By Adam Brown
When a team starts a rebuild, it is often met with two different sub-genres of fan. The first is the realist, the one who understands that this is an appropriate course of action. The one who comprehends that unfortunately, due to circumstance, whether it be bad luck, poor management, underperforming players or all of the above, a proper plan needs to be put in place. Opposed to this is the irrational, impatient fan, by no means a lesser fan, just one that doesn’t approve of seasons of rebuilding, with no chance of success. They want all the chips to go in. They want them in on the next hand. Unfortunately, as we saw with the Phillies in our last preview sometimes you get dealt a crap hand.
With that being said, the next team on our docket has grabbed the bull by the horns and orchestrated what some would perceive as an early fire-sale this past off-season.
2015 Projected Record: 71-91
Why has it gone wrong?
Not quite as straightforward an answer this time around. Prior to 2014, the Braves last losing season was in 2008 (72-90). Here’s their win totals since then, 86, 91, 89, 94, 96, 79. Notice the outlier. Of course you do, it’s hardly hiding. With a recent history like that, it ponders the question why the front office was so quick to react. It could be put down to panic (General Manager Frank Wren was relieved of his duties amidst the player departures), it could also be proactive foreshadowing, and precautionary measures being taken to limit the potential damage. If it’s a quick fix a la the 2013 Boston Red Sox, it becomes overnight, an intuitive, shrewd piece of management.
The biggest issue facing the Braves, like the Phillies were big contracts to underperforming players. B.J Upton, fast becoming the poster child of albatross contracts, had OPS+ of 75. His rWar was calculated at -0.3. And all Atlanta had to do for the privilege of this production was cough up $72.5m over five years. Five long, treacherous, regrettable years for all involved… except Upton.
John Hart, the new General Manager decided to offset this with offloading players whom they were unsure if they could potentially keep long term. The first domino to fall was Jason Heyward (along with relief pitcher Jordan Walden). Thee prodigious young outfielder Heyward, 25 is a free agent at the end of the 2015 season. Given that he was fifth in rWar among position players in all of baseball last season, and his tender age, means he’ll be the recipient of a monster contract this coming winter.
The return saw them net Shelby Miller, the Cardinals 24 year old pitcher. Miller, who after a promising rookie season regressed last season, he pitched to 3.74 ERA (3.06 in 2013) but to a 4.74 FIP (3.67 in 2013) and a 1.74 K/BB ratio (2.96 in 2013). Not to say any of this makes Miller a poor pitcher, on the contrary, he’ll be a solid part of any rotation for the next decade, just the trade should have been Miller + other pieces. The Braves received prospect Tyrell Jenkins, who now ranks eleventh in their system.
The Braves also traded B.J Upton’s younger, talented brother Justin to the San Diego Padres. Upton, also a free agent after the 2015 season netted the Braves four prospects in return. Max Fried, Mallex Smith, Jace Peterson and Dustin Peterson were all packing their bags and heading to Atlanta. More on them to come.
The last big trade saw Evan Gattis head to Houston, in exchange for three more prospects. Mike Foltynewicz, Andrew Thurman and Rio Ruiz. This is the ideal trade for a team who are restocking the farm, selling high on a young player with one primary skill (power) and receiving two prospects with high upside.
Down on the farm
Baseball Prospectus ranks the Braves as number 19 in their farm system rankings, describing the Braves pool of prospects as “more reliant on potential” than any other organisation in the majors. The farm is stocked with copious amounts of prospects far away from the majors, who although littered with potential, could see their careers go either way.
The top prospect in the system is Jose Peraza, the 52nd best prospect in baseball according to MLB.com. Peraza, 20 is a speedy middle infielder who will rely on his feet and his glove for Major League success. His bat projects to be average with next to no power to accompany it. With Andrelton Simmons playing shortstop, he seems to be the 2nd baseman of the Braves future, and could see action as soon as this year at the show.
The next two hitting prospects rank number five and number six in the team rankings. First is Christian Bethancourt, a defensive catcher, who like Peraza will lean on his glove as his primary skill in the big leagues. His bat projects to be below average, as does his power. He has been pigeon holed as the Braves catcher of the future, and saw his first action last year in Atlanta, and could start as soon as opening day.
Next is Rio Ruiz, acquired in the Gattis trade, a 20 year old third baseman, who unlike the aforementioned prospects is an offense first player. His bat and his power look to be above average, and could be an average defensive player to go with it. Unlikely to see the majors until late 2016 at best, this is the prototypical player Baseball Prospectus highlighted in their review of the Braves system.
On the pitching side of things, the Braves bolster a cluster of young arms. The three highest ranking pitchers are Foltynewicz, Fried and Lucas Sims. The former, acquired in the Gattis trade also is a “pure power pitcher”. His fastball received the highest possible grading of 80. His secondary pitches, a curveball and a changeup are average, as is his control. Foltynewicz floor as a professional seems to be that of a high leverage relief pitcher. His ceiling is much higher, with some work to his off speed pitches, the Evan Gattis trade could become a steal for Atlanta in the coming years.
Next and number 3 in the Braves system is Lucas Sims. Still only 20, and not advanced past High A in the minor leagues, there’s still plenty of seasoning for the young right hander. A potential middle-of-the-rotation starter, Sims could potentially have 3 above average pitches, his control should improve with his mechanics, however he’s still numerous years of being a Major Leaguer, and like Ruiz, is very much one for the future.
Last up is Max Fried, the centrepiece in the trade that took Justin Upton to the west coast. Similar to the previous two pitchers in terms of pitch repertoire, all three have a fastball, changeup and a curveball. All three need to work on their off speed pitches, with the changeup being their weakest pitch. The only difference really, is Fried’s a lefty.
During the season, there’s times where teams stock their lineups with right handed hitters, or left handed hitters and overload on one side of the batters box. This means that a rotation of both right and left handed pitchers is more balanced and creates better matchups over a series. Thus, increasing Fried’s value already.
Fried, like many others is a way away off joining Atlanta, which is fitting to what seems to be the team ethos, stockpiling young players who have high ceiling but could be numerous years away. The rebuilding seems to be planned for the distant future, not the immediate one.
What’s on the horizon?
Looking at the FanGraphs prediction, I’d take the over; however, a best case scenario seems to be scraping into the low 80’s in wins. A positive however is the rotation, Julio Teheran, Shelby Miller and Alex Wood could be the heart of the rotation for years to come. With those three it’ll come down to the offense, or lack thereof to decipher how the Braves season will go. After Freddie Freeman, the offense is stick thin on talent. The signing of Nick Markakis offers another league average hitter to try compliment Freeman, yet after that the lineup has nothing in the way of potency. This will be the Braves Achilles heel for the 2015 season.
After that, like the majority of teams they will rely on the prospects in their system maturing into everyday contributors at the big league level. The difference is, rather than gambling on a few prospects and hoping they cash in, the Braves aren’t all in on one hand. They’re playing the long game.
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