On the morning of Aug. 21, the Atlanta Braves had a five-game lead in the race — the words “lead” and “race” are used advisedly — for the No. 1 pick in the 2017 MLB draft. They were 44-79 to Minnesota’s 49-74. Tampa Bay was 51-70 and San Diego 52-71, both being eight games ahead/behind. Cincinnati was 53-69, a 9 1/2-game separation.
At the close of regular-season business Sunday night, the Braves were 68-93, having gone 24-14 over the final six weeks. They will have the No. 5 pick in next year’s draft. As bad as the 2016 team was at winning under Fredi Gonzalez, it was even worse at tanking under Brian Snitker.
Which can, I guess, be considered a good thing. (It’s certainly good for Snitker, now the favorite to manage this team on Opening Day in SunTrust Park.) But if you’ve committed to a deep-dish rebuild, you’d love to have the No. 1 pick just once. And the Braves weren’t merely the running for it: They had a five-game lead with little more than a month to go. Then they pulled a Reverse Fredi. They fashioned an Epic Collapse by winning too much.
As it turned out, the Braves will pick later next June than they did this, when they took Ian Anderson No. 3 overall. That’s unbelievable. At best, these Braves were considered the second-worst team in baseball headed into the season, and for the first four months they ran neck-and-neck with the Twins. But Minnesota took two games at Turner Field on Aug. 16 and 17 — the latter was Dansby Swanson’s debut — and left with a five-game bulge. That seemed to have settled matters. Oops.
Blame Swanson for being really good. Blame Matt Kemp for anchoring the lineup. Blame Freddie Freeman for being the best player in the National League over the second half. Blame Ender Inciarte for remembering how to hit and for stealing a game in New York. Blame Snitker for not fouling things up. Blame Julio Teheran for outpitching Justin Verlander on Sunday. Blame former Brave Justin Upton for taking a called third strike with the tying run on base. Heck, blame everybody, “blame” also being brandished advisedly.
This was sweetly bitter stuff. In the here-and-now of Atlanta Buzz, the Braves started to win at a propitious moment. Sunday’s farewell to Turner Field — the Braves won 1-0 to eliminate Detroit, a team of massive resources, from postseason consideration — was a fine time for everyone there and everyone watching, and surely it made some folks who’d sworn off this team in a a transition both figurative and literal reconsider their vows never to set foot in SunTrust.
That said: In a purely baseball sense, the No. 1 pick has immense value. You don’t have to wait on anyone else. You can grab the best player on your board. You’re given the most money to use in slot allocation. You control the draft.
The Houston Astros went from losing 100-plus games to last year’s playoffs by having the 1-1 pick three years running. The Chicago Cubs went from losing 101 games in 2012 to winning 103 this season by having five consecutive top 10 picks, including Kris Bryant at No. 2 in 2013 and Kyle Schwarber at No. 4 in 2014. One of the reasons the Braves’ farm system went fallow was that the big club won too much and went from 1991 to 2013 with only one top 10 pick — Mike Minor at No. 7 in 2009. The first Round 1 pick of the Coppolella/Hart administration was Kolby Allard at No. 14.
Being John Coppolella, he found a workaround by purloining Swanson, the 1-1 of 2015, from Arizona, but I imagine seeing the final standings made the general manager cringe, if just a bit. Because of the cancellation of the Sept. 25 game in Miami after Jose Fernandez’s death, the Braves played one fewer game than the other teams at/near the bottom of the table. They finished a half-game ahead/behind the Reds, Padres and Rays. Had the Braves lost Sunday, they’d have been picking No. 2.
And Bryant, the No. 2 pick of three years back? He’ll surely be the National League’s MVP.
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