The 2018 season is shaping up as a pivotal one for the Atlanta Braves who are entering the fourth year of their rebuild. Much of that focus of that rebuild has centered on reviving a barren minor league system and transforming it into one of the best in baseball. With some of that top talent pushing its way towards the major league level, 2018 is year of evaluation where the team must figure out which prospects will make up its core with a hopeful return to contention.
That is the task facing new general manager Alex Anthopoulos who was brought on to replace John Coppolella following an embarrassing investigation by major league baseball into transgressions on the international free agent market. That investigation resulted in Coppolella receiving a lifetime ban and the loss of 13 prospects along with other sanctions. It was one of the darkest moments of this franchise and one they hope to distance themselves from quickly.
Anthopoulos arrived shortly before the winter meetings and has taken an otherwise patient approach to the offseason. His biggest move to date was unloading Matt Kemp to the Dodgers in a five-player trade that brought veteran pitchers Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir to Atlanta along with utility man Charlie Culberson. The Braves accomplished two things with the move. One, it freed up a corner outfield spot for top prospect Ronald Acuna who is slated to arrive at some point in 2018. It also helped clear the deck from a salary perspective which allow Atlanta to potentially make a splash in free agency in 2019.
This year’s team figures to be a younger group and their could be more youth on the way. Ozzie Albies arrived late last season and was impressive in his debut. He is entering his first full season as the team’s full time second baseman. Acuna is slated to arrive sometime after opening day but should be a fixture in the team’s outfield upon his arrival.
Acuna ascension to top prospect status was sudden. He dominated through three levels of the minors last season as a 19-year old and got better at every stop. The Braves have been careful not to place any lofty expectations upon Acuna’s shoulders so far but the hope is that he will be an impact player sooner rather than later.
Despite Acuna’s excellence, the biggest part of this rebuild has been the accumulation of pitching depth. Some of the top arms in the organization are moving close to the major leagues.
Sean Newcomb, Luiz Gohara, Max Fried and A.J. Minter all got their feet wet in the majors last season. Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard and Kyle Wright could be right behind them this season.
All of that young talent is the reason Anthopoulos has chosen a patient path. The Braves are in position this season to cycle a lot of players through in an effort to figure out which ones can help the club now and in the future and which should be dealt away in order to fill holes on the roster.
With a young core in place, the team’s salary structure couldn’t be in better shape. By taking on more money now and unloading Kemp’s salary obligation for next season, the Braves have just over $38 million in committed salary for 2019. Combine that with an increase in revenue thanks to their move to SunTrust Park and the team could be flush with cash for what will be a loaded free agent market.
Anthopoulos is hoping that the prospects develop and there aren’t many holes to fill. Third base remains an area of concern. Austin Riley turned heads in the Arizona Fall League and has impressed during spring camp. He is probably a year away and the Braves will be watching him close while trying to decide if he can be the answer at third base or whether they may need to look in free agency.
Atlanta could be in search of a corner outfielder, a major league level catcher and a top of the rotation arm. The important thing is they have the assets to fill those needs whether through free agency or via trade.
It has been a long and sometimes painful rebuilding process for Braves fans who may need to be patient just a little longer. 2018 feels like it will be an exciting season and one that could see the team improve as the season progresses. If things break correctly a run at the .500 mark or better isn’t out of the question. However, this is still a critical year and a patient approach is necessary. The goal all along was to build something that was sustainable and the Braves finally appear to be on the right path.