A trade that the Braves had to make

Bill Shanks analyses the blockbuster trade that sent Craig Kimbrel to San Diego.

The Braves really didn’t want to trade Craig Kimbrel, but they were desperate to trade Melvin Upton.

After 11 trades leading up to the last day before the start of the season, the Braves pulled off their biggest swap yet Sunday. They dealt Kimbrel and Upton to the San Diego Padres for outfielders Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin, pitching prospect Matt Wisler, outfield prospect Jordan Paroubeck and a competitive balance draft pick (number 41 overall) in June’s amateur draft.

This trade was a blockbuster. It shakes up the major league team, less than 24 hours before the first pitch of the 2015 season. It was already a new team, but now it’s lost one of its stars. It also means that one of the seven players who was on last year’s opening day roster and was ready to repeat is now gone. Make that only six players left from last year’s first roster that will be on the Braves when the season starts Monday.

Okay, the fans are not going to like this. They are going to be furious. That’s the expected reaction from a fan base that loved Kimbrel. He might be a Hall of Famer. Yes, he’s that good. He might have been the only reason to watch the Braves this season. But now, he’s gone.

Let’s first figure out why the Braves did this. There are a number of reasons.

First, this is going to be a different couple of seasons for the Braves. Who knows what to expect. They are obviously starting over. Maybe the team is good, but it might not be good at all. So do they really need an elite closer, especially if the team is not good?

No, they were not going to need that. Even with all the talk from the team about not trading Kimbrel, I never bought it. At some point they were going to be offered young pitching in return for Kimbrel, and that’s what happened here. I thought it would be in July, when a team like the Red Sox got desperate for a closer. But the Padres tempted them by also eliminating another issue.

More on that in a moment. But let’s stick with Kimbrel. If he stays healthy, and if he continues at his pace, Kimbrel will be in Cooperstown one day. There is no doubt about that. But what are the chances that Kimbrel avoids Tommy John surgery? I hate to even breathe it, but it’s an obvious question. The Braves had to think about that. What if they kept Kimbrel and then he blew out his elbow?

Then they would be stuck with nothing but a gamble that he would come back. It was not easy for the front office to give this guy away. He’s a great kid, loved by his teammates. And it’s hard to give up the best player at a position in any spot. But how valuable was Kimbrel going to be to this type of team for the next two years?

When the Padres said they would take Upton off the Braves’ hands, it was a no-brainer. Look, this is as much about getting Upton the heck out of Atlanta as anything else. This guy was the biggest mistake in team history – bigger than Bruce Sutter, bigger than giving away Adam Wainwright, bigger than anything. Frank Wren is sitting at home right now because of this monumental error in baseball judgment.

Upton was as much a symbol of what had gone wrong as anything. He was never happy. He was never well-liked by anybody. This spring, especially after he got hurt, Upton was pretty much irrelevant.

But the problem was the Braves still owed him over $46 million dollars. He was never going to earn that money. The Braves were praying he would stay hurt to simply stay away. They didn’t want him around the new players. They didn’t want him to spoil what they were trying to do – fix what has been broken.

Upton epitomized what had been broken. He had to go. They had to get rid of him. And it’s a shame they had to get rid of Kimbrel to do it. Blame Wren for that.

So with the Braves having the chance to get Upton out of the way, and at the same time save $55-$60 million dollars and get two prospects and a draft pick, the price of giving up the best closer in baseball who might break down was just too good to pass up.

We have to look at this deal almost separately. And this might not make things better, but let’s give it a shot. The Braves traded Upton to the Padres for Quentin and Maybin. Now, the money looks like it will come out to where the Braves are even this year. Upton is due $14.45 million, while Quentin and Maybin total $15 million.

Next season the Braves gain about $4.45 million between those three players, and then in 2017 they would gain $15.45 million from the trade of these three players. That’s a total savings of right at $20 million.

Then take Kimbrel. The Braves trade him for Wisler, an excellent starting pitching prospect, a toolsy outfield prospect and a draft pick. Also, the Braves save the $33 million still due to Kimbrel, along with the $13 million option for 2018.

Sure, the Braves probably would like to get more back than that for the best closer in the game. But what if Wisler becomes a member of the rotation? That would help tremendously. What if the draft pick becomes a top prospect? And this is very key to the discussion, what will the Braves do with that money? Do not think the Braves are going to take this money saved in this deal – again, somewhere between $55 and $60 million dollars – and let it sit in an account and draw interest. This money will be used to help this franchise. It might not be immediately, but the Braves are going to be proactive in making sure this roster continues to improve.

For those of you thinking this is a stupid move, considering the Braves pending move into a new stadium… well, that is part of it. This move needed to be made to continue the process. I’ve said this a million times, “This didn’t get broken overnight, and it’s not going to be fixed overnight.” This is a process, and unfortunately, trading a fan favorite who is the best at his position in the game is simply part of it.

The Braves will find another closer. Jason Grilli will be fine for now. He had a great spring, and there’s complete confidence that Grilli can still do the job. If he can’t, Jim Johnson will be given the chance.

Long-term, the Braves will have to find a closer. Maybe it’s Mike Foltynewicz. Maybe it’s a player already in the farm system. Maybe it’s one of the draft picks the Braves will have this June. But they’ll find one. Closers usually come and go, and while Kimbrel was special, there was legit concern about how long he could hold up with that violent delivery and big-time fastball.

Pitchers who throw hard get hurt. Let’s hope Kimbrel avoids falling into that category, but it’s doubtful.

The Braves continue to add starting pitching prospects with the addition of Wisler. A scout told me Sunday night that Wisler could pitch in the big leagues now, but that some time in Triple-A won’t hurt him a bit. He said Wisler, “has a good fastball, in the 93-94 mph range, with good sink. He’s got a great slider, perhaps the best one in the San Diego system.”

So here is yet another candidate for the starting rotation. Starters are more valuable than relievers. Wisler is a great prospect, and we should not forget this. He’s got a chance to join the Atlanta rotation sometime this season.

Who knows about the outfielder. Maybe he’ll become something. But count me excited about the draft pick. The Braves wanted another draft pick. They may even get another soon. They want to build this franchise through the draft, and trust Brian Bridges and Roy Clark to add more talent.

This season is going to be interesting. I don’t know how Kimbrel being gone changes the thought on how good this team will be. Sure, leads won’t be as safe now in the ninth inning, but it’s not like Chris Reitsma is the closer. Grilli is good, and the progress made by Johnson this spring with his sinker is encouraging. So the bullpen will likely be fine. It may not be great, but it doesn’t seem like it would be a problem.

There are doubts the Braves will keep Quentin, and who cares. He is a horrible fielder and maybe he just needs to be let go. It might be interesting to see if he can hit and would help the lineup. But there is more intrigue over Maybin. He’s struggled the last few years, but can the Braves get anything out of him?

Truthfully, anything is a bonus. Melvin Upton is gone. Ding Dong the witch is dead. Our long national nightmare is over. That’s the key to this. He never should have been signed. He needed to go. Sure, it’s a shame Kimbrel had to be part of it, since they might have been able to get more if done separately, but this is well-worth pulling the trigger on this deal.

Let’s give John Hart and John Coppolella tremendous credit here. They have revamped this organization. That’s now 12 trades from the end of last season to the start of the 2015 campaign. That took guts. It was not easy. But this duo has a plan in place to try and make this a franchise that can consistently win.

Was that going to happen with Upton still around for three years, with the team burdened by his contract? No. They had to do this. They got value in return. They continue to work on the future of this franchise, and will take criticism regardless of whether people understand this trade or not.

But Hart and Coppolella have just orchestrated the biggest makeover in Braves history. Regardless of whether you call it a rebuild, a retool, a revamp or whatever, it’s a makeover. I have bought in. I love stockpiling pitching. It’s the best way to build a winner. And getting a bad apple out of the way, well, it’s worth trading Kimbrel for. It was not easy, but give the new men in charge credit for trying to fix a mess that was made before they took over.

So now what? What will this team be like this season? Well, it’ll be different. When will Wisler be ready? Sometime this summer maybe? Who will be traded next? Well, no one should feel safe after this one. But maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Welcome to the new era of Braves baseball. New is sometimes scary, but this shouldn’t be. It’s a process. Keep that in mind as you watch each of the 162 games this season. This trade was part of that, and while it stings now, this trade will only lead to good things as the new era of Braves baseball continues.

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 email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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