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Braves, White have discussed trade for starting pitcher

Admin By Admin Nov27,2023

The Braves are among the teams in ongoing trade talks with the White Sox regarding right-hander Dylan Cease, reports USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. Atlanta had been connected to a pair of notable free agent starters, Aaron Nola and Sonny Gray, but Nola re-signed in Philadelphia last week and Gray is reportedly wrapping up a deal with the Cardinals today.

With their ostensible top two free-agent targets off the board, it’s not a surprise to see the Braves being more prominently connected to the trade market. Cease’s White Sox are generally open for business on the heels of a catastrophic 2023 season that led to the firing of longtime baseball ops executives Rick Hahn and Kenny Williams. Assistant GM Chris Getz has since been elevated to the GM’s chair, and Getz plainly stated following the season that there are no untouchables on his roster. Cease, with two remaining years of club control, is among the likelier and most appealing trade candidates Getz has at his disposal.

Cease, 28 next month, was the American League Cy Young runner-up in  2022 but had a down season in 2023 — one of the myriad factors that contributed to the disastrous season on Chicago’s south side. His 2022 campaign featured 184 frames of 2.20 ERA ball with a dominant 30.4% strikeout rate against a 10.4% walk rate, but that version of Cease appeared far too infrequently for the Sox’s liking in 2023. This past season saw the righty post a pedestrian 4.58 earned run average in 177 innings, showing diminished fastball velocity (95.8 mph, down from 96.9 mph a year prior) and a lesser strikeout rate (27.3%).

Cease made a nominal improvement in his walk rate (10.1%), but virtually every other aspect of his profile backed up in 2023. His opponents’ average exit velocity and hard-hit rates exploded, jumping from 86.8 mph and 31.2% in 2022 to 90 mph and 41.5% in 2023. Both his swinging-strike and opponents’ chase rate dropped sharply as well, and Cease allowed an average of 0.97 homers per nine frames after yielding 0.76 HR/9 in 2022. He had some obvious struggles due to the poor defense behind him, with a career-high .330 average on balls in play (up from .260 the previous year), but that alone is not the driving force behind his struggles. Some of the BABIP spike was likely of his own doing anyhow; the uptick in hard contact he yielded certainly contributed to more balls finding their way through an already porous defense.

Although Cease’s 2023 season wasn’t a particularly strong year in terms of run-prevention, he still boasts well above-average velocity and bat-missing capabilities. Fielding-independent metrics (3.72 FIP, 4.10 SIERA) felt he was better than that lackluster ERA, even if he wasn’t as sharp as he was in 2022. He’s also proven himself a durable and reliable arm, as he’s made a full slate of starts in each of the past four seasons. Add in a reasonable $8.8M projected salary from MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, and it’s abundantly clear that Cease still possesses plenty of trade value. Consider that Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson, a pair of innings eaters in their late 30s who don’t have the same upside as Cease’s 2022 campaign, signed for $11M and $12M, respectively, with the Cardinals. Cease’s projected $8.8M salary is a clear bargain — particularly with another year of arbitration set to follow.

As things stand, the Atlanta rotation projects to consist of Spencer Strider, Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Bryce Elder, with a fifth-spot competition headlined by AJ Smith-Shawver, Dylan Dodd and (eventually) a returning Ian Anderson, who underwent Tommy John surgery early in the 2023 season. The Braves have prioritized adding a playoff-caliber arm to that group, both to safeguard against injury for the top of the rotation and also to protect against the potential departure of Fried, who’ll be a free agent following the season. Cease would accomplish both of those goals.

In many ways, a trade is the more sensible route for the Braves to go in terms of their rotation need anyhow. Atlanta’s projected payroll is already just shy of $207M, per Roster Resource, but their luxury-tax obligations are far more consequential. The Braves project at around $241M of luxury considerations, which already has them north of the $237M luxury tax barrier. This is the second straight year they’ll be paying the luxury tax, so they’ll be penalized at a 30% rate for the first $20M by which they exceed the tax and a 42% rate for the next $20M. Signing a free agent like Nola or Gray would’ve come with around $7-9M in luxury penalties this year — on top of the player’s actual salary. And, since the Braves are set up to be third-time payors in 2024, they’d be facing even steeper tax percentages next season.

Cease, of course, will come with those same penalties, but a 30% tax on his projected $8.8M salary would bring the total outlay for acquiring him (speaking strictly financially) to around $11.5M — a far more palatable price point than the free-agent market has to offer. Atlanta would also have the offseason to explore a possible extension with Cease — an Atlanta-area native (Milton, Ga.). The Braves have had plenty of success both acquiring and extending players with local ties, be it through the draft or through trades.

The Braves’ farm system has been stripped down by previous trades to acquire names like Matt Olson, Sean Murphy and several relievers (Joe Jimenez, Pierce Johnson, Aaron Bummer, Raisel Iglesias). They still have some appealing young talent, particularly in the upper minors or even some young big leaguers who’ve already gotten their feet wet. Smith-Shawver, Dodd and infielder Vaughn Grissom, for instance, would all hold appeal to the White Sox (and to other potential trade partners with pitching to peddle). The Sox and Braves already lined up on one swap this offseason, with Chicago sending the aforementioned lefty reliever Bummer to Atlanta.

Atlanta figures to face steep competition with regard to Cease, who offers one of the most tantalizing blends of raw talent, affordable salary and remaining club control on this offseason’s trade market. MLBTR ranked Cease sixth on our original list of the offseason’s top 25 trade candidates.

The Dodgers are already known to be interested, and just about any other team in need of starting pitching figures to check in — particularly those that may not want to spend top-of-the-market dollars to augment their starting staffs in free agency. That group could include the Reds, Pirates, D-backs, Padres and Orioles, to list a speculative few.

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