Well, the rebuild is happening.
This is going to sound weird, but I'll probably remember for quite some time where I was when I found out that the Atlanta Braves traded Jason Heyward. I had just gotten out of a class, was walking in a chilly, misting rain, and began to feel even colder after unlocking my phone and finding out that he had been shipped to Middle America.
After John Hart took the reins as the team's president of baseball operations, the prevailing winds surrounding the franchise began to shift. After Frank Wren tried to compete with a core group of players including the newly-departed Heyward, Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel, and Julio Teheran, the sentiment around the industry began to hint that Hart was willing and ready to disassemble the team's core in order to build for the future, specifically looking towards the opening of the team's new stadium in Cobb County in 2017.
The first domino in that chain of events fell today, as the Atlanta Braves traded their beloved right fielder, along with right-handed reliever Jordan Walden, who isn't too bad himself, to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for starting pitcher Shelby Miller and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins. It was a move that seemed plausible days ago, but it really happened today. As an unabashed fan of Jason Heyward, his immense potential and ability, as well as his demeanor and fervor with which he plays the game of baseball, my initial reaction was that of sadness and anger. I aim to analyze baseball without being influenced by fandom or personal feelings, but damn if it isn't difficult to write about this trade without my personal feelings coming into play. From a purely egocentric and reactionary standpoint, I hate this trade. I truly do.
We all know Jason Heyward's story. Heyward is a Georgia native, from Henry County, just south of Atlanta. He was taken by the team in the first round of the 2007 draft after a legendary prep career, and his ascension to fame and adoration was swift after he began playing professional baseball. Heyward tore through the Minor Leagues, dominating offensively as an eighteen-year-old at Rome in his first professional season. That continued the next year in Myrtle Beach and Mississippi, with Heyward putting up an absolutely mind-boggling .352/.446/.611 line as a nineteen-year-old in the Southern League for the M-Braves. He even reached triple-A for a brief time as a teenager at the end of the 2009 season.
After his staggeringly good 2009 season, Heyward was essentially a unanimous choice as baseball's top prospect. People anointed him as the game's next offensive great and a franchise player on whom the Braves would lead for years and years to come. His first Major League at bat, which came at the ripe age of twenty, did nothing to diminish those expectations.
It was a moment that I, as well as many other fans of the Braves and of baseball in general, will never forget. It almost seemed unfathomable that a player so young could be so good, and in retrospect, maybe it was an unrealistic expectation. Heyward's best offensive season by far was his rookie campaign, in which he put up a 134 wRC+, and he never broke 120 again. What he did do, however, was become excellent at nearly every other facet of the game of baseball (outside of staying healthy). Heyward is an elite defender, baserunner, and does an excellent job of getting on base. His power and average haven't quite lived up to the hype that was bestowed upon him, but make no mistake, he is an excellent and valuable baseball player. The Cardinals got a good one; that much is undeniable.
I would also be remiss not to mention that the Cardinals got themselves a capable reliever as well. Jordan Walden, who was acquired by the Braves before the 2013 season from the Angels in exchange for Tommy Hanson, posted a 2.80 FIP in his two years as a Brave, and manages to be effective by striking out tons of hitters despite occasional struggles with repeating his delivery and with command and control. He, like Heyward, is only under team control through the end of next season, but he will immediately help fortify St. Louis' bullpen. He's a legitimate back of the bullpen piece, and the Braves will miss him.
Here's where I might lose some of you: even though my heart tells me that I should loathe this deal with all of my being, it makes sense. It took me a while to come to this conclusion, and it's still difficult to type, but I completely understand why the Braves made this deal and how it could end up being beneficial in the long term and in the grand scheme of things. It isn't a comfortable or pleasant thing to admit, granted, but let's break it down.
Jason Heyward is only under contract for another season. After 2015 (assuming that St. Louis doesn't extend him beforehand), he'll be set to test the waters of free agency, and considering his age and level of production, he's probably going to make lots of money for a very long time. Would the Braves be able to afford what he'll likely cost, regardless of whether or not they traded him? I don't know, but it seems somewhat unlikely. It's easy to blame John Hart for the current state of affairs as it pertains to Heyward, but the reportedly scant offer that was handed to Heyward by former GM Frank Wren last season may be more to blame than anything that Hart could've done.
In addition, Jordan Walden is under contract for another pair of arbitration years and will become a free agent after the 2016 season. Will the Braves be competitive in 2015? What about 2016? With other moves seemingly on the horizon and the team looking to be building more for the future than the present, it seems more likely than not that the next couple of seasons will be of transition and rebuilding. The Braves' current core, even without Heyward, could be good enough to sneak into the playoffs in 2015, in my opinion, but I wouldn't bet on all of the team's most important pieces still being in Atlanta by the time Opening Day rolls around. The Braves have seemingly chosen to embrace the rebuild and cut their losses, and I'm okay with this.
Not trading Heyward, if we're being realistic, probably would've left the Braves with a year's worth of production in 2015 and a supplemental draft pick in 2016. Instead, the Braves chose to let him go, along with two years' worth of Jordan Walden, in exchange for a pair of young pitchers in Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins.
Shelby Miller, much like Jason Heyward, was selected in the first round of the 2009 draft out of Brownwood High School in Texas. After a brief cup of coffee in the Majors at the end of the 2012 season, Miller established himself as a member of the Cardinals' rotation in 2013, posting great numbers for a 22-year-old, first-year starter. His final ERA of 3.06 was a bit rosier than his 3.61 SIERA and his 3.67 FIP, but Miller struck out nearly a quarter of hitters and kept his walk rate reasonable. It looked as if he'd be a mainstay in St. Louis' rotation for years to come.
However, 2014 was a challenge for Miller. He experienced a precipitous dip in his strikeout rate and a rise in his walk rate, ending up with an ugly FIP of 4.54 and an even uglier SIERA of 4.60. Miller struggled with control and fought mechanical issues, but turned things around down the stretch. Fangraphs' Eno Sarris went further into detail about the changes that Miller made, which are largely concentrated in his fastball command. Here's the thing: I firmly believe that Miller is much, much closer to the 2013 iteration of himself than the previous season's. He's mostly a two-pitch pitcher who throws his 93.5 mph fastball and a good curveball about 90% of the time, occasionally sprinkling in a decent cutter and changeup. He'll also be under the Braves' control through the 2018 season, and will be arbitration-eligible for the first time in 2016. He's likely be a cheap, good, young starter for the next few seasons. He fills an immediate hole in the team's rotation, and he'll likely become one of the team's mainstays at the front of the rotation along with Julio Teheran and Alex Wood.
The final piece acquired by Atlanta in this deal is a starting pitching prospect named Tyrell Jenkins. Jenkins, like Miller, is a native Texan, and was selected with the fiftieth pick in the 2010 MLB Draft. Prospects are never sure things, and there's lots of risk involved with Jenkins, including a shoulder surgery took around the second half and much of the first half of his 2013 and 2014 seasons, respectively. Jenkins has always had tantalizing stuff, including a mid-90s fastball and a tantalizing slider, and a prototypical starting pitcher's body at 6'4". He also possesses undeniable athleticism, as he turned down a football scholarship at Baylor University to ink with St. Louis. Here's some video of Jenkins in action against Cubs prospect Addison Russell last month in the Arizona Fall League:
It's clear that Jenkins has electric stuff, but will he be able to develop his changeup, stay healthy, and start in the future? That's the million dollar question. Nevertheless, he's an exciting piece to add to the farm system, and will be cheap and under the Braves' control for years to come.
With all of this being said, I understand why this trade was made, feelings aside. It sounds cold and calculated, but John Hart did what he felt was right and sent a year of Jason Heyward and a couple of years of Jordan Walden to the Cardinals in exchange for four years of Shelby Miller and six years of Tyrell Jenkins.
I'll miss Jason, no doubt, and losing a couple of years of Walden isn't an easy pill to swallow either. This move likely signifies a bigger rebuild coming, and that won't easy thing for Braves fans to accept either.
At the end of the day, however, the Braves got back a high-upside prospect and a Major League-ready starter. My heart hates this deal, but my brain totally understands why it happened. I'll be sad to see Jason Heyward wearing a Cardinals uniform next year, but Miller and Jenkins mean hope for the future at the expense of two players who would've contributed in the short term.
So it goes.