Trade Analysis: Atlanta Braves Trade Chris Johnson


On Friday, the Atlanta Braves’ trader extraordinaire/President of Baseball Operations John Hart did the impossible and traded infielder Chris Johnson to the Cleveland Indians for OF Michael Bourn, OF/1B Nick Swisher, cash considerations, and the everlasting adulation of Braves fans everywhere.

Tomahawk Take’s Alan Carpenter covered the story when it broke and did a great job of breaking down the parts involved, including the remaining contracts. I won’t duplicate his already well-done effort.

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This trade doesn’t seem particularly impactful on the surface, especially when considering the Atlanta Braves’ “retooling” blueprint seems to be built around a youth movement. However, the real value in this trade is in moving the seemingly “untradeable” Chris Johnson, clearing some long-term salary obligations, and providing flexibility for future seasons. The return on this trade is less about what was received and more about what was moved.

May 15, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Cleveland Indians designated hitter Nick Swisher (33) motions to the crowd after the game against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Swisher is named player of the game. The Indians defeated the Rangers 8-3. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Four Reasons To Like This Trade

  • Unwanted salaries will now clear a season sooner than before the trade. Prior to this trade, the Atlanta Braves owed Chris Johnson through the 2017 season (and then a small $1M buyout in 2018). Johnson’s contract now moves with him to Cleveland, and Atlanta receives the contracts of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Both Bourn and Swisher are signed through 2016, and both have vesting options that kick in if they have 550 PAs in 2016. Between injuries, rookie promotions, performance, and creative platoons other normal day-to-day occurrences, there is a virtual guarantee that neither option will vest. This effectively accelerates the $10M that would be due Chris Johnson in 2017 (his ’17 salary and ’18 buyout) and puts it on the books for 2016.
  • The two incoming players, as previously mentioned, have vesting options for 2017. Since the money is not guaranteed, other teams – especially smaller payroll teams – may be interested in one or both of them at next year’s trade deadline. Creative use of platoons is going to keep the plate appearances for both Swisher and Bourn below the minimum needed to activate the option, so other teams might be willing to trade something for either (or both) of them. They would be receiving a proven major league player who could play full time for the second half with no fear of the option vesting. It’s unlikely that either Swisher or Bourn would bring anything of real value, but they could return a low level prospect with some risk. Those are often the types of players who catch lightning in a bottle; if nothing else, they can be used for minor league depth as Atlanta promotes other prospects.
  • With Mallex Smith nearing readiness for the big league club, the Braves have to begin looking down the road on some of these prospects. One concern with Smith starting the season in Atlanta next year is him possibly qualifying for Super Two status, giving him an extra year of arbitration. Platooning Swisher and Bourn to start the season next year allows Atlanta to keep Smith down in the minors for another couple of months. Whether one agrees with the morality of controlling player call-ups for the purposes of saving money, the fact is that low- and mid-payroll teams have to budget wisely. An extra year of arbitration can mean a multi-million dollar difference in salary arbitration years later. Platooning Swisher and Bourn can help delay that call-up, potentially helping Smith’s development while also saving the Braves some future payroll dollars.
  • As noted above, this trade effectively removes about $10M from the 2017 payroll and moves it forward a year. The 2017 year is when some of the previous extensions begin seeing large step-ups in annual salary. Prior to the trade, the Braves have only five players under contract for the 2017 season, totalling over $63M. This trade removes $9M from that total. While we can only speculate as to what will happen in 2017, the clearing of Johnson’s salary from that year sets up a very nice scenario leading to a long-term Shelby Miller extension. It could also mean the team plans on targeting a free agent, but the list of known free agents in 2017 don’t seem to feature players who fit into the long-term plans of the Atlanta Braves. Given that Julio Teheran is the only starting pitcher signed beyond 2015, and that he was reportedly being shopped at the deadline, it would seem reasonable that the Braves would want to lock down a front of the rotation pitcher for the future. This is purely my speculation, but it seems to make sense.

Aug 4, 2015; Anaheim, CA, USA; Cleveland Indians center fielder Michael Bourn hits a single against the Los Angeles Angels in the fifth inning during the game at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Takeaway

None of the players involved in the trade do much to move the needle. All of them are marginal players, likely past their primes, searching for a new start with a new team. Often, that change of scenery can be beneficial for a player (see Cameron Maybin). Instead, this trade is more about accelerating the money due in 2017 to clear room for another transaction, whether that be a free agent signing or an extension. John Hart did that by trading for players with manageable, short-term contracts. Hart has essentially introduced the NBA concept of ‘expiring contracts’ to MLB. This transaction is a lateral move at best in terms of players, but it moves things around (payroll obligations and players) to provide maximum flexibility to the front office.

In his piece, Alan Carpenter speculated about whether the Atlanta Braves may have another deal in the pipeline, perhaps involving Cameron Maybin.  But I think the emphasis behind this deal is not to move Maybin, who the Braves reportedly love, and who himself loves the Atlanta Braves: 

Instead, I believe this may setting up the groundwork to buy out Shelby Miller’s final two years of arbitration and extend him. Nick Swisher is a natural backup to Freddie Freeman at first base, and when platooned with Bourn in LF, their plate appearances can be managed in a way to prevent the options from vesting. Platooning them allows the Braves to keep Maybin and give Bourn and Swisher a chance to play themselves into commodities by the trade deadline.

The Bottom Line

The Atlanta Braves added two players with rebound potential, trade potential, and short-term, manageable contracts who can play a position that allows that allows Atlanta to control the development and promotion of a potentially key future piece of the team. Atlanta rid themselves of Chris Johnson’s play, his attitude, and his contract. And they did that for basically the amount remaining due Bourn and Swisher this season.

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