There is no word in the English dictionary that is more important to a baseball general manager than ‘options.’ Forget about money or payroll flexibility. Sure, that’s important. But if a GM doesn’t have options, he’s handicapped to do very little to help his ball club.
When John Schuerholz was Atlanta’s general manager, he always had options. His minor league system was always rated high, which allowed him to have the pieces he needed to continually make trades. There were not many times Schuerholz talked trade with another team and came up short in making a deal because he didn’t have the talent in his farm system.
It’s a pipeline. No matter how much talent you have at the major league level, you have to have a robust farm system or you are wasting your time. You have to move the assembly line every year, since player movement is so important with free agency and financial limitations. And if that pipeline dries up, you are in trouble.
Thirteen months ago the Braves were in trouble. The farm system had dried up, with limited talent after some questionable drafts. It meant the ability to keep the team at a high level was more difficult, and it led to the dismissal of Frank Wren as the general manager.
The new general manager, John Coppolella, is trying to fix things that were broken. Since he joined John Hart as the new brain trust a year ago, the Braves have placed an emphasis on pitching. Coppolella is stockpiling pitching for a reason.
He’s doing it to create options for himself.
A farm system’s purpose is two-fold. First, it is designed to develop talent that will be able to directly help the big league club. Second, it must create additional options that can be used to make trades that can also help the big league club.
Sometimes a player may be thought of as a future member of a rotation, but along the way he becomes a player that must be used in a trade to help the club in another way. Think back to December of 2003. The Braves believed Adam Wainwright might be a fourth or a fifth starter one day. Some liked his potential a bit more, but the thought was there that in 2004 or 2005 Wainwright could join Atlanta’s rotation.
Gary Sheffield was leaving as a free agent and the Braves needed a new right field. Jeff Francoeur was still a year away, so the team had to go look for Sheffield’s replacement on the trade market. When St. Louis made J.D. Drew available, the Braves engaged in trade talks. Schuerholz did not want to give up Wainwright. Some of his scouts were adamant about it being a potential mistake. But Cardinals’ GM Walt Jocketty would not do the deal without Wainwright.
So Wainwright went from being a potential Atlanta starting pitcher to a Cardinals’ prospect. Sure, in hindsight it was not a good move to include Wainwright in the deal. But the Braves needed a new right fielder and Wainwright was the price. The farm system fulfilled its duty with that trade.
The next spring the Braves needed some relievers. Schuerholz went out to find who was available at the end of spring training. He traded pitcher Andy Pratt and second baseman Richard Lewis to the Cubs for Juan Cruz. The very next day, Schuerholz traded Bubba Nelson and Jung Bong to the Reds for Chris Reitsma. Not many teams can have four decent prospects like that to acquire two veteran relievers at the end of spring training.
Schuerholz was able to trade Wainwright, Nelson, Pratt and Bong – four pitchers – because he had other pitchers in the farm system. He had Horacio Ramirez, Kyle Davies, Blaine Boyer, Dan Meyer, Jose Capellan and Roman Colon also in the pipeline.
But Schuerholz did this all the time. In the summer of 1993 when the Braves needed more power, Schuerholz talked to the Padres about Fred McGriff. Schuerholz somehow kept them away from Ryan Klesko, who was a top prospect at the time and someone the Padres wanted. But the farm system was deep enough that he gave up three players – Melvin Nieves, Vince Moore and Donnie Elliott – that didn’t come back to haunt him later on.
He was able to trade Nieves, who was a good prospect at the time, because of the presence of Klesko. He also knew he had other hitting prospects in the system like Chipper Jones and Javier Lopez. He was able to trade Elliott because of other pitching prospects like Terrell Wade and Kevin Millwood.
Eighteen months later, Schuerholz needed an upgrade in the outfield. A player originally from Atlanta, Marquis Grissom, was available as the Montreal Expos were trading off its star player. Schuerholz traded Roberto Kelly, Tony Tarasco and Esteban Yan to get Grissom, who was sought after by several other teams. He knew Grissom would be an upgrade over Kelly. He knew by the spring of 1995 he had Andruw Jones in the system, so he could part with Tarasco. And he believed Yan was expendable.
Schuerholz had options, which made it easier for him to acquire players he needed to make his big league team better – one that helped the team later that October win the World Series.
This is what the Braves have missed the last several years - options. Therefore, when this rebuilding process began, the decision was made to make the farm system the priority. When the mix of the 2013 team – Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Evan Gattis – didn’t work, the decision was made to scrap it and start over.
And in that decision the Braves decided they had to make pitching a priority once again. Why wouldn’t they? This organization became what it is today because of the decision Bobby Cox and Paul Snyder made 30 years ago when they made pitching a priority. So if it’s worked before for the Braves, why would they do something different? Why would Hart and Coppolella do what the Cubs did, for example, and go with mainly position players to build the organization up if using pitchers had worked so well before?
It is the right move. That’s why in almost every trade that Coppolella has made in the last 13 months, a pitcher has been involved. That’s why, even with some reporters and some fans saying, “Isn’t it time to start focusing on the position players?” the Braves have continued to make pitching the priority.
Last Thursday the Braves traded Andrelton Simmons, a popular player who had tremendous value. The Braves got back his immediate replacement, Erick Aybar (who should be traded, in my opinion, for younger players) and two pitching prospects.
Now, some probably said, “Why in the hell are the Braves getting more pitching prospects?” Well, that’s understandable. But the Angels offered Atlanta its two best prospects, who happened to be pitchers. Sean Newcomb is a potential top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, while Chris Ellis has the potential to be a third or fourth starter. Like it or not, there’s tremendous value in starting pitcher prospects who have that type of potential.
The Braves jumped at the opportunity, as they should have. Newcomb and Ellis add to the list of the pitching prospects and young pitchers that have been added in the last 13 months: Shelby Miller, Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz, Manny Banuelos, Tyrell Jenkins, Zach Bird, John Gant, Andrew Thurman, Max Fried, Touki Toussaint, Rob Whalen and Ricardo Sanchez. That’s 14 young starting pitchers who are either now in Atlanta or in the system.
Take all those pitchers away, and before last June’s draft, and the young starting pitchers/prospects the Braves had included: Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Williams Perez, Lucas Sims, Jason Hursh, Steve Janas, Max Povse, Yean Carlos Gil, Wes Parsons, Chad Sobotka Garrett Fulenchek and Alec Grosser. That is it.
It was not an impressive farm system, and if the Braves had not scrapped the plan and instead had tried to add to the mix of the 2013 team, would they really have had enough solid prospects to make good trades?
Now the Braves’ farm system is packed. It is impressive, as the trades that have been made have created tremendous options for the future.
Now, people are saying, “How are the Braves going to use all of these pitchers?”
Well, that’s right. They won’t. Some of the pitchers will simply not make it. Some will get hurt and stall. Some will make it to Atlanta, while some will be used in trades to help the club in other areas of need.
The Braves have a huge task ahead. As much as scouts are needed to scout other teams, the Braves must have their scouts look at the players they currently have in the organization. They must decide which ones should never even be discussed in trades, the ones that must be kept. That’s tricky, but even if another team demands a certain pitcher the Braves may not want to give up, there must be others behind him that can take his place if he is, in fact, traded.
Again, an assembly line of talent must be in place. At some point, the Braves will trade someone from the farm system they may believe will be good. But as long as someone else is there to be another option, they should be just fine.
Can all of these pitchers make it to Atlanta? No. For example, it’s possible that in 2018 (or before) the following starting pitchers could be ready for the big leagues: Tyrell Jenkins, Sean Newcomb, Chris Ellis, Lucas Sims, Zach Bird, Steve Janas, John Gant and Andrew Thurman. That’s eight pitchers.
The Braves already have six pitchers currently in the projected 2016 rotation that could also be here in 2018: Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran, Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz, Williams Perez and Manny Banuelos. Now, it’s doubtful that will happen. But take those six and then eight mentioned as possibly being ready and you have 14 starting pitchers.
So in the next two years, that is a lot of options. Plus, there will be others that as we head into 2018 should (or could) not be too far behind: Max Fried, Touki Toussaint, Rob Whalen, Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka and Ricardo Sanchez. There could be someone else not on the radar now (like last June’s fourth round pick Josh Graham perhaps?) that could also join that list. I’m not saying there’s a Jacob DeGrom in the mix, but who would have seriously thought two years ago Williams Perez would have cracked the Atlanta rotation?
The draft next June will add more pitchers. Chances are the first round pick, the third overall, will (and should) be a pitcher. That’s the strength of the top part of the draft, at least right now. While position players will likely be the priority, considering how many pitchers were taken in last June’s draft, you know this organization will add to the list with more arms.
Think about that. With all of these pitchers, the Braves are creating options. So when there is a player that becomes available in a trade that fits what they need, the Braves will have the pitchers available to make a deal. And when those pitchers are traded, there should be a number of pitchers behind them that can, in effect, take the traded pitcher’s place in the farm system – in the assembly line.
That’s the system Schuerholz created back in the 1990s to keep the run of division championships going. That’s what the new regime, led by Coppolella and Hart, are trying to create now. They must have options, which is something that was not in place when they took over 13 months ago.
When you wonder how the Braves are eventually going to get position players, and you wonder why the team continues to target young pitchers, please keep this in mind. They need to continue to emphasize pitchers. If they trade Julio Teheran, Cameron Maybin or perhaps even Freddie Freeman, they need to continue to get pitchers in return. Sure, they’ll get more position players (they will), but pitching must continue to be a priority.
This is a process. It’s just started. Some Braves fans were not even born yet when the team had to start over the last time – in the late-1980s. Others were not even Braves fans then, while some may not remember it’s been so long ago. So when fan favorites are traded, it might hurt. But the Braves are trying to become great again, and they are going about it the right way.
They are creating and developing options (there’s that word again), which is going to make it easier for the front office to fix what was badly broken when they took over a year ago.
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