During a conference call with reporters, Braves president of baseball operations John Hart discussed several aspects of today’s blockbuster trade that saw Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden to go to the Cardinals in exchange for right-handers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. It was “very difficult” for the Braves to trade a homegrown product like Heyward, Hart said, yet it was a move the team felt it had to make “to help not only in the short term but also in the long term.”
With Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang in free agency and Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen both recovering from Tommy John surgery, Atlanta entered the offseason with a clear need for starting pitching. There wasn’t much help coming from the farm, given how Hart described the Braves as “woefully thin [pitching-wise] in our minor league system.” The St. Louis deal, therefore, checked a couple of boxes for the Braves as they were able to add a quality prospect in Jenkins and a young arm who’d experienced some Major League success in Miller. The fact that Miller isn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2018 season made him especially attractive, Hart said.
“Going into this winter we’d lost over 400 innings in our rotation and we didn’t have any players coming up in our system that were ready to provide those types of innings. We really needed two starting pitchers. As we went through the meetings, we went out there with the idea of how do we acquire starters. We sampled the waters, we talked to literally every club out there and weren’t looking for a one-year sort of fix. Shelby Miller was one of the younger pitchers that we had identified as a guy who could step in and help us right now and that we would be able to control for a number of years.”
Miller’s status as a piece for both the present and future gives the Braves “the flexibility to go either way” in deciding if other offseason moves will be geared towards next season’s club or perhaps for a few years down the road.
“We’ll take a good look at our competition in our division, take a good look at our club, take a look at what we can do in free agency to allow us to compete and examine other opportunities that might come our way. I don’t think this trade sets us [in a direction] either way. It provides us with the opportunity to look at everything independently….It certainly gives us some options for 2015 but there’s certainly a big picture in play.”
One of those big-picture questions involves Justin Upton, who (like Heyward) only has one year remaining on his contract before free agency. There has been speculation that Atlanta could look to deal both of its corner outfielders this winter, and while Hart said “there is absolutely a legitimate chance” Upton is a Brave in 2015, he also said there hadn’t been any serious discussion of a contract extension.
“There’s nothing definitive as we look to go forward, obviously. We’re going to continue to explore a lot of avenues with what we do with the ballclub. As we sit here today, there’s certainly a good chance Justin is back with us next year….I’ve had conversations [about an extension] but they have not been anything in depth so it would be unfair for me to comment much on Justin in that regard. We’ll certainly continue to talk with his agent but I don’t really have a definitive answer as of yet.”
Heyward was guaranteed $8.3MM in 2015, so the trade also frees up some salary space. This doesn’t mean the Braves will be in the running for the likes of Max Scherzer or James Shields (“We’re not looking to give up draft picks or financially handcuff this club,” Hart said), yet the extra payroll allows the club to explore both the free agent market and the trade market for further upgrades.
Despite Heyward’s pending free agent status after the 2015 season, the Braves “didn’t go out with the idea that Jason was going to be the guy that we used to get our starting pitching,” and that the club “sorted through a lot of different options before” deciding on this deal. Last winter, Heyward signed a two-year extension that covered his two remaining arbitration-eligible seasons, and this modest contract stood out amidst much longer-term extensions given to Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, Andrelton Simmons and Craig Kimbrel.
When I asked Hart if there had been any recent negotiations with Heyward about an extension, Hart gave the impression that there hadn’t been any further talks since last offseason.
“He wanted a two-year deal and wasn’t interested in a long-term extension unless the dollars were maybe beyond where the club certainly wanted to go. We had a strong feeling he was going to go on the market. That’s what he wanted to do. We wanted to protect ourselves and position ourselves better. If we elect, next year, to be one of 30 [teams] that compete for Jason on the market then that’s what we’ll do.”