In this week’s podcast, I said that one of the few things my Braves have to look forward to in 2015 is continued incremental improvement from the center fielder formerly known as B.J. Upton. That, combined with another year off of his onerous contract, could, I imagined, make him palatable to another team in a trade, and perhaps come 2016 the Braves would be free. Well, in another of a long line of disappointments for Braves fans this offseason, the time has come to scratch that one off the list.
In seriousness, the Easter Sunday trade (I can’t remember another of this magnitude on the eve of Opening Day) is nothing but an unequivocal positive for Atlanta. The time was right to trade Craig Kimbrel too, even if it’s tough to accept since he’s as special as any relief pitcher since Mariano Rivera. But the game’s best closer wasn’t going to do this team much good over the next couple years, not unless he can start driving the ball to the gaps too. On the other side of the Braves self-imposed pre-2017 purgatory, there’s a reasonable chance he could be either injured or have declining numbers. It hurts to let go, but it’s so clearly the right thing to do.
If the return for Kimbrel alone was a top-50 pitching prospect (Matt Wisler), a capable, 28 year-old center fielder who I still see a little bit of upside in (Cameron Maybin), a toolsy, low-minors outfielder, and a future 41st overall draft pick, I’d consider that pretty fair. I’d be happy with it even. But that’s not all they got for it. They also escaped from under a franchise-crippling bad contract, and the only tax they have to pay for that is Carlos Quentin’s one-year salary on the way out the door. Personally, I think this team has a use for Quentin at the major league level – when he’s healthy, he could be their best option as a #4/#5 hitter. He’s a poor defender but in this case maybe the tradeoff is worth it. It looks like the plan is to DFA him though.
Let’s be clear, this is nothing short of miraculous. As painful as it is to say goodbye to the best 9th-inning weapon in the game, perhaps before anyone was really ready to, what the Braves achieved today was a coup. By jettisoning Upton and Kimbrel, the team brought rapid-fire rebuild to a close in the span of one off-season and justified all of the painful, questionable decisions they had to make along the way (except for Markakis – that still doesn’t make sense). They didn’t stop short and go into the season with no clear direction, they saw it all the way through. And with the possible exception of the Jason Heyward trade, I’m pretty thrilled with the returns they were able to get. They restocked on prospects in terms of both quantity and quality – they may now have the deepest set of pitching prospects of any team in the league, but they also added this year’s starting second baseman, Jace Peterson, a potential starting third baseman in Rio Ruiz, and intriguing sleeper prospects like Mallex Smith. They also managed to obtain a needed degree of financial flexibility. Could things have gone differently for this team if B.J. Upton was never signed? Maybe. Could they have locked up Heyward and averted this entire tear-down? Possibly. It’s best not to dwell on such things.
A few words for the man himself, Melvin “Bossman Jr.” Upton. I remember the day he was signed. I was pretty thrilled as I’d always liked B.J. Upton. I’d talked to Zac P. that day and he, an AL East fan, predicted that Upton’s worrying K-rate meant he would never be productive for the Braves. He was right. The carnage was worse than either of us probably could have imagined. Still, I never came to resent Upton’s presence on the team, mostly I just felt a deepening sadness for him. He was frustrating to watch, but he still remained a sympathetic figure. I thought about him wilting in the shadow of his younger brother and the crushing weight of great expectations that came down on his shoulders with every whiff. I thought he must have suffered a lot. It didn’t work out and I wish it did. They said he had an attitude problem, that he was difficult to work with, but I didn’t see it. Maybe he was a little stubborn but most hitters are. I still hope it works out for him, I hope he’s able to rebuild his swing and his approach at the plate in San Diego, I hope that he thrives in a role where the expectations are a little lower. I’d like to see him become a productive player again, but that doesn’t mean I think it will happen. Bon voyage, Bossman.
As for San Diego, I’m still a little lower on them than I was a few weeks ago. The main reason is that I just don’t like the way they line up defensively. A second reason is that I think Will Middlebrooks was a pretty poor buy-low candidate and I don’t think he’ll ever hit enough to be an everyday third baseman. Melvin Upton Jr. is truthfully not much better as a buy-low candidate and if he does end up playing everyday (the pervasive speculation about moving Wil Myers to first), they’ve added a little defense but are suddenly running out a lineup that sports more than a few glaring holes. San Diego added lots of good pieces this offseason, but the way they fit together remains a bit awkward.
I’m ready to go, let’s play ball.
Featured Image: Via Atlanta Journal Constitution