Revamped Braves ready to compete this season
Tough Kimbrel trade nets promising prospects, flexibility in market
MIAMI -- When Braves president of baseball operations John Hart began the journey from his Orlando-area home to Atlanta on Thursday morning, he was still feeling the personal effect of having traded Craig Kimbrel to the Padres a little more than three days earlier.
It didn't matter that a Kimbrel-less Atlanta 'pen had proven to be rock solid as the Braves began this season with a three-game sweep of the Marlins in Miami. The lingering hurt from this deal had much more to do with what the All-Star closer had provided as an upstanding man, who enriched both the clubhouse and the Atlanta community.
"From a personal perspective, this was as hard of a trade as I've ever made," Hart said. "I've traded kids like Carlos Baerga and Kenny Lofton that I loved as well. [Kimbrel] was just spectacular and a special human being.
"It just breaks your heart. He's a Brave and he represents the Braves. But you have to look at what ultimately and professionally is best for the franchise."
Hart and assistant general manager John Coppolella have spent the past six months attempting to enrich the franchise by improving the farm system and cleansing the payroll. They made eight significant trades, bought low on a few veteran free agents, stockpiled Draft picks and placed a much greater focus on the international market.
Atlanta has a 25-man roster that includes 14 players who were not in the organization at the end of last season. The club's farm system is now regarded as one of baseball's strongest, and the payroll looks much more tidy now that San Diego's desire to add Kimbrel to the bullpen proved strong enough to agree to assume responsibility for the $46.3 million owed to Melvin Upton Jr. through the 2017 season.
The Braves determined that the opportunity to clean their books of an ugly contract and also gain another highly regarded pitching prospect (Matt Wisler) was attractive enough to trade Kimbrel, whose value would be minimized if Atlanta is not a postseason contender.
"We made some tough calls and tough trades," Hart said. "We traded some nice players and some star players, but along the way, we have tried to give this club a chance to compete this year. I don't think anybody is going to pick the Braves to win the [National League] East. But I think we're going to play exciting baseball and our future is much brighter from a talent standpoint within our system and at the Major League level. We've also enhanced our ability to be aggressive competitors as we go forward in the market."
Payroll benefits: Even if Atlanta is unable to move Chris Johnson, who has been out of the starting lineup in two of this season's first three games, the team has already gained approximately $10 million in payroll flexibility for this season alone.
"We certainly were able to give ourselves a chance to be a player quicker," Hart said. "It might even be at the [Trade] Deadline. Whether we're in [the postseason hunt] or we're not, we're not restricted if something comes up that we think could fit us, we're going to have that flexibility to at least examine it."
Prospect crop: Over the past few months, the Braves acquired seven players that now rank among the club's top 12 prospects, according to MLB.com. With six of these seven additions being pitchers -- Wisler (ranked second), Mike Foltynewicz (third), Max Fried (sixth), Ricardo Sanchez (10th), Tyrell Jenkins (11th) and Manny Banuelos (12th) -- the club is not expected to make pitching a priority when it navigates the trade and free-agent markets.
Atlanta has also acquired two Draft picks via trades, and it will now have six of the first 89 selections in this year's First-Year Player Draft. In addition, the Braves are looking forward to making a significant splash when they are allowed to sign international free agents on July 2.
"There is still a lot of work left to be done," Hart said. "But this gives us the ability to be a little more creative with the club going forward, for sure."