The Atlanta Braves awoke this first day of September as the 29th-best team in baseball. This is terrible news.
For five months, they’d clung to last place like grim death. As Month No. 6 (of 6) commences, they’re hell-bent on blowing it. They were 13-14 in August, a month that will live in infamy. And those Minnesota Twins — there’s a team that knows how to tank!
On Aug. 16 and 17, the Twins lulled the Braves to sleep by sweeping a pair at Turner Field and leaving town 4 1/2 games ahead. (Or behind, depending on your slant.) They haven’t won since. They’re 0-for-their-last-13. That’s the way you do it.
Also this way: While the Braves were recalling Matt Wisler from the minors and watching him win two Utterly Meaningless games, the Twins were demoting their best young arms to Rochester, even though — as La Velle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune archly noted — “the minor-league season ends in just 10 days.” (Granted, Jose Berrios and Tyler Duffey were stinking it up in the majors.)
The upshot: With 29 games to go, the Braves no longer control their destiny. The No. 1 pick in the 2017 MLB draft is the Twins’ to squander, and they don’t appear in a capricious mood. They’re serious about this.
Maybe you’re saying, “Wait a second. Would finishing 29th be so bad?” The answer — pardon the shouting — is HECK YES! If you’re going to tank-to-rebuild, you’d really like to have the 1-1 pick to exercise somewhere along the line. Even if there’s only one team picking ahead of you, that’s one team that has the right to pick the guy you might want.
Example: The Braves were so wretched in August and over the first half of September last season that they closed within a game of the last-place Phillies. Know what happened next? They swept three games from Philly. They won 10 of their final 15. Not only didn’t they finish 30th — they messed up 29th, too. The rampaging Cincinnati Reds lost 14 of their final 15 and finished 64-98 to the ham-handed Braves’ 67-95. Darn that Fredi Gonzalez!
And maybe now you’re saying, “What’s the difference? The Braves would have picked a high school pitcher no matter where they drafted.” I’m not so sure about that. I think there’s a real chance that, had they held the No. 2 overall pick, they’d have taken the Tennessee infielder Nick Senzel and there’d have been the college bat many among you wanted. Senzel is a Red now. He’s hitting .291 with seven homers and 37 RBIs in 64 minor-league games.
Granted, the high-school righty Ian Anderson hasn’t been a dud. The Braves’ top pick has an ERA of 2.14 with 31 strikeouts against 11 walks in 33 2/3 pro innings. And having the 1-1 doesn’t guarantee success: The Astros had it three years running — masters of tankery, they were — and got it right only with Carlos Correa. They dumped Mark Appel in the Ken Giles trade; Brady Aiken declined to sign.
And the last time the Braves had the 1-1, they wanted Todd Van Poppel, who would win 40 big-league games. They got scared off and wound up settling for Chipper Jones, who’s headed to Cooperstown. But still: Having the 1-1 paid off, did it not? Had the Braves held the No. 2 pick, they might have been stuck with Tony Clark. Here are their career WARs, per Baseball-Reference: Chipper 85.0, Clark 12.5.
Bradley’s Rule: If you’re going to tank, tank to win. (Meaning lose.) If the Braves finish with the second-worst record in baseball, Brian Snitker’s not popping any champagne corks. But I’m reasonably certain John Coppolella and Brian Bridges and the scouting crew will be sitting in a conference room next June thinking, “We lost 101 games; was 103 too much to ask?”