The dismantling of the 2013 Braves is almost complete, with Thursday’s trade of the two-time Gold Glove shortstop to the Angels. Anybody want Freddie Freeman?
Rebuffed in their reported attempts to acquire Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom from the Mets, the Braves instead settled for the Angels’ top two prospects plus a one-year stopgap at shortstop in Aybar. Newcomb is the big guy in the deal, both literally and figuratively. A monster 6-foot-5 left-hander who was more heavily recruited out of high school as a tight end than a pitcher, he was the 15th overall pick in the 2014 draft out of the University of Hartford. Ellis is a 6-foot-4 right-hander, a third-round pick in 2014 out of the University of Mississippi.
Newcomb’s calling card is a big fastball that led to 168 strikeouts in 136 innings in the minors in 2015, mostly in Class A. He allowed just 97 hits but walked 76 batters. If he can refine that control he could move quickly, and has top-of-the-rotation potential if everything comes together. Like Newcomb, Ellis reached Double-A, where he posted a 3.92 ERA in 15 starts with 62 strikeouts and 43 walks in 78 innings, suggesting he was some work to do. He throws a sinker in the lows 90s, a slider and a changeup regarded as plus, although left-handers hit him hard in 2015.
That 2013 Braves team won 96 games and was one of the youngest in the league. To look where this squad is now has to be viewed as a huge letdown for Braves fans. Atlanta had the majors’ worst offense in 2015 but has spent the past year focusing on acquiring young pitching. While Shelby Miller had an excellent season coming over from the Cardinals (ignore that win-loss record), Julio Teheran had a rough one, and Mike Foltynewicz, Matt Wisler and Manny Banuelos didn’t impress all that much in their rookie debuts. Newcomb and Ellis will join fellow prospects such as Max Fried, Touki Toussaint, Lucas Sims, Kolby Allard and Tyrell Jenkins as potential rotation starters of the future.
That’s a group with a lot of upside but some health issues, and none of them have put up numbers yet in the upper minors. Jenkins, for example, finished with an 88/61 strikeout/walk ratio in 138⅓ innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Sims had a better strikeout rate in reaching Double-A but walked 54 batters in 92⅔ innings. It’s certainly an intriguing collection of talent, and the Braves are hoping that quality comes from quantity.
The offense, however, is a complete mess. Freeman is the only guy currently on the 40-man roster who looks like a cornerstone piece, and the farm system doesn’t have much beyond shortstop prospect Ozhaino Albies, who is probably a couple years from the majors. The Braves acquired Hector Olivera from the Dodgers to play third base but suddenly decided he can’t play third and will try him in left field. The rest of the outfield is Nick Markakis, coming off a three-homer season; Cameron Maybin; and washed-up vets Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, whom the Braves are trying to dump. Other than possibly Maybin, who has one season plus a team option on his contract, none are likely to be around when the Braves are good again.
As for the Angels, they have holes in left field (the worst production in the majors in 2015), third base (David Freese is a free agent) and arguably second base (Johnny Giavotella was adequate at the plate but an adventure on defense). They instead used their top chips in a very thin farm system to find a long-term answer at shortstop. Aybar is coming off a bad season and has just one season left until free agency, so he wasn’t going to be the answer beyond 2016.
Simmons once looked like a potential two-way star. In his first full season, in 2013, he hit 17 home runs with excellent contact skills. But his offense hasn’t developed, as he hit .265/.321/.338 in 2015 with just four home runs as he simply pounded too many balls into the ground.
Still, while Brandon Crawford beat him out for the Gold Glove, Simmons an elite defender, with 25 Defensive Runs Saved in 2015, tops among shortstops for the third consecutive season. While he’s not going to get better in the field — defense tends to peak early for shortstops — he’s going to be a plus defender through the life of his contract, which runs through 2020 at $53 million total. Simmons has a high floor of value; even with minimal offense in 2015, he was worth 4.0 WAR. That’s a big drop from the 7.0 in 2013, but that’s an All-Star-level player.
My take is I like this deal from the Angels’ perspective. They’ll have a positive asset for the next five seasons, while the Braves gambled on two pitchers who just add to a similar stockpile. Ellis doesn’t look at all that interesting to me, so this might end being Newcomb for Simmons.
Hey, maybe Newcomb turns into a Harvey or deGrom. If that happens, kudos to Atlanta general manager John Coppolella and president John Hart. If not, this will be a deal the Braves regret.