Braves outfield: Who stays among Uptons, Heyward?

Things haven't gone the way the Braves expected with the outfield of Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward in their first two seasons together. Now it remains to be seen if one or more of them is traded before next season.
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Things haven't gone the way the Braves expected with the outfield of Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward in their first two seasons together. Now it remains to be seen if one or more of them is traded before next season.

 

The Braves outfield that many expected to be one of baseball’s best has been far from it in two seasons that Jason Heyward and the Upton brothers have manned it, and now the question is whether the trio has already played its last game together.

With Justin Upton and Heyward eligible for free agency after the 2015 season, and B.J. Upton two years into a five-year, $75.25 million contract the Braves are desperate to shed, there’s a chance that at least one or two of them could be moved this offseason.

Things haven't gone the way the Braves expected with the outfield of Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward in their first two seasons together. Now it remains to be seen if one or more of them is traded before next season.

Things haven’t gone the way the Braves expected with the outfield of Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward in their first two seasons together. Now it remains to be seen if one or more of them is traded before next season.

Once a new general manager is in place, one of the first orders of business will be deciding which of eight arbitration-eligible players (seven pitchers plus infielder Ramiro Pena) the Braves will offer contracts by Dec. 2, five days before the Winter Meetings in San Diego. But another matter that will be discussed plenty between now and those meetings is the outfield.

Remember the buzz after the Braves traded for Justin Upton in January 2013, only a couple of months after signing his brother B.J. Upton as a free agent? Many Braves fans wondered what the trio might be capable of – 25 homers and 25 stolen bases apiece? Maybe 80 homers, 80 stolen bases and 250 RBIs between them? Perhaps even more?

Well, Justin Upton had 29 homers, eight stolen bases and a career-high 102 RBIs in 2014. But Heyward and B.J. Upton had only a combined 23 homers, 93 RBIs and 40 stolen bases between them. Which was a lot better than a year ago, when Heyward had a couple of stints on the disabled list, B.J. had one of the worst seasons ever by an Atlanta player, and the pair combined for 23 homers, 64 RBIs and 14 stolen bases.

This year Heyward hit .271 with a .351 on-base percentage, but had only 11 homers and a .384 slugging percentage, power numbers far below what was expected after he arrived as the sport’s top prospect in 2010 and won Baseball America’s major league rookie of the year award over Buster Posey.

B.J. Upton was better in 2014 than in his disastrous first season with the Braves, but that’s not saying much. He still ranked as one of baseball’s worst position players in 2014, hitting .208 with 12 homers, 35 RBIs, a .287 OBP and more than three times as many strikeouts (173) as walks (57) in 519 at-bats.

In two stunningly bad seasons with the Braves, he’s hit .198 with 21 homers, 61 RBIs, a .279 OBP and a .593 OPS. His .314 slugging percentage in two years with the the Braves is more than 100 points lower than his .422 slugging percentage over eight seasons with the Rays.

To trade him, the Braves will presumably have to A. eat almost the entire amount he’s owed; B. trade him in a package that includes a prospect, in which case the Braves would still have to pay most of what he’s owed; or C. trade him for another bad contract, such as a B.J.-for-Edwin Jackson trade the Braves and Cubs discussed last summer. That deal could resurface.

Jackson, 31, is owed $11 million in each of the next two years, and coming off a season in which he was 6-15 with a 6.33 ERA and 1.642 WHIP in 28 games (27 starts). It’d be worth it to make the deal for the Braves, who would hope he could return to something close to his 2012 form, when he was 10-11 with a 4.03 ERA and 1.218 WHIP for the Nationals.

Most importantly, it would allow the Braves to rid themselves of B.J. Upton and avoid going into next season with a distraction similar to what they had entering this season with Uggla, who was finally released in July with about $19 million still owed to him over the last 1 ½ seasons of his contract. That was the most money the Brave ever ate on a contract, and they seem prepared to eat far more of B.J.’s deal to shed what could go down as the worst decision that fired general manager Frank Wren ever made.

Because the Braves let Jordan Schafer go on waivers last summer and Emilio Bonifacio is eligible for free agency, if they trade Upton the Braves’ only in-house center-field option might be Todd Cunningham, 25, a solid defensive outfielder who had a modest .287 average, .347 OBP and eight homers in his second season at Triple-A Gwinnett. It seems more likely the Braves, if they dump B.J.’s contract, would either move Heyward to center, or try to trade or sign a stop-gap center fielder for a year or two while giving speedy center-field prospect Kyle Wren a chance to develop.

Heyward had his right jaw broken by a fastball from a lefty in 2013. This past season, his .477 OPS vs. lefties ranked 225th among 226 hitters with 100 or more plate appearances against lefties.

Heyward had his right jaw broken by a fastball from a lefty in 2013. In 2014, his .477 OPS vs. lefties ranked 225th among 226 hitters with 100 or more plate appearances against lefties.

The situation is obviously different with the Braves’ other two incumbent outfielders: left fielder Justin Upton is the Braves’ only big-time home-run threat other than Evan Gattis, and right fielder Jason Heyward’s defense is so strong that he’s arguably their best all-around player despite offensive shortcomings. The Braves wouldn’t be looking to trade either of them if they were signed beyond next season.

The Braves could try to re-sign at least one a to multi-year extension before spring training. However, given their payroll constraints, it seems most likely the Braves would not sign more than one, Heyward or Justin Upton, and could trade the other this winter to add needed position depth to their minor league system or to fill another need on the major league roster, such as a frontline starting pitcher.

Trading J-Up or J-Hey could also open a spot for Gattis, who otherwise will probably be dealt this winter because the Braves have strong-armed catching prospect Christian Bethancourt ready to take over behind the plate. If the Braves trade Heyward and keep Justin Upton, they could move the latter to right field, his former position with Arizona, and play Gattis in left field, where his defense is serviceable at best but might improve some with a full spring training at the position.

If they trade Justin Upton, the Braves could replace him with Gattis in left field and have Heyward stay in right or move to center.

Before signing Heyward, 25, to a two-year, $13.3 contract extension in February, the Braves had in the past discussed a possible longer-term offer, but it was nowhere near the value of the franchise-record seven-year, $135 million deal the Braves gave first baseman Freddie Freeman in February. Some familiar with the situation said Heyward was looking for a bigger contract than what the Braves discussed or what they believed his offensive performance merited..

Justin Upton, 27, is scheduled to make $14.5 million in 2015 in the final season of a six-year, $50 million contract he signed with the Diamondbacks.  He had 29 homers and 102 RBIs for a woeful Braves offense that had no one else with more than 22 homers or 78 RBIs. He hit .270 with a .342 OBP and a .491 slugging percentage that was second-beset on the team (Gattis .493) and eighth among major league outfielders, and Upton was second on the team in offense WAR behind Freeman.

The criticisms of J-Up: He’s become a below-average defensive outfielder, he’s one of the streakiest big-time hitters in baseball, he’s a poor situational hitter who struggles with runners in scoring position, and he’s posted consecutive career-high strikeout totals in two seasons with the Braves, including 171 strikeouts this season to tie Uggla’s former franchise record.

Uggla’s  171 strikeouts in 2013 lasted only one year as a Braves record before  B.J. Upton shattered it this season with 173 whiffs in 141 games, his 200-strikeout pace halted in the second half of the season when manager Fredi Gonzalez began to bench B.J. at least once or twice per week.

Justin Upton had a team-high 162 at-bats with runners in scoring position, and hit .228 in those situations with 51 strikeouts and 66 RBIs. For comparision, Freeman had 52 RBIs in 126 at-bats with RISP despite hitting what was for Freeman a pedestrian .294 (37-for-126). A year ago, he was second in the majors with a .443 average with RISP in 2013.

Meanwhile, B.J. Upton is 29-for-188 (.154) with 72 strikeouts when batting with runners in scoring position in two seasons with the Braves. For some perspective, that’s fewer hits with runners in scoring position over two seasons than Andrelton Simmons had this year alone, despite the shortstop’s modest .250 average (30-for-120) in those situations.

Another particularly alarming aspect of the performances of B.J. Upton and Heyward was their work against left-handers in 2014. Heyward is a left-handed  hitter and played the entire season with a guard attachment on his helmet to protect the right side of his face after having his jaw smashed by a 90-mph fastball from Mets lefty John Niese in August 2013.

Those were likely factors that affected Heyward, whose .169 average (24-for-142) against lefties ranked 224th out of 226 major leaguers who had at least 100 plate appearances against lefties. His  .477 OPS against lefties was better than only San Diego’s Alexi Amarista (.446).  Meanwhile, the right-handed-hitting B.J. Upton only batted .200 (22-for-110) with a .566 OPS against lefties. He ad no homers and two RBIs against lefties, the fewest RBIs in the NL among players with at least 100 plate appearances against lefties.

• Let’s close with this one from my man Jason Isbell, who had a superb set during his stellar concert with the great John Prine on Saturday at the Fox in Atlanta.

“TRAVELING ALONE” by Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell

Mountains rough this time of year
Close the highway down
They don’t warn the town

And I’ve been fighting second gear
For fifteen miles or so
Trying to beat the angry snow

And I know every town worth passing through
But what good does knowing do
With no one to show it to

And I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Won’t you ride with me?

I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Won’t you ride with me?

Won’t you ride?
Won’t you ride?

I quit talking to myself
Listening to the radio
Long, long time ago
Damn near strangled by my appetite
Ybor City on a Friday night
Couldn’t even stand up right

So high the street girls wouldn’t take my pay
They said come see me on a better day
She just danced away

And I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Won’t you ride with me?

I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Won’t you ride with me?

Won’t you ride?
Won’t you ride?

Paintin the outside lane I’m tired of answerin to myself
Hard like the rebuilt part I don’t know how much it’s got left
How much it’s got left

I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Won’t you ride with me?

I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Won’t you ride with me?

Won’t you ride?
Won’t you ride?

 


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