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Coming full circle in a decade

Though it likely occurred in a way no one expected, the impact of the Braves young core to begin this decade remains significant today.

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Atlanta Braves v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

While many anxiously await to see what finishing, and highly substantial, touches the Braves make to complete their 2020 roster, one truth about Atlanta remains, a truth that puts them in one of MLB’s most enviable positions heading into the new decade. This truth centers on the fact that the Braves have a core of young, elite talents that they hope will make them World Series contenders again and again throughout the foreseeable future. With Mike Soroka, Ozzie Albies, and Ronald Acuña Jr., Atlanta has a collection of talent that has been quite rare in baseball history.

However, if you are getting a sense of deja vu as a Braves fan, it is for good reason. Just as they have in the present, the Braves began this decade with a historic young core as well.

Back in 2010, the Braves were in a similar position on the “competitive arc.” They won 86 games in 2009, a 14-win improvement from 2008. That would catapult that Braves into a four-year stretch in which they won 91 games, 89 games, 94 games, and 96 games, respectively, between 2010-2013. Atlanta made the playoffs three out of those four seasons, and would have done so in all four years if not for a historic collapse, making them one of the most successful teams in baseball during the first half of this decade. (The Braves had the third-most wins in baseball from 2010 through 2014; including the dismal 2015 season only dropped them to eighth among all teams, which is a testament to how strong those early 2010s rosters were.)

Florida Marlins v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

While veterans such as Tim Hudson, Chipper Jones, and Michael Bourn played significant roles in Atlanta’s success, it was the figurative “assembly line” of young and significant talent that truly made the Braves special. Between 2009 and 2012, Tommy Hanson, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, and Craig Kimbrel all debuted and made a significant impact for Atlanta. Between 2009-2013, this group produced four Top 5 Rookie of the Year finishes (including Kimbrel’s win in 2011), five All-Star Appearances, three top 15 MVP finishes, three top 10 Cy Young finishes, and three Gold Gloves. The collective success of this group was a big reason why the Braves were voted the fop farm system of this decade. (Don’t forget Martin Prado, too! He finally got a chance in 2009 and rewarded the Braves with 12 fWAR across four seasons.)

Four straight seasons of 89-plus wins and the immediate success of a young core of superior talent made many feel Atlanta was in prime position to be a contender for a better part of this decade. As talents such as Bourn and Jones left, the Braves acquired other emerging players, such as Justin Upton. Unfortunately, the end result remained the same, as the Braves never made it past the first round through this run of success. Furthermore, despite their plethora of elite talent both in the lineup and the rotation, the Braves began to fall off quicker than expected.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Atlanta Braves Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

The overall development of Atlanta’s young stars certainly cannot be viewed as a disappointment. Freeman developed into a perennial All-Star talent and MVP contender, while Kimbrel and Simmons had historic starts to their careers as a closer and defensive shortstop, respectively. However, both Hanson and Heyward regressed in their production compared to their rookie seasons. Justin Upton remained a strong, above-average regular but didn’t find another gear reminiscent of his near-MVP 2011 campaign. The less said about his brother, the better.

The lack of playoff success and the earlier-than-expected end to the Braves’ run with this young core was disappointing. The Braves Front Office quickly noticed that their plan for continued success was not working. They decided to be proactive rather than passive. The Frank Wren regime gave way to John Hart and John Coppolella, who oriented the Front Office to a commitment to getting the most value for the future out of the present.

Some moves to begin dealing off the initial core actually began while the Braves were still having success, with Tommy Hanson being traded to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for Jordan Walden in November of 2012. Though Hanson remained productive in 2010 and 2011, his bWAR dropped from 3.8 during his rookie year in 2009 to -.9 in 2012. Once he reached arbitration, the Braves perhaps felt their money was better spent elsewhere, and that bolstering the bullpen with a talented young arm was a better bet. This proved to be an astute move, as Walden provided two years of sub-3.00 ERA relief for Atlanta. Unfortunately, both Hanson’s career and life would both end in tragedy far too soon a few years later.

After another disappointing playoff exit in 2013, the Braves began to embrace the future with discussions about which pieces of their young core they wanted to remain in Atlanta long term. At the beginning of Spring Training in 2014, the Braves signed Freeman, Kimbrel, and Simmons to long term extensions. Though the same was not achieved with Heyward or Justin Upton, the Braves were hopeful to be a contender in 2014. Unfortunately, that outcome was not in the cards.

With a collapse into a sub-.500 finish in 2014, the Braves commenced a fire sale that overturned much of the Front Office and roster. Once Wren was fired and replaced by Hart and Coppolella, the new decision makers went right to work. In what arguably was one of the biggest transactions of the decade for Atlanta, the Braves sent Heyward and Walden to St. Louis for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins in November of 2014. While many in Atlanta were likely sad to see the player once viewed as the future of the franchise traded away, the Braves felt it was best to gain some value for him rather than pay him long term and let him leave for nothing but a draft pick in free agency.

A month later, the Braves again prioritized the future over the present. This time, Justin Upton was sent to the San Diego Padres for a package of prospects. Like Heyward, while there were rumors Upton could be moved, his trade becoming a reality was a bit surreal. However, it was not the most surprising move involving the Braves, Padres, and an Upton of the 2014 off-season. That occurred right before the 2015 season started, when the Braves traded both B.J., later to become Melvin, Upton along with Kimbrel to the Padres for a package headlined by Matt Wisler. Though Kimbrel had arguably the most dominant start to his career in baseball history for a closer, and had signed an extension with Atlanta, the Braves felt he was more valuable as incentive to a contender to rid themselves of the rest of B.J. Upton’s contract. While Wisler was considered a top prospect at the time, the main gain for the Braves was financial flexibility.

Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The 2015 season was a long struggle for the Braves. However, though they only won 67 games, they were able to celebrate a few successes in the production of Miller and Simmons. However, while both players would be considered building blocks for the future by most franchises, Coppolella and the Braves decided to cash in their success during the 2015 offseason. The end result is likely a pair of moves that includes some of the best and worst trades that the Braves franchise has made this decade.

On November 12th, 2015, Atlanta traded Simmons to the Angels for shortstop Erick Aybar and two of the Angels’ top pitching prospects. On December 9th, 2015, the Braves traded Shelby Miller and Gabe Speier to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte, and Aaron Blair. Though Simmons was just a year into a seven-year extension and Miller had his breakout season, Coppolella felt they had better present value as trade pieces than future value as Braves.

After two offseasons of frequent trades and transactions, the Braves had accomplished their goal of fully committing to a rebuild. While the end result was one of the least-talented major league rosters for the Braves since the 80s, they also had stockpiled a farm system that would become the best in baseball to accelerate their rebuild. With names such as Swanson, Max Fried, Sean Newcomb, Blair, and Wisler, the Braves had arguably the deepest reserve of top prospects in the game, especially in terms of starting pitching.

Over the next two years, the Braves big league team would continue to struggle. However, they were able to keep fans somewhat content with frequent promotions of notable prospects. The initial returns of Newcomb, Swanson, and Albies and others were encouraging. However, as is the case with all farm systems, not all prospects developed into major league successes. Both Jenkins and Wisler struggled during their times in Atlanta, and the end result was the eventual trade of both. Jenkins was traded to the Texas Rangers as part of a package for Luke Jackson in December of 2016, while Wisler was sent to the Cincinnati Reds in a package for Adam Duvall at the 2018 trade deadline. Overall, the Braves had succeeded in turning their previous young core into future pieces that would be able to contribute the next time the Braves were ready to contend.

At the time that they were traded, the trade returns for Heyward, Simmons, Hanson, Kimbrel, and the Upton brothers may not have collectively jumped off the page as outstanding. However, the management of these assets since those trades were made has been quite the success. The direct result of the aforementioned players above being traded is a solid and deep supporting cast to Freeman, Acuña Jr., Soroka, and Albies that has profoundly setup the Braves to be a true championship contender well into the next decade.

The fact that the Braves have been able to begin and end this decade as World Series contenders is astounding when you consider the amount of turnover the franchise has experienced on and off the field. Though the young core at the beginning of the decade fell short of their ultimate goal, the Braves successfully found ways to use that talent from the past to construct a team that is highly successful in the present and has a great chance to achieve the ultimate goal in the future.

Names such as Duvall, Fried, Newcomb, Swanson, Inciarte, or Jackson may never be on the same level as names such as Simmons, Kimbrel, or Heyward individually. However, they collectively help make this version of the Braves better suited for a World Series run than any team that featured the latter three names. The ability for a franchise to use homegrown pieces to evolve into a better version of itself to be a long-term championship contender is the goal of any sports organization. Though the on the field results have yet to yield a title, the Braves have accomplished that goal. As a result, the franchise has truly and successfully come full circle to end this decade so they can have a better chance to achieve higher levels of success in the next one.

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