After speculation that permeated the first couple of months of the off-season for the Braves, John Hart and the front office shipped away left fielder Justin Upton and starting pitching prospect Aaron Northcraft to the San Diego Padres. The Padres, under the guidance of former Rangers executive and new general manager A.J. Preller, moved four prospects and an international bonus pool slot in exchange for Upton in an attempt to bolster their anemic offense.
This piece isn't meant to be persuasive. I believe that both the Braves and the Padres got fair returns for what they gave up. It looked unlikely that the Braves would compete in 2015 even before the news of this trade broke on Friday morning, but this deal further moves the needle towards a down season. The Braves gave up one of the premier right-handed bats in the Majors and a fringy starting pitching prospect in exchange for four prospects, including a former top-10 pick. Only one of those prospects, infielder Jace Peterson, who got a taste of the Majors with San Diego in 2014, is likely to have any sort of impact on the Braves' big club next season. Let's dive in and take a look at the four prospects that the Braves will add to their organization.
Max Fried, LHP
2013 (low-A Fort Wayne): 118.2 IP, 6-7, 3.49 ERA (4.04 FIP), 100 SO, 56 BB
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Fried, who will turn 21 next month, was the number seven overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft out of the Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles. His 2013 statistics are listed above because he only pitched 5.2 innings in the minors this past season. Fried was mostly shut down this year due to what was initially diagnosed as forearm trouble, but he eventually underwent Tommy John surgery in August. Fried may not be ready to toe the rubber in a game situation until 2016, but he could see a cameo near the end of next season, or possibly in the Arizona Fall League next fall.
Fried is a tall and lanky lefty who, optimistically, has the potential to have three plus pitches as a finished product. He's 6'4", but is only listed at 185 pounds. It seems that he could still be able to put some more weight and strength on his frame, which would help him retain his stuff through longer outings and the grind of a long season, and possibly allow him to add a bit of velocity.
Before his injury, Fried's repertoire included a low-to-mid 90's fastball, two distinct curveballs, one thrown in the upper 70's with sharp break and another, slower, curveball with more pronounced break, and a low 80's changeup. Fried primarily throws a two-seam fastball with some arm-side run that mostly works in the low 90's. He'll also mix in a slightly harder four-seam fastball that's primarily used as a chase pitch. One of the knocks on Fried is that he needs to improve his fastball command, which isn't necessarily surprising considering how young he is. His curveball probably has the most potential of all of his pitches, with sharp bite and the aforementioned distinct varieties of the pitch. The harder curve is the one that he throws more often, and is his biggest strikeout weapon. Again, Fried doesn't have great command of the pitch, but it could be a weapon at the highest level. Finally, Fried's changeup is the source of some debate, with some calling it a pitch with only average potential, but others suggesting that it could be another plus, whiff-inducing pitch. He'll need to improve his consistency with the pitch and work on throwing it for strikes (this shouldn't be surprising, as nearly every young starter has the same struggles with his changeup), but it does have a 10+ mph variance from his fastball, and he throws it with good arm speed and it has fading action.
Fried is a bit of an enigma due to his UCL reconstruction surgery. Although the rate of successful Tommy John operations is quite high, the Braves are taking a bit of a risk here. Fried's stuff could return to his pre-injury level, but even so, he's going to lose nearly another full year of development in 2015 after a 2014 which was also essentially a lost year. Fried clearly has potential; he was ranked in the top 60 of Baseball Prospectus' and Baseball America's pre-season prospect rankings this season. He could end up as a #2 or #3 starter in the Majors, assuming he's able to regain the stuff he had before his elbow injury, but there is considerable risk here. He's young, hasn't pitched above low-A ball, and has a long road to recovery from his UCL reconstruction. It's a risk, but a calculated one for which the Braves could be rewarded big-time, ultimately.
Jace Peterson, INF
2014 MLB (Padres): 58 PA, .113/.161/.113, 0 HR, 18 K, 2 BB, 2 SB
2014 AAA (El Paso): 299 PA, .306/.406/.464, 2 HR, 50 K, 42 BB, 12 SB
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Peterson, the only player received by Atlanta in the deal who has recorded a Major League appearance, will turn 25 next May and was selected in the supplemental first round of the 2011 amateur draft out of McNeese State University in Louisiana. He's a left-handed hitting infielder and a native of Lake Charles, Louisiana. Peterson was a two-sport athlete for the Cowboys, also playing cornerback on the school's football team.
Although Peterson ascended through the Minor Leagues as a shortstop, primarily, his best fit as a Major Leaguer defensively is at second base. He's also able to handle third base, although he doesn't have a great arm, but his relative lack of range limits his ability to play short. Peterson isn't a standout defensive player, but he won't kill you either. He's probably an average, or slightly better, second baseman, and a fringe-average third baseman.
A name that's been thrown around quite a bit as a comparison for Peterson offensively is former Brave Tommy La Stella. Peterson has virtually no over-the-fence power to speak of, but does have the ability to produce some gappers. He has a short, quick, compact swing, like La Stella, and has more than adequate plate coverage and the ability to make contact. He's also been quite adept at drawing walks throughout his stops in the minors, and appears to be a good judge of the strike zone. Peterson probably won't be a valuable offensive player, but his ability to reach base and his contact skills should at least give him a fighting chance to be competitive against big league pitchers.
Peterson is going to be in competition for a job in camp next spring. He's 24 and doesn't have much more left to learn or prove in the minors, so I'd be surprised if he didn't make the 25-man roster out of Spring Training as a utility guy at the least. Interestingly, Peterson doesn't really have any platoon splits, and has actually hit lefties better throughout his Minor League career. If Chris Johnson were to be traded, I could see Peterson landing a starting job, probably at second base, with Alberto Callaspo shifting over to third, but as it stands right now, I think he'll be a utility infielder and a bench bat. Peterson's ultimate Major League role is most likely just that, a bench player with positional versatility, but if he hits better than expected and continues to draw walks, he could be a serviceable second baseman.
Mallex Smith, OF
2014 low-A (Fort Wayne): 303 PA, .295/.393/.394, 0 HR, 55 K, 38 BB, 48 SB
2014 high-A (Lake Elsinore): 261 PA, .327/.414/.475, 5 HR, 48 K, 31 BB, 40 SB
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Smith, a left-handed hitting outfielder, is an outfield prospect who brings a one very intriguing tool to the table: true 80-grade speed. Well, that and a really cool first name. He was a fifth-round draft pick out of Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Florida in 2012, and is a native of Tallahassee. Smith got tons of at-bats in 2014, starting the year in Fort Wayne, finishing it in Lake Elsinore, and also taking part in the Arizona Fall League, where he received attention due to his speed and defensive range in center field.
Smith doesn't have a great arm, but he should be able to handle center field in the Major Leagues. He certainly has the speed and range to do so, although he does need to fine-tune his routes and add some polish his overall defensive game. Put it this way--it's a lot better to have a guy with ridiculous range and good athleticism who needs some work shoring up the finer parts of being an outfielder than having a statue who's polished. He could be a defensive asset due to his speed, despite an underwhelming arm.
Smith's speed is easily the most impressive part of his game. He's an absolute burner who stole 88 bases combined between low and high-A, leading all Minor League players. Smith knows how to utilize his speed and has good baserunning instincts. He draws plenty of walks at the plate, drops down a healthy number of bunts, and racks up quite a few infield hits. He may be the speediest player and the best baserunner in the minors, point blank period.
The trouble is that Smith may never have the bat to make him more than a fourth outfielder at the Major League level. He's put up impressive Minor League hitting numbers, no doubt, but he's small and doesn't project to have much power. In addition to this, he has trouble putting the barrel to the ball, and strikes out more than you'd like to a player with his skill set to do. He's unlike Peterson in that he doesn't show the ability to make solid contact consistently, and falls into, for lack of a better term, slap-hitting habits which limit his overall projection at the plate.
While his hitting ability limits his overall potential, I think Mallex Smith is a good bet to reach the big leagues as a fourth outfielder. I'm not sold on the ability that he has the innate ability to make enough hard contact to be a viable Major League starter, but his speed and defensive potential are undeniable. He could be a game-changer on the base paths with the ability to play plus defense, which certainly has value in and of itself. He'll likely begin 2015 in double-A as a member of the Mississippi Braves.
Dustin Peterson, 3B
2014 (low-A Fort Wayne): 563 PA, .233/.274/.361, 10 HR, 137 K, 25 BB, 1 SB
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Dustin Peterson, who's the younger brother of Mariners prospect DJ Peterson, is what I'd call the "young, low-level flier" of this deal. Peterson, a native of Gilbert, Arizona, turned 20 in September, and was taken in the second round out of high school in last year's draft. Peterson struggled in his first season of full-season baseball in 2014. It's important, however, to remember that he was 19 years old and much younger than the average player in the Midwest League.
Peterson's calling card is his potential with the bat, but his defensive profile is a bit worrisome. He actually played shortstop as an amateur, but evaluators seem to think that he isn't even a lock to stay at third base as he moves up through the minors. The Padres toyed with the idea of sticking him at left field, giving him some run there during the instructional league this fall. Peterson isn't an outstanding athlete and doesn't have great speed or range in the field. Stacking the deck against him is also an underwhelming arm, which may not be strong enough to handle third base.
If Peterson is to become a Major Leaguer, he'll have to reach there on the strength of his bat. Peterson has plus bat speed and above-average raw power from the right side. As you can see in the embedded video above, when he drops the bat head on a pitch and squares a pitch up, he has the strength to muscle some balls out of the park. The trouble, however, is that he struggles with making contact. He racked up tons of whiffs for Fort Wayne this season, and his natural ability to cover the plate and square up pitches isn't overwhelmingly good. He needs to improve his pitch recognition and patience at the plate, as he had dreadful walk totals in his first full season as well.
Peterson is a total wild card and, frankly, is unlikely to ever be a Major Leaguer, but his power and offensive potential will make him an interesting prospect to follow nonetheless. He struggled mightily in 2014, sure, but he was young for his league, and still has plenty of time to make adjustments. I tend to think that he'll probably be sent to Rome to start out the 2015 season, but he could end up in Carolina if the Braves' decision makers think he's ready to take a step forward.