Simmons trade another gut punch for many Braves fans

Andrelton Simmons is widely regarded as the best defensive shortstop in decades, and arguably the best defender in the majors at any position. He was traded by the Braves on Thursday. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)
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Andrelton Simmons is widely regarded as the best defensive shortstop in decades, and arguably the best defender in the majors at any position. He was traded by the Braves on Thursday. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

For a big portion of Braves fans, trading Andrelton Simmons, the best defensive player in baseball, was a gut punch similar to what they felt when Craig Kimbrel was traded on the eve of Opening Day.

To some, it was even harder to take, given that Simmons is an every-day player, signed for five more seasons, and quite literally the kind of player who was worth the price of admission because there was a good chance he was going to make a spectacular play or two at any game you attended.

A dad could take his kid to the ballpark and say, “Tonight we’re going to watch the best shortstop you’ll ever see. So watch closely.”

Andrelton Simmons is widely regarded as the best defensive shortstop in decades, and arguably the best defender in the majors at any position. He was traded by the Braves on Thursday. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

Andrelton Simmons is widely regarded as the best defensive shortstop in decades, and arguably the best defender in the majors at any position. He was traded by the Braves on Thursday. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

The defensive whiz is gone now, having been shipped off Thursday to the L.A. Angels for a solid veteran shortstop, Erick Aybar, and the Angels’ top two pitching prospects, lefty Sean Newcomb and Cliff  Ellis. By all accounts both pitchers are elite prospects, with the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Newcomb a potential ace if he can improve his command and secondary pitches.

We’re talking 94-97 mph fastball topping out at 99, folks – from the left side. Special. Newcomb, 22, was 9-3 with a 2.38 ERA in 27 starts at three minor-league levels, and had 168 strikeouts with 76 walks in 136 innings. He finished in Double-A, and could join the Braves rotation at some point during the 2016 season.

John Manuel at Baseball America tells me his publication immediately moved Newcomb to the No. 1 spot on the Braves prospect list, ahead of the likes of Ozzie Albies, Max Fried, Matt Wisler, Lucas Sims and Hector Olivera, who had been BA’s No. 1-rated Braves prospect last month.

Ellis, 23, a Birmingham native who pitched at Ole Miss, is a potential middle-rotation starter. He’ll be very high on the Braves’ prospect list as well.

Aybar is a former All-Star (2014) and one-time former Gold Glove winner under contract for one more season, and the Angels sent $2.5 million to the Braves to cover the difference in his $8.5 million salary and Simmons’ $6 million in 2016 (do you get the impression that every dollar, literally, is important to these Braves?).

Although Simmons had a higher OPS (.660) than Aybar (.639) in 2015, Aybar had a .700-.617 advantage over Simmons in 2014 and has been a better overall hitter, with a .276/.315/.378 slash line in 10 seasons compared to Simmons’ .256/.304/.362 in four seasons.

That’s why Braves GM John Coppolella disagreed with a reporter who said during a post-trade conference call that some fans would look at this again as the Braves dumping salary and moving a popular player for nothing more than additional pitching prospects, albeit high-level prospects.

“No. I would just say this: You can make an argument that we are actually a team that can win more games with Aybar,” Coppolella said. “Aybar is a career .276 hitter; Simmons has never hit .276 in a full season. Aybar’s a switch-hitter, 18 months back an All-Star, he can hit (first or second in the order) for you. I mean, Aybar’s a really good player. I think we traded defense for offense in this trade. The fact that we got two huge-upside arms is great, but as far as for 2016, I don’t think that’s a big step back for this Braves team.

“I think where it will hurt is more in 2017, 2018, if Aybar ends up as a free-agent player. Maybe we can sign him long term; I think we need to find out more about him, he needs to find out more about us. But at the end of it, he’s a really good player. He was a huge part of this deal. This wasn’t just some kind of prospect trade. This was a value-for-value trade that had some really good prospects in it.”

Coppy continued, “We can’t have a year like we had last year. That’s why we had to get back major league value. Since we made the trade two or three hours ago, we have gotten three calls on Aybar  already, from teams that want to trade for him.  He’s a really good hitter, somebody that can play short. Somebody that our staff really liked and our scouts really liked. He’s a good player. So we’re very happy to have Aybar.”

If I were to look at this clinically, strictly from a baseball standpoint, the Braves may have gotten the best of this deal, and they could “win” the trade in a big way if Newcomb becomes an ace or something close to one, and Ellis becomes at least a contributing major league pitcher.

I certainly get it. I understand how they justify trading one of their most popular players, a player so great defensively that he was becoming a Braves icon despite being a mediocre-at-best hitter.

I understand, but wouldn’t have done it. For the same reason that I’m sure the Padres regret trading Ozzie Smith, even though they got back Garry Templeton, who was a good shortstop for another 10 years for San Diego.

Ozzie went on to take his legacy to the St. Louis, cementing his reputation as the greatest defensive shortstop of the modern era. Which he had been in the view of almost everyone, at least until Simmons came along. Folks, Andrelton is the best defensively since Ozzie, and might well be better because of his arm. In my opinion there’s no question that he’s the best since Ozzie — yes, better than Omar Vizquel.

And now, if Simmons goes to L.A. and plays another six, eight or even 10 years — which he definitely could — there’s a good chance that he’ll be regarded more as an Angel than a Brave when folks look back and talk about the greatest shortstops who ever played. The way that Ozzie is regarded as purely a Cardinals icon by just about everyone outside of San Diego.

But that’s not the reason I wouldn’t have made the trade. You can’t worry about a player’s legacy when making deals like this. No, a big part of why I wouldn’t have made it is because Simmons and Freddie Freeman are the last two fan-favorite players left on the team, the kind of players whose names you see on the back of countless jerseys and T-shirts at every Braves home game, and scattered around road stadiums when the Braves are in town, too.

Fans want to know they can become attached to players and that not every one of them is going to be shipped out. But if a fan got attached to a particular Braves player during the 2013 or 2014 seasons, that player is most likely gone now.

Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, Craig Kimbrel. All gone. All moved in a 4 ½-month span capped by Kimbrel’s shocking trade the night before the season began, when most fans had begun to get over the Heyward-Upton-Kimbrel trades of the offseason and were excited about the new season beginning with Kimbrel heading up the bullpen and the team coming off an energized spring training.

Several more popular players — Alex Wood, Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe, Jonny Gomes — were dealt in the second half of the season, along with middle-infield prospect Jose Peraza, who already had quite a fan following, but who also had been surpassed on the prospect list by Albies.

We all get that  the Braves felt it necessary to tear this thing down in order to rebuild the farm system via trades and draft picks (some acquired via trades), and that the only way a team with such payroll constraints could get back to being a consistent contender – not a wild-card hopeful, but a division contender year after year – was by filling the pipeline with young talent.

But they also said they wanted to be a contender when they moved into their new ballpark in 2017, and this Simmons trade would appear to make that less  likely, unless one or both of the pitchers they got is a rotation stud by then and the Braves have Albies or someone else playing solid defense at shortstop.

And isn’t it important to establish some momentum during the 2016 season before asking fans to purchase season tickets and get excited about the 2017 season in a new ballpark? Maybe the Braves will use some of their freed-up payroll to sign or trade for a slugger before or during the 2016 season, and use their stockpile of pitching to plug a hole. But right now, I can see where fans and others would question how this team plans to avoid another 90-plus-loss season in 2016.

It was clear why they made the Kimbrel trade – to dump the onerous contract of Melvin Upton Jr., the only way they were likely to get out from under that deal that hung over the organization. And in the end, that trade worked out well for the Braves, who got Cameron Maybin and Matt Wisler as well as the 41st pick in the June draft. They used that pick to take third-base slugger Austin Riley, the best power-hitting prospect they’ve had in quite some time and right there with Ozzie Albies as the top two position-player prospects in the organization.

But this Simmons deal, with him signed for five more years and no bad contract being shed in the deal? It’s a tougher one to sell to the faithful.

Did we mention that Thursday’s trade paved the way for Albies, 18, to move into the Braves’ shortstop position in the not-too-distant future? When I asked Coppolella late Thursday if Albies might be up as soon as the 2017, Coppy said he didn’t want to put any pressure on Albies to get here by 2017, but quickly added that the Braves wouldn’t rule out bringing him up even sooner – during the ’16 season – if he shows he’s ready.

But getting back to why I wouldn’t have traded Simmons. He’s the best defensive player I’ve ever seen. Yes, slightly better than even Andruw Jones, and I didn’t think I’d ever say that after watching Jones patrol center field for so many years. Simmons also is the most intuitive baseball player I’ve ever seen, with Greg Maddux probably the only other I’d even put in the same sentence.

Every night, every ball hit to Simmons, you stopped typing in mid-sentence to watch him handle it, or at home you ran back your DVR to see him turn a double play or pass the ball behind his back – remember when he did that, like a basketball player, but shoveling it glove-to-hand? – or jump and throw either across his body or from 20 feet into left field with his momentum taking him away from first base, and somehow fire a perfect throw to Freddie Freeman.

I dare say I’ll never see his kind again on a nightly basis in my lifetime. Angels beat writers and Angels fans will, though.

Switch-hitting Erick Aybar will replace Andrelton Simmons at shortstop in 2016 after coming from the Angels along with two top pitching prospect in Thursday's trade for Simmons. (AP photo)

Switch-hitting Erick Aybar will replace Andrelton Simmons at shortstop in 2016 after coming from the Angels along with two top pitching prospect in Thursday’s trade for Simmons. (AP photo)

So what if Simmons was an average or below-average hitter on a team that craved improved offense? You find a way to get that elsewhere, in my opinion. And if Newcomb develops into an ace, well, OK, then you can justify any trade that yields a long-term ace. But it’s certainly no sure thing that he or Ellis will avoid injuries and become frontline major league pitchers, and if they do, then how many years will the Braves get out of them before they trade them because they became unaffordable via arbitration?

Simmons was a known quality. And I don’t mean just known as in a fan-favorite for a team in need of those if it hopes to avoid another decline in attendance to a low not seen in a quarter-century. I mean a known commodity as the finest defensive shortstop in baseball, and arguably the best defender at any position (he just won an award Wednesday as the best overall defensive player in the majors for 2015). And defense rarely slumps, while offense frequently does.

You knew what you had with Simmons. You could’ve moved Albies to second base and had the best middle-infield duo in baseball, and Simmons could’ve won 10 Gold Gloves as a Brave and perhaps continued making strides working with hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, after showing during a couple of extended stretches last season that he could indeed hit a lot better than he has for  much of his major league career.

Seitzer told me at the very end of the season that he had a plan, video and workouts to give Simmons for this offseason, to help him keep up his progress. He believed that Simmons could keep hitting for a higher average and also again unlock the power he showed during his 17-homer season in 2013.

If he does, he’ll do it for the Angels.  Meanwhile, he’s going to keep making those plays that leave jaws on the floor and everyone, including opposing players, shaking their heads in disbelief and admiration.

Simmons was a one-of-a-kind defender. Now he’s an Angel in Anaheim, Calif. (that’s where they play, not L.A., despite the name). And a Braves fan looking to buy a jersey for his kid this Christmas is left with a limited selection that starts with Freeman and includes, well, who? Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran?

And are you confident any of them will be around long enough for your kid to outgrow the jersey? Hell, plenty of leery fans aren’t even sure those guys will still be Braves by Christmas.

• Where it stops, nobody knows: How much have major league salaries increased in recent years? Consider that outfielder Colby Rasmus and catcher Matt Wieters accepted $15.8 million qualifying offers Friday from their respective teams, the Astros and Orioles.

Now consider that John Smoltz, a first-ballot Hall of Famer who retired after the 2009 season and spent 20 of his 21 seasons with the Braves, had a peak salary of $14 million, and that was the only season he made as much as $12 million.

Smoltz won a Cy Young Award, had over 3,000 strikeouts, had 55-save season, pitched more than 225 innings in eight seasons and more than 240 innings in four seasons, was the only pitcher in history with as many as 200 career wins and 150 saves, and was arguably the greatest postseason pitcher ever.

Again, he retired after the 2009 season, not 1980.

Colby Rasmus, 29, hit .238/.314/.475 with a career-high 25 home runs last season in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in the majors. He has a .245 career average and .313 OBP in seven seasons, had never  hit 23 homers before 2015 and has driven in as many as 70 runs once.

Wieters, 29, hit .267 /.319 OBP/.422 with eight homers and 25 RBIs in 75 games in 2015, and was limited by injuries to 13 homers and 43 RBIs in 101 games and 394 plate appearances over the past two seasons combined. He has a .258 career average, .320 OBP and .423 slugging percentage in seven seasons, with 100 homers, 371 RBIs and two Gold Gloves.

To repeat, Rasmus and Wieters will each make $15.8 million in 2016.

Then there is Yovani Gallardo, who rejected the $15.8 million qualifying offer from the Rangers. Gallardo, 29, was 13-11 with a career-best 3.42 ERA in 33 starts (184 innings) in 2015, and has a 102-75 and 3.66 ERA in nine seasons.

He’s pitched as many as 200 innings twice in his career, and never as many as 210 innings.

But times change, of course. Salaries grow in sports a lot faster than they do in other sectors. And pitchers are practically considered iron men for going 210 innings these days.

Gallardo turned down the offer because he’ll likely make more per season in a multi-year deal that gives him security well into his 30s.

By the way, he made $14 million last season, matching Smoltz’s career-high salary.

• Let’s close with this one from the great Howlin’ Wolf.

“SHAKE FOR ME” by Howlin’Wolf

Howlin' Wolf

Howlin’ Wolf

Sure look good, but it don’t mean a thing to me
Sure look good, but it don’t mean a thing to me
I got a hip-shaking woman, shake like a willow tree

You better wait baby, you got back a little too late
You better wait baby, you got back a little too late
I got a cool-shaking baby, shake like jello on a plate

When my baby walk, you know she’s fine and mellow
When my baby walk, you know she’s fine and mellow
Every time she stops, her flesh it shake like Jello

Oh, shake it baby, shake it for me
Oh, shake lil’ baby, shake it for me
Oh, shake it little baby, shake like a willow tree

Oh, shake it

 


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