Over the past few years, the NL East has largely been a two team race. The Washington Nationals won the division in 2012 and 2014. The Atlanta Braves won the division in 2013 and were a wildcard team back in 2012. From 2012 through 2014, no team in the NL East other than the Nats and Braves finished above .500. However, after the Nats ran away from the pack last season and the Braves finished below .500, Atlanta made several moves that appeared to be more focused on competing in 2016 and beyond than competing this season.
The Braves traded away their entire starting outfield, netting just one proven major league talent (Shelby Miller) and a handful of prospects that were close to the majors. They traded away their primary catcher from last season to obtain a potential impact arm that was close to big league ready (Mike Foltynewicz) and a couple of prospects. They handcuffed albatross Melvin (B.J.) Upton to Craig Kimbrel in a salary dump right before the season, but even that deal has yielded a surprising payoff.
When a team deals Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, Craig Kimbrel, and Jordan Walden and gets just one player who appears to be a quality established big leaguer in return, the expectation is that they're going to be in for a long season. That hasn't been the case for the Braves, who are 35-35 after their sweep of the Mets and find themselves just two games behind the Nats for the NL East lead. Let's examine some of the players that Atlanta received in these trades who have been at least partially behind their strong play so far this season.
Shelby Miller: 5-3, 1.99 ERA (3.27 FIP), 1.05 WHIP, 65:28 K:BB ratio in 90.1 IP - Acquired with AA SP Tyrell Jenkins for Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden
Miller was a legit top prospect for St. Louis, earning the top spot in the Cardinals system by John Sickels and an A grade in 2012. He dropped to the second spot in their system behind the late Oscar Taveras in 2013, but maintained his A grade. Miller lived up to the hype as a rookie in 2013, going 15-9 with a 3.06 ERA and 169 K in 173 innings. He didn't really have a great follow up last season, though. His ERA jumped to 3.74. His strikeout rate dipped from 8.78 to 6.25. His walk rate jumped from 2.96 to 3.59. Still, he was a good young pitcher with four years of club control remaining.
This trade looked good for the Braves from the get-go. Heyward's fantastic, particularly with the glove, but he's a free agent at the end of the year. Atlanta dealt that last year of club control (and tied a fungible relief asset to him) for four years of club control of a young middle of the rotation starter and a pretty decent young minor league starter in Jenkins.
Miller has stepped up his game a bit this season, though. His strikeout rate hasn't quite come back, but he's done a better job of controlling the walks. Maybe he's been a little lucky (.240 BABIP, 4.9% HR/FB), but his components still lead to a 3.27 FIP. That FIP ranks 28th in the majors. His 1.99 (actual) ERA ranks fifth in the majors right now. He currently has 1.6 fWAR, or 0.1 more than Jason Heyward has given St. Louis. The Nats missed Miller the first couple of times they played Atlanta this season, but they'll get their first crack at him as a Brave on Wednesday.
Jace Peterson: .284/.363/.389, 2 HR, 8 SB, 28 Runs, 31 RBI, +5 Defensive Runs Saved - Acquired with Max Fried, Dustin Peterson, and Mallex Smith for Justin Upton and Aaron Northcraft
Peterson was the guy that the Braves got back in the Upton deal who was supposed to at least have a shot at some big league playing time this season. His minor league production told us that he could hit for average and had plus patience at the plate. There's not much power in his game, but you can usually live without too much power from a middle infielder as long as he's playing good defense and providing a little with the bat. He never got great grades for his raw speed, but he had been a sneaky stolen base guy as he came up through the San Diego system.
Peterson had spent 27 games in the majors last season, batting just .113/.161/.113. With Atlanta also having dealt away starting second baseman Tommy La Stella in the offseason for (now suspended) Arodys Vizcaino, they had a vacancy at second base, so he had a chance to earn the job in March. Peterson's taken the job and run with it. He's hitting for average, just like he did in the minors. He's walking more than ten percent of the time, just like he did in the minors. He's provided a plus glove. Oh yeah... He's been good for 1.9 WAR so far according to Fangraphs... or exactly what Justin Upton has provided the Padres.
Cameron Maybin: .288/.366/.389, 5 HR, 13 SB, 27 Runs, 35 RBI - Acquired with Carlos Quentin (released), Matt Wisler, and Jordan Paroubeck for Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton
Once upon a time, Maybin was a mega-prospect. He was the biggest piece that the Marlins got back when they traded Miguel Cabrera to the Tigers back in 2007. He never really panned out in Miami, spending three seasons bouncing between the high minors and the majors before they traded him to San Diego for a couple of relievers. He had a good year in 2011, but fell off the next season and couldn't stay healthy the past couple of years for the Padres. After the Padres went out and acquired a whole new outfield this winter, there wasn't a place for Maybin, so they dealt him to the Braves along with Wisler (who debuted for Atlanta last week), a toolbox of a prospect in Paroubeck, and dumped Quentin's salary in the process.
Maybin has delivered so far for Atlanta. His glove has been below average in center field, but he's hitting for power and average. He's posting the best walk rate of his career at 10.6% and has stolen 13 bases in 16 attempts. Offensively, Maybin has been Atlanta's second best player so far this season, just slightly ahead of Jace Peterson with 5.8 Offensive Runs Above Average.
Wisler and Foltynewicz (acquired in the Gattis trade) look to be guys who will develop into middle of the rotation starters who have both already reached the majors. The Braves got a whole lot younger and cheaper moving forward in these deals. The scary part is that they don't really appear to have made themselves that much worse in 2015... if they've made themselves worse at all. Upton, Heyward, Kimbrel, Gattis, and Walden have combined for 4.1 fWAR so far in 2015. Miller, Maybin, and Peterson alone have combined for 4.8 fWAR.
While Atlanta made these deals more with the future in mind, their short-term return has been better than anyone could ever have expected. Give them credit for hanging in there so far in 2015. The Nats may have their hands full this week.