“The Braves will be competitive in 2017 when SunTrust Park opens”
We have heard this ever since the the grand rebuilding of the Braves began. Most of the time when rebuilds begin, there are usually open-ended statements such as “we need to rebuild from the ground up to get (Team X) where it needs to be” or “we are proud of the work the scouting department is doing and expect to be better each year”.
The Braves have said these things, too...and those things are not wrong. The scouting and drafting has been outstanding the last couple of years and most of the moves the Braves have made have both had an eye for the future and brought in very real talent in to the organization. However, the party line has not changed.
“The Braves will be competitive in 2017 when SunTrust opens”
For many of us, that was hard to believe. Despite how much we have all enjoyed watching the massive influx of young talent in to the Braves farm system over the last couple of years, a lot of that talent is a few years away which meant the 2017 timeline (especially given the upcoming free agent class) was very optimistic at best. Sure, there were players like Mallex Smith, Tyrell Jenkins, Dansby Swanson, and even Sean Newcomb who were thought to be close to major-league ready but they alone were not going to bring the Braves back towards being competitive.
Lets fast forward now to midseason 2016. The Braves just executed a fantastic draft, bringing in a lot of high end pitching talent and intriguing position prospects as well. They also signed the best player on the international free agent market in Kevin Maitan who could be a cornerstone player for the next 20 years if the stars align correctly. These are all moves that rebuilding teams need to make and the good rebuilding teams do make. But the whole time, as the major league team struggles to even get on a 60 win pace, the party line from Braves GM has and continues to be that the Braves are wanting to win games and will be competitive next year.
Now, of course almost any GM has to say these things to the fan base. They have to say that being the frontrunner for the #1 pick in the draft would be embarassing, but for many of us it was with a bit of a wink and a nod with an eye towards being outstanding in the latter parts of the decade. Thats when some weird things started happening...
The first clue probably should have been the Alex Wood-Hector Olivera trade that felt like a win-now desperate move that had the chance to be a big boon for the Braves given the money owed to Olivera. That was a disaster, of course. However, rather than simply release Olivera, the Braves decided to trade him for Matt Kemp. For the uninitiated, Kemp is hardly a prospect and at his age and state of physical conditioning in combination with his defensive shortcomings, it does make one raise an eyebrow that the Braves were willing to take on the millions for their part of his contract. However, there is an argument that the Braves would happily sign a guy like Kemp for $9 million a year given the market and that the Olivera is a sunk cost, so this can be understood from multiple perspectives.
However, the other moves at the deadline were more eye-opening...or at least the lack of moves. Julio Teheran is a hot commodity and the Braves love him so its understandable that the Braves didn’t move him. Arodys Vizcaino was injured, but a closer with his pedigree given the realistic timetable the Braves had is a bit of a luxury. Jim Johnson, Gordon Beckham, AJ Pierzynski, and Jeff Francoeur are on one-year contracts but did not go anywhere despite the fact that they could and very well will leave in 1.5 months with no return for the Braves. When asked, Coppy and co. said that they did not get an offer they liked and that they wanted to win games and have that veteran leadership on the team. Same goes for Nick Markakis, who is an aging player who has limited upside especially in right field going forward and a contract that is only okay but other teams could find appealling given the free agent market right now.
“The Braves will be competitive in 2017 when SunTrust opens”
The Braves did go on to make a couple waiver deals with the Marlins for Hunter Cervenka and then sending Erick Aybar to the Tigers. The latter deal led to the frankly surprising promotion of top prospect Dansby Swanson directly to Atlanta from Mississippi. Now, many rebuilding teams with seemingly similar timelines to the Braves would have waited on promoting Swanson to preserve service time. The argument there being that the Braves seem like they may be bad for a bit longer, there is no reason to waste his MLB service time on those bad years.
Now, there is a flip side to that...that the player’s development matters more than service time and if he is ready then he is ready and should go. But Dansby had been struggling some in Mississippi and looked tired from his first real full season of pro ball. Others say that promoting a player without regards for service time can engender goodwill with that player, making future extensions less costly and more amicable. This is a reasonable, if somewhat naive view. Most players are going to try to get paid, but its not the worst idea in the world to make future negotiations easier.
However, the promotion of Dansby in context with the other moves speaks exactly to the mantra that we have heard, “The Braves will be competitive in 2017 when SunTrust opens”. The Braves want Dansby to have major league at-bats going in to 2017. I would wager money that Ozzie Albies will be on Atlanta’s roster in September and Dustin Peterson may be there with him. The Braves want to get these guys reps and, arguably more importantly, they want to see what they have going in to this offseason, which makes the stakes during this offseason higher than any of the previous ones during the rebuild.
We have heard that Liberty is going to significantly increase the Braves payroll for the 2017 season. We have heard that the Braves are going to be competitive in 2017 when the new park opens. Now we are starting to see the influence of that plan on the Braves’ personnel decisions, which makes this next offseason both extremely exciting to think about but also extremely high stakes.
The Braves want to upgrade a good chunk of their position spots, most notably third base, catcher, and left/right field in addition to potentially reinforcing the rotation which has been ravaged by growing pains, injury, and just not good. This is problematic given the free agent class this coming offseason is atrocious. There are certainly some players including Wilson Ramos, Yoenis Cespedes (probably), Ian Desmond, Mark Trumbo, and others that the Braves will take a long look at, but free agents are expensive these days and none of these free agents are slam dunk choices.
These leaves the market that Coppy and Co. have taken advantage of from the beginning: the trade market. Sure, there will be some free agent signings (assuming Liberty Media and the Braves keep their word about payroll), but if Coppy is serious about being competitive in 2017, that could mean this offseason could be among the more exciting in recent memory. It also could mean that several of the prospects we have grown to love over the last year or two could be with different organizations next season which makes me sad, but it may be for the greater good.
The speculation will be endless throughout the offseason given this front office’s reputation for being willing to make a deal in addition to the anticipation of the new park opening up next year. Regardless, John Hart, John Coppolella, and the Braves have made this the most important one of their tenures and one that could very well define the success of the rebuild....at least given the expectations the front office has put in place.