At the beginning of the 2016 MLB season, the Atlanta Braves find themselves in the midst of a very public rebuilding process that is both literal and metaphorical. As they reconstruct their home, this time in the suburbs (though in the sweet spot of a traffic juncture to shame common perceptions of in-town rush-hour snaggles), they also are reconstructing their roster very nearly from the ground up. The only faces Atlanta fans even have a chance to recognize in a Braves uniform this year belong to Julio Teheran and Freddie Freeman, the recent departures– Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons, the brothers Upton, Alex Wood, Shelby Miller…– being so severe in both scope and (at a minimum, perceived) star power, and it’s an open question whether those two will finish 2016 in Braves uniforms.
|Atl||Record||wRC+||SP ERA-||RP ERA-||DRS||UZR||BsR||Pay – $M|
|2013||.593 (4)||102 (9)||95 (7)||67 (2)||46 (6)||16 (11)||-5 (19)||90 (16)|
|2014||.488 (16)||87 (26)||95 (8)||92 (12)||19 (11)||35 (5)||-5 (21)||111 (14)|
|2015||.414 (28)||85 (29)||115 (29)||122 (30)||-15 (24)||8 (13)||-3 (23)||98 (23)|
Some may forever question the decision to dynamite the young core that was coalescing (and signing reasonably team-friendly contracts) in 2013-14, maybe because rebuilding a playoff-caliber lineup solely on the basis of a stadium move always will seem dumb, but, that launch sequence having been irreversibly initiated, at least we now can agree that, under new General Manager John Coppolella, there exists somewhat of a plan for the near future. As Mark Bradley, Braves beat reporter for the hometown paper of record, nicely illustrates in his 2016 Baseball Prospectus Annual essay (and highlights in his recent appearance on Effectively Wild), the Atlanta front office has cracked open the fruitful archives from the 1990s and is stockpiling young pitching prospects the way doomsday preppers stockpile cans of dried beans.
The theory here appears to be threefold: 1) the recipe for developing a strong pitching staff calls for many, many pitching prospects; 2) other teams are going to want good, young pitchers, so the Braves eventually can swap some of these guys to fill out the rest of their roster; and 3) that’s the way the team did it in the 90s, and maybe it will work again.
In the meantime, the guys on the field are going to look like a bunch of random Moes and Joes, some of whom Coppolella probably found at Moe’s and Joe’s, and they’re going to lose a lot of baseball games.
Since the 2016 Braves have done everything but hold open tryouts at Piedmont Park to fill out their roster, we decided to do the same thing with our season preview, which, as you’ll see, we have crowd-sourced from a pool of casual and “expert” observers. Here are the results:
We polled 11 “expert fans”, including Braves bloggers and fans who follow the game with the kind of carefully tuned eye you’d expect from a BttP writer, on a series of questions about the current state of the team and its future.
Experts’ Survey Results
Nick Strangis – No arguments here. I think the Braves have moved on from the idea that the team will make the playoffs in their first season at Sun Trust Park and most of our experts also see the Braves’ window to contend opening in the 2-3 year range.
AD – I agree that a playoff berth is not in this team’s immediate future. Last November, BP pointed out that the Braves aren’t spending enough to produce a winner in 2017. Could they be there in 2018? Maybe, but a lot would need to go right, both in Atlanta and around the National League for that to happen. Give me a bite of that green slice of pie.
Nick Strangis – It seems like someone forgot about the Shelby Miller trade, or perhaps they just were making the point that the Braves traded their best MLB starting pitcher. I’m intrigued by the thought that Ender Inciarte could be the Braves most valuable position player in 2016 (assuming he isn’t traded). Inciarte posted a 5.3 WAR season in left field last season in Arizona on the back of strong fielding and an above average (for the position among every day left fieders) 100 wRC+. He was pushed out of center field in Arizona by AJ Pollock, a 2015 MVP candidate, but has posted a 22 UZR/150 in 801 innings in center. He is a player with trade value, as several teams reportedly inquired about the outfielder after he arrived in Atlanta via the Shelby Miller trade. But I wonder if the Braves will make him part of their core going forward if he continues to hit well and provide valuable defense at a premium position. Overwhelmingly though, our experts see Freeman and Julio Teheran as the best returning players. Hopefully this season Teheran can overcome his Jekyll/Hyde act in his home/road splits from 2015.
AD – Inciarte intrigues me as well, as does the odd sort of battle between A.J. Pierzynski and Tyler Flowers for the catcher spot (long-live Gerald Laird!), but the answer to this question is whichever– if either– of Teheran and Freeman are on the Atlanta roster at season’s end.
On the question of the health of the franchise and whether or not the rebuild was necessary and will “be worth it”, our expert panelists felt that the lack of MLB caliber talent makes the franchise “not healthy” in their opinion but the farm system will enable the team to compete in 3 or less season. The experts were split over whether or not the aggressive rebuild was necessary but seem to agree that it will be “worth it” with a lone dissenter who felt the rebuild will not bear fruit.
Nick Strangis – I wasn’t sure where I stood on the aggressive rebuild when it started, as the Braves had an envious group of young talent entering the ’14-’15 off-season, but I think hindsight shows us that there’s no way the team could have held on to Justin Upton and/or Jason Heyward and the return they received for the outfielders was significant (especially if you extend Heyward’s trade tree to include the acquisitions of Inciarte and Dansby Swanson).
Nick Strangis – I had a text conversation with Nick Devlin, former Burlington Bees broadcaster, on his thoughts on 30 year-old rookie Hector “the enigma” Olivera (whom some prospect evaluators leave out of rankings due to his age): “I trust [the Braves front office] on scouting. Would not be shocked if Olivera had a real nice year…it just makes no sense for them to get him unless they had some pretty crazy reports.” I guess we will see who the crazy one is in the upcoming season.
AD – Having followed Swanson since his not-that-long-ago days as a Vanderbilt Commodore, I’m most excited about his arrival in Atlanta, but I should note that Ryan Sullivan, our resident NL East prospect-tracker, made a point of mentioning pitcher Sean Newcomb on the most recent episode of the BttP Podcast as a Braves prospect he viewed more highly than Swanson.
The experts were polled about any players on the Braves’ MLB roster whom they say as potential “best in position players”. Overwhelmingly, Freddie Freeman’s name emerged as a top 5-6 first baseman.
Carlos Collazo, writer/podcaster with Talking Chop and former MLB.com/Baseball America intern, gave us some insight into what gives Freeman such potential:
“I think Freddie Freeman is right there among the best young first basemen in the league, and while he could stand to add some more power, his hit tool is tremendous. Other than that we’re probably just guessing at this point with the Braves.”
We also gave the experts an open floor to talk about any prospects they might see with “best in position” potential and some highlights are below:
Darius Austin (BttP contributor): “Austin Riley seems to have the highest upside based on what I’ve read, but there’s still an awful lot of projection left there as he’s a long way off.”
Alex Remington (editor, BravesJournal.com): “The Braves’ rebuild has been long on lottery tickets, and short on blue chips.”
Shaun Payne (@paynedshaun, blogger at AtlantaBaseballTalk.com): “The best bets for ‘best player at his position’ are probably one of the pitchers making big strides, like a Sean Newcomb.”
Fans’ Survey Results
In addition to the experts, we polled friends and acquaintances who identified as Braves or Atlanta-area baseball fans. Here’s the cross-section of fans who responded:
We also asked how the fans felt about the end of the era in Turner vs. their excitement, or lack there-of, about the new stadium in Cobb County:
Speaking of Cobb County, we also asked the fans to settle the debate over whether they considered the new park is actually located “in Atlanta”.
Maybe the new team name should be the “Atlanta Braves of Cobb County”?
There is plenty of nostalgia for Turner Field, even if it is only 20 years old. For our 20-something and 30-something year-old respondents, they’ve never known an Atlanta without a stadium in the current site. When asked if the Atlanta Fulton County Stadium/Turner Field site drummed up any emotions or nostalgic feelings seemed to be a mix of anger, sadness, and apathy.
We owe a debt that can never be repaid (except maybe in Holman & Finch Burgers) to the fans and experts who allowed us to take a unique approach to this season’s preview. Please check out the fine work from our expert respondents in their native habitat (in no particular order):
Nick Devlin (@nickdevlin), various places
And BttP’s own Seth Rubin, Simon Gutierrez, Christopher Baber, Darius Austin, and Andrew Patrick
Full responses to the expert survey can be viewed here (and I recommend checking out some of the wonderful stories shared by these writers about their memories of the Braves from the AFC/Turner Field era): Experts full results.
Concluding remarks and predictions
I think our “expert” respondants made some great cases for why Braves fans should not let this historic season pass them by:
As Nick Devlin pointed out, you’ll get to see some of the brightest young stars in baseball, even if they play for other teams with jerseys that say Harper, Stanton, or Harvey. Alex Remington made the case that, “…rooting for a team you know will be bad has some minor pleasures: the unexpected pleasure of seeing them win anyway, the cheap tickets to see the game up close, the opportunity to watch young players mature with little pressure, the chance of seeing a hot prospect get a cup of coffee…” even if it’s hard to justify the cost of a ticket even to a diehard fan. And, if nothing else works, Carlos Collazo pointed out “Freddie Freeman likes giving hugs? H&F burgers are delicious?”
– Nick Strangis
It’s fitting that the Effectively Wild episode previewing the 2016 Braves used as bumper music Levon Helm’s song about a desperate farmer abandoning his cotton crop for the harvesting of more lucrative marijuana plants, because it feels like there’s something unlawful about the Braves’ move to Cobb County, even if such stadium moves– and concordant team rebuilds– represent the inescapable progress of the game’s business future.
Like it or not, though, this is the state of Major League Baseball in North Georgia, and the good news is that there is a coherently enunciable team-building plan in place. It’s dissimilar from the recent rapid-rebuild approaches executed in Houston and Chicago’s North Side, and it seems to lack asset diversification in its emphasis on pitching prospects, but we also know that, in competitive copycat environments, the copycats usually overpay for diminishing marginal returns and that, hey, everybody always needs pitching.
Leveraging public resources for the wholesale replacement of a stadium that isn’t old enough to drink the beer sold inside itself is not, alone, a rationale for radical roster reconstruction, but Atlanta’s disoriented baseball fans likely also need to acknowledge that the team’s chances of retaining Heyward, the junior Upton, and Kimbrel were, at best, middling.
Still, in what could be a motto for the city, here we all are together, so, with the 2016 MLB season is about to begin, let’s enjoy the final year of Turner Field and the opportunity to witness the embryonic days of what could be the next great Atlanta baseball dynasty. – AD
2016 Record Prediction: 69-93
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