The 2016 Braves were not a good baseball team by any measure. The offense was bad and the pitching was worse, but the developments that took place in the second half should be of some comfort to the Atlanta faithful. Freddie Freeman performed at an MVP level, Ender Inciarte became a dynamic force both offensively and defensively, and Dansby Swanson began what will hopefully be a lengthy tenure as the Braves’ shortstop. These signs of progress along with the continued development of one of baseball’s best farm systems gives the Braves a lot to build upon as they prepare to re-emerge as contenders.
Since the outset of general manager John Coppolella’s master plan to restock the Braves’ farm system, some of the organization’s homegrown fan favorites have been shipped out of town, and the major league roster has since become a revolving door of roster fillers, cast-offs, and bad contract swaps. The good news: the Braves have been here before, and built a dynasty by following a similar blueprint to the one they implemented two seasons ago.
When the Braves broke camp in 1990, they hardly looked the part of a team that was set to begin a historic run of division titles just one year later. Despite some upstart young talent, the team was not prepared to contend with the likes of Cincinnati, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, and finished last in the National League West. The team had its flaws, but it also had two prized young arms in John Smoltz and Tom Glavine on the major league roster, and the number one prospect in all of baseball in left-hander Steve Avery. The lineup featured a mixture of aging veterans and young up-and-comers, with Dale Murphy and Lonnie Smith anchoring the lineup and young guns like Ron Gant and David Justice producing impressive numbers while gaining invaluable experience for the future.
The Braves began the season with Russ Nixon at the helm in 1990, but made a mid-season change when the team was 25-40. Nixon had entered his third season in Atlanta looking to change the fortunes of a franchise that had not seen the postseason since 1982, but after a slow start the Braves turned to a familiar face in former manager and then-general manager Bobby Cox. Though he was unsuccessful in his first stint as Braves manager (1978-1981), Cox was always revered for his ability to connect with players and take special care of the young players who were just acclimating themselves to life in the big leagues. This would prove to be a necessary trait with the upstart Braves looking to build upon a strong nucleus of young talent.
The Braves’ young assets assembled for the 1990 season were among the best in baseball when taking into consideration a farm system that included Avery, Javy Lopez, Ryan Klesko, and Vinny Castilla, among others. In addition to the considerable talent already accrued by the front office, the Braves also held the number one overall selection in the draft that year, and would select Chipper Jones. So with the already stocked pitching staff and an emerging core of position players, the front office managed to add two future Hall of Famers in Jones and Cox. Teams rarely get that lucky, but the Braves did and it helped lead them to back-to-back pennants (though Jones was not yet a part of the major league team). So after looking at that team and now knowing what the future would hold for them, how do they compare to the current state of the Atlanta Braves?
The 1990 Braves had, as mentioned above, three homegrown arms that had top-of-the-rotation potential. Smoltz and Glavine had already established themselves in the big leagues, with Smoltz enjoying more success prior to the 1990 season, and Avery set to join the rotation shortly thereafter. The current Braves rotation has Julio Teheran as the anchor, followed by a trio of veterans in Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, and Jaime Garcia. Beyond those three are a collection of young arms who have enjoyed varying levels of success at the big league level to this point. Mike Foltynewicz, Matt Wisler, and Aaron Blair have all seen time in Atlanta, but for the latter two it has been a struggle to find consistency. All three arms are highly-touted, but the Braves need them to show signs of progression in 2017 if they are going to contribute as the organization moves back toward contention. But just remember before writing off any of these pitchers that even though Smoltz and Glavine would go on to become Hall of Famers, they too struggled at the outset of their careers. It may take more patience than we would like, but these guys were rated highly for a reason, and they still have the talent to turn things around.
Beyond the pitchers who have already debuted with the Braves, the organization has Sean Newcomb, Lucas Sims, and Patrick Weigel all potentially moving toward a rotation spot, with 2017 as a possibility for all three. These three could unseat any of the young guns not named Teheran, or possibly one of the veterans if the Braves are able to find a suitable trade partner. That level of high-end depth is not easy to accrue, and yet the Braves possess it even beyond the ones that are close. The lower minors are stacked with first-round talents who should begin to push for a place in Atlanta within the next three years. The rotation may not look as good as it did in 1990, but that’s partly because we have the luxury of knowing that Smoltz and Glavine are first-ballot Hall of Famers. We can’t judge the current crop yet, but the talent the front office has put together should at least give us all something to dream on.
The lineup for the 1990 Braves had a mixture of vets and young players, just like the current roster. Gant and Justice were the future cornerstones of the franchise offensively, just as Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson appear to hold those distinctions today. With Gant and Justice representing hope for the future, the 1990 Braves also had low-risk veterans like Lonnie Smith, Jim Presley, and Dale Murphy occupying everyday jobs to bridge the gap to the team’s top prospects. If that way of thinking sounds familiar, it’s because the current Braves have employed the exact same strategy with veterans like Nick Markakis, Matt Kemp, and previously A.J. Pierzynski. It can be a sound strategy, as it minimizes the risks associated with allocating significant payroll figures to bring in free agents.
The next wave of position prospects will likely consist of players like Ozzie Albies, Dustin Peterson, and Rio Ruiz, among others. The Braves have very little commitment to any single player in the lineup outside of Freeman, so as prospects begin to show that they are ready for the call, they should have little resistance at the big league level. Beyond the three named above, the Braves also have Ronald Acuna, Austin Riley, and Travis Demerritte representing a solid core that could be ready within the next two or three seasons. Much like the 1990 Braves, this team could have a number of contributors on the cusp as they prepare to re-enter contention.
The encouraging thing about the current roster is the flexibility that has been created by the front office. The Braves are in a position to make aggressive moves if necessary, hut have not backed themselves into a corner financially by being irresponsible with free agents or trades (though you could argue for Matt Kemp here). When comparing that mindset to that of the 1990 Braves, you can see how the organization approached long-term deals with caution then as well. Because of that restraint, the team was able to build from within until they were prepared to add one piece, and to put themselves over the top. The signing that ultimately took the Braves over the top and aided them in securing control of the National League in the 90’s was the signing of free agent Greg Maddux, who helped give the Braves a “big three” to rival any in baseball history. It’s difficult to say how the Braves intend to progress when they are ready to compete again, but if the Chris Sale rumors are any indication, the front office is willing to put all its chips on the table for the right player. That is exciting given the rewards that came from that mindset in the early 90’s.
The Braves have built an impressive farm system over the past two years, and it is interesting to see how much this team has in common with a team of the past, especially one that led up to the organization’s longest run of success. Let’s hope that the talented arms acquired by the front office can once again lead this team to success, as they did in 1991 and beyond. The 1990 season was just a stepping stone, but it was an important one from a developmental standpoint, just as 2017 will be for the current Braves roster.