery in August, as part of the Upton deal
- Manny Banuelos, formerly the Yankees’ most prized starting pitching prospect in a decade, but himself a veteran of Tommy John, for David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve
- Ricardo Sanchez, the Angels’ second-best prospect at the time, a teenager eons from MLB but with upside, for two minor leaguers
- Mike Foltynewicz, a flamethrower without a third pitch or command, but right on the cusp of MLB and with scouting buzz aplenty, along with Andrew Thurman, a lower-ceiling arm farther from the big leagues, but with a better chance to start, for Gattis
That’s an impressive collection of talent. Two are hurt, all but two have been hurt, one is unlikely to pitch in a full-season minor league and the two or three closest to the Majors are relievers, but it’s a lot of pedigree Hart has assembled. He’s also added Dustin Peterson, Jace Peterson, Rio Ruiz and Mallex Smith, on the positional side. None of them are premium assets, and none are non-assets. Hart’s singular focus has been adding high-ceiling pitching depth to the system. Hopefully, he has a revolutionary system for overcoming the TINSTAAPP problem. I seriously doubt that he does.
Atlanta’s next move ought to be to banish Chris Johnson to the spot in left field where they had considered sending Gattis. Johnson will be bad there, but not worse than Gattis would have been, and moving him would allow the team to shop for an actually competent third baseman. Again, Valbuena is an option, but so are players with longer developmental horizons or more years of team control remaining, like Trevor Plouffe of the Twins or Cody Asche of the Phillies. The Braves’ every action has been taken with the long term in mind, but the 2015 team is not actually a total loss. Given what it is Hart is doing with the future, it would be unwise for Atlanta to give away the present.
It’s easy to see why the team feels compelled to worry more about 2016 and beyond than about 2015, though, because the Washington Nationals are the clearest division favorites in baseball, right now. The Nationals made a move of their own Wednesday, a cleaner and smaller one. Yunel Escobar is a National, less than a week after he became an Athletic. It cost the Nats their long-time set-up man, Tyler Clippard. The move is easy to explain, and easy to break down. It’s only complicated in terms of what it puts into motion.
First, the simpler side of things:
I have independent confirmation deal has happened, Escobar for Clippard. Taking Escobar was how the #Athletics were able to get Zobrist.
— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) January 15, 2015
No sense making more of that than there is. The Rays had a two-year, $12-million commitment on their books, to a player they no longer found useful once they agreed to sign Asdrubal Cabrera. They wanted out from under it, and Oakland offered them the chance—probably because they would have lost out to Washington for the services of Zobrist if they hadn’t. In that light, we can better see what the Rays were thinking when they made that trade: They wanted to be rid of Escobar, so the proper way to frame the deal is Zobrist for John Jaso, Daniel Robertson, Herschel Powell and that liberty.
That left the A’s with a player they also didn’t particularly want, but one they knew they could sell. Escobar isn’t an atrocious player, after all, and on a big-market team running a nine-figure payroll, he fits comfortably. He just wasn’t right for the A’s, nor for the Rays before them. The Nationals, who had been willing to take Escobar in the package deal for Zobrist, were still willing to do so on a solo basis, though at a low price.
I say ‘low price’ lovingly, because everyone sort of loves Tyler Clippard, the best changeup-reliant reliever going and the game’s most famous eyewear exemplar. He’ll cost nearly $10 million this season, though, and will hit free agency thereafter. The A’s didn’t even need him, in what is already a crowded bullpen picture. They might or might not keep him. Clippard is as reliable as they come, but that’s not the same thing as saying he’s valuable.
On the Washington side, many take this to signal the end of Ian Desmond’s stay with the team. I’m not so sure. Remember, Escobar slid hideously downward in all of the major defensive rating systems in 2014, eating up a lot of his value. The Rays were willing to bet that that slide was neither a fluke nor a red herring, but a real and permanent loss of defensive talent. The A’s were willing to make the same wager, even after bringing Escobar in as a transaction cost on a deal they badly needed to make. If the Nationals see Escobar as a solution of any kind at shortstop, they’re outnumbered, at least among teams taking a clear position. I think it’s perfectly possible Escobar will take Danny Espinosa’s long-tenuous place as the starting second baseman, and that Washington will keep Desmond around for his final season before free agency. That’s the best way to align the talent they have right now, at least, in order to chase a World Series berth. (The Nationals should absolutely be taking aim at a goal that lofty.)
On the other hand, the team is quite imbalanced right now, with regard to players nearing free agency. Desmond joins Denard Span as position players one year from that point. Starting pitchers Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister are impending free agents, too. Stephen Strasburg, Wilson Ramos and Drew Storen are each just one more year from there. One of the things that must appeal to GM Mike Rizzo is that Escobar is under control, should the club decide to keep him, for three more years. If Desmond can fetch something that can help the Nationals win in 2015, they almost have to do it, particularly if the deal also helps them stay good in the future. Acquiring Escobar makes it easier to pounce if the right deal presents itself. Remember, too, that without Clippard, the Nationals are at least one bullpen arm short of a bushel.
There are a lot of moving parts left in this offseason, as it turns out. The two trades made Wednesday shake some things loose, leaving uneven ground that only more activity will be able to smooth. While most people are now eager for pitchers and catchers to report to Spring Training, I’m happy to know that there will be more major moves coming, in addition to the inevitable free-agent signings, to break up the monotony of what’s left of the winter. Pennant races are going to change in the next week, and in the one or two after that, too.Next post: Nats Do Right Trading Tyler Clippard for Yunel Escobar
Previous post: Rookies Unrated: Tales of Vintage Prospects – Ronnie Walden