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What the 2016 Royals can learn from the 2014 Atlanta Braves

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How the Royals can turn it around...

Atlanta Braves President of Baseball Operations John Hart
Atlanta Braves President of Baseball Operations John Hart
Dave Tulis

It seems somewhat natural in baseball to look for comparisons. When teams scout players they often assign a former or current major leaguer as a potential outcome for the player. Projection systems use past player performances as comparisons for future projections and some even spit out a former player. People even find comparisons of one team being similar to a different franchise in the past. If there is a particularly powerful offense then they are like the late-20's Yankees. If the pitching staff is strong then they are early 2010's Phillies or the 90's Braves.

As I was trying to think of what the Royals should do in the short-term future (2017-2018) I got stuck on a comparable for the franchise: the 2014 Braves.

Now almost no comparison is perfect, but let me posit some similarities.

High then low

The 2016 Royals were coming off back-to-back World Series appearances with a victory in the series last year. To date (and likely until the end of the season) their follow up year has been a dud. There were some high hopes in the Royals front office, media, and fans that they returned basically all of the roster from last year so another playoff run could happen (a notion I didn't agree with). However it seems that the entire team took one entire step back and now they sit several games under .500, well out of playoff contention.

The 2014 Braves saw a similar fate. The prior two years saw them win 94 and 96 games respectively, and winning their division in the latter. Though they didn't make it or win the World Series they were certainly poised to compete and expectations in Atlanta (among fans and Brave's staff) were high. The 2014 team would be a dud as well, finishing the year 79-83 (somehow still good for tied for 2nd place in the NL East).

A difference though is that while the 2016 Royals saw swings of highs and lows, being several games above and below .500 multiple times, the 2014 Braves didn't have quite the roller coaster. Instead it was just a single, long drop. In late July they were 10 games above .500 slugging it out with the Nationals for first. Ultimately though the second half would see them go a gruesome 27-40.

Home grown core and positional parallels

One of the touted strengths of the Royals is their home grown core at various positions. The Braves shared that similar trait.

Catcher

Okay I'm going to start this one off with asking you to do a little squinting. The Royals have Salvador Perez. The 2014 Braves had...Evan Gattis. Not quite the same with Perez as Perez is now the same age as Gattis debuted by, but offensively they have had similar careers. Perez is of course the much better defender and still on his homegrown team.

First Base

Name Age Rng G PA HR wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Freddie Freeman 20 - 26 861 3575 123 131 -3.5 123.2 -66.1 17.8
Eric Hosmer 21 - 26 838 3514 92 108 1.9 35.5 -94.1 6.1

The Royals took Eric Hosmer in the first round of 2008 while the Braves snagged Freddie Freeman in the 2nd round of 2007. Freeman has been better over his career than Hosmer but both debuted at a similar age and played a similar number of games. The Braves would come to an agreement with Freeman prior to free agency while it looks like Hosmer will depart.

Second Base

The Braves gave a 31-year old Dan Uggla a five year deal and by 2014 they had had enough of the underachieving slugger. Uggla played into July before the Braves released him, eating the remainder of the ~$7M they owed him. They then brought in gritty Tommy La Stella (from a Carolina college) to fill in the hole at a not young age of 25 to make his rookie debut.

The Royals of course regretted the end years of their own long term contract with Omar Infante, cutting bait on him in June and eating the rest of his contract. They then brought up their own gritty second baseman Whit Merrifield (also from a Carolina college!).

La Stella hit a poor 85 wRC+ for the Braves while Merrifield had put up an 83 wRC+ before being replaced by Raul Mondesi.

Shortstop

When it comes to defense first shortstops there are probably going to be a handful of names that come to mind. I'd bet two of them were on the two teams in this comparison.

Name Age Rng G PA ISO wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Andrelton Simmons 22 - 26 576 2300 0.102 84 -6.9 -47.9 101.1 13.2
Alcides Escobar 21 - 29 1084 4346 0.079 72 32.4 -110 62.4 10.1

Andrelton Simmons and Alcides Escobar; neither can hit really (outside of an outlier year or two) but Simmons is a better defender and hitter overall. He's been worth more than Escobar despite playing in half the number of games.

Escobar has a team option this winter for $6.5M that the club has rumored they'll be exercising (which makes little sense) but is a free agent after that. Simmons and the Braves came into an agreement though in the 2014 pre-season on a 7/$58M pact.

Outfield

This one is a bit different in assembly but similar in execution. The Royals outfield featured Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and some combination of Jarrod Dyson, Paulo Orlando, and Brett Eibner (with a random appearance by Kendrys Morales in interleague). For at least two thirds of the outfield you could consider it a strength. Gordon was drafted by the Royals and the Royals get at least some of the developmental credit for Cain.

The Braves though built their strong outfield in a different way. They had home grown Jason Heyward who by all purposes was a legitimate star, similar to the Royals Gordon. However they imported their other two thirds by bringing in Justin Upton (who had star qualities of his own right) and his brother Melvin Upton (then known as BJ).

The latter two brothers right now don't seem like much but it's not hard to remember their once strong projections in 2014

Heyward: 3.4 ZiPS/4.5 Steamer WAR

Justin Upton: 2.7 ZiPS/3.5 Steamer WAR

BJ Upton: 1.9 ZiPS/0.9 Steamer WAR

Their outfield was considered a strength no doubt, much like the 2016 Royals were going into the year.

Gordon/Cain/Dyson pre-season projection (FanGraphs Depth Charts): 8.6 fWAR

Upton/Upton/Heyward pre-season projection (ZiPS/Steamer average): 8.5 fWAR

Bullpen

Before there was Wade Davis there was Craig Kimbrel, arguably the best closer of the past decade. Owner of the lowest reliever FIP in history for a career (1.80) and tied with Dellin Betances for the lowest FIP- for a career (47). The '14 Braves weren't just a one-trick pony either as going into the season they followed up Kimbrel with a decent offering of Jordan Walden (owner of a 2.81 career FIP to that point), Luis Avilan (3.42 FIP), and David Carpenter (3.65 FIP to that point). Also they expected a returning Jonny Venters (recovering from Tommy John surgery) who had a career 3.00 FIP.

The Royals of course featured an elite pitcher in Wade Davis with a strong pair behind him in Herrera and Hochevar with Soria filling out (remember this was before Kelvin Herrera turned into current Kelvin).

By ZiPS the Braves 2014 bullpen was expected to be better than the Royals 2016 projection (5 fWAR vs 3 fWAR).

Rotation

So this is obviously the elephant in the room of this analogous idea.

Braves 2014 ZiPS:

Kris Medlen: 3.9 fWAR

Mike Minor: 3.7 fWAR

Julio Teheran: 3.5 fWAR

Alex Wood: 2.2 fWAR

Brandon Beachy: 1.4 fWAR

Total: 14.7 fWAR

Royals 2016 ZiPS:

Yordano Ventura: 2.8 fWAR

Edinson Volquez: 2.1 fWAR

Danny Duffy: 1.8 fWAR

Chris Young: 1.0 fWAR

Ian Kennedy: 0.9 fWAR

Kris Medlen: 0.5 fWAR

Total: 9.1 fWAR

Coincidentally both teams had Medlen and Minor in their organizations, but the Braves rotation was expected to be significantly better than the Royals. However things never go according to plan. Both Medlen and Minor would go down to Tommy John town for a repeat visit, cutting the head off potentially the best rotation that year. The Braves would then bring in Ervin Santana and his 1.7 fWAR projection, coughing up a draft pick (much like the Royals did with Ian Kennedy).

Winter Moves

So 2014 didn't go so well for the Braves despite solid expectations to be good.

Player 2014 ZiPS fWAR 2014 Actual fWAR Diff
Simmons 3.8 2 -1.8
Heyward 3.4 5.2 1.8
Freeman 3.2 4.2 1
Upton 2.7 4 1.3
Gattis 1.9 2.2 0.3
BJ Upton 1.9 0.4 -1.5
Bethancourt 1.7 -0.1 -1.8
La Stella 1.6 -0.1 -1.7
Uggla 1.2 -0.5 -1.7
Johnson 1.2 0.2 -1
Medlen 3.9 0 -3.9
Minor 3.7 0.3 -3.4
Teheran 3.5 3.2 -0.3
Kimbrel 2.3 2.3 0
Wood 2.2 2.6 0.4
Santana 1.7 2.9 1.2
Beachy 1.4 0 -1.4
Northcraft 1 0 -1
Walden 0.8 0.8 0
Venters 0.6 0 -0.6
Carpenter 0.6 0.8 0.2
Total 44.3 30.4 -13.9

A 14 win difference between expectations and actual results thanks in part to injuries and underperformance in some guys. However they actually had some players beat expectations in Heyward, Justin Upton, and Freeman. Though those performances couldn't quite fill the gap and eventually they would finish under .500.

Then the offseason would come around and the Braves would recognize the position they were in. They had a choice of trying to make one more run with superstar Jason Heyward and Justin Upton in 2015 or concede that injuries, lack of internal depth, and a closing window meant to sell. New President of Baseball Operations John Hart (and his new young GM John Coppolella) decided to refocus their organization on turning a fledgling farm system into a potentially bright future.

Atlanta began their rebuild early than perhaps most would have expected. Instead of waiting to see how 2015 played out before selling they pulled many triggers in the offseason and even right up to the eve of opening day.

November 16th:  Arodys Vizcaino and international bonus pool money for Tommy La Stella

November 17th: Traded Heyward/Walden for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins

December 19th: Traded Justin Upton and Aaron Northcraft for Max Fried, Jace Peterson, Mallex Smith, Dustin Peterson, and international pool money

January 14th: Evan Gattis and James Hoyt for Michael Foltynewicz, Andrew Thurman, and Rio Ruiz

April 5th: Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton Jr. for Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin, Matt Wisler, Jordan Paroubeck, and competitive balance round A pick (41st overall)

During that offseason Hart & Co made 14 trades, getting rid of basically everything that wasn't nailed down (like Freeman) and even making a surprising opening day eve trade of Kimbrel to the Padres. They weren't discriminatory about any asset; draft picks, bonus pool money, players, they got whatever they could take.

Entering 2014 various outlets ranked the Braves farm system generally poorly:

John Sickels: 26th

Baseball Prospectus: 24th

Baseball America: 26th

After the slew of offseason trades (excluding the deal for Kimbrel - which came after organization rankings happened):

John Sickels: 12th

Baseball Prospectus: 19th

Baseball America: 15th

It's hard to restock your farm system in a matter of months and the Braves didn't jump into the elite group immediately but in two of the three rankings they moved from the back five to the front half. In the case of Sickels they almost cracked the top 10.

It wasn't until this past offseason that dividends of development and high draft picks paid off:

John Sickels: 2nd

This system was quite thin a few years ago but a series of impact trades and more aggressive drafting improved the situation quickly, with pitching, defense, and speed as particular strengths.

Baseball Prospectus: 2nd

The Braves, meanwhile, have remade their system in a single calendar year, pole-vaulting all the way from 19th to second almost exclusively on the strength of savvy deal-making. If you count the 41st pick in last summer's draft, acquired from San Diego in the Craig Kimbrel deal, six of the organization's top ten prospects have arrived via trade since the last out of the 2014 season was recorded. And while the recent sell-off has been an extreme example of a tear-it-down rebuild, the next tier of the franchise's prospect ranks is similarly littered with extra-organizational acquisitions by both the present and former regimes... the foundation of the next great Braves teams has been laid on the trade market.

Baseball America: 3rd

Atlanta has revolutionized its farm system, with more than half of its Top 30 prospects (17 of 30) acquired via trades. The franchise's tear-down was designed to emphasize high-ceiling talent, which the Braves got, but part of the price was accepting some risk.

The theme ringing the loudest is how the Braves changed their system and future potential through trades. Drafting is more risky but can yield better results. Talent is free to acquire (besides draft money of course) and is more available (there is no team unwilling to part with a guy in a draft). However trades allow you to really control the assets you are getting and that's what the Braves did.

I'm of the opinion that the 2017 Royals aren't going to be any better than this year's iteration. There are likely to be too many holes and too many "well if..." for them to pick up an additional 15 wins. If that's the case then they should look to trade assets at their highest remaining value. That's hands down going to be this offseason for everybody.

Sure there is the idea of waiting until July to sell after seeing what you have but that likely won't return max value. Any team acquiring a Royals player in the offseason will get a full season of control and for certain players will be compensated with a draft pick if they go elsewhere in the winter of 2017/2018.

Some may say that you shouldn't punt 2017...but it's only punting if you think they will be good. It's only buying low if you think the price will get higher.