The date was November 16, 2010. The Atlanta Braves were a month removed from the end of a season that saw them reach the Postseason for the first time since 2005. Atlanta lost to the eventual World Champion Giants in the NLDS, and were a battered and broken team at that point. In the deciding Game 4, the Braves started the near-crippled Troy Glaus at third base, a platoon outfielder (Matt Diaz) in left field, and Rick Ankiel (best described as “an arm”) in center. And they nearly forced a Game 5 with that shoddy lineup – a throwing error by the usually surehanded Alex Gonzalez in the seventh inning allowed the Giants to tie, and eventually win, the game.
Heading into the winter, the Braves needed to infuse some offense into their team. The 2010 squad was the tenth-best offensive team in baseball, but finished 20th in home runs. Add in the fact that Atlanta had holes of varying size all over the diamond – first base, shortstop, third base, left field, and center field – and their desire to add a bat seemed prudent. But the bat the Braves picked up was a shocker to many of their fans, myself included – Dan Uggla of the division rival Florida Marlins. Uggla was coming off a season where he belted 33 home runs, won the NL Silver Slugger at second base, and finished 17th in the MVP voting despite playing for a team that was a hair under .500.
Uggla would be a nice infusion into the lineup, but where would he fit? A then 27-year old Martin Prado had gotten the bulk of the playing time at second base (along with Omar Infante, who was dealt to the Marlins as part of the return for Uggla), and had played pretty well. Uggla had never (and for the record, still hasn’t) played an inning in the majors at anywhere other than second. It was clear that Prado would be forced to move positions, but where he moved came as a surprise – left field. Going into the 2011 season, Prado had played a total of 25 innings in the outfield, and none of that playing time came in 2010.
Prado’s future came into further question that January, when Uggla (who would be a free agent following the 2011 season) signed a five-year, $62 million extension with Atlanta, ensuring he would be the team’s everyday second baseman through the 2015 season. Promising rookie Freddie Freeman was installed as the Braves’ everyday first baseman going into 2011, and veteran third baseman Chipper Jones returned from a torn ACL suffered in the 2010 playoff race to play out the final two years of his contract at the hot corner. Even after he was moved to left field, Prado was looking like the odd man out in the long run for Atlanta.
Uggla’s start to 2011 immediately got him off on the wrong foot with Braves fans. In the first half, Uggla hit just .185/.257/.365 with 15 home runs. Prado was holding his own in left field, but a staph infection would sent his second half off a cliff. Meanwhile down in Miami, one of the men that the Braves traded for Uggla was also playing poorly, but Braves fans still pined for him. Omar Infante hit .251/.293/.309 with just one home run in the first half, but the fact that he wasn’t a complete stiff on defense like Uggla made him the better option. However, Uggla heated up in the second half of the season, powered by a 33 game hitting streak that defied all expectations. He finished his year with 36 home runs, fourth-most in the National League and the most among all second basemen in baseball.
The wheels began to really fall off in 2012. Uggla’s homer total fell from 36 to 19, and while his on-base percentage remained strong at .348, his batting average dropped to .211 and his slugging percentage cratered to a career-worst .384. Meanwhile, Prado thrived in left field, playing fantastic defense and topping Uggla’s marks in all three slash stats. Infante also played well, hitting .287/.312/.442 with the Marlins before getting dealt (along with Anibal Sanchez) to the Tigers.
2013 was a year of change for the Braves. Chipper Jones retired following the 2012 season, and Prado was penciled in as the new everyday third baseman. And for most of the winter, it seemed like that would be the case. Meanwhile, the Braves still had a hole in left field with the implied move of Prado, and there was no immediate candidate to replace him. Then, Frank Wren dropped a bombshell in January, trading Prado (along with four minor leaguers) to the Diamondbacks for Justin Upton and Chris Johnson, filling their hole in left field and managing to offset the trade of Prado. Prado had grown into a fan favorite, and the fans seethed at his ouster while Uggla remained on the roster.
If the wheels started to fall off in 2012, they completely fell off last season for Uggla. For the first time in his career, Uggla ranked as a below average hitter according to wRC+. His mark of 91 was 18th among the 26 second basemen in the league with at least 400 plate appearances. One of the players ahead of him was old friend Infante, who was starring in Detroit in his free agent year. Prado also had a better year than Uggla, both offensively and defensively. Meanwhile, Uggla was still getting paid like an elite player, in the class of second basemen like Ian Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia, Chase Utley, and Robinson Cano.
Uggla isn’t even a starter for the Braves this season. In 37 games, he’s been one of the worst hitters in baseball, posting a triple slash of .168/.242/.244. He’s homered just twice, and his 6.8% walk rate is a career-low. After mindlessly screwing around with Ramiro Pena and Tyler Pastornicky following Uggla’s benching, the Braves finally installed someone who could be more of a longer-term solution at second in Tommy La Stella, who has hit .378 over his first 13 games in the majors. Uggla is the very definition of a sunk cost at this point in time, and has received just seven plate appearances over the last three weeks. The Braves have indicated that they have no intention of cutting Uggla, despite still owing him another $13 million in 2015.
Knowing what we know now, was the Uggla trade really that much of a disaster? I’m going to go ahead and say no, but bear with me here. To acquire Uggla, the Braves only gave up a utility infielder (Infante) and a left-handed reliever (Mike Dunn), neither of whom would have played a significant role for the team in 2011 (unless you’re of the opinion that Infante should have started at second base while Prado moved to left). The Braves didn’t exactly have many other options to upgrade their offense aside from trading for Uggla. The top free agents on the market that winter in a corner outfield spot were Adam Dunn (who would have made the nontendered Melky Cabrera look like a Gold Glover), Jayson Werth (who got a $126 million deal from Washington), Carl Crawford (who got a $142 million deal from Boston), Magglio Ordonez (who played in just 84 games in 2010, and retired after 2011), and Johnny Damon (who was pretty much done in the field). The only viable free agent second baseman were a cooked Orlando Hudson and Juan Uribe, who had much more experience on the left side of the infield.
The trade market that winter was even more sparse. Aside from Uggla (and Infante, of course), the only second basemen that were moved that offseason were Clint Barmes (primarily a shortstop, and one that cannot hit a lick), Ryan Theriot (see Barmes), Jose Lopez (who is not a good baseball player when he’s not homering), and Brett Lawrie (who was then just a prospect for the Brewers). The only corner outfielders that were dealt were David DeJesus (who in all honesty, would have been the best fit), Rajai Davis (platoon guy), Josh Willingham (who Washington wouldn’t trade in the division), Juan Rivera (platoon guy), and Vernon Wells (who had an albatross contract).
Atlanta was really left with two options – risk overpaying someone like Werth or Crawford, roll the dice with someone that can’t field or hit like Dunn or Barmes, or bite the bullet and deal with Uggla. All things considered, the trade wasn’t that much of a disaster – the Braves got a great year from Uggla in 2011, and he was one of their most valuable hitters that season.
However, while the trade itself may not have been a disaster, the contract extension was. Frank Wren gave Uggla, who would turn 31 in Spring Training of his first year with the club, a five-year deal that would take him through age 35. For a player with Uggla’s skill set, this had all of the potential to go badly. And sure enough, it did. The Braves didn’t need to sign Uggla long-term – 2011 would have been his final year of arbitration prior to free agency, and after making $5.35 million in 2010 with the Marlins, he probably wouldn’t have made much more (if more at all) than the $9 million the Braves paid him in the first year of his contract.
Atlanta was more than likely afraid that Uggla would put together a fantastic year and boost his market to the point where the Braves couldn’t afford him and would have to scramble once again in the winter of 2011. How bad would that have been? Uggla would be in line for a raise, considering he would have been the crown jewel of a second base free agent class that also featured Aaron Hill (who quickly re-signed with the Diamondbacks after having a club option declined), Mark Ellis, and Nick Punto. There’s no chance any of those players (aside from Hill) would have been able to replace Uggla’s bat in the lineup. The team could have moved Prado *back* to second and signed a left fielder, but that class also had its flaws. It was highlighted by many of the players that were trade bait a year earlier: DeJesus, Rivera, and Willingham were all there, along with players like Carlos Beltran, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Coco Crisp, Ryan Ludwick, and Cody Ross. Only Willingham and Cuddyer got more than a two-year deal, meaning the Braves would already be off the hook for their contracts as opposed to still staring 2015 in the face.
As for trade bait, the market was again sparse. Old friend Melky Cabrera was out there, as was Mets center fielder Angel Pagan, platoon kings Tyler Colvin and Seth Smith, the oft-injured Carlos Quentin, and the erratic Marco Scutaro. Aside from Pagan, none were very appealing.
I’m not sure that Atlanta was wrong in being aggressive with Uggla. Following their struggles in 2010 and the attrition that took place following the season, And when everything is all laid out in front of us, the only options that probably would have been better for the Braves than Uggla would have either trading for DeJesus after the 2010 season and keeping Prado at second or not giving Uggla an extension, signing DeJesus to play left, and moving Prado back to second following the 2011 season.
And while Uggla’s production relative to his contract has to be disappointing to the Braves, the fact that they’re still using a roster spot on him after all this time shows to me that they’re conflicted about what to do with him. The Braves need another body on their bench for Fredi Gonzalez to use. The crew of Uggla, Ramiro Pena, Jordan Schafer, Ryan Doumit, and Gerald Laird isn’t getting it done. Gonzalez not even using Uggla means that Atlanta is essentially running with a three-man bench right now, especially given his historical reluctance to use his backup catcher (Laird) as a pinch hitter. Considering that Pena and Schafer have been nearly as bad as Uggla with their bats this year (and in the case of Doumit, worse), Atlanta really should just part ways with Uggla and infuse some new blood into their bench. Making a mistake with a contract is one thing. Refusing to admit that you made a mistake with a contract and sticking your head in the sand is a completely different topic, and it’s time for Atlanta to finally move on from their divisive former second baseman.