Tuesday, October 29, 2013

So You Want An "Ace"???

OK, OK, OK. Like tons of fans around the country, we Braves faithful have been screaming for years that the one thing that separates our favorite team from that next World Series is having that true "Ace" sitting at the top of our rotation. Many times that simply hasn't been the case since there have been other holes - whether we were willing to admit them or not. Heading into 2014 however, I completely agree with those who think that if we had that ONE guy, this will be our year. The 2013 version of Tomahawk Choppers was close - so close that everyone (not just Braves fans) could feel it. The players could taste it too...the squad battled through multiple injuries that would've been crippling to most organizations - the loss of BOTH Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters before the opening gun went off, Brian McCann's April lost to shoulder rehabilitation, Brandon Beachy's struggle to get back following Tommy John surgery, Freddie Freeman's stint on the DL (that may very well have cost him an NL MVP award), Tim Hudson's broken ankle that ended his season just as he was looking as good as he's ever looked in a Braves uniform, and the stray Jon Niese fastball to Jason Heyward's jaw that was likely the final straw - yet somehow this team was still locked in a battle with the Cardinals for the best record in the NL right down to the last weekend of the regular season. Someone different seemed to step up in a big spot every night. The Braves had the best home record in baseball as well as winning records against EVERY other NL playoff team with entirely lost seasons from its two highest paid players - Dan Uggla and B. J. Upton were two of the worst hitters in the league among players with qualifying ABs.

So let's fast-forward to 2014 - every important piece of last season's successful campaign is likely returning other than Brian McCann. I hate it just as much as everyone else, but it's simple baseball economics. Mac signed a team-friendly extension a few years back, and he deserves to get paid for the player he's been and still is - one of the most elite hitters as a Catcher in recent memory. While having him in the clubhouse both to be the face of the franchise as well as help with the transfer of leadership from Chipper Jones was terribly important in 2013, he's over 30 with a lot of innings crouched behind the plate. The free-agent "perfect storm" for someone like Brian has arisen - EVERY big market contender is looking for an offensive-minded Catcher just as THE guy they'd all love to have becomes available. Add to that the fact that the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rangers are AL clubs with the ability to extend Mac's value by utilizing him as a DH at times to help with the wear and tear, and there's going to be some kind of bidding war for his services. Some estimates I've seen are in the 5 year - $100 million range, and I think that might even turn out to be a little less than he ultimately commands. Even at a 25% discount, the Braves simply don't have the flexibility to offer one of their most-liked players that kind of contract - the last 2 years could be financially disastrous for a mid-market club. (Side note - if anybody other than John Smoltz or Chipper Jones ever deserved the opportunity to "cash-in" and set up his family for generations to come WITHOUT one ounce of blowback from fans, that guy is Brian McCann.)

Will Mac's numbers and presence be missed? Of course. That said, this team has begun to develop it's own identity with Freeman, Heyward, the Upton brothers, and Andrelton Simmons as its core, and Brian's production will arguably be replaced (and even potentially exceeded) with a full compliment of ABs for Evan Gattis and just an average B. J. Upton season at the dish. Offense, while at times inconsistent, is far from the top of the list of concerns the Braves have moving forward. Freeman will be a perennial MVP candidate, Justin Upton could be with a little more consistency, and Heyward, Gattis, B. J. Upton, and Simmons are all capable of igniting an offense when needed - and all should be even better in 2014.

While the Braves' pitching staff was among baseball's elite in 2013 even with all the injuries, the overwhelming feeling was that it was that one DOMINANT arm that would allow everyone to slip down one notch and make it truly overpowering. Mike Minor and Kris Medlen made huge steps forward in their development, Julio Teheran had the kind of rookie campaign everyone had hoped for (and many naysayers had given up hope for), Alex Wood delivered on his promise (even if for just a short time - which was really all one could expect), and Paul Maholm was...well, Paul Maholm. The what-if crowd will say "yeah, but if Hudson hadn't gone down or Beachy would've made it back that would've made a huge difference", and I don't entirely disagree with them. While I've long trumpeted Huddy as an "Ace without being a true Ace" and Beachy showed so much promise before his injury, I have to agree that neither of them is that guy that scares other teams in a short series. To be completely honest, no one on the Braves current staff has the potential to develop into that kind of pitcher other than Teheran, and the next two with that kind of upside spent their 2013 seasons in Rome (Lucas Sims and Mauricio Cabrera). I can't escape the feeling that the pundits (as well as the competition) would've viewed last season's squad in an entirely different light if Minor and Medlen would have been Game 2 and Game 3 starters in the postseason.

So what to do? With a minimal number of question marks and no gaping holes to fill heading into the Hot Stove season, Frank Wren is at a crossroad - do you gamble and take one or two shots at winning a Championship by mortgaging a portion of the future or not? Given the current makeup of the rest of the roster and the financial situation, my answer would be "yes". Most of the early buzz from Atlanta fans is that they'd like to see him put together a package to try to land David Price (who the Rays are all but certain to move this winter). In a perfect world, I'd love to see that too. Any "Ace" is going to cost a substantially significant package to land, and Price is going to get the Rays the biggest return of all since he's got two years of control remaining. Finances aren't going to be an issue for once - the commitments to Mac, Hudson, and Maholm are over, and each MLB club will be gaining roughly an additional $28 million in revenues from the new national TV deal. The money is available to add a significant piece without spending a large chunk of the new revenue or gaining additional flexibility by moving Dan Uggla for a little salary relief. Price should receive around $14 million in arbitration, grew up a Braves fan, and is the obvious choice. I asked a couple of the Baseball America guys (Jim Callis and J. J. Cooper) about a potential package of Alex Wood, Christian Bethancourt, Lucas Sims, and Jose Peraza (4 of the Braves' Top 10 prospects) for Price, and both felt that wouldn't be enough for Tampa in their opinion. Their feeling was that Sims and Peraza are just too far away from contributing at the MLB level for them to pull the trigger. Even though I think that'd be one heck of a return, I tend to agree with them - Tampa's not looking to completely rebuild these days, they're trying to remain competitive in the tough AL East as well. Would substituting Teheran and Gattis for Wood and Bethancourt make enough difference to get Andrew Friedman to say yes? Maybe, but then you're left without a Catcher.

After thinking through the above offer, I backed away and wondered "if an offer like that won't get you David Price, who might it get?" The answer hit me like a ton of bricks. You want to target an Ace that is "expendable" (if there is such a thing). That Pitcher is Max Scherzer. The Tigers are a contender with a pretty weak farm system that already has an Ace and several significant financial commitments. They're already committed long-term to Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder, and Anibal Sanchez and are soon going to have to extend the best hitter that baseball has seen in generations in Miguel Cabrera. While Scherzer and Verlander are 1A and 1B, Sanchez is a legitimate #2 on any contender pitching as a #3. Would they be that much worse without Scherzer? On paper, maybe a little, but Wood or Teheran would more than hold their own if slotted into Detroit's rotation. However, they have very few impact arms in their system, none with the upside of Sims, and Bethancourt and Peraza would give them huge upgrades over anyone in their system at their positions as well. Offer Wood first, but be willing to substitute Teheran if that gets it done. Is it a gamble? Sure, but the money and talent to make it happen is available, AND you have the increased revenue coming for future seasons to utilize in trying to lock up Scherzer beyond next season. If I can't get Price, he's definitely my guy.

When Sid Slid's Proposed 2014 Braves Roster:

RF- Jason Heyward
LF- Justin Upton
1B- Freddie Freeman
C- Evan Gattis
3B- Chris Johnson
2B- Tommy La Stella
CF- B. J. Upton
SS- Andrelton Simmons

SP- Max Scherzer
SP- Mike Minor
SP- Kris Medlen
SP- Julio Teheran or Alex Wood
SP- Brandon Beachy

CL- Craig Kimbrell
SU- Luis Avilan
SU- Jordan Walden
RP- David Carpenter
RP- Jonny Venters
RP- David Hale
LR- Anthony Varvaro or Cristian Martinez

BENCH- Gerald Laird, Dan Uggla, Jordan Schafer, Elliot Johnson, Joey Terdoslavich

When reading between the lines of the statements the organization has made so far, I have to believe that Uggla will be moved if someone's willing to pay $6-8 million of what the Braves still owe him and that he HAS to produce, meaning that they'll consider 2B an open competition if he's still on the roster come February. La Stella's doing everything possible to make the brass feel confident that he's "ready" in the Arizona Fall League, but you also have Johnson and Tyler Pastornicky as fallback options. Johnson will be kept around until Ramiro Pena's ready to return. That buys even more time. Given the potential hole the Tigers could have at 2B with Omar Infante's pending departure, I'd even offer to extend the potential Scherzer deal to include Uggla and cover his salary IF they'd take Wood rather than Teheran. I've referenced MLBTR's salary projections in the construction of my Braves' salary spreadsheet, and the above roster would come in at right around $100 million in 2014 commitments even if the Braves pay Uggla's full salary, re-sign Schafer (projected $1 million), take a chance on bringing Venters back (projected $2.3 million) instead of cutting costs with a less-expensive arm and pay the $150,000 buy-out due Reed Johnson. If the Tigers would take Uggla and eat around $3-$4 million, you'd even have the option of offering contracts to both Venters and O'Flaherty - talk about a dominant bullpen if they were both healthy, wow!!! Terry McGuirk, John Schuerholz, and Frank Wren have all been consistent in their stance that they have the go-ahead from Liberty Media to expand payroll if needed, and that projected $100 million figure isn't even really a bump in salaries when you factor in the additional $28 million in TV revenue.

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