The Braves Should Be Wary of Becoming the Diamondbacks

The Houston Astros have been the most aggressive team of the winter, acquiring Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, and Charlie Morton in the last few days, as they attempt to make their move from contender to division-favorite. The second most aggressive team so far? Probably the Atlanta Braves.

They started off the hot stove season last week by signing Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey to help fill out the back of their rotation. And now, according to reports, they’re aiming for an ace.

More specifically, there’s this from David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

They’ve had talks with teams about trading for still another starter, most notably Chris Sale, 27, a native of Lakeland, Fla. The five-time All-Star left-hander is under contractual control for three more seasons at below-market rates — $38 million total in that three-year span including two option years — and has finished in the top five of the American League Cy Young Award balloting for four consecutive seasons after finishing sixth in his first season as a starter in 2012.

The Braves have also inquired about the Rays’ Chris Archer and Athletics’ Sonny Gray, but Sale is their focus, a person familiar with the situation said.

The price for Sale could be enormous, likely a package including multiple top prospects. The Braves have said they’re not at a point in their rebuild where they’re ready to trade top prospects to fill in gaps, but to get an ace they seem at least willing to consider changing that plan.

On the one hand, this shouldn’t be that surprising: GM John Coppolella is a strong believer in the value of starting pitching, and especially so, in the value of frontline aces. This the kind of pitcher the Braves are always going to be looking for under his watch, and given that they’ve been outspoken that they want to win sooner than later, it shouldn’t be that surprising to see them pursuing players who could significantly improve their roster. Especially with their new stadium opening up next spring, the Braves don’t want to put a bad product on the field, potentially wasting the revenue boost that comes from opening a new ballpark.

But on the other hand, before the team aggressively turns future assets into present value, the Braves should make sure they’re not following in the footsteps of the Arizona Diamondbacks, whose desire to push their window to win forward by a year or two ended up doing a tremendous amount of destruction to the organization.

Of course, the Braves are intimately familiar with that destruction, since they caused most of it when they agreed to the Shelby Miller trade, robbing the Diamondbacks of Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson, and Aaron Blair. The former pair are primary reasons why the Braves look at their 2017 roster and see a team that could be okay next year. The Braves landed their franchise shortstop and starting center fielder by exploiting Arizona’s mistaken belief that they were ready to take a big step forward, despite a roster that lacked depth and projected around .500 at best.

But now the Braves seem to be in a similar position, wanting to win sooner than later, but without enough talent to make that something they should plan for in 2017. For instance, here’s a graph of rough projected win totals heading into the winter, from Jeff Sullivan’s post two weeks ago.

Three teams, at that point, projected for fewer than 70 wins; the Brewers, Padres, and the Atlanta Braves. Yes, this was before they signed Colon and Dickey, so now they project closer to 72 or 73 wins, but that’s still a very long way away from legitimate contender status. And even if we gave them Chris Sale, without subtracting any significant major league players from their roster, they’d realistically be looking at a 76 or 77 win projection heading into 2017.

So even if they managed to land Sale without giving up anything off their big league roster — good luck with that, by the way — they’d still be something like 10 wins shy of Wild Card status. And while no projection system is perfect, it’s just not realistic to argue that Steamer is misevaluating the Braves current talent level by 10 wins.

Looking at their current depth chart, there’s a decent argument that Steamer is a little too low on a few of their players. Ender Inciarte is projected for +2 WAR in 600 PAs, when he’s averaged +3.6 WAR per 600 PAs in the first three years of his career. Steamer’s being pretty cautious with its projection of Inciarte’s defensive value, but I’d take the over on him putting up a +5 UZR next year, and think he’s probably more of a +3 WAR player than a +2 WAR guy. So that’s one win.

Steamer’s also projection Julio Teheran to take a big step backwards, but he’s averaged about an extra win every 200 innings above and beyond what his fielding independent numbers suggest, so this forecast is probably low for him too. Let’s be generous and give them a full extra win for Teheran, even though that’s probably overly optimistic. So we’re up to two extra wins.

After that, it gets sketchier. The Braves believe Nick Markakis and Matt Kemp are better than we think, so you can maybe give them another win if you think those guys are underrated by our metrics for whatever reason. Like I said, we’re being generous. So if you think two below average outfielders, one 33 and the other 32, are going to defy aging, then hey, we’re up to three extra wins.

But we’re also just running out of places to find extra wins. Dansby Swanson is already projected as a league average regular, and while the Braves have plenty of reasons to believe in his long-term potential, expecting more than that in 2017 is probably not wise. Adonis Garcia? Jace Peterson? Whoever they get to replace Tyler Flowers as their catcher? Again, maybe you’re looking at a win here or there, maybe.

Unfortunately, the Braves could trade for Sale and Chris Archer and still not project as contenders in 2017. It would be a good rotation, but the Braves position players would still project to be among the worst in baseball, and this big bet on starting pitching carrying not-good-enough hitters was the same failed gamble Arizona made last winter. And, of course, it’s not like Sale and Archer are going to come cheaply, so more realistically, the Braves would have to give up something off their big league roster to acquire either one, reducing the marginal improvement that came from adding either pitcher.

And yes, the Braves can argue that acquiring Sale or Archer or whoever isn’t just about 2017; they’d have those guys in 2018 and beyond, so it wouldn’t be only a win-now gamble. But Dave Stewart made these exact same claims last year when they punted their future to land Shelby Miller, talking about a three-year window that opened up with the acquisitions of Miller and Zack Greinke. And it’s just as faulty a plan now as it was then.

Because to buy Sale or Archer’s value in 2018 and beyond, you have to also pay the 2017 wins that the White Sox or Rays are selling, and those wins are extremely valuable to teams that are ready to win this year. In order to be the high bidder, the Braves will have to pay a high price, and unfortunately, they’re not in a position to take advantage of Sale’s value in at least one of the three remaining years he has left on his deal. And if the young players don’t take the step forward that the team is counting on, they might not be in a position to take advantage of his value in 2018 either, and then they’ll have paid a massive price to land a short-term upgrade to help a non-contender finish in the middle of the pack.

The bidding for Sale is going to be absurd, especially with a limited supply of alternatives for teams to go after. The Braves are probably not in a position to capitalize on his 2017 value, so paying a premium to land a guy whose going to churn through a good chunk of his value in the short-term is a great way to reduce the organization’s chances of winning in 2018 and beyond, and the uptick in their chances in 2017 just aren’t worth it.

That isn’t to say the Braves shouldn’t try to improve. They need a catcher, a second baseman, a third baseman, and an outfielder to eventually replace Markakis and/or Kemp, when those guys stop hitting enough to justify their line-up spots. There are plenty of places where the team can make improvements to improve the quality of their 2017 product, and they can do so by getting guys who aren’t just stopgaps, but who could help the team in 2018 and beyond as well. It won’t be as sexy as landing an ace like Sale, but it also won’t risk wasting a good chunk of the future value the team has been accumulating.

I know it’s tempting to want to win in 2017, and I know the 37-35 record in the second half makes it feel like winning isn’t that far away. But the guys who helped make the Braves one of the worst teams in baseball in the first half of the season? They’re still around, and in many cases, still being counted on as primary contributors. And there just isn’t enough depth behind the team’s few good players to feel safe about the team’s chances to keep winning if any of their best guys get hurt.

Taking a best-case-scenario approach to deciding when to push all-in is exactly what got Arizona in trouble last year. And for the Braves to justify paying the price for Chris Sale, they’d have to overestimate their chances of winning in 2017 and overestimate the impact of adding a frontline starter. The Braves aren’t at the point where they should make that kind of gamble yet. Let the teams that have a better shot at winning outbid each other for the few good pitchers available in this market. Get better position players, continue building for 2018, and make your big move next winter if the team shows they’re ready to win.

Moving up the timeline is tempting, especially with the new park opening. But it’s probably a trap, and one the Braves would do well to avoid.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Yeah, the Braves are sounding insane. Hopefully it’s just ‘happy talk’ for the local media and the fanbase. But it’s sounding a bit like they mean it.