The Braves have a lot to be thankful for this holiday season, such as a young, controllable core that is followed by waves of high-profile talent in the farm system. The major league roster leaves something to be desired with regards to contending in the present, but John Coppolella has this organization headed in a promising direction.
With that said, the past two seasons have been agonizing for fans as the big league club has gone 135-188 over that span. This is a product of the front office pushing the team into a full scale rebuild, which usually results in poor results for at least a couple years. With all the talent the Braves have accumulated, it’s easy to sit back and enjoy the fruits of the front office’s labor, but in a perfect world the rebuild would never have been a necessity. So why did the Braves have to go through the arduous task of tearing down a team that was just a year removed from winning 96 games?
Rather than sift through every transaction from the past 5-10 years, I think the root of the Braves’ problems can be broken down into a handful of key decisions.
Let’s start with the beginning of the 2010 season, when the Braves unveiled right fielder Jason Heyward on Opening Day. The metro-Atlanta native was rated as the top prospect in all of baseball, and at the time the Braves were in dire need of a right fielder. Heyward did not disappoint from the start, hitting the famous missile that landed around 2.5 miles from home plate in his first major league at-bat. This was one of the most exciting moments I can remember as a Braves fan, but it came at a hefty price. The inclusion of Heyward on the Opening Day roster that season meant that if he remained with the big club for the remainder of the season, he would reach the service time requirement to have his free agency begin after the 2015 season. This was a distant thought as Heyward rounded the bases at Turner Field that day, but it severely impacted the Braves’ ability to plan for the future in subsequent years. Thus began a series of events that would ultimately lead to Heyward being traded along with almost every other significant piece off a 2014 roster that wildly underperformed, but more on that later.
Along this same series of events, you will find the Braves’ hire of Fredi Gonzalez following the 2010 season. Gonzalez had previously served as third base coach under Bobby Cox and had most recently managed the Florida Marlins when he took over in Atlanta. The Braves went through ups and downs under Gonzalez, with most of the downs seemingly coming at the most inopportune times, such as the NLDS (yikes). Fredi took a lot of heat as manager of the Braves, with most of it being attributed to his inability to get the team over hump. The Braves famously collapsed in 2011, lost in the playoffs in 2012 and 2013, and were under .500 in 2014. Gonzalez was a lightning rod for a great deal of the scrutiny around the team during that time, and it ultimately cost him his job in the midst of the rebuild.
Speaking of playoff shortcomings, does anybody remember Fredi leaving Craig Kimbrel in the bullpen during the eighth inning of Game 4 in 2013? Then I’m guessing you also remember Juan Uribe hitting a ball to moon off David Carpenter? Yeah. It’s easy to forget that the Braves had the best record in the National League for much of that season before a below-.500 September dropped them into second, leaving them to play the Dodgers rather than the Wild Card game winner. There’s no way to know how a Braves-Pirates series might have played out, but avoiding a Kershaw-Greinke tandem is almost always a positive. Ultimately the 2013 regular season saw the Braves post yet another disappointing September finish on Fredi’s watch, followed by an early postseason exit for the hometown team.
That leads us to the team that directly led up to the rebuild, the 2014 Atlanta Braves. This team was loaded with talented players, both offensively and on the mound, and somehow finished a disappointing 79-83 with yet another abysmal September showing. The team simply had too many strikeout-prone bats mixed in together, and the result was a talented group of individuals who were much less imposing when viewed as a sum of their parts. The late-season collapse of this team was yet another blemish on the track record of manager Fredi Gonzalez, but is he really the one to blame here?
In a word, no. Fredi was not a great manager by any stretch, but he had no control over the roster that was placed in front of him at any point during his time in Atlanta. He didn’t sign free agents, he didn’t make trades, and he didn’t draft (or scout); general manager Frank Wren did.
Wren took over as GM following the 2007 season, and did so when the organization (of which he was already a part) traded a massive haul of young talent to Texas in the infamous Mark Teixeira trade. That move alone made a sizable dent in the farm system of a team that was just mediocre at the major league level, and set back the pipeline considerably. Wren had to contend with that ordeal in the earliest days of his tenure as GM, but that development was hardly the downfall of the organization or Wren.
The roster that Wren inherited was hardly a playoff-caliber club in 2008, with a makeshift rotation that would see Jorge Campillo make the second-most starts for the Braves that season. That season was an unmitigated disaster, and the Braves finished 72-90, earning the seventh overall pick in the following year’s draft. With that selection the Braves took Vanderbilt left-hander Mike Minor, a pitchability type whom Baseball America rated as the 35th-best prospect entering that year’s draft. With so much talent on the board at that point (including Mike Trout), it seemed odd that Wren would go for a college lefty that barely drew a first-round grade, but as Atlanta fans now know, this was the beginning of a series of questionable first-round picks under Wren’s watch.
In 2010 the Braves did not have a first-round selection after signing Billy Wagner to a one-year deal. With their first pick coming in the supplemental round, Wren and company selected Matt Lipka, a high school outfielder from Texas. Lipka showed intriguing potential, but never lived up to his billing as a top-40 pick.
In 2011 the Braves had the 28th overall pick, and with it selected left-hander Sean Gilmartin out of Florida State. Gilmartin was underwhelming during his time in a Braves uniform, fizzling out before he could reach the big leagues with Atlanta. Gilmartin was eventually dealt to the Twins for Ryan Doumit and would later reach the majors as a reliever with the Mets.
In 2012 the Braves drafted Georgia native Lucas Sims with the 21st overall pick. To this point Sims has shown flashes of his potential, but his inability to find consistency has held him back considerably. The jury is still out on Sims, who is still just 22 years old, but his timetable has been longer than I’m sure the Braves wold have hoped at the time of his selection.
In 2013 the Braves forfeited their first-round selection to sign outfielder B.J. Upton, and in the supplemental round selected Oklahoma State right-hander Jason Hursh. Though Hursh had a heavy fastball coming out of college, the pre-draft rankings were not as bullish on his abilities as Wren and the Braves’ front office appeared to be. This pick looked bad at the time, and looks bad now.
In 2014 the Braves forfeited their first-round pick once again to sign Ervin Santana to a one-year deal. With their supplemental selection the Braves selected Braxton Davidson, a bat-first outfielder from North Carolina who reportedly had big power and a good approach. Those two traits have been evident during Davidson’s professional career, but his ability to make consistent contact has been an issue. Davidson has been aggressively promoted through the system to this point, but he will need to start making some adjustments if he is to continue that ascension toward Atlanta. The jury is still very much out on whether or not Davidson can make those necessary adjustments.
These six selections are a testament to the unsuccessful draft strategies that plagued the Braves during Frank Wren’s tenure as general manager. The scouting department missed too often for the Braves to: A. build any sort of depth in the farm system, and B. have any faith in this regime going forward. The consistent misses on early picks left the pipeline even more barren than it was at the time of Wren’s promotion to GM. If that weren’t enough, the wildly unsuccessful signings of Derek Lowe and B.J. Upton, along with the extension of Dan Uggla left the Braves in a financial strain as well. The cupboard was pretty bare at the time of Wren’s departure, even with a major league roster that included Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, and Julio Teheran.
As I stated earlier, my goal here was not to focus on individual transactions, but rather the insufficient processes that led up to the ultimate collapse of the Braves in 2014. Frank Wren made his share of good moves while at the helm, especially in the bullpen, but his shortcomings on draft night were just too much for the organization to overcome. Successful teams simply do not miss on their first selections with that much regularity, and they rarely forfeit the first-round picks either. Wren did both, and it crippled the farm system to the point that something had to be done.
Enter the Johns, Hart and Coppollela, who are admitted draft junkies and have utilized their prowess to give the Braves an opportunity to not only stockpile draft picks, but take multiple first-round talents in the same draft. Their unwillingness to sacrifice first-round picks is a testament to how much emphasis they place on the draft (and international signings) along with the developmental capabilities of the organization from the ground up. Whether or not their strategies pay off may not be answered for at least a couple more years, but this approach is certainly a far cry from that of the previous regime.
Getting back to the point, what forced the Braves to rebuild? Well it’s never one thing, and for the Braves it was the culmination of a multitude of bad, or at least questionable, decisions with regards to the draft, trades, and free agent signings. Frank Wren and his scouting department simply missed too often in all phases, and the price was paid by the organization.
At this point we can look back at the heart of the rebuild and hope that the Braves never again have to put themselves through such a miserable time, but with a renewed sense of draft valuation, careful free agent signings, and upside-driven trades, this organization has gotten a major facelift with regards to the shear talent that exists from top-to-bottom. The rebuild may not be completely finished, but the bad processes that led to its commencement are hopefully a thing of the past.