If you’re following the national sports media instead of the regional coverage, you’ll notice the Atlanta Braves aren’t trending on pundits’ 2017 season storylines.
The team was hard to watch in 2015 and 2016, recording the worst three-year record in franchise history since the 1980s. The Braves used to be the standard for consistency in the major leagues, winning 14 straight division titles from 1992-2006.
The organization, under general manager Frank Wren, failed to hold onto the magic recipe of the historic run. From 2007 to 2014, the bottom progressively fell out on the teams stability. The farm system ran thin, which caused desperation in free agency, which didn’t work out.
Without running you through the entire timeline, old management shipped out and new management tore everything down. The goal was to recapture the success and process from the previous regime.
John Hart and John Coppolella have been plugging away at one of the next great overhauls in Major League Baseball.
The moves they’ve made – trading fan favorites like Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons and Craig Kimbrel for unknown prospects – have come at a cost of harsh ridicule from Braves’ Country. Coppolella and Hart pleaded for patience, but it was hard to find faith in teams flirting around 100 losses.
Fredi Gonzalez was canned after a 9-28 start, the point at which the Braves looked their worst in the last three seasons. Brian Snitker took over the major league’s worst team and turned them into a not-so-bad group.
The Braves finished the season with one of the best post-All Star break records and offenses, swirling confidence that the rebuild could see results sooner rather than later. In the last 30 games of the regular season, the Braves tied the Red Sox for the best record in baseball at 20-10.
|First Half||Second Half|
The front office proved that the days of trading major-league-ready talent for prospects are in the past. The Braves showed promise after the Matt Kemp acquisition and Dansby Swanson’s call-up.
In the offseason, the Braves made moves reminiscent of a team looking to compete as opposed to packing it in by the end of May. The Braves didn’t sit on their hands and watch contenders make moves. They went out and acquired players that the contenders targeted, as well as players coveted by teams within the division.
Had the Braves acquired Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, Matt Kemp and Brandon Phillips in the 2012 offseason, you would immediately put them at the top of most World Series predictions. But it’s 2017 and those players are presumably past their primes, showing more gray hair than long-term potential.
So why do I think these moves make sense?
Because the Braves have complimented the future franchise cornerstones with reliable veterans to lean on and learn from. The prospects that lay in waiting are the focus. But instead of hiring stopgap journey men like the 2015 and 2016 rosters, the Braves went and got valuable veterans to hold down the fort.
The Braves are currently an incomplete quilt with emerging talent that isn’t ready for the final product. Instead of derailing the confidence in young hitters and pitchers by rushing them through the minors, Atlanta went and got the best bang for their buck.
The Braves have established cornerstones to the franchise at first base, shortstop and center field. Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte are going to be at the top of the order for the foreseeable future.
After getting back to full health, Inciarte was better than advertised in 2016. Not only is he the recipient of a Gold Glove last year, he would’ve been a .300 hitter if not for the hamstring issues and slow start to begin the year.
We don’t need to profile Swanson because you should know what his expectations are. At his lowest, he’s ranked the third prospect in baseball and will be a favorite for rookie of the year.
The same goes for Freeman, you know who he is. You know what he can do to a baseball with his bat. Already on pace for a career year last year, he started to make baseballs look like beach balls after Kemp’s protection arrived.
The top three will get theirs. The Braves needed to fill-out the rest of the lineup. After the transactions this offseason, the lineup is well-balanced and potentially a run-churning machine.
Matt Kemp will follow the top three in the cleanup spot. If the former MVP picks up where he left off at the end of last season, the Braves will be churning out runs from the top of the order.
Nick Markakis will likely follow in the fifth spot. Surprisingly making it through the fire sales of the last two seasons, Markakis is still as reliable as it gets with the glove in right field and one of the most consistent bats in all of baseball. In an Atlanta uniform, he has yet to dip below a .269 average and a .342 on base percentage.
When the guy following the clean-up hitter keeps the action on the base paths moving, its a recipe for success.
Brandon Phillips, who will likely bat behind Markakis, injects some extra ‘oomph’ to the middle of the lineup. Jace Peterson was serviceable, but is better off a utility man off the bench. Phillips clocked in his best two seasons at the plate in 2015 and 2016 – averaging .294 and .291 with 23 total homeruns and 134 total RBIs. At 35-years-old returning to his hometown, Phillips could be the 6-spot gangbuster that carries this team past the expectations.
Adonis Garcia turned his career trajectory around after getting sent down to the minors and called back up. Garcia struggled as far as early June with .226 batting average, but fought his average all the way up to .273 by season’s end. The glove is still a liability, but Garcia improved with Terry Pendleton’s help last year. Garcia enters the season as Atlanta’s biggest question mark, and will probably have fend off an eager Jace Peterson to hold down the everyday duties.
Batting eighth will be whoever wins the starting catcher job in spring training. With a reliable bat and leadership behind the plate, Tyler Flowers surprised a lot of people last year. He should end up the regular catcher in 2017. And Anthony Recker came out of basically nowhere to back Flowers up, also maintaining a bat good enough to hold down the eight spot. In the offseason, the Braves opted not to acquire Matt Wieters and sign Kurt Suzuki.
Call me crazy or a frequenter of the kool-aid stand outside Suntrust Park, this lineup has potential to shock people in 2017. If the top three play to expectations and the others hold their end of the bargain, they will compete.
I’m not bold enough quite yet to say this team will contend for a wild card. I am bold enough to believe Atlanta exceeds the expectations of Vegas’ 72-wins. And come September, playing meaningful baseball.
Whether or not the Braves get over the hump relies on the pitching staff, which we’ll preview later this week.