The Braves’ Good Problem

Last week, Grant Brisbee made the very salient point that the Atlanta Braves are essentially akin to a small-market team these days. Since the ballclub has stacked their team with homegrown talent, this has not been a glaring problem in years past, but this offseason we have seen them lose both Brian McCann and Tim Hudson. Which was bad, in a sense — the team has replacements at the ready, even if they might not be as good.

The real problem though — and it is no doubt a good problem — will come two-to-three years down the road. Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Kris Medlen are set to become free agents following the 2015 season, and the next season, Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel (and Brandon Beachy) are also due to become free agents. It’s pretty unlikely that the ballclub will be able to keep all five (or six, if you count Beachy). So, who should they keep?

Looking at the team’s contract situation, let’s say that they can keep three of the five. That sort of feels right. They will have three $10 million-plus contracts this year: the Upton brothers and Dan Uggla. Uggla’s contract will mercifully end at the same point that that the first trio will be up for free agency. Heading into their respective free agent seasons, this is how old they will be:

Freeman: 2017, Age 27
Heyward: 2016, Age 26
Kimbrel: 2017, Age 29
Medlen: 2016, Age 30
Upton: 2016, Age 28

The first thing that sticks out is that these guys are all very young for possibly hitting free agency. Players that age don’t often hit the free-agent market anymore. If you go back to Keith Law’s top 50 free agents from November, only 12 were under the age of 30. Two of them were Asian international free agents, two others were ranked 47th and 50th, and one was a former Braves player (McCann). It just doesn’t happen that desirable players make it to free agency this young. So, before we start in, kudos to the Braves and their player development system for accruing such talent.

Speaking in absolutes is rarely a good idea when it comes to things that have yet to occur, and that is even more true in a situation where we are years removed from a necessary decision. So we’ll just go with pros and cons for now. And even though they don’t all hit free agency in the same year, we’ll treat them as the same, because realistically the Braves will have to decide who to keep and who not to keep well ahead of them reaching free agency.

— Durability. Freeman has played in at least 147 games in each of his first three seasons, and 93% overall. That’s always a good thing.
— Hard Contact. The more line drives a player hits, the better off he’ll be, and Freeman excels in this area. In his three full major league seasons, he ranks ninth among qualified players in line drive percentage (25.2%). Over the past two seasons, only Joey Votto and James Loney have roped a greater percentage of line drives than has Freeman.
— Defense. Freeman has always had a good defensive reputation, and last year that reputation finally matched up with the metrics, as he posted his first season with both a positive DRS and UZR.
— Swing rate. Freeman has improved his BB/K in each of his full seasons, but last season his swing rate went up. He swung at four percent more pitches out of the strike zone, and 3.6% more overall. That wouldn’t be so bad necessarily, had his contact rate gone up in kind, but it didn’t. Freeman actually lowered his strikeout rate last year. This means one of two things — either Freeman is able to tow the line of swinging and missing more frequently but not actually striking out, or his luck is about to change. Given the fact that he hit .198/.265/.282 with two strikes last season, I’m going to suggest that it’s the latter.
— Power. Freeman’s ISO is still relatively middling for a first baseman. Last season, his .181 ISO was a mere five points above the league average for a first baseman. From 2012-2013, he ranked 12th out of 23 in qualified first baseman ISO. If you lower the qualification to 500 plate appearances, Freeman’s rank drops to 22nd, as players like Brandon Moss, Mike Napoli and Mark Teixeira jump over Freeman on the list.

— Youth. Seriously, players really don’t hit free agency this young these days. It’s kind of amazing that he could enter the market heading into his age-26 season.
— Defense. Heyward is one of the biggest plus defenders in the majors during his time in the Show. Since 2010, the only two players with a better UZR/150 than Heyward are Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado, and neither of them even have half the innings played that Heyward does (Arenado barely has one-fourth the innings played).
— Strikeout rate. Last season, Heyward cut his strikeout rate by nearly seven percent. Even if he doesn’t retain all of those gains, it wasn’t a total mirage. He swung less and made contact more. That’s a recipe for success, and it was borne out in his higher line drive rate.
— Durability. Shoulder, neck, abdomen, foot, knee, thumb. Heyward can have a pass for the appendix, and again for fracturing his jaw on a hit by pitch. He really didn’t have any control over those things. But he still seems to come down with a lot of owwies. He’s failed to reach 130 games played in two of the past three seasons, and his health will remain a question until he strings a couple of full seasons together.
— Speed. Heyward’s speed vanished last year. His Speed Score, as calculated in these internet pages, dropped from 6.2 to 3.2. He followed up his one good season of UBR with one that looked a lot like his first two seasons, and his wSB dropped into the red. His stolen base percentage for his career is a less-than-optimal 68%, and last year he was only successful on two of his six stolen-base attempts.

— Filth. Most pitchers don’t reach pitch values of 10 or higher on one pitch. Kimbrel has come incredibly close to doing so in three straight seasons, and he did do it last season.
— Grounders. Over the past two seasons, Kimbrel has struck out nearly 44 percent of the batters he has faced. Of those who were able to put the ball in play, nearly 50% of them hit ground balls.
— Velocity. Kimbrel has not only not lost juice on his fastball, he’s actually gained a few ticks. That won’t last forever of course, but his decline might be softer as a result of his ability to maintain his velocity these first three seasons.
— Consistency. Kimbrel is the only relief pitcher to post at least 2 WAR in each of the past three seasons.
— He’s a reliever. There are a very few relievers who have proved worthy of long-term extensions, so Kimbrel is fighting an uphill battle just by the nature of his role.
— Contact rate. Last year, batters were able to make contact off of Kimbrel much more easily than they had in the past. His contact rate was still one of the 10 lowest among qualifiers, and his strikeout rate was still one of the five highest. But Kimbrel was not head and shoulders above the rest of the game the way he was in previous seasons.
— Zone percentage. In three of his four seasons in the majors, Kimbrel has had a below-average zone percentage. Last year, he threw the fewest pitches in the strike zone yet. He doesn’t have the best control going, and if his K rate keeps declining along with his zone percentage, Kimbrel may just lose his edge.

— Control. Of the 86 pitchers with at least 300 innings pitched over the past two seasons, Medlen’s 5.2% walk rate is essentially tied for 10th-best.
— Deception. Medlen is able to live in the strike zone and maintain that good control because of his ability to consistently fool hitters. Last season, the only pitchers who were able to generate a higher percentage of whiffs per swing via the changeup than Medlen were Jarrod Parker and Stephen Strasburg. And there was a big gap between Medlen in third and Cole Hamels in fourth. Since the changeup is Medlen’s second-most frequently thrown pitch, that’s an important fact.

— Injury concerns. Medlen has now tossed 337.1 innings since returning from Tommy John surgery, which means he is already nearing the end of his honeymoon phase. By the time 2016 rolls around, if Medlen hasn’t succumbed to a second Tommy John surgery, he’ll likely be very close.
— Velocity. Since 2008 (when PITCHf/x began stabilizing), there have been 445 pitchers who have been both 27-years-old or younger and have tossed at least 100 innings in a season. Of them, only 45 have failed to average 89 mph on their four-seam fastballs, and of those, just 21 have been right-handers. Here is that list:

Name Season IP vFA
Carlos Villanueva 2011 107.0 88.9
Kris Medlen 2013 197.0 88.9
A.J. Griffin 2013 200.0 88.8
Jeff Karstens 2009 108.0 88.8
Brian Bannister 2008 182.2 88.8
Jered Weaver 2009 211.0 88.7
Kevin Correia 2008 110.0 88.7
Micah Owings 2009 119.2 88.6
Kyle McClellan 2011 141.2 88.4
Carlos Villanueva 2008 108.1 88.4
Doug Fister 2010 171.0 88.3
Darrell Rasner 2008 113.1 88.1
Mike Fiers 2012 127.2 88.0
Josh Tomlin 2011 165.1 88.0
Dylan Axelrod 2013 128.1 87.9
John Ely 2010 100.0 87.3
Josh Collmenter 2011 154.1 87.2
Andy Sonnanstine 2008 193.1 87.1
Jeremy Bonderman 2010 171.0 87.0
Shaun Marcum 2008 151.1 87.0
Josh Geer 2009 102.2 86.1

A quick scan of this list makes it very apparent that it is not an enviable one. Aside from Medlen, Jered Weaver and Doug Fister are pitchers who one would consider signing to a long-term deal, though Weaver may be somewhat of a cautionary tale. The velocity on his four-seamer dipped under 87 mph last year, according to PITCHf/x, and probably not coincidentally, his ERA and FIP rose for the second-straight season (actually, his FIP rose for the third-straight season). Medlen will be as old when he hits free agency as Weaver was last season, so if that’s what Medlen’s future is, that’s probably not a good sign.

— Lack of holes. Upton is pretty good at everything. He’s got a good batting eye, both his walk rate and swing rates are above average. He has good power as well. Both his isolated power and slugging percentages are above league average for a right fielder. His basestealing isn’t amazing, but he is over the 70% mark for stolen-base success, and over the past three seasons, his 13.1 BsR ranks 10-best in the game. He also hits every pitch well. For his career, he has positive values per 100 pitches on every pitch except the knuckleball, and he probably hasn’t seen enough knuckleballs for that to matter.
— Pain tolerance. While there are plenty of injury issues in his timeline, none of them kept him out of the lineup for very long. He played through a thumb injury in 2012 to the detriment of his statistics, and while the other issues have not been as severe, it seems likely that he has played through things that other players would not have. He has only missed 28 games over the past three seasons.
Price. Of the five players on this list, Upton might end up being the most expensive, simply because he is already far more expensive. Upton will earn more than $14 million during each of the next two seasons, so it’s hard to imagine that he would accept an extension that paid him less than that. The Braves can certainly afford to pay him a little more than that, and he should remain that valuable, at least in the short-term, but in comparison to the other five players, it puts him at a disadvantage.

Taking the situation as a whole, it seems that as of right now, Freeman and Heyward are the two you would look to lock up first. You do what you need to in order to get those deals done, particularly with Heyward. From there, things get more murky. Upton probably will be worth keeping around, but the price may not be right for Atlanta. Kimbrel may be a luxury for a team that has consistently churned out quality pitchers for two decades, and Medlen’s velocity needs to be monitored. History tells us it will dip, and when it does, so too may his effectiveness. And finally, there’s Beachy. Thanks to his shoddy health track record, he doesn’t merit much discussion at this time, but if he proves capable of being both healthy and effective over the next two seasons, the Braves will have a difficult decision to make with him entering 2016 as well.

In all, this is a good problem to have. Every team wants to have this kinds of problem, and it’s a credit to the Braves front office that they are in a position where they may be forced to pick which of their young assets they want to lock up. Unfortunately for Atlanta, their now-more-obvious budgetary restrictions leave them less margin for error.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Kris Medlen
10 years ago

If I were the Braves I’d focus on Freeman and Heyward. I’d let Kimbrel and Medlen walk and then see what it takes to bring Upton back. My gut tells me the answer to that is too much.

If the Braves can at bare minimum keep Heyward and Freeman, they should be just fine.