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When will the Atlanta Braves be competitive again?

Braves fans everywhere are currently witnessing a rebuild of epic proportions with the team and that is creating plenty of anxiety amongst them with good reason. In this article, we take a look at the Braves' current assets and payroll expectations over the next few years in conjunction with free agents and their costs to see when we can expect them to competitive again.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Braves have been a fascinating team to watch make moves over the last 14 months or so. It's easy to pick out specific moves and question the validity of the returns or the quality of the players we sent away, but the general feel has been, and continues to be, a total rebuild. John Hart and John Coppolella have maintained throughout this whole process a few key points. The first of these has been undeniably true: the rebuild was going to be painful for fans and team officials alike. The Braves have traded away Craig Kimbrel, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Alex Wood, Andrelton Simmons, Shelby Miller, and numerous others in the attempt to build a team that could win for years to come. The second thing that they have maintained is that the team will be competitive the season the Braves open SunTrust Park in 2017. Given the first part, this is a bit problematic. There is no question that the farm system is orders of magnitude better than it was just a couple seasons ago, but it's not necessarily filled with AAA players ready to take the league by storm. Many of the system's best players, at least until recently, were going to need significant amounts of time in the minors before they were ready for the big leagues. So this raises a basic question: when exactly WILL the Braves be a competitive team again?

Getting to 37 WAR

Before we go any further, we need to establish a baseline of what "competitive" means. At this point, many Braves fans would just be happy if the team would finish at .500 after the tragedy that was last season. However, if a front office is tearing a team down just to make it a .500 team in the future and call that competitive, that is probably less than ideal. For our purposes, competitive means actually competing for a playoff spot. This is of course problematic given that each division fluctuates in difficulty from year to year, but there are some general rules that can help us. After talking with some folks more well versed in advanced stats than I (thanks Ivan and others!), it became clear that, generally, you want around 37 WAR or more on your team to expect to complete for a playoff spot. There is a lot of fluidity and inconsistency in terms of relating WAR to actual wins, but for the most part 37 WAR is where you want to get to. The 2015 team WAR totals do bear this out for the most part as the Cubs (50.1), Pirates (43.5), Cardinals (43.5), Mets (45.4), Rangers (32.2), Royals (38.3), Blue Jays (49.5), Dodgers (49.1), Astros (44.6), and Yankees (38.6) all were around 37 WAR or higher as they entered the playoffs with the notable exception of the Rangers, who had the worst record amongst division winners and are clearly an example that this isn't a perfect science. As a side note, the NL Central is a scary, scary division and will be that way for a long time by the looks of things. These WAR numbers are each team's total fWAR (WAR as published by Fangraphs) for 2015 if you are interested, so if you see some variability between those numbers and say Baseball-Reference's WAR numbers, at least that is an explanation and was done primarily for the sake of consistency.

(Ivan's technical note: Baseball-Reference WAR feels a bit strange to me on a team level, because it uses pitcher WAR based on runs allowed but also includes WAR for fielders. So, on an individual event level, when a pitcher elicits a groundout, the pitcher gets credit for that, as well as the fielder who recorded the out, resulting in double-counting at the team level. Still, given that WAR is an imperfect science, it doesn't matter all too much, but using fWAR for team WAR levels seems more internally consistent to me. Additionally, due to things like run sequencing, there's not going to be a perfect correlation between each team's record, its Pythagorean Win-Loss record, and its WAR-predicted record. But it's a good barometer of team quality nonetheless, and those three things are generally in close alignment.)

So where does that leave the Braves? Well, in 2015 the Braves had a team WAR of 17.7. Given that the Braves were awful last year and now own the 3rd overall pick in the draft as a result, this WAR total shouldn't be that surprising. However, it does give us a starting point for reference as, by many accounts, this past season should be the low point in the rebuild.

Another thing to keep in mind is the cost in dollars that each WAR is worth on the free agent market. Each free agent market is different, but it goes without question that contracts are trending upwards. There are a lot of dollar numbers that are thrown out there to put a value on WAR, but for our purposes we are going to assume the higher end number of $8 million/WAR just to account for inflation of the free agent market. This doesn't include the trade market or arbitration raises obviously, just in terms of free agent dollars. Still with me? Not sure I still am either, let's keep going.

With all of that said, it raises the question then, given the current state of the roster, given how well will the Braves do in 2016 and given the resources at their disposal, when will they be "competitive" again? We are going to assume that the Braves don't sign any high impact/dollar free agents for the rest of this offseason (which does seem likely) as well as not make any significant trades (there is absolutely no telling if/when that will happen with Coppy and Hart at the helm. Those men love to deal). Where do we stand in 2016?

2016... probably not

I know this come as a shock to a lot of you, but 2016 is probably not going to be the year the Braves make it back to the playoffs. That said, there are actually several encouraging signs and if a few things fall the right way the Braves could actually hover around the .500 mark, but it's more likely that they are going to be less bad than 2015, but still bad. What we did in this section is first guesstimate playing time for players which loosely filled out the 25 man roster; then, we used the recent ZiPs WAR projections for each player (we used ZiPs out of preference for several reasons that aren't super relevant to this, but you could do the same thing with Steamer projections if you were so inclined) to get WAR/per PA and WAR/per IP for each player and then made our own projections. The original ZiPs projections are included as well as they are quite good as well.

Position Player Proj. PAs (TC) Proj. WAR (ZiPs) Proj. WAR (TC)
C AJ Pierzynski 384 0.6 0.6
1B Freddie Freeman 637 3.5 3.7
2B Jace Peterson 560 1.0 1.1
SS Erick Aybar 588 1.7 1.7
3B Adonis Garcia 420 0.2 0.2
RF Nick Markakis 575 0.9 0.8
CF Ender Inciarte 520 2.8 2.5
LF Hector Olivera 470 0.5 0.6

As you can see here, there isn't much deviation from ZiPs projections and ours. To clarify, we are using the same WAR/per PA in each case, but just have adjusted playing time guesses from those published by ZiPS in some instances. For example, we had Olivera with more playing time than ZiPs, and the same holds true for Freeman and Jace Peterson. But again, these aren't huge deviations and ultimately this is just a guess anyways. We also adjusted several of the outfielders to account for the expected call-up of Mallex Smith as well as Ender Inciarte seeing less time against lefties given his struggles against them in the past. There is certainly some areas of deficit on the roster based on these projections, with Adonis Garcia and Hector Olivera being projected to be pretty bad by ZiPs. We will talk about them in a bit, but in short it's at these positions where there could be opportunities for the Braves to outperform projections and be better than folks expected. Other than that, the projections are straightforward.

(Ivan's note: Dan Szymborski is known to threaten folks with bodily harm if they simply straight-up sum the ZiPS projections as published for a given team. With that said, to make the TC projections, the method first estimated playing time by PAs or IP for each position, and only then applied the WAR/PA or WAR/IP to that playing time. The total number of PAs and IP used was chosen to be pretty consistent with how many PAs and IP a team gets in a given season. With all that said, you can see that for most players it doesn't make much of a difference, partly because most Braves' players accrue such low WAR/PA or WAR/IP that moving playing time guesses doesn't change the needle much.)

Projected IP (TC) Projected WAR (ZiPs) Projected WAR (TC)
Julio Teheran SP 200 3.1 3.2
Williams Perez SP 160 1.0 1.2
Bud Norris SP 135 1.1 1.0
Matt Wisler SP 185 0.8 1.0
Manny Banuelos SP/RP 120 1.5 1.6
Ryan Weber SP/RP 125 0.4 0.5
Mike Foltynewicz SP/RP 85 0.2 0.2
Arodys Vizcaino RP 65 0.6 0.8
Daniel Winkler RP 40 0.6 0.4
Ian Krol RP 40 0.3 0.2
Jason Grilli RP 55 0.5 0.7
Shae Simmons RP 50 0.4 0.6
Jim Johnson RP 55 0.1 0.1

In the pitching section, the innings pitched guesses are included just to give a general idea of where our thinking was, especially since there was more deviation from ZiPs projections and ours on the pitching side. Again, the above still uses same WAR/per IP rate as ZiPs, just different IP projections, and ultimately those are just a guess as well.

One thing that stands out here is that ZiPs does not like Matt Wisler much at all, as even with 185 innings pitched, he is still only a 1.0 WAR player. Projecting all the relievers the Braves are going to use is problematic, so many of the names here are placeholders with Chris Withrow being the notable omission, and frankly until I see him pitch and get more info from his rehab he will be in a different section of this. Also of note is that I have Foltynewicz being moved primarily to the bullpen which seemed to be in line with ZiPs' guess as well. He will certainly see some starts, but given his struggles I don't see him having a full-time spot in the rotation. Ryan Weber will see some time in the bullpen and spot starts, so hopefully Dan Farnsworth from Fangraphs is right about how good he can be, as that would be a big boon to the 2016 Braves (although my stance on his value is pretty well-documented in my difference of opinion with said Fangraphs writer). It's also worth noting that we didn't factor Aaron Blair in, but only because I'm unsure of how to project him or figure out the Braves' plans for managing his service time.

Projected PA (TC) Projected WAR (ZiPs) Projected WAR (TC)
Michael Bourn 125 0.8 0.2
Nick Swisher 100 0.3 0.1
Tyler Flowers 300 ?? 0.5
Emilio Bonifacio 100 ?? 0.3
Gordon Beckham 150 ?? 0.3

These are the bench slots and are just based on the fact that they have been signed to major league contracts so they are the most likely suspects. It's possible some like Bonifacio or Beckham COULD get released during spring training or the season, but it's unlikely. The biggest deviation is Michael Bourn and that is due to the drastic decrease in playing time that he should see now that the Braves have acquired Ender Inciarte (ZiPs came out before that trade). If Hector Olivera struggles mightily in left field or injuries happen, he could see more time, but otherwise we cut his PAs by more than half. Nick Swisher is the same way for many of the same reasons, although he can also spell Freddie at first base when necessary. An even split between AJ Pierzynski and Tyler Flowers seems in line with the Braves' wish to not have AJ catch 100+ games this year and the WAR is just a guess given that ZiPs have not come out for him yet. The same is true for Emilio and Beckham.

There are a lot of other factors to consider including callups like Mallex Smith, Tyrell Jenkins, Jason Hursh, as well as the inclusion of guys like Chris Withrow, David Carpenter, etc. The short version is that other than Mallex, ZiPS essentially has them working out in a wash of positive and negative depending on how long they actually are in the majors. It's also hard to figure out who would get priority in terms of callups when service time, minor league options, and the like are considered. ZiPS has Mallex as a 1.5 WAR player if he gets 570 PAs and if he is called up in May or June (which seems likely), he would probably get closer to 450-500 PAs. We will estimate low and give him 450 plate appearances with puts him at 1.2 WAR for 2016. However, that does take away plate appearances from other outfielders, so they were adjusted accordingly.

It is worth noting here that ZiPS seems to be at its most potentially inaccurate when it comes to players with little to no major league experience and that's perfectly reasonable. The estimates are generally low (but not always) so that explains why a player like Hector Olivera has a projected WAR of just 0.5 given that there are so many unknowns. It's not a perfect system, but at least it's a start.

Conclusion: The 2016 Braves, with the assumed Mallex Smith call-up, are projected to have a WAR of roughly 25.3, leaving them 11 WAR or so shy of a playoff spot. Just at a glance, 11 games back in the division isn't the craziest prediction in the world so for now, so far so good. But what does that means for the Braves? How can they get 11 WAR before 2017?

(Ivan's technical note: Generally, teams field about 5,200 PAs in a season [for NL teams], based on 162 games, eight lineup slots, and about 4 PAs per game. The position player estimates above feature about 4,900 PAs, which means that the remaining 300 or so will be handled by "the others," who will include replacement-level injury replacements and/or guys like Daniel Castro. Overall, they don't move the needle much. The estimates from Mallex Smith assume a corresponding decrease in outfield playing time for the other players, and as such, are not just a straight addition to the team's WAR total. Similarly, teams generally pitch about 1,500 innings [nine innings and 162 games], and the figures above cover about 1,300 innings, with 200 covered by "the others" in the bullpen as well as spot starts made due to injury or similar reasons by other players. Again, those pitchers probably won't move the needle much, though some guys like Chris Withrow may actually punch up to a win or so with good performances.)

Before we get to the 2017 season, it is worth noting that it wouldn't take a lot for the Braves to be much closer to a playoff spot based on player WAR with the 2016 roster. Adonis Garcia is projected for 0.2 WAR and he will get a chance to have the lion's share of the playing time at third. He is also hitting the cover off the ball in winter ball and had 0.9 WAR in 58 games last season. While he probably won't hit for power at the clip he did in 2015 or profile as a defensive dynamo, is it so crazy to think he could put up a 2.0+ WAR season?

Additionally, a big season from Hector Olivera would go a long way as well. ZiPS has Hector as one of the Braves' worst full-time players on a per-plate appearance basis. (He is projected to hit .257 with 9 homers and 34 RBIs by ZiPS in 375 PAs, as well as an OPS of around .710). That is not a high bar to exceed and if he proves to be a good hitter, he is under contract for quite a while and can play multiple positions. Add in some semblance of power from Nick Markakis or at the very least repeating his 1.6 WAR performance from last season and the offense starts to look not that bad, comparatively.

As for the pitching, Julio Teheran needs to at least meet his projections. Matt Wisler is not much of a major leaguer according to ZiPS, but at times last year he looked like a really good middle of the rotation arm for the future. If he takes a step forward and can limit the complete meltdowns that we saw at times last season, he will easily outperform his projections as well. The bullpen has to be better than last year's group, who was among the worst in baseball and if Arodys Vizcaino and company can recover, they could add a bit to the WAR total as well. There are also areas of concern with pitching as well. While it can be entertaining watching the experience known as Williams Perez pitching, when he is bad, he is really whether he makes it in the rotation is up in the air.

2017 and money, more trades, and the prospects start a-coming

Lets assume that those projections are right and the Braves are 11 WAR shy with the 2016 roster. They will lose roughly 3.4 WAR when free agents depart (Bud Norris, Erick Aybar, Michael Bourn, others), so that leaves a 14.4 WAR deficit (roughly....again, we are guesstimating quite a bit) before contention in 2017. That's quite a bit, so where could the Braves get it?

(Ivan's note: that 14.4 WAR deficit assumes that in 2017 all the remaining returning players will perform at their 2016 levels, which is a nice simplifying assumption that likely won't hold, as players will take steps forward or backward in 2016 that they can then build on for 2017.)

Well, free agency is likely not the best use of time and money although the Braves will certainly be active. At $8 million per WAR, to fill the void in free agency would cost $115.2 million which is not going to happen. While I'm a bit hesitant to predict exact payroll numbers given how quickly the roster seems to change, based on the roster as is and factoring in arbitration, the Braves should have a payroll starting at around $67.9 million. This does include the Braves not letting the vesting options on Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher happen, which seems almost certain. Even with a payroll bump, spending an additional $115.2 is really unlikely.

Additionally, the next free agent class is not good at all with the available targets being Stephen Strasburg, Carlos Gomez, Aroldis Chapman, and not a lot else. The Braves will definitely spend some money in free agency, but it's far more likely that they will use their newly revamped farm system and payroll flexibility to trade for the players they need. It's hard to speculate as to who they would target, but catcher will certainly be at or near the top of the list, so Jonathan Lucroy will probably continue to be a rumored possibility. After that, it will depend on how well Jace Peterson, Hector Olivera, and Adonis Garcia as well as the slew of young pitchers the Braves have perform before we will know who the Braves will go after. Ultimately, based on the level of need and the players available on the free agent market, 2017 still seems tough, although doable if some things do go right.

In fact, let's assume that the 2016 Braves aren't that bad. That instead of 25.9 WAR, Hector has a good year, Jace shows more defensive acumen and learns how to hit lefties at an average level, and Matt Wisler becomes a good pitcher and puts up maybe a 2.0 or so WAR season. If the Braves can get to 30 WAR or so, the path becomes more clear, especially in the wake of the trades this offseason. By 2017, Sean Newcomb will be ready (ZiPS projects him with 0.6 WAR if he pitched this season, or about a 1 WAR pitcher over 200 innings; it's unclear as to whether or not that happens in 2016). In addition, it's likely that new #1 prospect Dansby Swanson will be manning shortstop in 2017. He is currently projected as probably a 3.0 WAR a year shortstop based on his current future values (FV), but given the reports of his approach at the plate and defensive prowess provides hope that he could be even better than that. Mallex Smith will have some time under his belt to see if he is the leadoff hitter of the future. There is an outside chance that if Jace Peterson struggles, Ozhaino Albies could take over at second base if he performs next year like he has previously. Whoever is ready and good among Tyrell Jenkins, Lucas Sims, Sean Newcomb, Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz, Manny Banuelos, and possibly Max Fried will join the rotation or be traded for players that can help make the team even more competitive. Austin Riley, Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka, and Lucas Herbert should progress to the point where the 2018 season is in the cards.

For many fans, right now it's hard to envision the Braves being good for a long time and understandably so. From the looks and projections for the 2016 season, its likely that things will be better but not by a huge amount. However, the Braves are not as far off as one would think given how much has left town. There is still plenty that can go wrong, but a lot of smart people seem to really like the talent the Braves are stockpiling and its clear the Braves are positioning to make a big splash before 2017. They have to make the right moves of course, and get a little lucky, but 2017 could be a fun season to help open SunTrust Park.

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