ATLANTA — After a trip to the Winter Meetings didn’t really produce any headlines, the Atlanta Braves certainly made some on Saturday when they hooked up with the Los Angeles Dodgers on a five-player trade that could have a big-time impact on the future of both clubs.
Atlanta dealt left fielder Matt Kemp back to L.A. in exchange for pitchers Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, infielder Charlie Culberson and cash considerations.
It’s a truly fascinating deal for both sides. Though this trade involved a host of veterans, it also has a direct effect on Atlanta’s best and brightest prospect.
Ronald Acuña was already on the fast track to SunTrust Park in 2018, but this deal allows him to make his final approach after a spot in the Atlanta outfield was officially opened up. Now the club just has to make a decision on his official arrival date, which could be delayed in order to maintain an extra year of contractual control.
“We expect Ronald Acuña to factor at some point in 2018 and I’m not prepared to say,” said Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos when asked for an ETA on the club’s most highly-touted prospect in recent memory.
“He’s a young player at 19, turning 20 here soon,” Anthopoulos continued. “We expect him to factor in 2018. Whether that’s early, middle, late, I’m not sure. We’ll continue to evaluate it, but we expect Ronald Acuña to be a very good player for a very long time. We’re not going to be overly concerned with how soon or how fast, but when he’s ready to go… we’re going to look to make room for him and certainly a move like this won’t hurt.”
The Braves cleared a path for Acuña as they divested themselves of Kemp’s contract obligation, a $36 million sum which stretched into 2019. They did so by taking on a couple of well-paid veteran starting pitchers and a utility option while also assuming financial responsibility for cutting loose Gonzalez, who was immediately designated for assignment. The Dodgers sent some cash over in the trade, which helps even out the contracts coming to Atlanta.
If that sounds like a lot, well, it certainly is.
With $4.5 million in cash considerations coming over with the four players, the money in this deal is a wash. Anthopoulos acquired players on expiring contracts in order to push his club’s financial obligations ahead to the 2018 payroll. In other words, the money due for Kemp’s 2019 salary is now being used to pay ahead on McCarthy, Kazmir and releasing Gonzalez. Ultimately, the Braves took on some salary for next season in order to add at least one pitcher who should join Atlanta’s starting rotation in McCarthy, though Kazmir’s future is less certain.
The bottom line is that this trade should allow for more flexible spending for the Braves in next year’s stellar free agent market. It will also enable the club to have the necessary capital to pursue other, bigger trade targets in the future as well.
“[Going] through 2019 and [looking] at the rosters, we had a lot of different ideas, concepts and proposals,” said Anthopoulos of the trade talks to move Kemp’s salary. “We talked with a lot of teams about various things with players making some significant money coming back. We explored a lot of things. This is the one that got some traction, so it’s the one that we pursued. Really, being candid, this was the only one that was going to work for us.”
The Braves have only three players on long term contracts beyond 2018, first baseman Freddie Freeman, center fielder Ender Inciarte and starting pitcher Julio Teheran. Adding McCarthy and Kazmir to outfielder Nick Markakis and catchers Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers and the Braves have nearly $50 million worth of contracts set to expire at the close of next season.
McCarthy, 34, made 16 starts for Los Angeles last season and, most importantly, ended the year healthy. Anthopoulos worked in the Dodgers front office for the past two years and said he believes McCarthy is primed to contribute to the Atlanta starting five in 2018.
“We see him being in our rotation,” said Anthopoulos. “He had an intermittent year in L.A. but the stuff was very good. He came back at the end of the year and was on the World Series roster just because of how good he looked, how good stuff was, up to 94 mph. He started throwing a slider that he just added at the end of the year that was really good. Still very good stuff and even early in the year he was on a roll in L.A. when I was there. First few months was really throwing the ball well and then he missed time. Excited about him, think there’s some upside to him.”
Kazmir will turn 34 years old in January and did not pitch in the majors in 2017 because of a hip ailment which affected his velocity. He underwent hip surgery and made a handful of minor league rehab appearances. Anthopoulos said Atlanta will take a look at Kazmir in spring training to determine if he’s in position to help in the rotation as well.
Anthopoulos wanted to find some veteran arms to help bridge the gap to some of Atlanta’s prized pitching prospects, several of which could contribute over the course of the 2018 season, including Max Fried, Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka. The club also wants to leave the door open for those young arms to come in and compete in spring training.
“If a guy like Scott Kazmir can throw the way he’s capable of throwing and the way he’s thrown in the past, even stronger for us in terms of depth,” said Anthopoulous. “We have a lot of young arms. We don’t know that they’re all necessarily going to be able to go 200 innings, perform over 200 innings. We’re going to need that depth.”
“With the other wave behind those [veteran] guys, with the Allards, the Frieds and the Sorokas that are starting to get close, and obviously Fried has already been up, just to have that depth over the course of the year, especially knowing how young we are on the mound, is going to be really important,” said Anthopoulos.
The Braves also added the versatile Charlie Culberson, who has a good glove, should help out off the bench and is capable of playing just about everywhere. The 28-year-old is from nearby Calhoun, Ga., and was a first round draft pick by San Francisco in 2007. Culberson has spent parts of five seasons in the majors with the Giants, Rockies and Dodgers.
While the club did strengthen its roster in a couple of areas, the biggest move Atlanta made with this deal was clearing a path to the majors for Acuña, the 19-year-old wunderkind who lit the minor leagues on fire as he blazed a trail from A-Ball to Triple-A in 2017. Though he may or may not break camp with the big club for reasons not related to his ability or readiness, Acuña will be the story in spring training. If he puts together a strong showing, Acuña could make for a difficult decision for the Braves, a decision that Anthopoulos said has not been made by any means at this time.
The Dodgers. meanwhile, are setting themselves up to potentially get under the luxury tax threshold of $197 million this season in order to gets their funds in order and spend on the robust 2018 free agent class next winter headlined by Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and a host of other All-Stars.
It seems unlikely that their reunion Kemp will be a lasting one, with Los Angeles likely trying to find a way to flip the injury-prone veteran slugger to another club. The American League would offer Kemp a chance to DH, a role which bests suits him at this stage of his career.
The other veteran slugger in this deal was just looking for a route to free agency. Gonzalez agreed to waive his no-trade clause if the Braves would designated him for assignment. He will make about $22 million in 2018 and is now searching for a place to play. Gonzalez missed significant time in 2017 due to injury and the Dodgers are now set at first base with the emergence of rookie of the year Cody Bellinger.