With their most recent deal with division-rival New York, the Braves and GM John Hart are continuing their quick re-build, with eyes on the future.
There’s never a perfect time to make trades that signify raising the white flag on the season, but the Braves seem to have a talent of making deals at an awkward time.
Atlanta dealt closer Craig Kimbrel one day before Opening Day, thus changing roles for the entire bullpen. The Braves then traded for Juan Uribe from the Dodgers when the team was in Los Angeles. Uribe had to just switch dugouts.
Now the Braves traded away Uribe and Kelly Johnson to the Mets for a pair of pitching prospects perhaps an hour before game time in St. Louis Friday and on the same day Freddie Freeman came off the disabled list. Manager Fredi Gonzalez was down to 22 active players at game time Friday before Freeman arrived midway through the series opener with the Cardinals.
Some of the Atlanta players were hoping to have a full compliment of bats in order to perhaps make a run at a playoff spot. But the Mets presented an opportunity for the rebuilding Braves to continue their strategy of stockpiling young arms. While dealing away players to division rivals isn’t commonplace in baseball, the Braves and Mets have done it before. Atlanta dealt outfielder Jeff Francoeur to the Big Apple for Ryan Church back in 2007.
But this most recent trade had much different circumstances.
Francoeur and Church were both disappointments to their respective organizations, prompting the old “change of scenery will do them good” trade. With Uribe and Johnson, it was two guys who never had a prolonged future with the Braves and general manager John Hart got what he could for the two infielders.
The Braves signed Johnson in the off-season to a one-year deal hoping he would rebound from sub-par seasons to either help the 2015 team win now or be attractive to a contender near the trade deadline. Johnson, who started his career with Atlanta along with Francoeur, had a great first half and saved the Braves’ offensive bacon at times.
Third baseman Chris Johnson wasn’t doing the job with the bat, so it was Kelly Johnson who filled in at third before Uribe came on board. When Freeman went down for eight weeks with a bone bruise, it was Kelly Johnson that played the majority of the time at first base.
Johnson, who can also play left field, made himself an attractive piece for the offensively-starved Mets by hitting .275 with nine homers and 34 RBIs. The batting average was his best in five seasons since hitting .284 in 2010 for Arizona. The numbers were a huge turnaround from last season, when he hit just .215 with seven homers and 27 RBIs for three different teams.
Uribe’s 2015 season was a tale of two seasons, one in Los Angeles and one in Atlanta. In LA, Uribe had lost his job to former Met Justin Turner. He hit just .247 with one homer and six RBIs. But after the trade to the Braves, he played everyday at the hot corner, and Uribe flourished. While presenting a strong clubhouse presence and solidifying the defense at third, Uribe hit .285 as a Brave with seven round-trippers and 17 RBIs.
Both Johnson and Uribe have already helped the Mets win two of three over the Dodgers, a possible preview of a playoff series down the line. Johnson smashed a homer into the upper deck in his first game at Citi Field and Uribe just missed a homer in the 10th inning, but a game-winning single was more than good enough.
For the Braves, the trade said they didn’t expect to compete in the second half despite getting Freeman back. Atlanta was never expected to compete for a playoff spot and placing itself in third place is victory enough for this rebuilding team.
Hart has turned a minor league system that was ranked in the bottom five in baseball to one of the best. The pitchers the Braves got back from New York, John Gant and Rob Whalen, may never set foot on the mound inside SunTrust Field as Braves. They could, however, strengthen the organization for future trades and provide financial flexibility to lure free agents in the coming years.
The fruits of Hart’s labor haven’t been fully realized as of yet. All of these transactions, with more to come, will pay dividends eventually. But not until, at the very earliest, next season, and probably not until 2017.
On the other hand, the two former Met prospects might be Braves for the next 15 years. No one thought the prospect Atlanta got in 1985 for Doyle Alexander from Detroit wouldn’t turn out to be anything significant. That prospect was Hall of Famer John Smoltz. You just never know.
Whether the Braves just got the next John Smoltz or simply a couple of attractive trade chips, John Hart is putting the team in position to win, and win soon. Sometimes, that’s all you can ask.