Of baseball’s 10 postseason qualifiers, seven were bad not long ago; six had been bad for a while. The Rangers lost 95 games in 2014. The Astros lost 416 games over the four seasons preceding this one. Before 2015, the Cubs last finished above .500 in 2009; the Mets last did in 2008.
Before last season, the Royals hadn’t made the playoffs since 1985, when John Schuerholz was their general manager. Before 2013, the Pirates hadn’t made it since 1992, when Cabrera swung and Bream slid. The Blue Jays went from 1993, the year of Joe Carter’s homer, to this October without a postseason appearance. Which brings us to the Braves, who are bad now but, if these playoffs are any guide, mightn’t be for much longer. Here’s why:
This October shows (not that anyone doubted) the worth of young pitching. Matt Harvey, who’s 26, started Game 1 of the World Series for the Mets. Jacob deGrom, 27, beat Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in the Division Series. Noah Syndergaard, 23, has 20 strikeouts in 13 playoff innings. Steven Matz, 24, is scheduled to start Game 4. (And don’t forget Zack Wheeler, who’s 25 and recovering from Tommy John surgery.)
If you’re saying, “Except for Shelby Miller and maybe Julio Teheran, the Braves don’t have anyone on the order of Harvey or deGrom,” you’re right – so far. But we in Atlanta haven’t seen the arms the Braves consider their most promising. They believe there’s No. 1 starter potential in Max Fried, who was acquired from San Diego in the Justin Upton deal and who missed the season due to TJ; in Touki Toussaint, plucked from Arizona essentially for cash, and in Kolby Allard, their No. 1 pick in June. Fried is 21. Toussaint is 19. Allard is 18.
This October shows that great risks can reap sweet returns. In December 2010, the Royals shippped Greinke, the 2009 American League Cy Young winner, to Milwaukee for center fielder Lorenzo Cain and shortstop Alcides Escobar; the latter two were MVPs of the 2014 and 2015 ALCS, respectively. Two years later, Kansas City sent outfielder Wil Myers, rated the No. 3 prospect in baseball, to Tampa Bay for James Shields and Wade Davis. Shields was the No. 1 starter on the team that broke the Royals’ 29-year playoff drought. (He signed with San Diego last winter.) Davis has become the best reliever in the majors.
Eight days after the Shields/Davis/Myers deal, the Mets traded R.A. Dickey, the National League’s reigning Cy Young winner, to Toronto for a package including Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud. They’ll be the starting battery in Game 3. If the Braves of John Hart and John Coppolella have shown us anything, it’s that they’re not afraid to dare. Did they not swap three major-leaguers and Jose Peraza for Hector Olivera?
This October shows that being bad can be a good thing. With contracts for free agents soaring above $100 million, the draft has become the cheapest way to win. The Astros took shortstop Carlos Correa No. 1 overall in 2012 and outfielder George Springer No. 11 in 2011. The Cubs took third baseman Kris Bryant No. 2 overall in 2013 and the slugging Kyle Schwarber No. 4 last year. The Royals tapped Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas among the top three picks of their drafts.
If Coppolella, named the Braves’ general manager last month, has a mantra, it’s to make no trade that costs a draft pick. His method is to acquire, acquire, acquire. The best example is Austin Riley, the 18-year-old third baseman the Braves took in the June draft with a pick gained for Kimbrel. Riley hit .305 with 12 homers and 40 RBIs in 60 minor-league games. He’s a ways away, but he’s the best young bat in the organization.
This October shows that being smart is a precursor to getting good. The Cubs’ fortunes changed when Theo Epstein, an architect of Red Sox championship teams, was named president of baseball operations in 2011. The Mets became a different club when Sandy Alderson, who’d built great teams in Oakland before Billy Beane invented Moneyball, took over in 2010. Jeff Luhnow, the head of scouting in St. Louis, left in 2011 to preside over the Astros’ rebuilding. It took Dayton Moore, once Schuerholz’s No. 2 man here, eight seasons to lift the Royals to the playoffs, but they’ve now graced consecutive World Series.’
I don’t know if Coppolella and Hart will lift the Braves to the 2017 playoffs or the 2020 World Series. Baseball fixer-uppers carry no warranty. I do believe they’re very smart men who are working very hard. I trust them to do right by this franchise.