For a consistent contender playing in a large market, Atlanta has had to operate on tight payrolls during its most recent run of success, at least relative to clubs in comparable situations.
Much of this has been because of its frequent acquisition and usage of "free talent" -- players claimed off waivers or signed as minor league free agents who receive opportunities in the big leagues and produce. Although it's not a new practice, Atlanta already has received boosts from three such players this year, in line with what the club's pro scouting department has managed to achieve the past few years by finding players underappreciated by their former organizations.
Jordan Schafer, OF
A disgraced former Atlanta prospect whose career was derailed by a 50-game suspension for HGH usage and who was later thrown into the trade that brought over Michael Bourn from Houston, Schafer came back to Atlanta when the team claimed him off outright waivers from the Astros in November 2012.
He has been the team's most valuable free-talent pickup in 2013, adding value in every way, including getting on base and posting the team's third-best walk rate on a per plate appearance basis. With his baserunning, he is leading the team in stolen bases while ranking second on the team in FanGraphs' baserunning runs added statistic.
Schafer also is an above-average defender in center, which proved critical when B.J. Upton was injured earlier this summer. At 1.3 wins above replacement already this year, he has more than justified the cost of the waiver claim ($20,000) and should play an important role for the team in the postseason.
Anthony Varvaro, RHP
Drafted in the 12th round by Seattle in 2005, Varvaro had already blown out his elbow before he signed, and he had Tommy John surgery that kept him off a professional mound until the end of 2006. He threw just four innings for Seattle's major league club before the Mariners put him on outright waivers, losing him to Atlanta in January 2011.
He has thrown a little more than 100 innings for Atlanta over the past three years, throwing the majority of them this year and producing the most value this year, as well, with a full win above replacement generated since the team claimed him two-and-a-half years ago.
David Carpenter, RHP
Carpenter has been passed around quite a bit since the Cardinals took him in the 12th round in 2006 out of West Virginia University, appearing in three trades, including the massive 10-player deal between the Astros and Blue Jays in July 2012.
Claimed by Atlanta off waivers from Boston in November of that year, just five weeks after the Red Sox acquired him for Mike Aviles, Carpenter has posted the best strikeout rate of his brief major league career as well as the lowest walk rate, and, like the players above, already has been more than worth the cost of the claim, with 1.4 WAR generated under Baseball-Reference's formula, and 0.5 generated under FanGraphs' version -- the discrepancy coming from Carpenter's low BABIP and unusually high strand rate of nearly 90 percent.
Atlanta's reliance on free talent to pick up the slack left over by less productive drafts isn't new to 2013, however -- one of the team's most productive relievers the past few seasons has been Eric O'Flaherty, who generated nearly 7 WAR per Baseball-Reference in four-plus seasons before his elbow snapped this May.
O'Flaherty, like Varvaro, was claimed from the Mariners, who, as a rebuilding club, should be acquiring free talent, not losing it for pocket change. Atlanta also received a little more than half a win of value from Cristhian Martinez -- most of it in 2011 -- whom they claimed off waivers from the Marlins in April 2010.
And, although he wasn't signed by the pro staff, Brandon Beachy was another free-talent grab -- an undrafted free agent signed after an Atlanta scout saw him in a summer collegiate league -- who has already been worth about 3.5 WAR since reaching the majors, even after missing a year because of elbow surgery. The team hopes the pattern will repeat itself with its latest undrafted-free-agent-turned-prospect, Wes Parsons, whom I tabbed their new "#GUY" in our most recent Future Power Rankings.
The next wave
With a limited payroll and a thin farm system, Atlanta has had to continue to pursue free talent even though the team is consistently at or near the top of its division.
Right-hander Juan Jaime, who pitched in Double-A this year, has hit 102 mph and punched out 35 percent of the batters he has faced in the two years since Atlanta signed him as a free agent in August 2011, a few days after Arizona released him. Jaime missed two full seasons because of Tommy John surgery, during which Washington, his original organization, waived him, only to lose him to Arizona. The Diamondbacks cut him to clear roster space for Lyle Overbay in 2011 if that makes Snakes fans feel any better. (It shouldn't.)
Jaime had two teammates in Mississippi this year who signed for peanuts out of independent leagues, both of whom are likely to at least make it to the big leagues. Reliever James Hoyt signed for just $500 out of the Mexican League after he had spent some time in the now-defunct North American Baseball League, and he sat 93-96 this year with an above-average slider.
Ian Thomas, who, like Hoyt, had played only in independent leagues before signing with Atlanta for $3,000, jumped from low Class A Rome to Double-A this year, starting the season in the bullpen (where he was excellent) before moving to the rotation, where he was good enough to establish himself as a fifth starter candidate whose stuff plays up when he's in a relief role. Either or both could help the major league team in 2014, providing more cheap options and roster flexibility to allow the team to stay within the budget set by owner Liberty Media.
Atlanta hasn't even stopped adding these players to its major league roster, claiming Elliot Johnson off waivers three weeks ago and already receiving about a quarter of a win of value from him in a super-utility role, which is about all he is suited for anyway, where he has grabbed playing time at five positions.
Finding these bit players for near-zero cost has become a way of life for the pro scouting group in Atlanta, and its members deserve a ton of credit for their contributions to the major league team's success.