Twice this offseason, the Atlanta Braves have grouped major-league ready assets for higher-ceiling prospects. On Wednesday, they did it a third time as they acquired lefthanders Luiz Gohara and Thomas Burrows for right-handed reliever Shae Simmons and speedy outfielder Mallex Smith. The latter spent all of two minutes with the Mariners before being re-packaged in a deal to Tampa Bay. The two minutes might be a bit hyperbolic.
Much like the trades that saw the Braves acquire Luke and Alex Jackson (no relation), this trade is all about going for the elite prospect – in this case, Gohara. For years, the lefty made talent evaluators excited about his future, but the Brazillian southpaw struggled to find his way. While last year was his Age-19 season, it was his fourth year already in professional ball. It was also his best.
For the second consecutive season, he split time with Everett in the short-season A Northwest League and Clinton in the A-ball Midwest League – however, he flipped the script by spending the bulk of his time with Clinton after doing the opposite in 2015. The lefty set new highs in innings pitched (69.2) and strikeouts (81) while lowering his walk rate about 4%. His FIP in the 2.50’s was nearly two runs lower than the previous year.
Gohara works off mid-90’s heat and his secondary pitches took a step forward in 2016. His slider has strikeout potential at the major league level and his changeup could be good enough to keep hitters from being able to key into his fastball – which is not just fast, but comes with a good deal of movement. To this point, he has carried strong groundball numbers throughout the minors and in a superb pitching system, he won’t get lost if he pitches up to his ability. In some ways, his acquisition reminds me of Ricardo Sanchez two years ago – except Gohara is more developed at the time of the deal.
Burrows essentially gives the Braves another 2016 draft choice. Picked #117 last year out of the University of Alabama where he is the career saves leader, Burrows spent his summer in Everett where he struck out 33.3% of opposing hitters. The walk rate will need to be cleaned up (10%), but all in all, it was a successful first year for the lefty complete with a 2.88 FIP.
A relief-only option, Burrows doesn’t have big-time heat with low-to-mid 90’s velocity, but gets great movement out of a 3/4’s delivery which helps to create a natural sink to the pitch. The fact that he stands on the first-base side of the rubber also helps add sweeping motion. His second pitch, a low 80’s slider, looked much better in his senior season, which helped to push him up the draft.
Make no mistake, though. This deal was about Gohara. It cost the Braves a pair of pieces that could have helped the 2017 team. Simmons came onto the scene in 2014 as a mid-90’s pitcher with a solid breaking pitch. Immediately, he was compared to then-Braves closer Craig Kimbrel for his potential dominance on the mound. Injuries, including Tommy John surgery, limited the righty to just seven games over the last two seasons. Expected to compete for a bullpen spot, Simmons still had a chance to put himself in line to be a closer one day with the Braves before this deal was completed. Nevertheless, the Braves have a large collection of potential bullpen arms, which I recently wrote about. Losing Simmons, while unfortunate, won’t change that.
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On the other hand, losing Mallex Smith could hurt – in the short term. Depending on who you talked to or read, Smith had a chance to be a top-of-the-lineup center fielder with good on-base skills. Or, he could be a solid fourth outfielder. The Braves may have counted on the latter and that’s a fair assumption. They also probably looked at a fairly undeniable aspect of roster construction – regardless of his talent, Smith was not a good fit for the Braves. While he could be a more valuable player than either Matt Kemp or Nick Markakis – especially if he moved Ender Inciarte to a corner – Smith was not right for Atlanta when you consider how little power the team would have with Inciarte and Ozzie Albies joining Smith in the everyday lineup presumably at some point. While I did like what Smith could provide in a fourth outfielder/defensive caddy/late inning substitution role, it would have muted his potential value simply because the nature of the roster was against him.
It’s a bonus that the Braves acquired a player of Gohara’s stature, though. Further, this trade opened up a pair of spots on the 40-man roster without losing talent for nothing. That gives Braves general manager John Coppolella increased flexibility to make a move both via trade and free agency, which has seen the market crash for several 2-to-5-win players. They might be willing to accept some bargain prices and not having to worry about the 40-man roster only makes that easier.
This trade is not too dissimilar from another trade from earlier this offseason. Like Smith, Tyrell Jenkins was a well-liked youngster who was one of the first building blocks for a rebuilding team two years ago. And then, without an inkling of a rumor, Jenkins was traded. Since then, we have seen Jenkins’ believed value plummet. I don’t see the same thing happening to Smith, but Jenkins’ case might be a good reminder that our objectivity in regards to our favorite team’s prospects is often skewed. Smith has a good chance to have a solid major league career, but was he going to be a difference maker? It’s unlikely. The same can be said for Simmons. While Gohara is a lot further away than those two, the Braves continued to side with upside over depth. It’s a big reason the front office has remade this farm system into a talent-rich cadre of players and Gohara – and Burrows – only enhances that.