Their best starting pitcher, going by Baseball-Reference WAR and plain old ERA, has been R.A. Dickey, who’ll turn 43 two days before Halloween. For a moment last weekend, the heralded keystone combo (aggregate age: 43) was hitting .400 – .215 for Dansby Swanson, .185 for Ozzie Albies. On Monday, the Braves were beaten by Andrew Albers, who they’d traded to Seattle 11 days earlier for cash.
There are times in every rebuild when progress seems so incremental as to be measured in angstrom units. For the Braves, this is such a time. The glow of being a .500 team in mid-July has yielded to reality. The Bartolo Colon experiment fizzled. Sean Rodriguez played 15 games here. Julio Teheran has been terrible. Swanson, star of Cobb County billboards, was sent to Gwinnett. Johan Camargo, who supplanted Swanson at shortstop, tripped over the foul line. And yet …
The erudite Joe Sheehan writes in his newsletter: “Look for the Braves to start getting a lot of buzz this fall and into the winter as a potential challenger to the Nationals as soon as next season.”
Because we monitor the team on a daily basis and because a baseball season lasts six months, we can grow frustrated if not fatalistic. We can say things like, “Are they EVER going to get good again?” The answer is available only if you take a few backward steps, so as to behold the forest and not just a tree or two. That answer is: Yes, they will.
Jeff Luhnow took control of the Astros in December 2011. In his third season – the first two having seen 107 and 113 losses – Houston finished 70-92. Carlos Correa was in high Single-A. George Springer made his big-league debut and hit .231 with 114 strikeouts in 78 games. The Astros wouldn’t nose above .500 until 2015, Luhnow’s Year 4, when they went 86-76 and claimed a wild card.
Theo Epstein left the Red Sox for the Cubs in October 2011. In his third season – the first two having seen 101 and 96 losses – Chicago finished 73-89. Kris Bryant moved from Double-A to Triple-A. Kyle Schwarber had just been drafted. Javier Baez made his big-league debut and hit .169 with 95 strikeouts in 52 games. In 2015, Epstein’s Year 4, the Cubs won 96 games and made the playoffs.
Even the fastest rebuilds take time. Some take lots of it. Dayton Moore left the Braves to become the Royals’ general manager June 8, 2006, two days after Kansas City picked Luke Hochevar No. 1 overall. Over the next seven years, Moore’s team would have a top-10 pick six times, and still it took Kansas City until 2013 to finish with a winning record. The core of Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas would ultimately reach the World Series – in Moore’s eighth full season.
The Braves lost 95 and 93 games in Years 1 and 2 under John Coppolella and John Hart. They’re on pace to finish 73-89. Yes, that would be a bit of a disappointment after 45-45, but only a bit. The Braves wanted to put a halfway decent team on display in SunTrust Park – note that none of the other rebuilders mentioned had to open a new stadium in Year 3 – and through 90 games they were just that.
If the Braves’ rebuild has looked different from most, the ballpark was the chief reason. Without a new audience to serve, they mightn’t have signed Colon and Dickey or traded for Jaime Garcia and Brandon Phillips. On Talking Chop, the blogger Ivan The Great makes a salient point: From the start of the 2015 season through Saturday’s games, the Braves had gotten less production (going by FanGraphs WAR) from rookies than any MLB team . To which we’re tempted to say: Some rebuild, huh?
Well, that's coming. Ronald Acuna isn’t here yet and probably won’t be until 2018. Here’s who else could be right behind: Luiz Gohara, Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka and Austin Riley and maybe Alex Jackson and Touki Toussaint, with Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright not far behind. (And don’t forget Kevin Maitan.)
Asked Wednesday about his work in progress, Coppolella said: “If I could buy stock in one major-league team – and with us, I guess I can – it would be the Atlanta Braves.”
Check those early returns on the Astros’ Springer and the Cubs’ Baez. Don’t seem all that different from what Swanson/Albies have posted, do they? Note the ERAs for Houston’s now-ace Dallas Keuchel in his first two big-league seasons – 5.27 and 5.15. Sean Newcomb’s is 4.13; Lucas Sims’ is 4.13. And a 73-win season mightn't seem like much, but it'd be on the same level as the Astros and Cubs in their Year 3s.
We’re disposed to want everything and want it now, but some things can’t be rushed. Not every prospect pans out. (Hochevar’s career record is 48-65.) There are potholes along every upward trail. What the Braves are doing should work. To borrow from Jackson Browne: Don’t think it won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet.