ATLANTA - With the focus firmly on the opening of their new stadium, the Atlanta Braves dealt away slugger Justin Upton and made it clear that contending next season is not their primary goal.
Just one year removed from an NL East championship and a perennial playoff team, the Braves are now aiming to rebuild and take a top club into suburban SunTrust Park in 2017.
Upton was traded along with a minor league pitcher for a package of four San Diego prospects, including former first-round pick Max Fried, a left-handed pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery and years away from pitching in the big leagues. The Braves also acquired San Diego's fourth international bonus pool slot.
Atlanta gave up one of the game's top right-handed power hitters, an outfielder who had 29 homers and 102 RBIs last season. With Upton due to make $14.5 million in the final year of his contract, it was inevitable the Braves would deal him away, just as they did in sending right fielder Jason Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Heyward also was entering the last year of his contract, and the Braves were determined not to let either get away without some compensation. But they have given up two of the best hitters from a lineup that already struggled to score runs.
"We're trying to keep an eye on 2015," new general manager John Hart said. "At the same time, we didn't want to be sitting here in a situation where we didn't at least pay attention to what might be better for the Braves long term."
While the Padres have taken huge steps to pump up the major leagues' worst offence, also acquiring Matt Kemp and Wil Myers, the Braves are taking a different approach. In addition to Fried, they also got infielder Jace Peterson, third baseman Dustin Peterson and outfielder Mallex Smith. Jace Peterson is the only player with major league experience — a .113 average in just 27 games — and any chance of being with the Braves next season.
"We were looking originally at getting a now-ready major league player that we were going to control for a number of years, and bring in a prospect behind him," Hart said. "But that just never presented itself."
Instead, the Braves settled for a deal that gives its low-ranked farm system "an infusion of young talent that has a high upside," Hart said. "We do realize they're prospects. They're not necessarily going to impact the Braves in the short term."
The Padres also got minor league right-hander Aaron Northcraft.
The trade of Upton had been expected since the Braves signed outfielder Nick Markakis to a $44 million, four-year deal. The newcomer will take over for Heyward in right field, while Evan Gattis is expected to move from catcher to replace left fielder Upton.
Gattis has also been mentioned in trade talks, but his future looks more secure now given his favourable contract status. Hart said the primary focus is adding another starting pitcher and perhaps some bullpen help, with some free agents on the market who might fit within the team's budget.
"We're not finished," he said.
After the Braves collapsed late in the season and finished far behind Washington in the NL East, GM Frank Wren was fired. Hart took over with a clear mandate: Rebuild the organization over the next two seasons before the Braves move to their new park.
The deal breaks up the Upton brothers, whose two years together in Atlanta did not meet expectations.
With much fanfare, the Braves signed B.J. Upton to a $75.25 million, five-year deal before the 2013 season and landed his younger brother in a blockbuster deal with Arizona. While Justin had two solid seasons, hitting 27 homers with 70 RBIs in his Braves debut, B.J. has been one of the biggest free-agent busts in baseball history.
This past season, the older Upton hit just .208 with 12 homers and 35 RBIs.
Atlanta would undoubtedly love to cut ties with B.J. Upton, as well, but it's unlikely that anyone would be willing to take on the final three years of his contract, even with the Braves assuming a substantial portion of the estimated $45 million he is still owed.
The 20-year-old Fried is the biggest catch in the latest deal. The seventh overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft, he pitched only five games last season between Rookie ball and Class A before having elbow surgery. He will miss a good portion of 2015, slowing his progress toward the majors.
Hart said he expects a full recovery and noted that Fried probably would not have been available if not for the injury.
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