And so, the awkward adolescent phase begins. Following the 2015 season, the Braves began trading away veterans in earnest for what they would bring back in prospects, leaving the major-league roster to be staffed by Freddie Freeman and whoever else happened to be left over. The good news is that those trades have left the Braves with a farm system considered one of the best in the game.
The Braves are following a rebuilding plan that’s been used countless times. Sometimes it even works. But now that the dust has settled and the fans saw what occurred in all of those trades, the hard work of turning “the kids” into actual big-league contributors begins. It’s baseball’s version of adolescence with all of the awkwardness that goes with it. In 2017, the Braves are likely to show flashes of what they may become, but those will be sandwiched between plenty of moments when fans will be mumbling, “I thought he was supposed to be good.”
But they will play in a new stadium!
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There are 1,458 innings (at least) to cover in 162 games, and someone has to pitch them. So, the Braves made a trio of strategic offseason moves in their rotation, signing one-year deals with 42-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and 44-year-old fastballer Bartolo Colon, and then trading for Jaime Garcia. The idea is to have these three join forces with 26-year-old staff ace Julio Teheran, who for the fourth straight year pitched 180 innings of very good baseball. It’s shrewd business, because the Braves have been stockpiling pitching prospects. Rather than expose them to developing on the job in what might be another 90-loss team, the Braves can let guys like Sean Newcomb, Aaron Blair and Matt Wisler marinate a little more in Class AAA. If one of them is ready quicker than expected, the Braves have very little committed to their new arrivals and could easily clear a spot. Atlanta also added 20-year-old lefty Luiz Gohara in a January trade with Seattle for outfielder Mallex Smith and reliever Shae Simmons. At the trade deadline, if the Braves are out of contention, one or two of the veterans might even bring back a decent prospect.
The Braves wisely brought back reliever Jim Johnson, a veteran who stepped into the breach last year and saved 20 games. He’ll serve as the mentor for a bullpen that features flamethrower Arodys Vizcaino, who began 2016 as the closer but got hurt. The rest of the bullpen might feature arms such as Jose Ramirez and Mauricio Cabrera trying to solve their problems with walking so many hitters on live television. The wild card might be lefty Ian Krol, whom the Braves got in a trade with the Tigers before the 2016 season. Krol’s strikeout and walk numbers both dramatically improved upon donning a Braves uniform. To succeed, a rebuild needs a few “hidden” players who emerge into solid major leaguers. For Braves fans who want to know how the rebuild is going, watching whether Krol can hold on to his improvements will be a good indicator.
How Braves general manager John Coppolella talked the Arizona Diamondbacks into giving up Dansby Swanson, a former No. 1 overall draft pick, in a trade for Shelby Miller remains one of the great mysteries of the universe. Swanson begins the year as the Braves’ starting shortstop. He’ll be joined by three-time All-Star Brandon Phillips, who was acquired from the Reds on Feb. 12 for two pitchers. Phillips, 35, isn’t the run producer he used to be, but the defense is still Gold Glove-caliber and this gives the Stone Mountain, Georgia, native a chance to play close to home. The 15-year veteran also should serve as a great mentor for Swanson, while giving prospect Ozzie Albies plenty of time to develop in the minors.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, Freeman was the 11th-most valuable position player in 2016 by their Wins Above Replacement metric, and the best among first basemen. Playing on a team that lost 93 games didn’t do much for Freeman’s national name recognition, but another season of 34 home runs and a .400 on-base percentage might do the trick no matter what the Braves do in 2017. One of the hardest parts of any rebuild is developing a bona fide superstar, but the Braves — who will employ Mr. Freeman through the 2021 season — already seem to have one. On the hot corner, Adonis Garcia did just enough to be useful in 2016, but he is not the long-term answer. The Braves are hoping that 23-year-old Rio Ruiz, who showed good on-base skills but limited power in AAA last year, is that answer, but it’s not clear that he’s ready for the jump to the big leagues.
The trade that brought Swanson also netted center fielder Ender Inciarte, who after being hurt at the beginning of the season returned to post a .351 on-base percentage and played Gold Glove defense. He’ll be flanked in left by Matt Kemp, who has become a defensively challenged, one-dimensional hitter. His 35 home runs in 2016 may look gaudy, but it’s not hard to find a power-hitting corner outfielder, and his other shortcomings erode the value that his bat brings. Nick Markakis has been exactly what the Braves had hoped he would be when he signed with the team prior to 2015: a solid player, but one for whom “solid” represents the highest praise he’ll receive. Markakis’ performance against lefties has begun to deteriorate, making him a possible candidate for platoon duty only.
Tyler Flowers is the starter, and while his .232/.302/.384 career numbers don’t inspire sonnets, he is among the game’s best at framing pitches — an important skill that is appreciated now more than ever. The Braves signed free agent Kurt Suzuki to a one-year deal to give them a veteran backup backstop.
Atlanta was counting on Sean Rodriguez, who played every position but pitcher and catcher in 2016 with Pittsburgh and hit 18 home runs in 342 plate appearances, to be their super-utility guy, but his family was involved in a serious car accident in Miami in late January and he could miss the season because of a shoulder injury. That means Jace Peterson, the Braves’ former starting second baseman, will likely be the fourth outfielder and also will see time at second and third when needed. Chase d’Arnaud also has the versatility to play all over the diamond and could be used to spell Markakis against lefties.
After starting the 2016 season 9–28, the Braves parted ways with manager Fredi Gonzalez and replaced him with long-time organizational stalwart Brian Snitker as interim manager. The Braves played nearly .500 baseball under Snitker (59–65), and as a reward his job title was cut in half. Rebuilding teams require a manager who can motivate a team to continue to put forth effort. The Braves have made a clear statement of their opinion of Snitker’s abilities, keeping him rather than turning to a more experienced manager.
The Braves are in an enviable position for a team on a rebuilding track. They already have a franchise player in Freeman and the makings of one in Swanson. They have a couple of players who have already bloomed into good role players, but they really only have a starter kit for a pitching staff beyond Teheran and too many positions where they will be fielding placeholders. The consensus is that the Braves have one of the best farm systems in the game after their flurry of trades, but while some of the youngsters will be seen at SunTrust Park this year, it will be another two years at least before they are collectively ready to make their mark.