Today’s AJC includes the highlights of Monday’s 25-minute conversation with general manager John Coppolella in the Atlanta Braves’ clubhouse at Turner Field. Said Coppolella: “I feel so much better about where we are now than I did a year ago. I knew we were on the right track, but to see where we are is exciting.”
Reasons to be cheerful: Baseball Prospectus last week listed the Braves as having six of the top 82 prospects (four of the top 43). A year ago, the Braves had two of BP’s top 101, both of whom — Jose Peraza and Christian Bethancourt — have been traded. Also, the Sporting News 2016 Baseball Yearbook rates the Braves’ rebuilt farm system as the best in the business. (It was 22nd last year.) Writes David Rawnsley: “The Braves are essentially where the Houston Astros were in 2013-2014.”
(Full disclosure: I contributed to the Braves’ preview — the folks at BP call my submission an “essay” — for the 2016 Baseball Prospectus Almanac. I haven’t contributed to Sporting News for a long, long time.)
As noted earlier, I’ve become a believer in this rebuild. I think I know what Coppolella is trying to do, and I marvel at how much he has accomplished in 16 months. Just when I think he has made his slickest, he makes a more outrageous one. (The how’d-that-happen pilfering of Touki Toussaint was trumped by the Dansby Swanson/Aaron Blair/Ender Inciarte windfall, which could well be the best trade anyone makes in a good long while.)
Swanson/Blair/Inciarte-for-Shelby Miller deal and the acquisition of Sean Newcomb, Chris Ellis and Erick Aybar for Andrelton Simmons — a trade widely reviled by Braves fans — changed the dynamics of this redo. As Coppolella said Monday: “I think (those trades) accelerated our progress … In a lot of the trades we made in the 2014-2015 offseason, the players were a lot further away. With these two trades, you really got six players you could see (in Atlanta) in 2016. A lot of the deals we made last year … were more to restart the system than have major-league impact in the short term.”
Aybar and Inciarte are already big-leaguers. Swanson figures to start somewhere in the middle of the Braves’ infield: He and Ozzie Albies are both shortstops at the moment, and Coppolella said the Braves will decide this season who needs to scoot over. Newcomb and Blair could be in the rotation by midsummer. (Don’t make the mistake of seeing Blair as a ride-along in this latest trade with Arizona; the Braves were insistent he be included.)
OK, now for a reality check: For all these imports, the 2016 Braves will be lucky not to lose 90 games. They lost 95 last year after being 42-42 on July 6. If I had to guess, I’d say the new season will track differently. I think they’ll be really bad early and then, once the promotions start, get a bit better.
FanGraphs projects the 2016 Braves to go 67-95, same as last season. That would be the second-worst record in baseball, one victory ahead of the Phillies. (FanGraphs also projects that the six worst teams will hail from the National League, in which there’s a whole lotta tankin’ goin’ on.) But I’d suggest the Braves are further along in their raze-to-raise project than the Phillies and Brewers and Reds and Rockies and Padres.
That last team bears mention: A.J. Preller took over as San Diego GM in 2014 and tried to win big, landing Matt Kemp and Wil Myers and Derek Norris and Will Middlebrooks and James Shields and, not incidentally, both Uptons and Craig Kimbrel from the Braves. By midseason, Preller’s Padres were being hailed as a case study in How Not To Do Things. (Rany Jazayerli’s “Teardown Artist” in Grantland was required reading all across baseball.)
Today the Padres are trying to restock the farm they laid bare to build a team that finished 74-88. Justin Upton left as a free agent. Kimbrel was re-traded to the Red Sox for four prospects. Meanwhile, the Braves are proud employers of Matt Wisler, Jace Peterson, Max Fried, Mallex Smith and Dustin Peterson, all acquired from San Diego, and Austin Riley, who’s listed as No. 79 on Baseball Prospectus’ top 101 and who was drafted with the pick acquired for Kimbrel. They also got a year’s worth of Cameron Maybin before flipping him to Detroit for two more pitchers.
In sum, you’d much rather be the Braves than the Padres. Neither is going to win much in 2016, but the Braves have a real chance of being good, and maybe sooner than you’d think. Go back to Rawnsley’s comparison. The Astros lost 111 games in 2013, their third consecutive year of 100-plus losses. In 2014 they started to stir, going 72-90. Last year they made the playoffs and were six outs from eliminating the World-Series-winners-to-be Royals in Game 4 of the ALDS.
Coppolella: “We feel a lot of our best prospects are close. You can see with teams like the Houston Astros and the Cubs and the Royals that when those young players come up, they can have an immediate impact.”
If you’re still a Braves’ fan after all this deconstruction, you shouldn’t be too discouraged with what you see early in the new season. The next wave of Braves will be arriving soon.