Braves had to trade Heyward

The Braves could not afford to lose Jason Heyward, so that's why Monday's trade is a good one.

Eleven years ago the Braves and Cardinals made a trade. A right fielder with one year left on his contract was traded for young pitching.

That deal worked out better for the Cardinals, who got three solid years from Jason Marquis and a young pitcher that turned into an ace in Adam Wainwright. J.D. Drew had a great season for Atlanta, but bolted one year later for a large contract from the Dodgers.

Now it’s the other way around, as Atlanta traded a right fielder with one year left on his contract to St. Louis. Jason Heyward was sent to the Cardinals Monday, along with reliever Jordan Walden, for young pitcher Shelby Miller and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins.

Fans are not going to be happy. Heyward was a fan-favorite. Young kids wore his uniform to games. He was a hometown kid, from just south of Atlanta. But the Braves knew Heyward was never going to re-sign with the team for the long-term. He knew it and so did they.

Heyward is a phenomenal defensive player. He might be the best defensive outfielder in the game. He runs the bases well. But Heyward has stalled offensively. Sure, his on base percentage improved to .351 this past season, and that’s now his career OBP. But Heyward has lost his power, and that’s what makes his case very difficult.

How much should a great defensive player that has hit 16.8 home runs per season over the last five years get for a long-term contract? Heyward is due $8.3 million next season in the final season of a two-year contract. He’ll likely be asking for twice that amount, or even more, when he becomes a free agent.

The Braves could not afford for Heyward to walk away for nothing. They don’t have the farm system to replace him. There is no hot shot outfield prospect that might be ready in 2016 or even 2017, and with the needs the Braves have the possibility of letting Heyward leave for only a draft pick was not logical.

The Braves need help, like right now. They need short-term help and long-term help, and they knew trading Heyward would help fill both needs.

So enter Miller, who will join Julio Teheran, Mike Minor and Alex Wood in the Atlanta rotation. Miller has been in the big league for two seasons. He’s under control for four more years, a luxury for a team that might not have a legit top-of-the-rotation pitching prospect ready anytime soon.

Braves man-in-charge John Hart talked Monday about the need to replace the 400 innings that departed when Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang filed for free agency. And remember, both Minor and Wood finished the season with arm issues. So on paper, Teheran was the only dependable starter slated to be ready for the 2015 season without any injury questions.

The Braves needed a pitcher like Miller, and he’s given plenty of indications that he’s ready to become a solid and dependable major league starter. Miller has had two straight seasons of 31 starts. His hits-to-innings-pitched ratios have been very good each year. There was some concern about his strikeouts being down a bit in 2014, but his outstanding month of September (1.48 ERA in five starts, 21 hits allowed in 30.1 innings, five earned runs, five walks and 26 strikeouts) should calm those fears.

A scout that has seen Miller many times the last two years shared his thoughts with me Monday:

“His fastball is his bread and butter. He can simply blow people away and get by with his fastball when he needs to. But he needs to learn how to be smarter on the mound to take that next step. He needs to learn how to pitch. If that happens, he’s a legit number one for me. But Shelby must put in the work in and have a purpose for each bullpen session, each throwing session and know that he’s got to continue to improve every time out. He could be a horse. He seemed determined after the Joe Kelly trade to prove he was ready to turn the corner. He was close to Kelly and the trade obviously had an impact on him. So in September, Miller was outstanding. Can he consistently pitch like that? Well, if he can, he will be one of the best pitchers in the game. The stuff is there to do just that.”

If Miller turns the corner, imagine him with Teheran as an awesome one-two punch. Then you have the two southpaws in Minor and Wood. That’s a pretty good nucleus for the next couple of years.

Jenkins sounds like the type of prospect the Braves need. Sure, he’s had arm issues, but he’s obviously worked through his recovery from shoulder surgery and showed great progress in the Arizona Fall League. For ESPN’s Keith Law to say he is immediately the Braves best pitching prospect tells you all you need to know about how bad Atlanta’s system is and how much potential Jenkins has.

The Braves have Lucas Sims. Jason Hursh is pretty decent, but many wonder if he’s a reliever instead of a starter. There is still hope for Williams Perez, who will probably repeat Double-A next season. And there are a couple of pitchers that might be in Rome to keep an eye on next season. But the Braves needed more depth here, and that’s why it was important to get more value for Heyward in this deal.

As for Walden, the Braves had some issues about his makeup and he’s had some problems staying healthy. Plus, that delivery makes everyone wonder if he’ll avoid trips to the disabled list. The Braves got Arodys Vizcaino back on Sunday, and they believe he can replace Walden and be an effective setup man.

The outfield is obviously undergoing a reconstruction, and it’s not over yet. Expect Justin Upton to be next, perhaps as early as this week. The Braves would like to make a similar trade where they need young and controllable players in return for the power-hitting outfielder, who might have a bit more value than Heyward considering the need for power by so many teams around the game.

Of course, we all know the Braves want to get rid of B.J. Upton, and they’ll keep trying. But won’t it be a shock if Heyward and Justin are gone and the Braves wind up being stuck with B.J. in the 2015 outfield. That could happen.

The Braves will need more outfield help. I do not buy the Evan Gattis-to-LF rumors. They are going to trade Gattis. They might not find good value and be forced to keep him, but believe me, the preference is to trade Gattis for a young outfielder that has a similar timetable regarding free agency (Gattis has four years left). They don’t want Gattis playing left field, so expect him to be dealt too.

Yes, the Braves have traded Heyward and the two Upton brothers and Gattis might be next. That would be significant changes to this roster. But it’s needed. The mix did not work. It isn’t anyone in particular’s fault (except maybe Frank Wren), but the Braves just need to scrap what was planned and start over.

The farm system is a mess. They need two good drafts and several good international signing periods to get the minor leagues back on track. And they need a couple of more trades like they made Monday. They need young talent and that make a difference now and later.

The savings from Monday’s trade is around $9 million. Heyward was set to make $8.3 million, while Walden is due a raise in arbitration from the $1.49 he made last year. So subtract Miller’s $600,000 projected salary and the savings will be right above $9 million.

What can they do with that money? Well, they could add a veteran pitcher. They need a veteran starter. Miller, Teheran and Wood will all be 24 next season, with Minor being the old vet at 27. That’s a rotation with an average age of 24.75. Hart has admitted the Braves will be in the second-tier starting rotation market this winter, and they may have just gotten their flexibility to be more aggressive in that search.

That’s a great young rotation. If healthy, that may be the best young rotation in baseball, especially if Miller realizes his potential and becomes an ace. But what if they add another top young pitcher to the mix that they may acquire in another deal? That might set this rotation up for the next 5-10 years.

Of course, they’re going to need outfielders to replace these guys. They’ll be on the hunt for some help in the outfield. It would be great if they could trade Justin Upton for an established outfielder and a young prospect, much like they did by getting two pitchers in exchange for Heyward.

There are just no outfielders ready to take over. Don’t expect Todd Cunningham’s name to pop up as a potential starter. He, and many other outfield prospects, seems to be only a candidate to be a fourth outfielder.

This is domino number one. Many are left to fall. Like the deal made in December, 2003, this trade with the Cardinals will take many years to fully grade. But considering the potential loss of Heyward to free agency, the Braves had little choice.

Hart is right when he said Monday the Braves are better now and will be better later for making this trade. Who knows if Miller can be Atlanta’s version of Wainwright or Marquis, or if Jenkins can develop into that type of pitcher. But like the Cardinals 11 years ago, when they knew Drew would never re-sign with them, the Braves had no alternative but to make this trade.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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