Yesterday the Braves traded Jaime Garcia to the Minnesota Twins in the most expected deal in human history. Atlanta and Minnesota had been talking seriously for at least four days now and Atlanta was so sure something was going to happen, they significantly altered Aaron Blair’s schedule this week so he could take Garcia’s spot in the rotation if he was dealt.
Well, yesterday afternoon, they finally completed the deal, and while the trade itself wasn’t any surprise, the return the Braves got might have been. For Garcia and AAA C Anthony Recker, Atlanta got 19-year-old RHP Huascar Ynoa and some cash to offset some of Recker’s salary. Ynoa does have some potential with some pedigree and a 3-pitch mix but he’s in his 3rd year in rookie ball and still struggling to get his career going. Reasonable people can disagree on how good he is or will be but one thing for sure is rookie ball pitchers with bad numbers and some upside aren’t hard to find and aren’t that much harder to acquire. Every organization has a handful and their likelihood of even reaching the majors is so small that most teams are fine using them in trades.
But in addition to Ynoa, Minnesota gave Atlanta something else. They gave them the gift of not having to pay Jaime Garcia for the rest of the year, which in turn saved the Braves around $4.7M off this year’s payroll. This was the real point of this trade. Braves wanted some flexibility. As the news of the trade was leaking out yesterday and everyone was trying to figure out why Atlanta just basically gave away a decent MLB starter for nothing, Mark Bowman, Braves beat writer for MLB.com, sent out a couple of tweets:
The approximate $4.7M saved from Garcia’s salary gives the Braves more flexibility as they pursue controllable frontline SPs
— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) July 24, 2017
The Braves are still in on Sonny Gray and other controllable frontline starting pitchers
— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) July 24, 2017
So, this is interesting on a few levels. 1.) Salary dumping Garcia so you can get a controllable SP means you’re pretty serious about getting that second move done. 2.) The fact that they cleared two 40-man roster spots in the deal makes it seem like they might already have a specific second or third deal in mind. 3.) The fact that they made this move a full week before the trade deadline means they clearly wanted time to get other deals done after he was moved. Now to be fair, Garcia has a medical history longer than a CVS receipt so moving him before he threw another pitch was probably smart but this
still feels more like the first move than the last move.
The last interesting part of those tweets was the specific name Bowman brought up: Sonny Gray. That isn’t terribly surprising since Atlanta has been rumored to controllable front-line starters for the last year and a half now. When Jose Quintana got traded in June, there were reputable reports out there
that Atlanta’s offer was only beat out by the Cubs. And since the Tampa Bay Rays have played well enough to keep Chris Archer’s name out of trade talks, it makes sense that the Braves are focusing on acquiring Gray.
But should they be?
Is Gray really the right piece for them?
To truthfully answer that question, we’re going to have to make a couple assumptions. One, we have to assume Oakland will be asking for a similar package for Gray that the White Sox asked for Quintana. This isn’t too much of a leap when you consider Gray is really the only front-line, controllable guy currently on the market, assuming Detroit doesn’t move Michael Fulmer. So the price for one should similar to the price the other. You could even make the argument Gray should cost more since he’s the last one on the market. The drop off after him is substantial enough to increase his value but there’s also a bit of talent difference between him and Quintana so I’m fine canceling those things out.
The second assumption we have to make is, if they acquire Gray, it’s the only substantial move they’ll make. Now, this assumption is more out of necessity than accuracy. There are hundreds of potential second and third moves they could make after they acquired Gray as there simply no way to account for them all or consider them for this exercise. Just too many variables.
With our first assumption, we can reasonably guess that any package for Gray will have to include either Ronald Acuna or Ozzie Albies. The Quintana
trade included Eloy Jimenez who was one of the very best prospects in all of baseball, usually coming in somewhere in the top 20 depending on whose list you looked at. The only two guys Atlanta has in that range are Acuna and Albies so that seems like a reasonable place to start. There was a report out today that Oakland is looking at CF prospects in their return which opens up the possibility of Christian Pache but I won’t believe the A’s would actually take him as the headliner until I see it. He’s just not that level of prospect. Now I’m fairly certain the Braves aren’t moving Acuna for anyone so really, we can make it even simpler. If Atlanta wants Gray, it’s going to cost them Ozzie Albies and then some stuff.
When I wrote my “Should the Braves trade Ozzie Albies” piece a few weeks ago, I made the point that any number of players in baseball would be worth trading Albies for in terms of talent. Gray is probably one. He’s a really good pitcher whose numbers would probably be even better in the NL getting to face a pitcher multiple ABs every game instead of a DH. But as I also pointed out in that piece that talent isn’t the only factor to be considered here. There’s another big factor: timing.
Gray has two more arbitration years left on his service time which means, after 2017, he has two more years of team control before becoming a free agent. This is where the rub lies. To justify the likely cost it would take to acquire him, the Braves would need to be ready to compete for a World Series in both 2018 and 2019. And quite simply they aren’t ready for that. The more likely scenario is Atlanta gets to 82 or so wins in 2018 and then starts really competing in 2019. But by that time Sonny Gray is about to walk out the door and Ozzie Albies is entering his prime with 4 or so years left of team control. This is why timing is equally important to talent in trades.
I fully support Atlanta’s effort to gain a controllable ace for their future but the definition of controllable should begin at 4 years of team control or better. That’s the only way they match up that talent with their timeline. This means I wouldn’t trade Albies or any of our top prospects for a guy who had less than 4 years of team control left. That gives Atlanta the best chance to actually be contending for titles when these acquired players are still wearing their uniform.
To be clear, Sonny Gray is worth a top prospect in talent. But he isn’t worth a top prospect in timing. At least not for the Braves. Not yet.