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March 6, 2012

Painting the Black

Braves Still Building the Wight Way

by R.J. Anderson

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The Braves have too many young starters—a statement as timeless as any in baseball, right up there with "the Pirates hope to have a winning season” or “the Yankees lead the league in payroll.” Some things in baseball are destined to stay the same. Atlanta’s evergreen supply of young arms seems to be one of them.

Often, when a person joins a team just as it begins to do something well, he or she is identified as the catalyst for that change. That John Schuerholz has become the iconic figure behind the Braves’ pitching dominance is no surprise. Blossoming starting pitchers shaped Schuerholz’s legacy as much as, or perhaps more than, any other group of players did.

In 1984, Schuerholz made the decision to eschew experience and stock the Royals’ rotation with youth. He turned to the trio of Bret Saberhagen (20), Mark Gubicza (21), and Danny Jackson (22). Kansas City would go 23-35 when those three started but made the postseason anyway and lost in the American League Championship Series. The next season, the Royals went 56-36 when those three started and won the World Series.  

Schuerholz left the Royals for the Braves after the 1990 season. In doing so, he inherited a rotation that featured another talented young threesome: John Smoltz (23), Tom Glavine (24), and Steve Avery (20). Behind those three pitchers, the Braves improved their record by 29 wins in 1991. Schuerholz would soon sign Greg Maddux, and the Braves would reach four of the next five World Series, winning the 1995 edition.

Aiding Schuerholz’s case as the Young Pitcher Whisperer is his sterling trade record. He admits that his worst move was trading a young David Cone for a catcher in his twilight, and he traded Jason Schmidt before the burly righty made three All-Star appearances. Even so, Jay Jaffe found that Schuerholz walked away successful from most trades involving prospects. That aside, the Braves’ ability to mass-produce young starters predates Schuerholz’s tenure and extends beyond Bobby Cox’s reign as general manager during the late 1980s. To find the movement’s genesis, you have to trace it further back. Back past Roy Clark and Paul Snyder, back to 1967—when Bill Wight joined the organization as a scout.

The Yankees signed Wight, who passed away in May 2007, as a small left-handed pitcher from California in 1941. He debuted in 1946 and appeared in 15 games for the Yankees before beginning the journeyman phase of his career. He bounced from the Yankees to the White Sox, to the Red Sox, to the Tigers, to the Indians, to military service, to the Orioles, to the Reds, and at last to the Cardinals. His shining moments as a pitcher came while with the White Sox in 1949—he went 15-13 with a 126 adjusted earned run average over 245 innings pitched. For his career, Wight finished with more losses than wins and more walks than strikeouts.

Nobody remembers Wight for being a great pitcher, but they do remember two things about his career. One is his devastating pickoff move. The data on pickoffs from Wight’s era is incomplete—and non-existent in the early phase of his career—but Baseball-Reference credits him with picking off 35 runners in 1,563 major-league innings. For comparison, James Shields—the major-league leader in pickoffs last season—has 24 pickoffs in 1,227 innings pitched. The other thing Wight is known for is his battle with Satchel Paige on August 20, 1948. Long story short: Wight allowed a single run over eight innings and finished with the loss because Paige tossed a complete game shutout.   

Wight became a scout for the Astros after his playing days ended. Despite being a pitcher, Wight’s keen eye for hitting talent was evident throughout his evaluating career. Wight stuck with Houston for five seasons, most notably scouting and signing Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan. He would scout for another 32 years after leaving the Astros, and all of them came with Atlanta. The names Wight located and helped secure read like a who’s who of Braves hitters: Dusty Baker, Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, David Justice, even Jeff Blauser. Wight’s time in Atlanta produced another future superstar in Paul Snyder, who served as Wight’s understudy, soaking up philosophies that he later employed as the Braves’ scouting director.

The idea that pitching trumps hitting when building a team was one of Wight’s foremost philosophies. In Scout’s Honor, Wight says, “If you get the long range pitching established, you’ve got the nucleus of taking a second division ball club into the division faster than anything.” Snyder took this parlance to heart, acknowledging later that he would opt for the pitcher if the two players were valued equally. Wight recognized that producing pitchers served two purposes. The Braves could use those pitchers to strengthen their own roster. But they could also use superfluous starters to fill other needs through trade. Also in Scout’s Honor, Snyder, while paraphrasing Wight, says, “[Everybody’s] always looking for pitching and if you have pitching you can get players.”

***

A quiet offseason is the last thing a fan base wants after enduring a late-season collapse. Yet a quiet offseason is just what the Braves gave their fans following their implosion. While the rest of the National League East—save the Mets—made headline after headline by signing or trading for marquee names or former All-Stars, the Braves stayed budget-obedient. The only new starter in the Braves lineup will be shortstop Tyler Pastornicky—and even he spent the season’s final night on the major-league bench. Otherwise, this is a team with continuity, if not history, on its side.

Continuity can be mistaken for complacency, and the Braves’ even-handedness can be mistaken for moving in reverse when compared to the series of transactions across the rest of the division. How can a team that failed to make the postseason last year make it this year when its greatest rivals improved? The addition of another Wild Card spot helps, but even then it won’t be easy—it never is. Beyond the expanded playoff field, the Braves are staking their hopes on improvements from players who played uncharacteristically poorly last season, like Jason Heyward, Martin Prado, and Michael Bourn (during his time in Atlanta, at least). 

The other key to the Braves’ competitive aspirations is their pitching depth: Atlanta might lead the league in quality arms ready to contribute to the major-league team, especially if you subscribe to the school of thought that labels Kris Medlen and Arodys Vizcaino as passable major-league starting pitchers. The Braves have an embarrassment of starting pitcher riches, and with the exception of Tim Hudson, all of them are 26 years old or younger and two or more seasons away from free agency. In other words, the Braves might be wise to employ Wight’s idea about trading starters should the opportunity arise.

Almost every season, the Braves seem to be better health and a little offense away from making a deep playoff run. They excel in the other aspects of building a team. Those who have read the Braves chapter in Baseball Prospectus 2012 know how good Frank Wren is at assembling benches, just as those who pay attention to the sport know how good the Braves bullpen is with Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters, and Craig Kimbrel nailing down the late innings. What’s missing is what is always missing from Atlanta’s lineup: one more impact bat. Prado might open the season in left field, but his powerless profile is atypical for a corner outfielder. Plus, a Chipper Jones injury would force Prado to third base, leaving the Braves with a makeshift solution.

This is where the Braves’ pitching depth comes in handy. Sure, they may need to acquire a shortstop, too—perhaps a veteran like Jason Bartlett—but a team is more likely to live with a subpar shortstop than a subpar corner outfielder given the offensive baselines at each position. If the Braves do make a big trade, it will be a for a corner outfielder who can bat in the middle of the order and assist in run production. In a sense, the Braves chased the ideal fit when they looked to acquire Hunter Pence last July.

***

When the Braves begin pursuing trades, the question they will have to answer is which starter they want to swap. Hudson is likely off the table, in part because he is the staff’s graybeard and will miss April after offseason back surgery. Not only that, but Hudson has procured 10-and-five rights, so he can reject any trade. Top prospect Julio Teheran probably isn’t going anywhere, either.

The removal of Hudson from consideration leaves Jair Jurrjens as the logical choice to pack his bags. At age 26, Jurrjens is the next-oldest starter after Hudson and is two seasons away from testing the free-agent market. Scott Boras represents him, making the odds of a favorable extension slim. It isn’t clear that an extension would benefit the Braves, anyway. While Jurrjens’ most ardent supporters make the overzealous and unfair comparison to Greg Maddux, there are some simple facts they cannot ignore.

One such inconvenient truth is Jurrjens’ four trips to the disabled list since 2009 (albeit none due to his arm). Another is the PITCHf/x data that shows Jurrjens’ fastball losing steam in 2011. The company line on Jurrjens’ lost velocity sways between two stories. Either Jurrjens learned Jonny Venters’ sinker during the spring and began using it often, or Greg Maddux advised Jurrjens to sacrifice stuff for location—thus going against what Leo Mazzone preached to his pitchers. This isn’t meant to deride Jurrjens—a fine pitcher who can throw four pitches for strikes and uses the corners of the plate well—but instead to be realistic about his value. Writing that a pitcher is not the second coming of Maddux—arguably the best pitcher of the past 20-25 years—is no insult.

What Jurrjens is and what the Braves seem to value him as is a good, but not irreplaceable, starter. If the offseason reports are true, Atlanta attempted to trade Jurrjens and Prado to Kansas City for outfielders Wil Myers and Lorenzo Cain. While the Braves and Royals never consummated the deal, the rumored swap hints at Atlanta’s willingness to move its starters if the right trade presents itself. But here is another foil: Did the Braves wait too long to become proactive?

While Atlanta shopped Jurrjens, the rest of the league talked about and acquired the likes of Michael Pineda, Mat Latos, Gio Gonzalez, and Trevor Cahill. The returns varied, but there is no denying that the trade market for young starting pitchers this winter was the flushest it had been for a while. Those market dynamics can work in the Braves’ favor by giving them readymade trade templates, but they can work against them, too—particularly if quality young starters continue to flood the market.

Next to Jurrjens, the Braves starter who best combines accomplishment with upside is Tommy Hanson. Frontline starter expectations for Hanson persist but could wane with another down season. Shoulder trouble sidelined Hanson twice last season, and he took steps to alleviate the stress by eliminating what he described as a slight pause  in his delivery during the offseason. Unfortunately, a car accident early in the spring left Hanson concussed and sidelined. The Braves are likely going to hold onto Hanson for at least another year, as he will not qualify for free agency until after the 2015 season.

If the market doesn’t value Jurrjens enough to give the Braves their desired return, and the Braves value Hanson too much to trade him, then the best two options remaining are a pair of unproven starters: Mike Minor and Randall Delgado. Minor is the odds-on favorite to claim the fifth-starter job in Hudson’s absence but turned heads for the wrong reasons when he hinted that a trade might be in his future. Whether Minor’s comments were conceited and petulant or just realistic depends on your perspective. Meanwhile, Kevin Goldstein described Delgado as a bigger version of Jurrjens earlier this spring.

The problem with trading Minor or Delgado is receiving fair value in return. The two have fewer than 30 major-league starts between them. While that’s not a problem when attempting to import a veteran, hopes of landing a prospect like Myers or Cain might be unrealistic, since the ultimate challenge trade—pitching prospect for hitting prospect—is rarely executed. Of course, there are alternatives. The Braves could shop rookie sensation Brandon Beachy, one of their relievers, or a secondary pitching prospect to get what they want, but differences in evaluation could leave Atlanta holding onto its own arms again. Factor in that Atlanta is in win-now mode and standing pat becomes a realistic and even defensible position.

***

At some point, the Braves will have to make a move involving a starting pitcher. Between Atlanta’s Latin American wellspring and recent draft classes, they could see an additional two or three coming attractions join the waiting list by the end of the season—Carlos Perez is one name to watch, and Zeke Spruill and J.R. Graham are two others. And this is ignoring the most obvious quick riser in the system. Tony DeMacio is the Braves’ scouting director, but once—then in a scouting capacity—he found a finesse left-handed pitcher in the northeast whom he convinced the team to draft. That pitcher, a two-sport star (in baseball and hockey), is heading for Hall of Fame enshrinement after winning 300 games in the major leagues. DeMacio’s most recent left-handed find is Sean Gilmartin, and while comparisons to Tom Glavine are wildly optimistic, Gilmartin—like Minor before him—should be pawing Glavine’s old stomping grounds at Turner Field sooner rather than later.

The work of DeMacio and others in the Braves organization has to leave Wren confident that he can trade away part of his starting pitching surplus without harming his team’s long-term health. Even with that comfort level, do not expect Wren to make a move just make a move. Fans may push the Braves to make up for a somnambulant offseason with some midseason fireworks, but consider what John Coppolella, the Braves’ director of professional scouting, told Business Week about the Bourn negotiations last July:

[Houston] asked at first for one of our top four pitching prospects and we went through the room and each of us ranked those four, talked about each one, and we ended up not trading any of them. This team is based on good young pitching and we all felt we needed to hold on to that strength.

Wight might say that Coppolella spoke like a true Brave—and he would know.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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