The newest Brave, Kevin Gausman, is the biggest acquisition of Alex Anthopoulos’s brief Braves tenure, and I’m excited. Really excited. The reason I was so thrilled the Braves hired Anthopoulos was precisely the potential for trades like this — trading excess value for medium-risk high-reward major league talent. The risk is that Gausman is never becomes anything more than he is at this moment, a slightly above-average starter whose results are worse than his stuff.
But he’s 6’4″, was taken fourth overall in the draft out of LSU, and he’s got a fastball, splitter, and slider out of central casting, and you kind of have to wonder whether his disappointing results have anything to do with the fact that he plays 40 games against the Red Sox and Yankees, is in the league with the DH, and he toes the rubber in front of a gang of cellar-dwelling stonegloved basket cases. Sounds like a change of scenery guy if I ever saw one. (Of course, you could say the exact same about Chris Archer, but we paid a lot less for Gausman than Pittsburgh paid for Archer. More below.)
Gausman was drafted in the sixth round out of high school in Colorado, and in the first round as an LSU sophomore two years later. (He was taken three picks ahead of Max Fried, and 17 picks ahead of Lucas Sims!) That winter, MLB.com named him the 37th-best prospect in baseball.
He seems like a genuinely good guy. He’s got some superstitions, per a MASN Sports article from shortly after he was drafted:
Gausman’s first warm-up is not really a pitch. There is no wind-up. He goes to the back slope of the mound, hops in the air, then runs to the pitching rubber and while on the move fires a heater to his catcher.
“I put on one sock and then go get something to drink. Come back, take it off and then go get something to drink again. Put it back on, then put on my other one and go get something to drink. It’s kind of funny and different and it can take me a while to get dressed when I pitch.”
Guasman’s most famous superstition, or at least the one that has attracted the most attention, is that he eats four powdered donuts after every inning during his starts. He has done it a long time, but as reporters found out after Sunday’s game in Aberdeen, not every time out.
He didn’t eat any donuts during Sunday’s outing against Connecticut.
“I did in my first start,” he said. “Now it’s like just what I’m feeling that day. My last four starts at college, I didn’t do it. The first two starts after I stopped doing it, I threw back-to-back complete games and felt great. Our trainer at LSU said, ‘Really? You felt great after not eating donuts?’ Now, I guess I’m just doing it on feel. I wasn’t hungry, that was probably the biggest thing.”
He and his wife have also done fundraising for Louisiana flood victims. He’s also from Aurora, Colorado, the site of the 2012 movie theater shooting, which occurred six years ago in July. (His high school teammate, Greg Bird, was a catcher in high school and is now the first baseman for the New York Yankees.) Gausman changed his uniform number this year to honor the late Roy Halladay, a fellow Coloradan.
Gausman’s velocity is down this year, but that’s actually intentional. As Dan Szymborski writes at Fangraphs: “He doesn’t throw as hard as he used to, when he’d average 99 mph over full games at times, but he’s also been trying to take a few ticks off his pitches to try and improve his command, which occasionally failed him in 2017.”
So, for this underachieving first-rounder, who’d we give up? Basically, quantity over quality, or as former Braves scout Kiley McDaniel wrote in scout-speak, “a 45+, 40+ and two 40s.” (On the 20-to-80 scouting scale, 50 is average, so 40 is below-average and 45+ is basically what they call “fringe-average.”)
The four prospects we gave were Brett Cumberland, a bat-first catcher who faces some doubts that he’ll be able to stay behind the dish; Bruce Zimmermann, a 5th rounder in 2017 who put himself on the map with a breakout in Single-A and Double-A this year; Evan Phillips, a late-round 2015 draftee who’s having a great year as a Triple-A closer; and the wild card, Jean Carlos Encarnacion, a raw 20-year-old free swinger with some pop and also some on-base issues.
Here are the Fangraphs descriptions of them, along with a ranking of each of them, among all 68 of the prospects traded on July 31 (not including guys like Sims and Wisler who were traded earlier in July):
Brett Cumberland, 7th-best prospect: Cumberland was a college catcher with defensive issues but had an advanced hit tool and natural lift to his swing. His defense and pop times have improved to being playable in the big leagues. He’s a bat-first C/1B/DH.
Jean Carlos Encarnacion, 20th-best prospect: Was a low-bonus DSL addition who quickly grew into his frame and developed above-average raw power. Is having a breakout year and is a potential everyday player who’s a few years from the majors.
Evan Phillips, 35th-best prospect: Was a late-round, small-school find for the Braves. Had control issues but a plus fastball and above-average slider. Is throwing more strikes this year, making him a solid middle-relief option.
Bruce Zimmermann, 54th-best prospect: Fifth-round senior sign from a small college in 2017. Has been more consistently 90-93 this year with average secondary stuff and some pitchability.
By contrast, to get Chris Archer, the Pirates gave up the second and fourth-best prospects of deadline day, Austin Meadows (a 55 regular — above average) and Tyler Glasnow (45+), and a player to be named later, and the rumor is that the PTBNL will also wind up being a good prospect.
At the end of the day, Gausman’s 27 and he’s thrown 763 2/3 innings in the majors, so there’s a chance that the Braves will be able to unlock something and turn him into another Foltzie, but it’s also possible that he’s exactly as good as he’s shown: a pretty good #3 starter. Even if he’s just a #3, that’s well worth the guys we gave up, and it substantially improves our rotation and bullpen depth for the stretch run. If he can start pitching as good as his stuff, the Braves could become a team no one wants to face in a short series.
Getting a guy with that combination of present value and untapped potential is a pretty good use of B- and C+ prospects. Anthopoulos skillfully threaded the needle between preserving his strength on the farm and improving the major league roster. I’m excited to see what he does next.