Evaluating the Prospects in the Shelby Miller Trade

The Atlanta Braves continued dealing from their Major League roster this week, sending Shelby Miller and relief prospect Gabe Speier to the Arizona Diamondbacks for oufielder Ender Inciarte, recent No.1 overall pick Dansby Swanson and right-handed starter prospect Aaron Blair. Miller and Inciarte are relatively established big league assets. With respect to Speier, as a low-level lefty relief prospect, he was likely not a deal-breaker in trade negotiations. Let’s take a closer look at Swanson and Blair to see what exactly the Braves added to fortify their minor league system.

Swanson was drafted first overall in June, and hasn’t really done anything since to lessen his value as a high-potential shortstop. Thanks to the Trea Turner situation last year, teams are now allowed to trade draft picks after the conclusion of the World Series in the same season. In addition to being the first amateur player drafted in 2015, I recently ranked him as the top prospect in the Diamondbacks system.

Swanson offers tons of upside on both sides of the game. Defensively he played second base at Vanderbilt until switching back to his high school position at short. To me, there is no question he can stick at shortstop long term. He is an elite defender with plenty of range and arm to handle it, buoyed by strong footwork and quick changes in direction. This video from the Fangraphs YouTube page shows some of his skills in warm ups, as well as batting practice and game swings from before the draft:

He is already a plus defender (60 grade), and has the potential to be plus-plus (70) with more solidification of his fundamentals and game repetitions. His combination of arm strength and fast release time will let his arm play plus in the big leagues as well.

Swanson has at least above-average potential on the base paths, with plus base running contributions not out of the realm of possibilities. He’s a smart and tenacious ballplayer, and should be able to take full advantage of opportunities the opposing teams present. In all honesty, he won’t need to steal a ton of bases to be well worth a starting job on account of his defensive skills and hitting ability.

At the plate, Swanson puts together excellent at bats and can tap into his power when pitchers make mistakes up in the zone. Check out this GIF from the video referenced above:

Dansby Swanson

This is a double to center field from last spring with Vanderbilt, and the swing showcases a few of the qualities that help define him as a hitter. Like a lot of excellent hitters, Swanson has great action with his right arm, rolling his elbow under his hands behind his body. He keeps his front side quiet as he starts his swing, allowing his path to stay through the ball and square pitches up all around the strike zone. He has strong hips with good direction through the middle of the field.

As the pitch is coming in, his weight has a tendency to drift forward, putting his balance a little forward before he’s ready to actually swing. He also has a level to slight downward path with his hands at times, making his hardest hit balls more of the low line drive than fly ball variety. He has shown the ability to get true lift on the ball, but he still profiles more of a gap power hitter right now.

With his ability to make contact and his solid approach at the plate, Swanson is probably already an average hit tool in the big leagues. Getting experience against professional pitchers likely pushes him into the plus range, possibly even plus-plus when all is said and done. If he can quiet his hip slide down a bit, or actively try to create more lift, he has the power to be a 20-homer guy.

Because his skill set is already good enough to get him to the big leagues, there may not be enough incentive to go that far, so I am betting on him settling into low-mid teens home run totals. Expect the doubles and triples to rack up instead.

Jumping into the Braves system, it’s not out of the question to see him in an Atlanta uniform by the end of the year. His placement will depend on the health of the big league team, both physically and in the standings, as well as how much development they would like to see before giving him an opportunity. With Swanson likely to take up permanent residence in Atlanta by 2017, management may want to get him acclimated this year to be a part of the new stadium opening from the start.
Swanson would rank higher than Ozhaino Albies, becoming the top-ranked prospect in his new organization.

Aaron Blair adds another pitcher to the Braves minor league depth, and immediately holds the best chance of contributing to the major league product immediately. Blair will very likely be on the big league squad by the All-Star break, barring any unforeseen setbacks in his development.

I broke down his arsenal and future in the Diamondbacks prospect list, but I wanted to expand on some of the mechanics and athleticism remarks I made there. For a quick summary on his arsenal, he has the ceiling for three plus or better pitches, with his changeup having the highest chance of developing to that level. The fastball and curveball look more like above-average offerings in a big league setting. He has great control, with command gains needed to reach his ceiling as a mid-rotation starter, possibly even a No. 2 type depending on his improvements the next couple years.

I projected Blair to be more in the No. 3 or 4 range as his likely outcome, mostly because of limitations I see in his delivery capping the command development. Here’s the full video from 2080 Baseball I embedded in the D’Backs list:

And here’s a slowed down look from a side view in the same outing:

Aaron Blair

In the team ranking, I mentioned how he has a great arm coupled with a stiff delivery. For clarification, it’s not that I believe pitching mechanics are the most important predictor of success, but that the athleticism and smoothness in a pitcher’s actions certainly plays a role in how well he can improve command and hold/develop velocity.

What Blair does well is create excellent drive toward the plate with his strong legs. He has a clean arm without excessive stress evident in the shoulders and upper back during the delivery, and good direction in his finish. What I don’t see from him that is present in most elite pitchers is good torque and rotational sequencing between his lower half and upper body. His hips start to turn after his shoulders have begun to square up to the plate as well, making his core look relatively inflexible.

As a result of a stiff link in the chain, he has to rely more on his arm strength to get the ball to the plate at a good velocity. Since the shoulders rotate at the same time as the hips, his arm almost runs out of room to decelerate and can look rigid as he finishes. Again, there’s nothing that says he won’t be successful, as I believe he has enough positive qualities to be a valuable starter, but expecting a lot more gains in command without a loose, easy motion is probably asking too much.

In all, Blair goes right after hitters with enough control and a useful arsenal to be a good bet for above-average innings in a starting role. He has the stuff and the prototypical starter’s body to add a fantastic arm to the Braves’ future rotation. Putting him into the Braves ranks, I would slot him in right behind Sean Newcomb and ahead of Kolby Allard, settling at No. 5 (Swanson takes over at 1).

The Braves did well to get two high-floor prospects from this deal, combined with a useful big league asset in Inciarte. Shelby Miller is a tough loss, but with the proximity of the players they got in this deal to the Braves active roster, the return is an excellent alternative. If either Swanson or Blair’s timelines get accelerated by their development, the 2016 Braves could benefit more from this deal than had they declined to part with Miller.

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Dan is Fangraphs Lead Prospect Analyst, living in New York City. He played baseball for four years at Franklin & Marshall College before attending medical school. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @DWFarnsworth.

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Off-topic, but that nearly-all-black Vanderbilt uniform in the J. Dansby Swanson GIF is very strange to me. Especially with the socks pulled up – makes him look like a Marvel villain.