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In the span of a year, the Braves acquired two franchise cornerstones and paid little for it
The Atlanta Braves have drastically changed their team makeup with Matt Olson and Sean Murphy. Both are extended to long-term contracts, both are among the very best at their position in 2023, and neither are 30 years old yet. In back-to-back offseasons, the Braves grabbed what should have been a player Oakland (sell the team) built around and turned those two into parts of the foundation of a team that expects to compete well into the future.
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Let's take a look at who the Braves surrendered and how they are doing.
The Matt Olson Trade
Ryan Cusick, RHP
Before: Armed with a fastball that was known to hit triple digits, Cusick was rising up the Braves' prospect ranks after he was their top choice the previous June. While not a Top 100 prospect, he was easily a Top 10 prospect for the Braves. In his first six starts, with A-ball Augusta, Cusick K'd 34 of the 67 batters he faced.
Now: Though he was expected to climb the ladder fairly quickly, Cusick has been slowed by both injury and his performance. Last year, in 13 appearances and 10 starts, Cusick finished with a 7.12 ERA with all but two of 43 innings at Double-A. While he still struck out 46, he walked 30. After an additional rough showing in the Arizona Fall League, he has been a bit better this year in terms of ERA, but his strikeout rate has tumbled to 8.3 K/9 with his walk rate barely improving. Even worse, he's allowed 14 dingers in 74.1 innings. In the recently updated Top 30 Prospects for MLB Pipeline, Cusick has tumbled all the way to 28.
Joey Estes, RHP
Before: A good story, Estes was a 16th-round selection back in 2019. Coming into 2021, he was a wild card for the Augusta rotation. But in just his Age-19 year, Estes was a rising prospect. In 20 starts, he finished with a 2.91 ERA in 99 innings, striking out 127 along the way with just 29 walks. While Estes may have not had the pedigree of the other members of the trade, he definitely was no throw-in.
Now: Estes didn't keep the ball rolling in 2022 as his ERA went up over a run-and-a-half while every ratio stat went in the opposite direction. That said, he has found the magic again this year. In 104.1 innings at Double-A, Estes considerably outclassed Cusick with a 3.28 ERA and 3.2 K/BB rate. The production even earned a promotion to Triple-A Las Vegas. He's struggled a bit in his two starts there. He's also now ranked 15th in MLB's Top 30 A's prospects, the highest ranking of any player that is still a prospect that the Braves surrendered in their thefts of Oakland.
Shea Langeliers, C
Before: Eight picks after Adley Rutschman was selected, Langeliers became the second of three catchers chosen in the first round of 2019. It took him very little time to become a prospect on the rise, showing up on both Baseball Prospectus and MLB Pipeline's Top 100 ahead of 2020. A season spent at the alternate training site probably did a player with offensive questions no favors, but it's worth pointing out that he slashed .256/.339/.494 with 22 dingers in 2021. He spent most of the season at Mississippi but did end the year with a week in Gwinnett.
Now: Langeliers exploded at Las Vegas, posting a .876 OPS with an appearance in the Futures Game in 2022. He was in the majors a month later and has been there ever since. Unfortunately, leaving the hitter's haven of the Pacific Coast League, and especially so in Las Vegas, has seen Langeliers struggle tremendously at the plate. In his first 140 games, he hit .207/.267/.381. He's struck out close to a third of his appearances. Worse - his defense has been pretty bad. Sure, he's had a nice pop time and flashed a good arm, but his blocking and framing have been substandard. If there is a saving grace with the bat, it's found in his exit velocity. But too many of those hard drives die because Langeliers is getting under the ball so often. He's not a lost cause, but the Braves haven't looked back either.
Cristian Pache, OF
Before: Pache has been an exciting prospect from the moment the Braves signed him. He had all the natural ability in the world and the expectation was that the lean outfielder would fill out to hit more homers, too. He showed a live bat over his first three seasons, climbing from the rookie leagues to Mississippi. But in 2019, he became a Top 15 prospect in the game with a .277/.340/.462 campaign. Suddenly, Pache was adding extra-base knocks to his line. Like with Langeliers, losing a year of live competition probably stalled his progression. He did get into a couple of regular season games and came to the plate 25 times in the NLCS because of injury. Not too many people can say they hit their first major league homer in the playoffs. The Braves decided to let Pache sink or swim in 2021, but all he did was sink as he struggled with major league pitching. His time in Gwinnett did little to spark his bat. Meanwhile, with Michael Harris II on the way, the Braves started to see Pache as a great glove, a bat that may never deliver, and a better trade asset than a contributor.
Now: His season with Oakland was sadly a continuation of his 2021. He struggled badly in the majors, hitting just .166/.218/.241 and looking massively overmatched. Even in Las Vegas, he couldn't really hit. After a disappointing spring, Oakland decided to move on. The Phillies sent a fringy pitcher named Billy Sullivan for Pache - hardly the kind of package one expects for a guy who was a Top 15 prospect heading into 2021. Pache has had a limited, but successful run with Philly. His .404 wOBA is 66 points higher than his xwOBA, but that doesn't mean Pache hasn't looked better. He's currently on a rehab assignment, trying to come back from an elbow injury, and he only has 53 PA on the year. But Pache does look like he's at least playable now at the plate and, with his defense, that makes him valuable. Unfortunately for the A's, they won't reap those rewards.
It really would be something if the guy the A's acquired that has the best career is the player who probably was the least known - Estes. Now, let's turn to the other trade.
The Sean Murphy Trade
A's send Joel Payamps to the Brewers.
Brewers send Esteury Ruiz to the A's.
This is a complicated deal because the Brewers are involved. First, let's look at the players that have no relationship with the Braves. Maybe the A’s saw Ruiz as the top prospect in this deal, though it’s hard to say anyone else agreed and that’s why it was confusing that the A’s pushed so hard for him. Never a Top 100 prospect, Ruiz paired incredible speed with some developing pop. He spent very little time in the Brewers organization after they acquired him from San Diego in the Josh Hader trade. His work this season for Oakland has been fairly ugly outside of his stolen base numbers (48-of-53). Defensively, he doesn't display great instincts in center field, but his speed has helped mask his reaction and route deficiencies to some degree. Meanwhile, Payamps is a real weapon for the Brewers. His opposing wOBA of .247 is in the top 4% of baseball while his 3.10 xERA is the second-best of his career. For the price of Ruiz, the Brewers received at least two big pieces in this deal and it's still nutty how that happened.
Kyle Muller, LHP
Before: Part of the 2016 class of Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz, and Bryse Wilson - all prep arms and all with huge futures - Muller was still a Top 100 prospect according to Baseball Prospectus at the time of this deal, but his star was fading. He had massive years in 2018 and 2019 prior to the pandemic. He seemed to be on the rise in 2021 with a 3.39 ERA at Gwinnett and a 4.17 ERA in Atlanta. But despite finding another gear in Gwinnett in 2022, he looked way overmatched in very limited action in the majors. Still, with 40 starts at Triple-A and over a hundred total minor league starts - along with nearly 50 innings of major league experience - Muller looked as ready as one can be for the 2023 season.
Now: He started on opening day, but it has been an ongoing challenge this season for Muller. His strikeouts are way down while his homers allowed are unplayable in some regards. In 52 major league innings, he has a 7.79 ERA. It's only slightly better in 62 innings at Triple-A. The southpaw has weirdly lost zip on his fastball despite just being 24. That might be by design by the A's, but whatever the case, it's not helping any as opposing hitters are teeing off on his fastball to a tune of a staggering .499 wOBA. Nothing he throws has much break to it. It's still too early to throw in the towel, but this is damn ugly.
Royber Salinas, RHP
Before: A young arm rising up the ladder, Salinas had a solid 2022 season with a 3.55 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 14.4 K/9 between Rome and Augusta with most of his time spent at Rome. Just 21, Salinas was a name that was starting to really excite prospect fans of the Braves especially as the system emptied due to graduations and trades. Not bad for a $35K investment back in 2018. The expectation was that Salinas would likely be shifted to the bullpen to take advantage of his nearly triple-digit heat and power slider. But for the time being, he developed as a starter with some iffy control, but often unhittable stuff.
Now: Good news - the walk rate of 3.9 per nine innings is a significant improvement over the +5 BB/9 numbers he had with the Braves. And that's the end of the good news. His ERA has ballooned to 4.94, his strikeout rate has declined to 11.3 K/9, and he's already tied his career high in seven homers allowed despite throwing about 50 fewer innings. That said, he might be starting to figure it out. If you count two relief appearances and the start he made prior to landing on the IL, over his last four games at Double-A, Salinas has thrown 17.1 innings, allowed four runs, walked six, and struck out 21. That can play. Salinas ranks a spot ahead of Cusick on Oakland's Top 30 at 27th from MLB Pipeline.
Freddy Tarnok, RHP
Before: It seemed like Tarnok had been around the Braves for 10 years, but 2022 was just his Age-23 season for the former 2017 third-rounder. Considered a raw, but immensely talented pitcher when he joined the system, the Braves were very diligent with him. Last season, his fifth full year in the system, Tarnok made it to Triple-A for the first time and even threw his first 2/3's of an inning in the majors with a strikeout of Tyler Naquin. Tarnok was a longshot for the 2023 opening-day roster, but he certainly was a good option for depth.
Now: While he's landed on the IL and has only pitched 36.1 innings between the minors and majors, Tarnok has at least not gone backward outside of eleven walks and four homers at the major league level. He's also struck out 14 in 14.2 innings. Though Tarnok has never had great control, he's rarely struggled this much with it so the smart money is on those numbers improving with more time. Unfortunately, that time will have to wait as he is dealing with a Grade 2 calf strain. Still a rookie, Tarnok ranks 16th in Oakland's Top 30.
Justin Yeager, RHP
Before: Selected in a round that no longer exists (33rd), Yeager joined the system in 2019 and immediately flashed big strikeout numbers and some control issues. After the pandemic, little changed on that front (141 Ks, 51 BBs in 92.1 innings). The tall righty moved up the ladder, ending the 2022 season with Mississippi. While not likely to be in the bullpen mix for the major league squad just yet, the hope was Yeager could provide depth in the second half of 2023 at the earliest provided his command improved.
Now: Unfortunately, it's looking like a lost year in the Brewers' organization for Yeager. After just three games and 2.1 innings, he landed on the 60-day IL. We'll have to wait until 2024 to see how this part of the deal shakes out for the unranked Yeager.
Before: I've long been a fan of Contreras. When I saw him play in Danville in 2017, it was apparent that the raw talent was there for a future All-Star. After getting a cup of coffee in 2020 and belting eight homers in limited time during 2021, Contreras balled out hard in 2022. It was expected that he would head back to Gwinnett for much of the year, but due to an injury ahead of him in the depth chart, he became a regular fixture at catcher and DH, slashing .278/.354/.506 on his way to the All-Star Game. He belted 20 bombs. Somewhat confusingly, he only came to the plate nine times in the NLDS. Nevertheless, Contreras was on his way to huge things.
Now: In a way, trading Shea Langeliers to the A's opened things up for Sean Murphy to be traded. Trading William Contreras opened a spot for Murphy to come to Atlanta. The exchange has worked out well for both the Braves and the Brewers. Contreras hasn't been quite the offensive powerhouse he was in Atlanta. His wOBA has fallen from .370 to .342, which is still very good. But Contreras has benefitted greatly from the move to Milwaukee, where they excel at making catchers better behind the plate. His framing and blocking have especially improved. From 2021-2022, Contreras graded out as -6 catching framing runs above average for the roughly 3,000 pitches he caught. This year, he's a +7. He was a -8 Blocks Above Average from 2021-22. This year, he's also a +7. The worry was that Contreras' defense wasn't good enough to play every day. The truth was he just needed to develop a bit more in Milwaukee.
Manny Pina, C
Before: Speaking of Milwaukee catchers, Pina was a part-timer for the Brewers for a number of years. He'd show enough pop at the plate and a willingness to work the count for some walks but was never much of a hitter. He was, however, a decent defender. The thinking was that by bringing in Pina after the 2021 season, the Braves could send Contreras to Gwinnett for more seasoning. Instead, Pina went down after just five games with a wrist injury. With no need to keep Pina, the Braves sent the A's a perfectly capable backup backstop behind Langeliers.
Now: Except the wrist sidelined Pina for much of the first few months of the 2023 season as well. Once he was activated, Pina played in four games in July and landed right back on the IL. At the beginning of August, with Pina healthy, the A's released him as they no longer needed his services. He's been a free agent ever since.
The A's have had little positive to celebrate from trading two guys that are now part of a dynasty. It's still early, of course, but the Braves have rolled and not looked back on the prospects they surrendered. Meanwhile, Oakland has had a bevy of bad news this season, and the prospects they acquired from the Braves have done little to change that. Not for nothing, Milwaukee simply turned a speedy defensive outfielder into an All-Star quality catcher and steller middle reliever. Seriously, that part is still surprising.
I don't firmly believe that you should always trade prospects, but when it comes to acquiring top talent that you can control for years, the answer is pretty simple. Take your chances because the smart money is that you won't really care even if a few prospects do pan out.
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