In what is becoming an annual tradition here, today is the day in which we celebrate the (should be considered) national holiday of Opening Day in MLB! This is the point where I usually write several paragraphs about how his is the year in which everything comes together and the Braves finally realize their potential. This is the year that the Braves make a deep run in October. This is the year their young talent fully matures and makes that next step. This could be the year that the Braves return to the World Series. Well, a funny thing happened between the last pitch of 2014 and this first pitch of 2015. The Braves went into full-fledged rebuild mold.
Gone are prodigal son Jason Heyward, the savior at second base Tommy La Stella, both Upton brothers, the best closer in the game Craig Kimbrel, feel good story Evan “El Oso Blanco” Gattis, the 2014 Tommy John casualties Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, and Jonny Venters, the hired gun Ervin Santana (who is now gone from his new team for 80 games for using PED’s) and nearly every setup man in the bullpen from last year. Gone is the hopes of the Braves celebrating their 20 year anniversary of being World Champions with a repeat performance of this feat. Gone is the general manager to either praise or blame for the current state of the Braves. Gone will be several fans (not this one) upset and hurt by the moves. Rather, enter the pains of rebuilding.
The Braves did not just give away these players (well, Melvin Upton, Jr., they certainly tried and his transaction became the toughest, but more on this later). The fact was that the Braves team of the past few years was talented, but flawed. They did win 96 games and the NL East only TWO years ago! With a young, and mostly returning team. The originally projected Braves team for 2015 would have been decent. The problem is that is was unlikely that the Braves were going to be great, and then next year, there were going to be a massive exodus of talent due to the team’s corporate ownership, Liberty Media, and the bottom line. In reality, the looming exodus after 2015 did not have to happen, but was going to, regardless of what we fans think. And with the new park opening in 2017 (a subject for another day), the new front office decided to punt on the last two years at Turner Field and have hope for Sun Trust Park. So here we are, a team of misfits, scabs, and a couple of remaining stars from the past half decade, and a wounded fan base.
The Braves have certainly found a way to dominate the offseason chatter. They have actually done this for three consecutive years now. 2013 they signed the then BJ Upton to the largest free agent contract in team history, traded for his brother Justin, and had what many people, myself included, felt was the most talented outfield in the game. Ultimately we were wrong, but it was exciting and fun. 2014 saw several extensions for the rising young stars of the team. Freeman, Kimbrel, Simmons, Teheran, and Johnson signed huge extensions days after news of the new park was announced. The GM Frank Wren and Manager Fredi Gonzalez received contract extensions. Heyward had his arbitration years bought out, creating hop a longer extension was still an option. And after Medlen and Beachy had their right elbows fail them again, the Braves made a huge splash by signing Ervin Santana to save the rotation. The 2014 season did not cooperate. The hitters regressed, the pitching was solid, but not exceptional, and the team only won 79 games. A drop of 17 games with a very similar roster is troubling, but what if 2014, and not 2013, was the aberration? A couple of moves could be made to bolster the roster, and look out MLB in 2015! Sadly, that is not the direction the team went.
The alarming strikeout rates, lack of power, and complete failure with runners in scoring position prompted a complete overhaul. Young second baseman Tommy La Stella was sent to the Cubs for a former Braves pitching prospect derailed by injuries. Heyward was sent along with primary setup man Jordan Walden to the St. Louis Cardinals, just so all my friends and family can enjoy their talents at my expense, for young pitching prospects. Justin Upton was moved out west to the Padres for more prospects, including one recovering from Tommy John surgery, which is the Braves way, of course. Bullpen arms David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve were sent to the Yankees for a former highly touted prospect returning from Tommy John surgery. Then El Oso Blanco was sent to the Astros for more prospects. Then yesterday, as everyone was preparing for a 2015 season that may or may not be good, the Braves pulled the trigger on another deal. The best closer in baseball was packaged with the worst contract in baseball and sent to the Padres for a couple of warm bodies for the outfield (one of which was immediately DFA’d) and a couple more intriguing prospects.
Heyward and Justin Upton were pending free agents, so moving them was rationalized simply by stating the obvious, they were gone after 2015 anyway. Sell now, and get max value. Gattis was a cheap power hitter, but really had limited options on the Braves roster due to rising catcher Christian Bethancourt, Freeman at first, and the scary prospect of him lumbering in the outfield. If MLB had the DH in both leagues, then maybe Gattis will still be in the middle of the Braves lineup, but they do not, so he is now in Houston. All the setup men are gone because bullpen arms are mostly expendable when you are not going to contend. La Stella played the wrong position and the Braves could get a high ceiling arm (who is now suspended for 80 games for PED’s…). Kimbrel is gone because a closer like him is a luxury and dumping him and his salary allowed for the Braves to also jettison the other Upton’s albatross of a contract while still getting impact prospects in return.
Whereas 2015, and probably 2016 are going to painful to watch, there is a plan in place. The Braves farm system went from the bottom five in baseball to the top five in the matter of months. Draft picks were acquired and a focus on scouting has returned. Even a greater nod to analytics has begun with the inclusion of Coppolella in the front office. Several veteran players were signed and even if half of the new pitching prospects realize their potential, the rotation will be scary good in the near future. Rebuilding sucks, but you know what else sucks, mediocrity. Year after year of being just good enough to contend, but ultimately not being good enough to excel is hard to endure. The string of recent first round exits and Braves postseason heartaches has not been fun. My Cardinals friends give me grief about the Braves only winning one World Series in the 90’s. All of that talent, and only one ring to show for it. I always respond with something about the Buffalo Bills or decades of losing in markets like Pittsburgh or the hell that was the 80’s for Braves fans. But the truth is that the 90’s do sting a bit. The 1991 and 1996 World Series were very winnable. The 1997 NLCS still haunts me. Even one more World Series win changes everything. If this rebuild is what it takes to get there, then so be it. I will still watch more than my fair share of Braves games this year, including this afternoon’s opener. I am honestly excited to see how this team does. The offense of the past few years has been painful to watch, so this new look team should at least be a little bit more exciting to watch. I could be wrong and this could be a callback to the 1980’s Braves with Freddie Freeman playing the modern day Dale Murphy.
So here is to another year of baseball! My team may not be favored to win it all, but wait ’til next year (in my best Cubs’ fan voice)!