When it comes to making trades, the primary directive, particularly when dealing with teams which are not your direct divisional rivals, ought to be for teams to improve based on the context of their own specific situation. During the Walt Jocketty era as general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, there was this weird tinge of fetishization of the vaunted Mutually Beneficial Trade, so as to not burn bridges with fellow GMs–I’m not saying that this is especially significant for teams to consider, though I’m also not not saying that.

The point of a trade is to improve, not to harm the other team. Take, for instance, one of the most celebrated trades of the John Mozeliak era of Cardinals baseball, the one which brought reliever Marc Rzepczynski and 2011 stretch run rentals Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, and Corey Patterson to town in exchange for Colby Rasmus and The Three Guys They Were Going To Get Rid Of To Make Room On The 40-Man Roster Anyway. This is viewed as a wonderful trade for the St. Louis Cardinals, a catalyst to a 2011 World Series run, but the context of how the Cardinals were built and where they stood in the standings matters in analyzing it, because from a total production standpoint, while Colby Rasmus is generally viewed as a bit of a disappointment for his career, he accomplished far more individually with the Toronto Blue Jays than the players the Cardinals received back. But it matters that the Cardinals had a similarly productive center fielder in Jon Jay waiting to take Rasmus’s playing time, thus mitigating the harm of losing a starting position player. It matters that the Cardinals had a very shaky bullpen and a gaping black hole in the starting rotation, thus making Dotel and Jackson more valuable than had the team been deeper. Most importantly, it matters that the Cardinals were in the heat of a playoff run–the trade wouldn’t have made sense and wouldn’t be celebrated if the Cardinals had been 20 games out of the playoffs, because it wouldn’t have made a tangible difference. It’s not as though the Toronto Blue Jays are bemoaning the loss of some decent pitchers in a season where they finished .500 and wouldn’t have made the postseason regardless of that particular transaction.

There are, of course, fleecings–that the San Diego Padres managed to flip James Shields, a badly declining pitcher with an already cumbersome contract, for prospect-aged Fernando Tatis Jr. remains baffling, and probably the biggest regret the Chicago White Sox had in (does quick subtraction of 1919 from 2016) nearly a century–but these are the exception and not the rule. Most trades, even the retrospectively lopsided ones, make sense in the moment and could even be justified had a few minor things gone differently–it would be easy for Los Angeles Dodgers fans to bemoan that the team gave away prospect Yordan Álvarez for relief pitcher Josh Fields, but Fields was a really good middle reliever for 2 1/2 seasons in Los Angeles, most notably in 2017, when the Dodgers very nearly defeated the Houston Astros for a World Series title. You can squint and see that outcome changing, in which case you could easily argue that moving Josh Fields from the Dodgers to the Astros changes the result. And would the Dodgers rather have Yordan Álvarez or a 2017 World Series title? Yordan Álvarez is great, but I know which side I’m picking.

Following the 2014 season, the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves each had problems that needed fixing. The Cardinals were a World Series contender, coming off four consecutive seasons of reaching at least the National League Championship Series, but tragedy struck the organization when Óscar Taveras, the twenty-two year-old super-prospect whom the Cardinals had penciled in to play right field for 2015 and the foreseeable future, died in an October car accident. The Braves, meanwhile, were dealing with less tragic though meaningful-in-a-baseball-sense circumstances–although the Braves had won 94 and 96 games in 2012 and 2013, respectively, the 2014 team which had led the NL East as late as July 18 went into free fall, finishing 79-83 despite once being ten games above .500. While the Braves were hardly an old team, their core had reached an age where, upon finishing below .500, it was reasonable to ask whether the core had the talent to win a title. In short, the Cardinals were reloading and the Braves were rebuilding, and the greatest, most obvious trade chip the Braves had fit the Cardinals’ needs like a glove.

November 17, 2014: Atlanta Braves trade right fielder Jason Heyward and relief pitcher Jordan Walden to the St. Louis Cardinals for starting pitcher Shelby Miller and minor league pitcher Tyrell Jenkins

In a trade that broke in final form, with almost no rumors nor speculation in the leadup to it happening, the Cardinals acquired Jason Heyward, a 25 year-old former All-Star with two Gold Gloves on his mantle and who had twice received MVP votes in his five-year career with his hometown Atlanta Braves. In addition, the Cardinals received Jordan Walden, a less flashy name than Heyward but a steady 27 year-old with five years of experience as a closer or setup man with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Atlanta Braves. For a team whose right fielder of the future had been tragically lost and whose best reliever from 2014, Pat Neshek, was a free agent, these players made a ton of sense.

Heyward held up his end of the bargain in 2015, once again receiving MVP votes and garnering yet another Gold Glove. He led the 100-win Cardinals with 6.9 Wins Above Replacement, and given that the second-place team in the NL Central, the Pittsburgh Pirates, won 98 games, and the third-place Chicago Cubs won 97, it was absolutely not a stretch to proclaim that Heyward was the difference between being 100-win division champs and going on the road for a one-game playoff. Walden was hampered by injuries, making just 12 appearances that season, but he was undeniably effective, with a sub-2 Fielding Independent ERA and a sub-1 conventional ERA. Per FanGraphs’s measurement, Walden was so effective in his 10 1/3 innings that he was worth his $2.675 million salary that season.

But the Braves were a rebuilding team, and a fringe MVP candidate right fielder and an effective reliever were not going to turn a 67-95 team into a true contender. But while the Braves struggled, this was not the fault of Shelby Miller, who was still making the league minimum in just his third MLB season but was the Braves’ most valuable pitcher and second-most valuable player on the season. While Miller did earn some ignominious Baseball Reference black ink with an NL-high seventeen losses, he was a rightful All-Star thanks to his 3.02 ERA and 3.45 FIP in 205 1/3 innings. And because he was on the Braves rather than the Cardinals, Shelby Miller had a true impact, while the Cardinals’ rotation was so loaded that, even with Adam Wainwright making his final start in April thanks to an injury, Miller probably would have been the team’s fifth-best starter. The Cardinals were certainly better with Heyward and Walden.

The Braves were a little bit worse with Miller and Jenkins, who remained in the minor leagues all season, but in the long run, it didn’t really matter. And in the long run, the true inciting incident for the trade wasn’t how the Braves felt about Heyward or Miller, but that Jason Heyward was a due to be a free agent at the end of the 2015 season and the Braves knew that keeping a player as coveted as him around in the long term would be rather costly, kicking the can down the road on a necessary rebuild. There has been widespread condemnation, often rightfully so, of successful but thrifty teams (let’s just call them the Tampa Bay Rs…no, that’s too obvious, let’s go with the T.B. Rays) which sell off any halfway-decent player due to make more than a few million dollars in salary arbitration, but in the case of the Braves, they weren’t a successful team. Yes, they could have “afforded” Jason Heyward, but front offices are working within budget restraints, artificial or not, and trading Heyward meant opening up opportunities on a date when the team could legitimately compete for titles.

That Jason Heyward left the Cardinals after 2015, and for the Chicago Cubs no less, has never been something I considered especially relevant when assessing this particular trade. Perhaps the Cardinals hoped to re-sign Heyward when they acquired him, but this was never a guarantee, and given the immediate downward trajectory of his career, it’s for the best it didn’t happen. But I’ve always worked under the assumption that had the Braves for some reason held on to Heyward for 2015, the most likely scenario was still that he would go to the Cubs–they offered him the contract flexibility he craved and they had an exciting, young, and ascending team. But it did create a ripple effect for the Cardinals, which was the acquisition of the 34th overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, a selection the Cardinals used for Mississippi State pitcher Dakota Hudson. And while Hudson hasn’t been a superstar, he has actually been the fifth-most valuable first-round draft pick from that draft by WAR, and he has yet to make more than the league minimum in a season to this point; FanGraphs, far less generous about Hudson’s production than Baseball Reference, estimates Hudson has been worth $13.3 million to the Cardinals, while including his post-draft signing bonus, he has only earned a little over $3.5 million. While Jordan Walden’s career floundered after 2015, with injuries keeping him out of the Major Leagues ever again (though he did earn another $3.925 million from the Cardinals), thus keeping the Cardinals from reaping any salvage value, Dakota Hudson has been a nice little side effect of acquiring Jason Heyward.

So, you know how Dakota Hudson has been the fifth-most valuable 2016 first-round draft pick? Well, #4 on that list is the guy the Cardinals drafted with their other compensation pick from the Cubs (for signing John Lackey)–Dylan Carlson. Numbers one and two are wholly irrelevant for the sake of examining this trade, but in case you’re wondering, they are Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Will Smith and Cleveland pitcher (drafted by San Diego) Cal Quantrill. #3, however, is relevant–Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Ian Anderson. The 23 year-old was the #3 overall pick by the Braves in 2016, and after a wonderful though abbreviated rookie season in 2020, Anderson made 24 regular season starts in 2021 with a 3.58 ERA and 4.12 FIP. He was the team’s seventh most valuable player in 2021, and the fifth most valuable among players still on the team’s World Series roster. And in the postseason, Ian Anderson has produced. He was the winning pitcher in Game 3 of the NLDS, striking out six Milwaukee Brewers in five innings while allowing no walks and just three hits with no runs surrendered. He gave the Braves two solid (though brief) NLCS starts, both in games the Braves ultimately won, including in the series-clinching Game 6. And in Game 3 of the World Series, Anderson threw five no-hit innings in a game the Braves ultimately won. If the Houston Astros force a seventh game in the World Series, Ian Anderson will likely start it, and if his previous four postseason starts are any indication, this is very good news for Atlanta.

Ian Anderson is not part of the Heyward-Miller trade tree whatsoever, but the third overall draft pick used on him was a result of the Braves rebuild–a Braves team with Jason Heyward in 2015 doesn’t make the playoffs, but they also don’t pick third overall. And while the other top-ten picks of the Braves’ rebuilding era haven’t paid dividends like Anderson–Kyle Wright, fifth overall in 2017, has been ineffective at the MLB level, and fellow top-ten Shea Langeliers hasn’t yet made the Majors (he was technically a compensatory pick for a different top-ten pick, Carter Stewart, who also hasn’t made the Majors)–they are still potential pieces for the near future.

But the real meat of the trade for the Atlanta Braves isn’t the side effect of higher draft picks, but rather whatever value was going to be derived from Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. The Braves got a surprisingly strong season from Miller, who had taken a step back in 2014, which wasn’t irrelevant (while his performance did not matter from a playoff-making perspective, I also think “guy did some cool stuff and made regular season baseball more tolerable”, while not usually worth putting off a necessary rebuild for instance, does have some value). But the value they would extract was just getting started.

December 9, 2015: Atlanta Braves trade starting pitcher Shelby Miller and minor league pitcher Gabe Speier to the Arizona Diamondbacks for minor league pitcher Aaron Blair, center fielder Ender Inciarte, and minor league shortstop Dansby Swanson

I’ll start off with the easiest part of the trade tree–Gabe Speier eventually did make the big leagues, but as a Kansas City Royal, as he was sent along with Elvis Luciano to the Diamondbacks for Jon Jay, making his second appearance in this post because I have a brand to preserve, who was pretty bad as a four-month rental but somehow was a Gold Glove finalist in right field based on those four months? I don’t know, it was weird, but ultimately, I don’t think the sub-Replacement Level Jon Jay era in Arizona before he became a free agent is exactly a huge factor in this trade.

When this trade was first was announced, the first two names I heard were Miller and Inciarte, and I instinctively thought it was a pretty good return for Atlanta. Unlike Shelby Miller, who was entering salary arbitration, Ender Inciarte had one more year at the league minimum ahead before he reached his three years of salary arbitration. In each of the previous two seasons, Inciarte’s only ones in the big leagues, the outfielder had out-WARed Miller, led largely by his outstanding defense. Miller, the more celebrated prospect and someone whose primary skills tended to age better than outfield defense, was arguably safer, but Inciarte was arguably better. But then came the rest of the trade.

Aaron Blair was a Top 100 prospect in Major League Baseball and was considered a big get for the Atlanta Braves in the moment. In practice, he was mostly a nonfactor–after making 16 ineffective starts between 2016 and 2017, he was released by the Braves in May 2018 and is now in the minor leagues in the San Francisco Giants organization. Prospects, even semi-major ones, are essentially lottery tickets, and a lot of them don’t pay off, and that includes Blair.

But then there was Dansby Swanson, the first overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft. Swanson was perceived as a high-floor, low-ceiling prospect as far as #1 picks go–a 21 year-old shortstop out of Vanderbilt, he was an accomplished collegiate player seen as something of a finished product. And if the Arizona Diamondbacks believed that by the standards of a top overall draft pick, Dansby Swanson would be a tad underwhelming, they were absolutely right. But even a below-average top pick should be more than a throw-in in this trade. Swanson debuted in the big leagues in 2016 and has been Atlanta’s everyday shortstop basically ever since. He hasn’t turned in to a Bryce Harper-like force from the top slot in the draft, but he has a decent glove, a solid bat for a shortstop, and has been worth at least 2 WAR (so, basically an average starter) in three of the last four seasons. In 2020, small sample sizes sure, but he did received MVP votes for a team that made it to the seventh game of the NLCS. In 2021, he did fall back somewhat offensively to a 98 wRC+ (2% below-average for the league, but still above-average for a defense-heavy position such as shortstop), but he came through with the single biggest hit of the entire postseason so far–a Game 4-tying home run in the seventh inning to improve the Braves’ chance of winning the 2021 World Series by 8.69%. Particularly if the Braves win Game 6, there is a very realistic chance it is the biggest play of the entire year. And it came off the bat of someone seen as something of an afterthought by the Diamondbacks.

As for Ender Inciarte, he is no longer an Atlanta Brave, and he was not traded by the Braves, so his branch of the trade tree ends, but the Braves got a ton of value out of him in the meantime. In each of his first three seasons in Atlanta, Inciarte won the National League’s Gold Glove for center field. He was consistently a hair under league average at the plate but was a good base runner, and was a solid starter for the team. In 2016, his first season with the Braves, Inciarte finished third on the team in WAR. In 2017, he finished second. And in 2018, when the Braves went 90-72 on their way to their first postseason appearance in half a decade, he remained the team’s everyday starting center fielder and was sixth on the team in WAR. Inciarte was hobbled by injuries in 2019 and ineffectiveness in 2020, and he was released by the club earlier this year.

While Aaron Blair, relatively inexpensive as he was, was by any definition a money sink for the Braves given his extreme ineffectiveness, Inciarte and Swanson were undoubtedly wins. By FanGraphs’s player value estimates, which estimates how much a player would be valued on the open market for his production, the trio of players were worth $96,055,738 more than their salaries, with Swanson still counting. For Shelby Miller to accomplish that feat in his arbitration years, though difficult, would not be impossible. But Shelby Miller’s career took an immediate turn for the worse in Arizona. In 20 starts in 2016, Miller’s ERA ballooned to 6.15, with his FIP a slightly more generous but hardly ideal 4.87. His numbers improved in 2017–a 4.09 ERA and 3.57 FIP–but this came in just four starts, with injuries taking their toll. And in his final year before free agency, Miller appeared in just five games, with a 10.69 ERA and 6.35 FIP. While Atlanta’s eventual return was probably a bit worse than they had hoped, Arizona’s return was far worse. In 139 innings a Diamondback, Shelby Miller had a 6.35 ERA and 4.83 FIP. He has since had ineffective runs with the Texas Rangers, Chicago Cubs, and Pittsburgh Pirates. Shelby Miller earned nearly $14 million in Arizona, and even by the far more generous FanGraphs assessments, was not worth half of that.

This is the famous part of the Heyward-Miller trade tree: the absurd return that Shelby Miller netted for the Braves, one which seemed preposterously high in the moment and has grown even more ludicrous in hindsight. But there is one more aspect often neglected in assessments of it–Tyrell Jenkins. Jenkins, regarded as a pretty decent pitching prospect when the Cardinals traded him, did not pan out as a Major Leaguer–he pitched 52 innings for the not-even-trying 2016 Braves and did not play well, and this was it for his MLB career. But while Jenkins did not have value as a player beyond being a warm body for the Braves, he did have value for them.

December 8, 2016: Atlanta Braves trade Tyrell Jenkins and minor league relief pitcher Brady Feigl to the Texas Rangers for relief pitcher Luke Jackson

A critical caveat with this trade is that it requires incorporating Brady Feigl, previously unmentioned, into this tree, but Feigl, distantly behind Max Scherzer for the title of Parkway Central High School’s most successful baseball alum, was a complete afterthought. Truthfully, Jenkins had lost a bit of luster himself–the Braves were dealing one fallen prospect and one non-prospect for a guy the Rangers clearly just wanted to get off their 40-man roster. And Jackson, who had made 15 pretty unsuccessful MLB relief appearances, didn’t exactly settle in with the Braves either, having been designated for assignment multiple times. But he stuck around. In 2019, he led the Braves in games pitched and saves. In 2021, in a career-high (and tied for team high) 71 appearances, he had a sub-2 ERA. Jackson has made three scoreless appearances, which include two successful holds, in the World Series.

Two of the Atlanta Braves’ nine most valuable players by Wins Above Replacement in 2021, a season in which they made their first World Series in 22 years, are direct descendents of a trade they made with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2014. A third top-nine player was drafted with a selection made possible by the trade. Obviously, Dansby Swanson and Luke Jackson aren’t as important to the Braves as Freddie Freeman or Max Fried, but championships are not won with superstars alone. Filling out a 26-man roster is pivotal, and it’s impossible to deny that the Cardinals assisted with their depth.

By the same token, I don’t think it’s worth getting upset about what could have been. The obvious and important caveat is that Jason Heyward probably meant the difference between winning 100 games and a division title and having to go to Wrigley Field for a one-game playoff against Peak Jake Arrieta–losing the 2015 NLDS to the Cubs wasn’t fun as a Cardinals fan, but this kind of result is even worse, and I do believe that we should value regular season accomplishments, if not as much as World Series titles then at least to some degree. But also, what happens if the trade isn’t made? Maybe Shelby Miller does what he does in 2015 but as a Cardinal, and his presence keeps Carlos Martínez in the bullpen. Maybe Shelby Miller gets flipped for Ender Inciarte, a player who thus holds back the magic of Tommy Pham and the arrival of Harrison Bader, and Dansby Swanson, a player who hasn’t been materially better than Paul DeJong, or given the Cardinals’ general aversion to selling high on players coming off career years, more likely, they are stuck with Shelby Miller through his 2016-2018 decline. Would the Diamondbacks have been willing to offer a similarly strong package but with players who were more logical fits for the Cardinals? It’s impossible to know.

Ultimately, neither team “won” the Heyward-Miller trade insofar as the presence of a winner implies the presence of a loser. But while the Cardinals made a good trade for their short term in November 2014 and they called it a day, and rightfully so, the Braves timed Shelby Miller’s career perfectly, and they are reaping the benefits of that seven years later. By FanGraphs’s math, they gave up $42,836,820 in value in the trade over what each player’s salary was (Heyward, Walden, and Dakota Hudson, though assuming the Braves would select Hudson when the expected return for their compensatory pick is much lower is a bit generous), and in return, between 2015 Shelby Miller, 2016 Tyrell Jenkins, 2016-2021 Ender Inciarte, 2016-present Dansby Swanson, Aaron Blair, and 2017-present Luke Jackson, they’ve netted $128,117,702 in value. This is a clunky way to look at player value, of course, and no calculation is going to be truly precise, but it’s safe to say the Braves are quite happy to have made the trade.

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