The Braves’ first few moves of the 2016-17 offseason — and, in particular, the acquisitions of both Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey — appeared to raise the floor for an Atlanta club team designed to survive, if not necessarily thrive in, 2017. The club’s most recent move might not help raise that floor any higher. What it could do, however, is heighten the team’s ceiling — and, at the very least, provide the club with an interesting trade chip for the July trade deadline.
Here’s the trade in full.
- Jaime Garcia
When healthy, Garcia has been an effective pitcher. Over the course of his career, he’s produced a better-than-average FIP and ERA (both 8% lower than league average). Staying on the mound for any length of time has been the issue for Garcia, however. After recording 194 innings in 2011 — and earning a four-year contract extension (with two options) along the way — Garcia struggled to stay healthy. He managed only 220 innings over the next three seasons combined and began 2015 on the disabled list. His numbers were never particularly bad during that span — and were, in some cases, quite good. After thoracic outlet surgery in the middle of 2014, however, his career appeared to be in some jeopardy.
Garcia came back unexpectedly in late May of 2015 and pitched like an ace for the Cardinals, producing a 2.43 ERA, 3.00 FIP and 2.8 WAR over just 129 innings. That run of success continued into 2016, after the Cardinals decided to pick up the first of Garcia’s two options. From May 21, 2015 (when he made his debut for that season) through May 21, 2016, Garcia recorded 180 innings, posting the 11th-best FIP and fifth-best ERA in baseball. That run included one of the best-pitched games of the 2016 season, during which Garcia used his wide array of pitches and nasty movement to shut down the Milwaukee Brewers.
Unfortunately for Garcia and the Cardinals, his run of success took a turn for the worse as the season progressed. The cause wasn’t entirely obvious, however: Garcia’s fastball didn’t losing significant velocity, nor did his strikeout numbers decline substantively.
So what happened? Let’s see if we can spot a problem.
So, yes, I think we found the problem. Garcia began giving up more and more home runs, inflating his runs-allowed and FIP numbers. Regarding possible reasons for this trend, there are a few reasonable explanations. Explanations like:
- Garcia was maybe hurt; or
- Garcia was possibly tired; or
- Garcia had a really bad run of luck.
All three have their merits, but all three have different implications for the wisdom of Atlanta’s decision. For example, if Garcia is actually hurt, it’s tough to figure how the Braves could expect much from him next season. If he was simply pitching fatigued, it’s reasonable to expect something closer to vintage Garcia in 2017. Garcia was pitching more innings than he had in half a decade last year, and the Cardinals probably didn’t help matters by pitching him on short rest for a start in August. Finally, if Garcia was just experiencing a run of bad luck — again, the Braves can hope for good production.
On a rate basis, the projections see very good things for Garcia, calling for a 3.62 FIP and a 3.54 ERA. Our Depth Charts currently have Garcia receiving 130 innings. That would be good news for Atlanta: even at that relatively low innings total, Garcia’s $12 million salary would likely represent a bargain. He’s about half a run better than anyone else on the rest of the Braves staff as currently assembled.
As currently assembled, that Atlanta rotation begins with Julio Teheran. If Garcia can pitch, he would serve as an effective No. 2 for the club, with youngster Mike Foltynewicz followed by R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon. That’s a pretty decent staff — perhaps still in the bottom third of MLB teams, but in the range of respectable. At the very least, it buys the club some time while their other pitching prospects develop. Moreover, if Garcia pans out, he might be worth something on the trade market in July.
As for the cost, the Braves appear to have conceded quantity over quality. The Cardinals’ return on the deal isn’t going to get anyone excited. John Gant has an unusual delivery, and produced a not-terrible debut for the Braves last season, making seven starts and 13 relief appearances for a 4.39 FIP and 4.86 ERA. Chris Ellis was basically one rung down on the development ladder from Gant, spending half the season in Double-A and half in the Triple-A. He performed reasonably well at the former level, thanks to a very low home-run rate, but struggled to avoid free passes all season and suffered the consequences against more advanced competition in Triple-A. Luke Dysktra, for his part, offers good contact skills, striking out in fewer than 10% of his plate appearances throughout the minors. He doesn’t walk or hit for power, though. And he just turned 21. And he’s only just completed a season in short-season A-ball.
All told, he Cardinals have received three middling prospects for Garcia. Getting one or two to the majors — contributing in even just a minor role — would constitute a success. But they don’t get anything resembling a sure thing or high upside. The market for pitching is sparse, but a pitcher with a poor year and major injury history wasn’t going to net top prospects, regardless of market. Rather, the significance of the trade for them is the clear signal it sends to top prospect Alex Reyes and his role for 2017. While the Cardinals still have five veterans — Mike Leake, Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright — who are all theoretically ahead of Reyes in the rotation, it’s tough to see (a) all five of them staying healthy for Opening Day and (b) Reyes failing to bypass Michael Wacha, who struggled to finish 2016 and has a chronic scapular condition (Brandon McCarthy has a similar one) that will make it difficult to rely on for innings.
Moving Garcia seemed inevitable for the Cardinals, either now or in the spring. In the Braves, they found a team hoping to get something from Garcia’s upside, whether on the mound or (at midseason) in a trade. If Garcia pitches well, the Braves are likely to get a better haul of prospects than the one they just conceded. If he pitches poorly, the Braves didn’t give up a ton, aren’t spending a lot, and shouldn’t be counting on contending for 2017 anyway. For both teams, this trade is about space. The Braves are providing some for their pitching prospects so they aren’t thrown into the fire before they are ready, while the Cardinals are creating some so that their best prospect can make an impact from the start of next season.