Last summer, I found myself frozen in aisle 12 of a Dick’s Sporting Goods — spotting a crisp, new No. 46 jersey and deeply contemplating my next move.
The thought of buying a sports jersey — an item with the shelf-life of a banana but nowhere near as healthy — has long irked me, but this was different. This was Craig Kimbrel, the best player on the Braves’ roster and hands-down the most dominant closer in the game. Throw in the fact that Kimbrel grew up a Braves fan, came up through Atlanta’s farm system and just signed an extension through the 2018 season, and the time to buy a jersey never looked riper.
Ultimately, I decided against purchasing that Kimbrel jersey, and — following the jaw-dropping news that the Braves had shipped the All-Star to the Padres on the eve of Opening Day — we were reminded that even the closest candidate to be a franchise lifer is miles away from a sure thing.
The Kimbrel trade illustrates the cruel ability of sports to tug our heartstrings in opposite directions. On one hand, the Braves traded away a fan favorite, a promising young player who — just like Jason Heyward, who was dealt just months earlier — knew only Braves baseball.
But unlike Heyward, whose value remains hotly debated, Kimbrel is also the best at his position in the game. To get nerdy for a second, the percent difference in WAR between Kimbrel and the second-best relief pitcher from 2011-14 is greater than the same value for all other positional leaders, with the exception of some guys named Clayton Kershaw, Miguel Cabrera and Alex Gordon.
From the sentimental, die-hard fan perspective, the Kimbrel trade hurts. A lot. It’s yet another example of the Braves organization seemingly stabbing followers in the back, right up there with the Heyward and Evan Gattis trades and the decision to abandon Turner Field, the site of the 1996 Olympics, in favor of a ritzy new stadium in Cobb County with local taxpayers likely to foot the bill. The additions of Carlos Quentin, Cameron Maybin, two prospects and a draft pick also felt initially like chump change for the best closer in baseball, who just happens to be 26 years old and under team control.
And yet, despite the emotions and shock factor accompanying the trade, the Braves absolutely made the right call. They were able to make the difficult decision to initiate the full rebuild, and in turn, they got the worst contract in baseball off the books.
Melvin “The Artist Formerly Known as B.J.” Upton Jr., has been nothing short of a major disappointment during his time in Atlanta — ranking in the bottom tier of the Major Leaguers in both batting average and defense, all while cashing in on a monstrous five-year, $72.5 million contract. As Jonah Keri of Grantland commented, giving up Kimbrel was the price to pay to erase Upton from the books, a move that also seems less crazy when you consider that there is even serious research supporting the idea that Angels should trade Mike Trout and Albert Pujols for absolutely nothing (though, realistically, that would never happen).
The bottom line is that the Braves wiped the slate clean by managing to trade Upton, who absorbed much of the value Atlanta might otherwise have acquired by giving up Kimbrel. At the end of the day, the marginal benefit of having a top-flight closer on a team that’s going to struggle to get to 75 wins is minimal, and Kimbrel will then likely be in his 30s — a death sentence to almost every rocket-arm relief pitcher — when the Braves are ready to contend once again. The return wasn’t great, but the team has now freed up a significant amount of money and will likely be in a position to grab some top prospects in the next draft.
Over the past 48 hours, I’ve been asking myself: “If I were the Braves, should I make this deal?” My gut reaction is still no because of the inadequate value in return. It might have made more sense, for example, to trade Kimbrel by himself to a win-thirsty team like the Padres for a truckload of prospects while holding on to Upton and eating his salary during this upcoming “rebuilding phase.”
Nevertheless, one cannot understate the value of a clean slate and the vast amount of money Atlanta now has at its disposal. A few years from now, we’ll obviously be able to scrutinize this deal with the gift of hindsight. For now, though, it looks like the Braves made an unpopular but sound decision. And I can live with that.
Although Vihan Lakshman cannot hold a candle to desk editor Elizabeth Trinh because she has been to more Braves games than he has, Lakshman will settle for being The Stanford Daily’s No. 2 Braves fan. Let him know that he can never truly know what being a real Braves fan is at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.