Now fully engaged in this year’s hot stove season, the Braves have actually been the most active team thus far, bargaining new deals for catcher Tyler Flowers, outfielder Nick Markakis and relievers Darren O’Day and Chris Martin as well as initiating the team’s first notable transaction by signing free agent — and qualifying-offer-decliner — reliever Will Smith. You could criticize GM Alex Anthopoulos for his decisions up to this point, but you definitely cannot denounce his aggressiveness so far this offseason. Now just roughly three weeks in — free agency officially began on November 4, the first day a signing could be made — Anthopoulos certainly hasn’t been bashful.
But let’s not kid ourselves, we haven’t even gotten started yet. Sure, the addition of Smith last week was a big signing and one that should help shore up the Braves’ bullpen in 2020, but there’s plenty left on the to-do list. Anthopoulos still needs to find a catcher and preferably two more starting pitchers, plus a third baseman… if we’re being exact, of course.
Last Friday, MLB.com’s Mark Bowman relayed that the Braves have committed $95-100 million of the roughly $140 million 2020 budget thus far, meaning Anthopoulos has around $40-45 million still to play with this winter, and that’s not considering the small amount that should be set back for midseason additions as well; so to be on the safe side, let’s call it $30-40 million left to spend. I’m sure you’ll agree… that’s not quite enough cash to fill ALL of the team’s needs. Anthopoulos will be forced to either get creative or make some trades.
Fortunately for Anthopoulos, the Braves’ farm system is a well-oiled machine, chocked full of ultra-talented players. Ranked eighth in the majors by FanGraphs (as of the 2019 season) — at $249 million — the Braves’ current prospect class is a GM’s dream for turning surplus into established big league players.
The conundrum for Anthopoulos, and every other GM in the league, is determining which prospects he should move and which he should keep. On the one hand, brandishing elite prospects can provide assurance and peace of mind for an organization, but on the other hand, a top-rate farm system isn’t going to win the World Series (at least not directly). There must be an almost perfect middle-ground between a strong class of prospects and a successful big league team — an easily attainable plan with a strong player-development department. Even so, it can be challenging to part with a young player, especially a great one. However, there are times when the present outweighs the future, and if winning now can be accomplished, a GM must cash in.
So with that thought in mind, let’s look at three prospects that should be OFF limits this winter. These are three players that no matter the instant reward, a trade that involves them would ultimately be a mistake:
OF, Cristian Pache
Starting the list off with the Braves’ top prospect — the No. 13 prospect in all of baseball — may seem a bit too monotonous, but there’s a reason Pache is the top dog among Braves’ farmhands. Coming off a .277/.340/.462 slash-line with Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett in 2019, the soon-to-be 21-year-old Pache made some impressive strides this past season, especially concerning his plate discipline.
Despite his elite defense and blazing speed, Pache has struggled at times to get on base as often as he should with his particular profile. More specifically, drawing walks has always been a problem for the young Pache (career 6.9 BB%) However, in 2019 he tallied a career-high in total walks and finished with a much more palatable 8.25 BB% — not great but much better than the 4.25% rate he finished with in 2018.
Better yet, Pache is starting to resemble a player similar to that of Ronald Acuna Jr. as his power has begun to develop. After hitting nine home runs in 2018 — the only homers of his then 3-year career — Pache slugged 12 between Mississippi and Gwinnett in 2019. The Braves now have not just a potential 5-tool player in Pache, but one that’s actually performing at the highest level of the minors (he played 26 games in Gwinnett this past season).
People in the industry are already expecting Pache to make his MLB debut in 2020, and I don’t blame them. After the growth he’s experienced in the last four years, it would be a mistake to trade Pache now. Sure, the outfielder would return a haul in a trade, but with him so close to being a major league product, coupled with the Braves’ outfield being largely content, holding on to the organization’s top prospect should prove to be plenty worth their while.
C, Shea Langeliers
Langeliers should remain untouchable for multiple reasons, but No. 1 — we still don’t know what we have with him. Taken as the Braves’ first pick in the 2019 MLB Draft, Langeliers was heralded as the next prime-Buster Posey. With only 54 professional games-played thus far (all in Single-A Rome this past season), it would behoove the Braves to exhibit a little patience and see this pick through. Within the Braves’ current minor league system, there aren’t droves of players to choose from when it comes to picking the Braves’ next major league catcher.
Even more, leading up to last season’s Draft, Langeliers was regarded as the second-best catcher in his class, behind only No. 1 pick Adley Rutschman. Scouts and experts all across the industry claim that Langeliers is one of the best defensive catchers in a long time. It’s not just defense, though. In his final season of college ball at Baylor, Langeliers slashed .308/.374/.530 with ten home runs and 42 RBI, all in just 44 games. Granted, he did suffer a slow start once with the Braves — he hit .227 with two home runs during his first 29 games with Rome — but finished rather strong, hitting .281 in August.
Overall, the case is pretty simple. The combination of still not knowing exactly how good Langeliers is, plus the lack of an in-house frontrunner at the catcher position means the former top pick should remain untouchable… at least for this offseason.
RHP, Ian Anderson
The final player on this small list of three is righty Ian Anderson, the one prospect pitcher the Braves shouldn’t trade this offseason.
Despite Anderson’s high position in the 2016 draft, scouts never really saw him as more than a No. 3 or 4 pitcher in a big-league rotation (no way!). But with improvements to his curveball, as well as his fastball command, Anderson has flourished at every minor league level he has pitched at. Of the loaded 2016 haul that gave the Braves Anderson, Bryse Wilson, Joey Wentz (traded this past season), and Kyle Muller, the 6-foot-3 Anderson looks to be the one with the most upside. It would be rather counterintuitive to cash in on Anderson now, right after he finally reached Triple-A Gwinnett at the tail end of the 2019 season.
Anderson didn’t exactly dominate while in Gwinnett this past season (5 starts / 6.57 ERA), but he certainly did while pitching for Double-A Mississippi (21 starts / 2.68 ERA), leading the Southern League for much of the season with 147 strikeouts in 111 innings pitched. The short sample of numbers he posted at the former shouldn’t be too concerning.
It’s probably not realistic to confidently expect any sight of Anderson at the major league level this upcoming season — he could use a full season in Gwinnett — though it’s not entirely out of the question, considering the Braves have two rotation spots to fill and not enough cash to fill them both with upper-tier pitchers. It appears that Wilson, Kyle Wright, and even Sean Newcomb are still ahead of Anderson in terms of the rotation-depth hierarchy, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise of the 2020 season if indeed Anderson logged major league innings; which is all the more reason NOT to trade him.
For very different purposes, keeping players like Pache, Langeliers, and Anderson this season will provide the Braves with both top-notch depth as well as more knowledge and assurance as to what they have at three different but critical positions.