Atlanta Braves GM John Coppolella went 61 days without making a trade before swinging a deal with the Seattle Mariners to net 2014 first-round pick Alex Jackson for pitching prospects Rob Whalen and Max Povse. Just three days later, Coppolella would swing LHP Jaime Garcia from the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for pitchers Chris Ellis and John Gant, and 2B Luke Dykstra. Two trades in three days? He was just making up for some lost time.
The Braves rotation was better than expected last year, but that’s not saying much considering how bleak it looked before the season started. The Braves addressed this unit early in the offseason when they signed R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon for a total of $21M in 2017 (Dickey has a $8.5M option for 2018). Coupling the veterans with Julio Teheran left the Braves with two, open rotation spots, which would likely have been filled by Mike Foltynewicz, Aaron Blair, Matt Wisler, Tyrell Jenkins, Gant or Whalen before the trades in late-November to early-December. All six pitchers fighting for the last two spots and all three that were allotted spots for the 2017 season had one thing in common: they are all right-handed.
In walks Garcia. The guy who has made 147 MLB starts and owns a career 3.56 FIP (3.57 ERA for those who prefer that stat) and 62 wins under his belt. Oh, and he’s a lefty. Pretty good, right? Well, the 2016 numbers left much to be desired for Garcia who was 10-13 with a 4.49 FIP (4.67 ERA). Oh, and did I mention that he lost his job in the starting rotation? Or did I mention that 2016 was his first healthy season since 2011? Did I also mention that his $12M contract expires this year, so he would be considered a rental?
So many red flags for a guy who is on a team that is rebuilding. So why make the trade?
Fear not, Braves fans, for I have the answer.
The Braves feel that they are on the cusp of competing in 2017. They feel that it could go either way. You won’t hear them publicly say it, but that’s what’s going on. That’s why they’ve upgraded the starting pitching with guys whose contracts are set to expire in 2017. They didn’t go for a guy like Jeremy Hellickson, Jason Hammel or Rich Hill, who would have undoubtedly asked for multi-year deals and more money. They wouldn’t even sign Edinson Volquez, who just signed for two years with the Miami Marlins because they didn’t want to be tied down that long. Garcia fits this mold. If the Braves compete, they look like they knew they were going to the whole time and come off as geniuses. If they don’t, they trade these guys midseason (and there is never a shortage of teams looking for starting pitching midseason) and they still look like geniuses. It’s a win-win. No one is going to question why they didn’t go to the playoffs if they don’t go, and many will credit the front office for knowing something the rest of baseball didn’t should they go to the playoffs.
Coppy, you are one sly baseball man.
At least we’ve made sense of why they would acquire a guy who’s contract is set to expire, but why Garcia? And why would you trade some mid-level prospects for a guy who lost his job just a few months ago? Well baseball fans, that’s the price of starting pitching these days. Take a look at this piece by Ken Rosenthal, who said teams better be ready to pay a king’s ransom to land starting pitcher Chris Sale from the Chicago White Sox. Yeah, that’s a lot for a guy who is only going to the mound every five days. The Braves have an abundance of starting pitching, and Ellis and Gant were buried behind guys who have higher potential. The Braves might have overspent, but, if they did, it wasn’t by a lot.
The Braves are gambling that they are going to get a healthy version of the guy who pitched from 2010 to 215. That guy had a 3.26 FIP (3.25 ERA) and gave his team a chance to win. Unfortunately, he only pitched 708 innings during that time frame, which averages to 118 innings pitched per season.
The good news is that all of Garcia’s shoulder problems seem to be a thing of the past. Garcia has had Tommy John Surgery (The John Hart Special!) and numerous surgeries on his shoulders in the past, but when he had surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome it appeared to have a lasting effect for the good. Garcia was healthy for 20 starts in 2015 and for the entire 2016 season, which is the second-longest stint of being healthy in his career (2010-2012). Also, good news, did we mention the last lefty to start a game for the Braves was Manny Banuelos on September 6th, 2015?
Garcia also saw a career-best in fastball velocity last year (90.5 mph) and a K/9 ratio (7.9) but gave a career-worst 1.4 HR/9. That’s a big reason why he struggled. If he keeps the ball in the park, he’s going to be a bargain at what the Braves acquired him for.
The Braves are taking a risk that Garcia is healthy and that he’s going to pitch well in a contract season. The way they see it, he pitches well and that leads to the team’s success in 2016 or prospects for the future, or he doesn’t and they don’t have to worry about him in 2017. Either way, it’s a risk they needed to make to give the illusion that competing in 2017 was always the plan, even if it isn’t.
Also, this a cool picture, but it’s done all wrong. Someone fix it, so it, please. He looks like an octopus.