A month after swapping beloved shortstop/potential warlock Andrelton Simmons for two pitching prospects, the Braves pulled the trigger on sending 25-year-old Shelby Miller to Arizona for a bounty headlined by last years' first overall pick Dansby Swanson. Also included in the deal are MLB-ready starter Aaron Blair and speedy 3-WAR outfielder Ender Inciarte. Following this trade and June's purchase of Snakes' farmhand Touki Toussaint, the Braves have acquired three out of four of Arizona's recent highest draft picks. The way things are going in the desert, Braden Shipley may want to begin exploring housing options around Atlanta.
While I will be sure to leave ample space in this column to really "give Dave Stewart the business" for what looks like a drastic overpay, let's first take a look at the young players heading Atlanta's way and how they fit into an impressive rebuild being orchestrated by new Braves' GM John Coppolella and the brain trust of John Hart, John Schuerholz, and Bobby Cox.
Last years top overall pick, Swanson is as "can't miss" as a prospect can get. While the former Vanderbilt product doesn't have the jaw-dropping tools of a Carlos Correa in the batters' box - or an Andrelton Simmons ranging to his right in the hole - Swanson's hallmark is a line-drive swing and above average tools in all areas of his game. After being limited to just 22 games in the short-season Northwest League due to injury, the shortstop showed enough to rank as the #10 prospect on MLB.com's latest big board.
Though Swanson put himself on the map in 2014 as the Most Outstanding Player for Vanderbilt's first ever national title team, it was his junior season in 2015 that solidified his status as a top five pick. Not only did Swanson increase his HR total from 3 to 15 against highly competitive SEC pitching, he made the move from 2B to shortstop for the Commodores despite not playing there since high school. Lieutenant Dans showed enough range and arm strength at the position to have most thinking he can stay there long-term.
Swanson's skills at the plate ensure he'll have a spot in Atlanta's future even if he eventually has to make way for the Braves' other shortstop starlet, Ozzie Albies. He relies on elite hand-eye coordination to spray balls to all fields, and despite a lack of raw power he could easily end up with double-digit home run totals annually on account of his ability to make hard contact consistently.
Swanson has also shown an advanced batting eye, compiling a 103:80 K/BB ratio over his two seasons as a starter at Vandy. He showed the same approach in his (admittedly small) pro debut with the Hillsboro Hops last summer, with a K/BB of 14:14 in 99 plate appearances. Factor in Swanson's plus speed and baserunning acumen, and we appear to have a number 2 hitter that was created in a laboratory.
For all his tangible, physical tools, it seems to be Swanson's leadership and makeup that have scouts salivating over his potential. While I do not intend to incite an editorial kerfuffle over the numerical value of 'grit' and determination, it's often these traits that turn good players into great ones, and all-stars into faces of the franchise. Born and raised in the same hometown as our managing editor Nick Melotte (Kennesaw, Georgia), Swanson will return home this spring to play for his boyhood team. While it's a tall order to anoint a 21-year old as your future face of the franchise, it seems Atlanta's brass has done their homework and settled on an eventual leader for this wave of high-end talent they've accrued. Swanson should be a fixture near the top of Atlanta's lineup for the next decade, and his development will go a long way in determining how soon the Braves can restore their NL East glory.
Arizona popped Blair 36th overall in the compensation round of the 2013 draft. The 6'5" right hander out of Marshall University is seen as a safe bet to reach his ceiling as a durable no. 3 starter on the strength of his 230-pound frame, solid-average control, and three pitches with plus potential.
Blair comes from a clean three-quarters delivery that jumps on hitters quickly and gives late life to his low 90's fastball, which he's able to run up to 95 mph when he needs it. Blair's most consistent secondary pitch is likely his low 80's changeup, a weapon he's had since being drafted. He's learned to induce weak contact with it - a necessary skill he's employed while pitching in the launchpads of the Pacific Coast and California Leagues. The big righty also mixes in a mid 70's curve that he's made great strides with during his pro career, and with more reps it could be a bat-missing offering in the show. Blair's slider has lagged behind his other stuff in both usage and effectiveness, but work with a new coaching staff in Atlanta may unlock some of its potential. If so, this would give him a fourth weapon in his arsenal, all thrown at different velocities and at a challenging launch angle for hitters.
Blair is knocking on the door of a call to the big leagues thanks to strong showings at every minor league stop he's made. Despite a dip in strikeout rate in 2015 against the highest levels of the minors, he held strong at the hitters' havens of the Pacific Coast League and pitched to a 7-2 record and 3.16 ERA in the second half for Reno. After placing at #48 on Minor League Ball's midseason prospect re-rank, Blair's stock could be surging following his impressive PCL performance and move to a more pitcher-friendly environment in Atlanta.
With a quality four-pitch mix, workhorse-type body, and bulldog mentality on the mound, Blair checks all the boxes of a mid-rotation starter. Considering the steep price that teams in the present day are willing to pay for league-average arms, it's somewhat surprising to see Blair, so close to contributing to an MLB staff, as a complimentary piece in this deal. It's fair to wonder if in Dave Stewart's attempt to augment the Greinke signing with another high upside arm, what he was looking for may have been right under his nose in Aaron Blair.
While the two highly-regarded prospects heading to Atlanta will get most of the publicity, Inciarte is a nice 'get' as a tertiary piece in this deal who is already MLB ready. Signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2008, Inciarte was known as a speedy, glove-only outfielder until he slashed .307/.376/.421 across two A-ball stops in 2012, raising his batting average 50 points and his OPS 130 points from the previous season.
In May of 2014, the D'Backs recalled Inciarte to take the place of a struggling Tony Campana, and the Venezuelan made the most of his opportunity. He has shown dynamic ability as a defender, using elite speed and a strong arm to effectively man all three outfield spots. Inciarte passes the eye test in the field and is also a favorite of various defensive metrics, with the 4th-highest UZR among all outfielders in the past two seasons per FanGraphs.
At 25, Ender is young enough to be a part of the next competitive Braves team, and he'll take over right away in center field while fellow speedster Mallex Smith marinates a little longer in the upper levels of the minors. Speed and defense will remain Inciarte's calling cards, but continued improvement with the bat could entail a long career as an above-average regular. At the very least, Atlanta has acquired the strong half of an outfield platoon or a highly valuable bench piece that's under team control for five more seasons.
Hot Take Corner - the Dave Stewart Edition
Diamondbacks' GM Dave Stewart caught some flak this past summer for insinuating - no, outright declaring - that a prospects' draft-slot signing bonus is *directly equal* to that players' value on the open market.
This philosophy brings to mind the draft strategies outlined in Kevin Kerrane's classic work on baseball scouting, Dollar Sign on the Muscle. Kerrane goes as deep as anyone ever has in the scouting world, following and interviewing Phillies' scouts for a whole year. The title is a reference to the way the Phils approached their draft evaluations at that time: every prospect on their board would be indexed along with a dollar amount, which signified the signing bonus the team would be willing to offer that player if drafted.
The issue with following these guidelines in the present day, is that Dollar Sign was published in 1984. The rules of the MLB draft and the introduction of slot values and draft pools have dramatically changed the draft landscape in the past 30 years.
Stewart talked the talk in June, and now he's walked it in December by giving up three quality pieces - and 17 years of combined team control - for three years of Shelby Miller, two of which may see Miller earn a substantial paycheck through arbitration, and a throw in bullpen arm in Gabe Speier.
I don't have a problem with the Snakes upgrading a putrid pitching staff - stealing Zack Greinke away from the Dodgers was a stealthy sneak attack that's left their rivals scrambling for trade help and perhaps shifted the balance of divisional power away from LA and San Francisco and into the desert.The beef I have with Dave Stewart's latest transaction though, is the sheer opportunity cost of forking over a trio of quality young players for your ideal trade target, when a complimentary free agent signing (John Lackey, Mike Leake, Kenta Maeda, Hisashi Iwakuma, etc.) would have done the trick and approximated Millers' value without having to give up the young talent.
Arizona was able to land Greinke on the strength of a new TV deal worth a reported $1.5 billion. It's a shame they couldn't dig just a bit deeper, as the amount of money the team is rolling in points to payroll funds being somewhat of a replenishable resource. Something tells me that when one or all of Nick Ahmed, Yasmany Tomas, or Rubby De La Rosa begin to struggle this summer, Stewart and the Snakes will realize that 'trading the farm for an arm' is a suckers bet.