Looking Back At the Simmons-Newcomb Deal

Looking Back At the Simmons-Newcomb Deal

Yesterday, I looked at the fantastic failure of Sean Newcomb: the starter. Today, I want to go back to how Newcomb came to the Braves and why, despite the anger, the trade that brought him to Atlanta is way too criticized.

Of course, as you may remember, the Braves entered a rebuild after the 2014 season and started to shed off most of their young nucleus of talent (Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Craig Kimbrel). But not all were sent packing. Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran would remain with the Braves throughout the rebuild and return to the playoffs. Teheran has since moved on.

But between the quick firesale and cornerstones that remained, there was Andrelton Simmons who wasn’t immediately moved in a trade, nor would he last through the rebuild. Simmons, drafted in 2010, made his MLB debut in 2012. Over the next three years, Simmons grew into a force at shortstop, winning a pair of Gold Gloves and getting a seven-year contract extension despite not being eligible for arbitration. That deal, signed during a flurry of contract extensions before the 2014 season, was part of a move to keep the aforementioned young nucleus together for a long time. Ah, the dreams of yesteryear.

During his three-plus seasons with the Braves, Simmons hit .256/.304/.362 with a .292 wOBA and 84 wRC+. Not good marks at all. But in terms of value, he delivered a pair of 3 fWAR seasons on the heels of his otherworldly defense. On a 2015 team with very little to get excited about, having Simmons routinely steal the souls of players – including current Brave Travis d’Arnaud – on a nightly basis gave us something to tune in for.

Having survived the initial firesale, it was believed that Simmons was considered the same as Teheran and Freeman – cornerstones for the next great Braves team. And then, just a matter of days after the 2015 season concluded, the Braves sent the affectionally labeled “Simba” off to the west coast as he became a member of the Angels. Catching prospect, Jose Briceno, joined him while a trio of players and cash came back to the Braves. For the short-term, long-time Angel Erick Aybar was tasked to replace Simmons while prospect Chris Ellis, a decent but unspectacular, arm also came to the Braves. But the centerpiece for John Coppolella, the then-Braves GM, was left-hander Sean Newcomb.

Immediately, a pair of factions sprouted up – one louder than the other. On one side, people pointed out how Simmons’ bat wasn’t good enough to justify his salary in the coming years when $47 million of his backloaded $58 million contract came in the final four years. But that faction wasn’t able to keep up with the other fans distraught about Simmons heading to the Angels.

Me? I had a different view, which I mentioned in another review of this trade back in 2017.

I liked the deal, but I also didn’t like the deal all that much. I remember writing for About.com at the time that regardless of how I may fall on the trade for the Braves, I didn’t understand at all why the Angels pulled the trigger. If any team in baseball needed to develop some young and talented arms, it was the Angels. They had cashed in their last blue-chip trade minor league asset at the time for a shortstop who couldn’t hit.

To his credit, Simmons read that and decided to prove me wrong.

Okay, it almost certainly didn’t happen exactly that way, but the shortstop did start to hit a bit, posting a .323 and .326 wOBA in back-to-back years in 2017 and 2018. That was literally all it took to turn him into a five-win player, which is where superstars live. Last year was a wash due to injuries, though when he did play, he looked a lot more like the Braves-era hitter than he had the previous two seasons. He’s only played in four games this year because of a high ankle sprain. Simmons is nearing a return and is due to hit free agency at the end of the year.

In terms of fWAR, the Angels have received 14.9 fWAR from Simmons over the five years they’ve had him plus whatever he adds once he returns. That’s not a bad return on $53 million.

Even more glaring is how little the Braves received. The Erick Aybar Experience is known more for his issues eating chicken than his ability on the field. Never much of a hitter, Aybar was also a pretty miserable fielder by the time the Braves got their hands on him. They later moved him for Kade Scivicque and Mike Aviles – who you didn’t know was ever technically a Brave.

Chris Ellis only spent a year and a few weeks in the organization before the Braves included him in the trade that brought back Jaime Garcia. Ellis was released by the Cardinals during some of the COVID-era cuts back in May. Garcia was, as you may know, later turned into Huascar Ynoa, today’s starter.

But, yes, this deal is about Sean Newcomb. Sent packing to the alternate training site after getting blitzed by the Phils on Monday, Newcomb has been worth 3.2 fWAR in 346 innings at the major league level. He’s nearly struck out a batter for every inning pitched, but a walk rate of 11.4% ranks as the fourth-worst mark in baseball since 2017 (min. 300 ING).

To say Newcomb has been a disappointment is an understatement. The problems many critics of this deal at the time pointed at remain – his command is abysmal, he runs himself into bad counts, and becomes too predictable as a result. But, to be fair, Newcomb hasn’t been useless at the major league level as he turned in a decent year as a starter in 2018 and was fairly productive coming out of the pen last year (though maybe not nearly as much as we remember).

But this isn’t a second-straight column about Newcomb the pitcher, but the deal that happened nearly a half-decade ago. There are a few questions we need to answer. Most of them can be simplified, though the deeper you dive into it, the more complicated it becomes.

Did the Angels win this trade?

In the most simple terms, absolutely. Simmons has way-outplayed Newcomb in terms of value and if Newcomb is finished as a Braves starter, which seems quite possible/likely, that further neuters his overall value. On the other hand, I fall back on something involving this trade that has always confused me: why did the Angels make it in the first place?

Sure, they got an elite-level defender. And they were able to get more out of him offensively than the Braves did, though the difference isn’t as significant as you might think. For instance, as a Brave, Simmons had a .292 wOBA and 84 wRC+. With the Angels, it’s up to a .312 wOBA and 97 wRC+. Better marks, yes, but hardly great.

In making this trade, the Angels sacrificed their second-best prospect after fellow lefty, Andrew Heaney. And certainly, Simmons was an improvement over Aybar, their incumbent shortstop, but even an improved hitting version of Simmons would do little to help a terrible offense that was only about to get dragged down more by Albert Pujols‘ continued fall-from-grace. In 2017, for instance, when Simmons posted some of his best offensive numbers, the Angels scored the 11th-most runs in the AL. To be fair, Mike Trout missed 50 or so games. In 2018, another good-hitting year out of Simmons with Trout playing in 140 games, the Angels improved to the 8th-most runs scored.

Meanwhile, the Angels still struggle to develop any pitching. Not that Newcomb would have developed into the guy who earned such love in end-of-the-year prospect rankings, but this might surprise you. Newcomb would rank as the third-best pitcher on the Angels since 2017 with a 3.2 fWAR. Only the aforementioned Heaney (3.8 fWAR) and the sad case of Tyler Skaggs (5.0 fWAR) rank higher. Without a doubt, the Angels could have used Newcomb.

Nevertheless, the Angels still win this deal because even if he would have been better than most of their other options, Newcomb has still been a disappointment and Simmons has been, for all intents and purposes, exactly what he was expected to be.

Did Coppy Get Enough for Simmons?

This question is a bit more difficult because cases like Simmons are fairly hard to come by. Not only are we talking about one of the best defenders in history, but he was on an affordable, team-controlled contract. Players like that do not get traded often – especially when they play a premium position.

One example from recent history is Jose Iglesias, who, after two cups of coffee in 2011-12, began 2013 as a utility player for the Boston Red Sox. At the deadline, he was traded in a three-team, seven-player deal that saw Avisail Garcia go to the White Sox and Jake Peavy head to Boston. Iglesias landed in Detroit. This deal doesn’t give us much of a comparison, though. Iglesias wasn’t an established star defensively at the time and the added variable of veterans changing teams along with it being a three-team trade limit what we can gain comparing the two trades. That said, the Tigers gave up a good young hitter in Garcia who would break out in 2017 as an All-Star. They also traded Brayan Villarreal, a reliever who had a nice 2012, but struggled in 2013 and soon would be out of organized ball. If we are to compare the two trades, the Braves didn’t get all that much more than the Tigers surrendered. Garcia wasn’t as good as a prospect as Newcomb at the times of their trades, but Iglesias wasn’t nearly the established defensive star Simmons was, either.

Freddy Galvis also presents a bit of a comparison, though not nearly as close as we would like it. Galvis was a year away from free agency and while a competent defender, he was no Simmons. The Phillies netted the 6’3″ righty Enyel De Los Santos for Galvis. While he has a live arm, De Los Santos wasn’t a premier prospect either before the trade or after. But again, Galvis wasn’t team-controlled like Simmons or, for that matter, Garcia.

Current Brave, Adeiny Hechavarría, had plenty of team-control and was a solid defender at the time of his trade from Toronto to Miami back in 2012. But, that deal makes for an impossible comparison because that was the absurd mega-deal that included Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and Jose Reyes.

It’s nearly impossible to nail down a precedent of a premier defender at a premium position with a handful of years of team control, plus youth on his side, being traded. So, it’s very hard to say definitely if the Braves got shafted when they made this trade at the time. Certainly, the results of the deal suggest that the Braves didn’t get enough in return, but I can’t say that Coppy got less than what he should have. Was it an overwhelming return? No, definitely not. Did he net an elite prospect? I’d say so. It may not feel like it was enough to trade Simba and we can debate whether it was smart to trade him at all, but I can’t say that Coppy made the deal without getting appropriate value.

Was this Coppy’s worst deal?

No.

John Coppolella with Brian Snitker – Jeff Morris

I shouldn’t have to defend that answer. The Braves gave up Alex Wood and one of their top prospects in Jose Peraza to get Hector Olivera. And then made the problem worse by shipping a disgraced Olivera to San Diego for Matt Kemp, whose contract they then had to ship off to the Dodgers.

If that debacle doesn’t make #1 for you, remember that despite having a year less on his contract, the Padres received three players who were then or would later be ranked in the Top 100 Prospects of multiple publications for Craig Kimbrel. The Braves got Matt Wisler and a draft pick.

Okay, that draft pick became Austin Riley, but those are the deals that really get me going

Was the deal part of a bigger plan?

Hard to really say that it was, but a month or so later, the Braves acquired Dansby Swanson to be the eventual replacement to Simmons. Swanson has had his moments in his 364-game career and while he hasn’t out-hit Simmons to this point, there is good reason to believe that he will be the better option over the next five years.

The trade to acquire Swanson, along with Ender Inciarte and Aaron Blair, doesn’t look like quite the coup it did at the time with Inciarte’s struggles, Blair flaming out, and Swanson’s bipolar results at the plate. But it quickly addressed the idea of who would be Atlanta’s shortstop of the future following the trade of Simmons. But it seems like a stretch to say that Coppy knew that he would land a premier shortstop prospect so soon after moving Simmons.

On the other hand, he already had a premier shortstop prospect – Ozzie Albies. While he would eventually move to second, Albies was already crashing Top 10 lists for the best shortstops in the minors when Simmons was dealt. Of course, he was also a few years away so trading Simmons then was unlikely a move that was made to unblock a player who was not yet blocked.

If there was a bigger plan, it was to move Simmons before his value decreased. Teams feel comfortable giving defensively-minded players a few million if the value is there, but once their salary starts to get close or surpass ten digits, many general managers start getting a bit antsy. After all, like I pointed out last week, the legacy of Inciarte is that you shouldn’t pay for defense. Getting Simmons moved then rather than later may have been the difference in netting a premier prospect or not.

Finally, did the deal hurt the Braves moving forward?

Not really. Sure, losing Simmons hurt both on-and-off the field as Aybar looked woeful in the field and one of the few popular players on a team in transition was lost. But the absence of Simmons on those rebuilding teams simply meant they were a bit worse than the bad they already would have been. In fact, when you look at it that way, losing Simmons may have helped Atlanta’s draft position.

If the Swanson deal happens, Simmons is probably dealt in the future anyway. All that would have happened is that the return would have been less. So, did the deal hurt the Braves? In 2016, probably. In 2017? Maybe. 2018 and beyond? I don’t think it did, especially when you consider Simmons’ rapidly-increasing salary.

I’m going to close this out by saying this once more: I didn’t love this deal for the Braves in the winter of 2015, but I didn’t understand it for the Angels. Five years later, I still don’t love this trade and I still don’t understand it for the Angels. The deal isn’t half as bad as people want to believe it was. It just didn’t turn out as well as Coppy hoped it would.

2 Comments

Thanks so much for this. Emotionaly I needed Newk to win 3 Cy Young awards for this trade to be a win for the Braves. So I never thought the trade would ever be okay. I still root for Nuke. It seems like he is pitching for his life everytime he goes out there as a starter. As a reliever he seems able to adapt. I still think he could be a great reliever. GREAT. Winning 3 Cy’s would make me feel better. I still miss Simba.

At the time of the trade, Fangraphs reviewed Newcomb’s stats and development. They searched their database for other pitchers with
Newcomb’s control issues at his age and stage of development who had ever subsequently become an effective starter for a substantial period. They found one or two journeymen starters. For this predictable result, he sacrificed the best shortstop in franchise history. Fangraphs concluded that Newcomb had the potential to be a lefthanded setup reliever. I hope he becomes at least that good. And I wish Coppy had used Fangraphs before he made the second worst major trade in franchise history; you have to go back to Milwaukee for the worst: two frontline starters Joey Jay and Juan Pizarro for two seasons of a good defensive shortstop who couldn’t hit.

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