The Atlanta Braves had a .305 team on-base percentage in 2014. They badly needed to find and add some players this winter who would ameliorate that issue, and in particular, they needed left-handed batters, guys who could spell lefty-mashing, right-handed sluggers like Chris Johnson and Evan Gattis. If the Braves were intent on rebounding from their poor 2014 showing right away, the road map to improvement was there.

John Hart, running the team for now (although the gig doesn’t feel fully permanent right now), has taken off running in the other direction. Since season’s end, the Braves have traded three position players. Two were projected 2015 starters for the parent club, in Tommy La Stella and Jason Heyward. The other was near-ready center-field prospect Kyle Wren. All three bat left-handed. All three have below-average strikeout rates and get on base. Though Hart paid lip service to the notion that Atlanta could still win next season when he made his remarks on the Heyward deal, he emphasized the disparity in the years of team control attached to each of the players involved. He all but announced a rebuild on the spot.

That’s a strange announcement, in light of the Braves’ roster construction. It’s not as though they’re the Tigers, who must keep going for it because their window is closing, but this team has a window, too. Atlanta signed Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Chris Johnson, Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel to long-term extensions before the 2014 season. For a team with a fairly rigid budget, that was an irrevocable commitment to the core they had in place. The moves ossified their roster, and left only one path to contending between now and 2018: relying on and complementing the players who received those contracts.

Now, Hart seems to be so down on the chances of that group delivering on its promise that he’s willing to start over, as much as one can under the circumstances. The problem is that it’s no longer clear whether this core is one around which a winner can be built. Johnson was atrocious in 2014, posting a .263/.292/.361 batting line with awful defense at third base, but he’s locked in for the next three seasons—if he lasts that long:

Of course, Johnson’s trade value is virtually zero, after the campaign he just had, but the fact that Rosenthal thinks it’s a possibility suggests that a fire sale could be forthcoming. Then there’s this:

That doesn’t mean the Braves will actually sign Lester, but it’s peculiar. I give national writers a hard time, and some of them lack a certain baseball savvy, but they’re usually plugged in enough to speak with confidence about the direction teams intend to go. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. Either the Braves have a very detailed and large-scale plan in mind, and are keeping it a very good secret, or they’re as unsure about the next step as people taking educated guesses from the outside. It feels like the latter.

On the other hand, each move they’ve made, and each move rumored to be under consideration, fits into at least one version of a master plan. Trading La Stella for Arodys Vizcaino set up this Heyward trade, by reinforcing the bullpen so they would have depth from which to trade, helping complete the deal. There was plenty of speculation that Atlanta wanted to bolster its starting rotation, and they did it.

The most interesting question analysis of this deal must answer is what, exactly, Shelby Miller is going to be worth to the Braves. They have him under control for four more seasons, and clearly, they believe in 2013 Shelby Miller, not the 2014 version.

Shelby Miller, 2013-14

Season Batters Faced Strikeout Rate Walk Rate (BB-IBB+HBP) BABIP Against
2013 722 23.4% 8.6% .280
2014 763 16.6% 9.3% .256

They had better hope they’re right, because if 2014 Shelby Miller is the new and permanent iteration, he’s all but useless. Miller’s ERA rose from 3.06 to 3.74 in 2014, and he’s probably very lucky it wasn’t worse. His opponents’ BABIP decrease could be simply because more batters made weak contact and fewer missed entirely, but that would only very slightly assuage the broader concerns.

According to Brooks Baseball, Miller had all the heat on his four-seam fastball that he had always had, but his cutter and curveball lost about two miles per hour each. All of his pitches saw huge drops in terms of whiff rates when batters swung, and batters chased pitches out of the zone less frequently. Miller was reduced to a one-pitch pitcher, more or less, and batters teed off on his fastball once they were able to see it coming.

It’s strange to see a young pitcher utterly lose what was once an above-average curveball this way, without a major injury as an explanation, and without a corresponding fastball velocity drop. I’m inclined to think that the Braves are right to buy into a bounce-back, and would bet that the curve either returns with a vengeance or is reborn as a sharp slider in 2015.

If Miller can rebound, he joins Teheran at the front of a strong, young rotation. If the team hangs onto Justin Upton and finds a cost-effective way to replace Heyward’s production, the offense should at least creep back toward respectability. (Moving Evan Gattis from catcher to left field helps in this regard, although it damages the run prevention that was the team’s only means of staying in games last season.) If Jose Peraza, the team’s top prospect, proves he can handle himself offensively and slides in at second base sometime early in the year, Atlanta might yet assemble a winning team next season. That’s a long list of conditional statements, though, or at least, it’s a list of things with long odds of actually working out.

Another team would have hung on for one more year, added star talent instead of dealing it away, and tried to maximize the value of many gifted athletes playing their prime seasons at once. The Braves operate very differently, though. They’re cost-conscious, focused always on sustainability, and yet, impatient with failure. That combination of traits has left them in a strange predicament. I like this trade, and I liked the one they made Sunday. Until we see the other handful of moves that necessarily remain this winter, though, it’s impossible to say whether I really like the direction in which the Braves are headed.

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