The Braves became the 'Team of the 90's' in part because of a brilliant run of scouting, drafting, and developing pitchers under the guidance of manager Bobby Cox and longtime-GM John Schuerholz.
20-plus years later, in whatever we're calling this decade, Atlanta GM John Coppolella and President of Baseball Ops John Hart appear to be taking a page out of the old 'Braves Way' playbook. Since Hart was installed at his post at the end of the 2014 season, the duo has spearheaded a Preller-ian 17 trades in just one calendar year - with 14 of those deals seeing a pitcher coming back to Atlanta. On Wednesday, the pair kicked off the Hot Stove Party by swapping shortstop Andrelton Simmons to the Angels for LHP Sean Newcomb, RHP Chris Ellis, and IF Erick Aybar.
In another blast from the past, Braves' brass has sneakily snagged Angels' top prospect and Massachusetts native Sean Newcomb - one day after media reports indicated Atlanta was deep in talks to deal Simmons to an NL West team.
30 years ago, the team engaged in similar gamesmanship while scouting (and later drafting) another lefty from the Northeast. According to former Atlanta scout Tony DeMacio from the book Scout's Honor: "I was an outsider. I was not a New Englander. I was not trying to show my hand." DeMacio kept it quiet enough to see the Braves pop Massachusetts high-schooler Tom Glavine in the 2nd round of the '84 draft.
Let's take a look at the two newest additions to the Atlanta farm system, Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis, and how they may fit into the teams' impressive stable of young arms.
If team prez John Hart were still working on the MLB Network set, his take on Sean Newcomb would likely include one of his signature phrases - "he's what they look like." Listed at 6'5" and 245 pounds, 'Newk' was drafted 15th overall by the Angels in the 2014 draft out of the University of Hartford, the schools' highest draftee in history and its' most notable since Jeff Bagwell. (1989, 4th round, Boston)
Newcomb boasts an imposing fastball to match his frame, using a 90-94 version that he can cut or sink and a straighter version that he can run up to 97 when he needs it. His three-quarter release features extremely easy arm action, but minorleagueball's Wilson Karaman scouted Newcomb's first CAL league start and came away thinking that inconsistencies with the lower half during his delivery causes his control to be spotty at times. Wilson waxes so poetic on the young lefty's arsenal that I thought I was reading a Carl Sandburg joint; for anyone wanting an inside look at Newcomb's stuff and approach, his piece from back in May is recommended reading.
The hulking southpaw has also flashed the goods with three quality secondary offerings that all have plus potential. His mid-80s changeup stands out with generous armside drop that he uses both as a 'show-me' pitch and as a way to induce weak contact. He works an 11-5 curve in the high 70s that he can either spot for strikes or bury for strikeouts. The continued development of Newcomb's low-to-mid 80s slider might be most crucial to his success as he graduates to the upper levels of the minors. The pitch has late, two-plane break especially when thrown at peak velocity, with the key being that it's his one secondary offering that projects to have bat-missing ability to hitters of either side.
While it feels wrong to nitpick an athletic 6'5" lefty with a four-pitch mix that runs up an easy 97, the main knock on Newcomb one year into his pro career has been his control. According to Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs, Newcomb had the eight-highest walk rate (5.0 BB/9) among all pitchers in the minors last year who threw more than 100 innings. Of course, in a season where he went 9-3, 2.38 with an 11.1 K/9 across three stops, it speaks to how good his stuff was to end up with those numbers despite issuing so many free passes.
Industry consensus tends to be on the safe side when projecting prospects in general, with the term 'mid-rotation starter' being bandied about as an eventual outcome for Newcomb. But Atlanta didn't trade their all-world defensive shortstop for a no. 3 starter. What Braves' brass sees is a workhorse body, a blazing heater, and quality secondary stuff - a future ace. It will be on their development staff to put the final touches on his growth and put him on a path to refining his delivery and his command.
One thing is clear: the Braves are going all-in on a high-variance rebuilding approach that's seen them place big bets on raw, (in some cases) cold-weather pitchers with big arms and hoping that proper tutelage will help realize their potential. It's a plan that worked well for the club the first time around, when Bobby Cox acquired Tom Glavine (Mass.), Pete Smith (Mass.), John Smoltz (Michigan), and Steve Avery (Michigan) in a five-year span in the late 80s, helping lead them to an unprecedented run in the NL East. Atlanta fans probably shouldn't pencil in 14 straight division titles just yet, but there's a familiar plan brewing here, one that should see the Braves closing in on the rival Mets for having the best young pitching in the game.
Drafted two rounds after Sean Newcomb in the '14 draft, Chris Ellis is more than just an afterthought in this trade. Commonly ranked as the no. 2 prospect in the admittedly-bereft Angels system, Ellis has a very similar skillset to Newcomb, his new Atlanta teammate. The 6'4" righty doesn't have the same juice on his fastball, usually sitting in the low-90s with the ability to hit 95, but he moves it effectively to both sides of the plate.
Ellis has shown ample secondary stuff, led by a changeup that he shows impressive command of. While the curveball has been inconsistent throughout his first 30+ games in the minor leagues, it's a pitch that has bat-missing potential at the MLB level if he can harnass the break on it.
Like his left-handed counterpart, Ellis' glaring weakness early in his pro career has been control. In Sullivan's report on the deal, he notes that Ellis had the 47th-highest walk rate in the minors out of 578 qualified pitchers. However, consider that the former Ole Miss righthander was a reliever for nearly all of his college career. It's impressive that he was able to take the ball 26 times in his first year as a starter, including a stop at the hitters' haven of the Cali League and the all-important jump to AA ball.
Ellis should fare better in his second turn through AA, assuming the Braves start him out at Mississippi. If he can clean up his delivery and limit the walks, Ellis could be an effective back-end arm on any pitching staff. If not, the worst-case scenario is he returns to the 'pen and provides Atlanta with value there.
Hot Take Corner - Who wins the trade?
This trade surprised me from the Angels' perspective. You can understand the Halos' desire to beef up the big club and take as many shots as they can with Albert Pujols around and Mike Trout in his prime. You can also understand them targeting Andrelton Simmons, a transcendent defensive player that, while heavily compensated in future years of his contract, instantly improves the outlook of the entire pitching staff.
What didn't add up was the timing of the trade. Wouldn't new Angels GM Billy Eppler have been better off waiting to see what the team could wrangle in through free agency before offering up his two biggest chips?
This is bold, and out there, even for a Hot Take: I wonder if the Angels *tried* to take their time in consummating this deal with Atlanta, only to see Braves' brass slyly escalate things by beginning talks with 'an NL West' team, knowing that information would make the rounds and push the Halos to move forward with a deal.
Conspiracy theories aside, this looks like an impressive haul for the Braves. Newcomb is one of the games' brightest pitching prospects and while I knew nothing about Chris Ellis before today, it's now clear that he's yet another big-bodied, athletic pitcher that has a future on a major league staff. In today's market, the price for a mid-rotation starter has surged past $10 million a season, suggesting that Atlanta's young and inexpensive arms will leave them with loads of payroll flexibility as they move into their new ballpark in 2017.