I'll be honest, anytime I see the Braves show up in the transaction column, my ears perk up. This off-season has been pretty incredible for someone like me that loves all the trades and player movement. Atlanta has bolstered their farm system considerably; taking it from a bottom of the barrell system to a borderline top 10 farm (12th by John's account). By ditching the established veterans in favor of a few handfuls of prospects, the Braves signaled to the world this would be a rebuild year essentially. That's what makes this move as interesting as it is.
The Braves dipped their toes back into the trade waters and acquired right handed pitcher Trevor Cahill along with $6.5M in exchange for minor league left fielder Josh Elander. Let's take a closer look at Elander, a 6th round selection in the 2012 draft out of Texas Christian University.
Photo courtesy of Matt Bell/Lynchburg Hillcats
Drafted as a catcher in the 6th round, the 6'1, 220 pound right handed hitter and thrower barely spent any time behind the dish before Atlanta shifted him to left field to accelerate his timetable. Originally drafted in the 37th round of the 2009 draft by the Nationals out of Round Rock High in Texas, Elander chose to go to college at TCU instead. It's hard to debate the results as he went 31 rounds sooner by waiting to re-enter the draft after his Junior season. After signing for a $166,700 bonus, he made his professional debut with advanced rookie level Danville in the Appalachian League. He hit .260/.366/.439 over 145 plate appearances with six doubles, a pair of triples and four home runs. He struck out 19 times (13.1%) while drawing 16 walks (11%) and even stealing three bags. The advanced metrics supported his surface stats with a 126 wRC+ and .369 wOBA to go with a neutral .277 BABIP. A look at his batted ball profile that year shows a 51.4% ground ball rate, 5.7 points higher than league average, with a 12.4% line drive rate and 21.9% outfield fly rate. It's worth remembering that the accuracy of batted ball data in the low minors isn't the best, but it's what we have to work with and better than nothing. In his only season behind the plate, Elander caught 29% of potential base thieves while allowing four passed balls and making four errors in 22 games.
Looking at the pundits now, Elander was ranked as high as 12th by the boys at FanGraphs (FG), and John tabbed him with the #19 ranking following the 2013 season. Baseball America (BA) also had him ranked 19th, but he was left unranked in three of the four other major publications. Baseball Prospectus (BP), and Keith Law's Top 10 lists, and MLB.com's Top 20 list ,
It looked like Elander was making a name for himself after his 2013 campaign which was split between Low A Rome and A+ Lynchburg. During his age 22 season, he demolished South Atlantic League pitching with an impressive .318/.381/.536 triple slash to go with 22 doubles, 11 home runs, three triples, and 61 ribeye steaks in just 74 games and 310 PA's. He also stole another six bases with 29 walks (9.4%) and 61 strike outs (19.7%) while posting a 160 wRC+ and .414 wOBA. Elander was also aided by the BABIP gods with his average on balls in play settling in at .373 before his promotion to Lynchburg. His batted ball profile improved as well with a significant jump in outfield flies (26.8%) and a small jump in line drive rate to 14.1%. This all came at the expense of his ground ball rate dropping 3.7 points and a minor red flag showing up with an 8.6% infield fly rate. He only committed one error in left during his first crack at the position and even had four assists, showing off the arm of a former catcher.
In late June the organization promoted Elander to their high A affiliate in Lynchburg to finish out the year. Over the course of 252 more trips to the plate, he hit .262/.345/.371 as his BABIP came back down to Earth and the extra base knocks started finding leather rather than turf. He still hit 12 doubles and four home runs, but his isolated power was cut exactly in half from .218 in Rome to .109 in Lynchburg, The plate discipline was still there with 26 walks (10.3%) to 28 strike outs (19%), and he was still seen as a slightly above average hitter with a 103 wRC+ and .337 wOBA. His BABIP dropped 57 points but was still a healthy .316 mark. His line drive rate stayed similar to what he showed in Rome, but his ground ball rate dropped again to 44.6% while his outfield fly rate jumped to over 30%. He also kept popping balls up on the infield, this time at a 9.1% clip. Defensively, he made another error and gunned down three more runners on the basepaths in his 51 games in left field. At the end of the season, he had posted a composite .293/.365/.463 line with 34 doubles, 15 bombs, and three triples while stealing nine bases and drawing 55 walks (9.8%) to 109 punch outs (19.4%). This was good for a 135 wRC+ and .379 wOBA with a .347 BABIP.
His performance led John to bump him up seven slots in the rankings to #12 in the Braves system. Out of the major pundits, John was equally as high on him as FanGraphs, but I had him slotted even higher - inside the Top 10 with the #9 ranking. Once again though, BP, and Keith Law left him out of the Top 10 and MLB.com kept him off their Top 20, but BA jumped him up to #13 in the system.
There were some high expectations put on Elander after his excellent first full season. Like with so many others though, he had his 2014 season de-railed by a left shoulder (non-throwing) injury early in the season that he attempted to play through. I don't know if you have ever personally tried to swing a bat with a bum shoulder, but I have in my day. It is incredibly difficult to even swing normally, let alone with any sort of pop behind it. The follow through is cut short or altered, and will seriously effect the results. This was true for Elander as he only hit .216/.336/.295 through May 5th before he was finally placed on the disabled list to let it heal. He came back 15 days later, but only played 13 more games before missing the rest of the year. It was a miserable year for the native Texan, stepping to the plate only 163 times over 37 games at A+ Lynchburg again. He hit .219/.319/.328 for the year with nine doubles, two home runs, and six stolen bases to go with 20 walks (12.3%) and 32 punch outs (19.6%). His average on balls in play was an unlucky .262 while also posting an 89 wRC+ and .305 wOBA. Though the season as a whole was pretty much a wash, the silver lining here is he maintained his plate discipline despite the shoulder problems, and even showed a little more speed than before. His batted ball profile shows some issues as well with a career low line drive rate of 10.1%, over 5 points below Carolina League average. Both his ground ball and outfield fly rates spiked in the wrong directions compared to his first run through the league as well. In his brief time spent in left field, he committed one error with three assists in just 32 games.
Lauded for his compact swing and quick hands to go with good power to his pull side, Atlanta thought they had found a potential middle of the order hitter. Injuries have prevented him from showing off his stroke the last calendar year though. He's an average runner with a solid idea of the zone, but is susceptible to righties with good breaking stuff. His arm is good enough for either corner spot, and he was doing well improving his routes before the injury.
In the April 3rd edition of the Minor League Ball Gameday, John offered his thoughts on the deal, saying " He [Elander] was a pretty interesting prospect a couple of years ago but at age 24 and with no success above Low-A his value was fairly low." Looking at the deal from Arizona's perspective, they took a flyer on a guy with some offensive potential but was sidelined by non-chronic injuries. Obviously there's no telling what offers they fielded for Cahill, but knowing they kicked in over half of Cahill's salary to facilitate the deal should tell you about Cahill's trade value and how willing Arizona was to move him.
I like the deal for Atlanta, namely because of Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell. He excels in teaching the sinker, Cahill's former money pitch, and you also have to remember he is no longer pitching in Chase Field, a notorious hitters venue. Elander could be a good late bloomer, but right now there's no telling until he gets some AB's under his belt this year to prove he's over the shoulder injury.