The Braves have no general manager. This is because of an MLB investigation regarding – perhaps not entirely – their dealings in the international player market. John Coppolella resigned under pressure the day after the season ended. The organization has made no public comment since, except to announce (via release) that Brian Snitker is staying as manager and that it has exercised Tyler Flowers’ option for next season while declining R.A. Dickey’s.
MLB apparently is waiting after World Series to announce its findings. Meanwhile, we on the periphery fill the gaps with rumor and guesses. Depending on the day, you hear: Dayton Moore is coming here. No, wait. Dayton Moore would be a moron to come here. John Hart is to blame for everything. Or John Hart is to blame for nothing because he hasn’t worked hard enough to see anything. Or it’s John Schuerholz’s fault, or Terry McGuirk’s, or Liberty Media’s, or – going way back – it’s the Curse of Noc-A-Homa. The Braves are apt to be penalized by losing Kevin Maitan, one of their heralded prospects, but those prospects aren’t as half as good as advertised, so who cares?
That’s what you hear. Some of it may even be true. In a news vacuum, idle minds will do as idle minds do – expect the absolute worst. I’m not pointing a finger; I’ve gone surfing on the same wave of speculation. Which is why, as we await MLB's decision, the arrival of Baseball America’s list of the Braves’ top 10 prospects for 2018 offered a bracing slap of reality.
Their No. 1 prospect is Ronald Acuna. Then: Luiz Gohara, Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Ian Anderson, Austin Riley, Kolby Allard, Max Fried, Maitan and Cristian Pache. That’s a strong list – six pitchers, two infielders, two outfielders. All but Acuna were acquired in the three years under Coppolella/Hart. In the wake of the GM’s ouster, we’ve heard that he was disliked by other GMs. Those listed names – and the No. 1-ranked farm system include more than 10 names – could be one reason why. Even if (and maybe because) corners were cut, the Braves’ rebuild was moving at warp speed.
Speaking of which: This postseason has offered yet another reminder of the power of rebuilds. This is the fourth consecutive World Series to feature a team that consciously took backward steps to move forward.
In December 2010, Moore – then in his fourth year as Royals GM – traded his greatest asset (Zack Greinke, the 2009 Cy Young winner) to Milwaukee for youngsters Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Jake Odorizzi. It would take two more seasons for Kansas City to nose above .500, but by 2014 they reached the Series; the next year they won it.
The team the Royals beat in 2015 made a similar trade in December 2012: The Mets sent R.A. Dickey, who’d just won the Cy Young, to Toronto for Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud. When finally the team broke a run of six consecutive losing seasons, it reached the Series on the strength of young starting pitching, with Syndergaard, known as Thor, throwing the hardest. D’Arnaud was the catcher handling this staff.
The team the Mets beat in the 2015 NLCS hadn’t had a winning season since 2009, but it got good by trading established starting pitchers and, via the inevitable losing, improving its draft position. Kris Bryant, taken No. 2 in June 2013, would be the National League MVP in 2016, the year the Cubs – stop me if you’ve heard this already – won the World Series.
The most audacious rebuild was happening in Houston. The Astros lost 106 games in 2011, 107 in 2012 and 111 in 2013. In the summer of 2014, Sports Illustrated proclaimed that woebegone team “your 2017 World Series champs.” Within baseball, that pie-in-the-sky prediction became a knee-slapping punchline. This week Ben Reiter, author of that prescient story, reflected on a forecast that might well come true . Wrote Reiter:
“The Astros … never claimed to own a crystal ball, or that they would never make a mistake. They always expected to make many of them. Their goal was to make marginally more correct decisions than their competitors, in the long haul, and to do so they implemented an analytically rigorous system that not only processed all of the bleeding-edge metrics they could find or create, but also heavily incorporated data from old-fashioned sources (meaning scouts).”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Braves were operating along those lines. Coppolella is big on advanced analytics, but he and Hart also valued their scouts. That management tandem made mistakes – landing Hector Olivera, shedding Andrelton Simmons – but there always was a purpose. The acquisition of assets, be it young talent or draft slots or money to spend, was what mattered. The more assets you have, the better your odds.
Nobody bats 1.000 when it comes to rebuilds. Imagine the Astros had they picked Bryant No. 1 overall, as opposed to Mark Appel. (They’ve since traded Appel to Philadelphia for Ken Giles, another move they might like to have back.) Rebuilds run on skill and savvy, but mostly they run on volume.
The chief architect of the Braves’ rebuild is gone, but much of the volume work has been done. The club will face its penalties and find another GM and there’ll be a spring training and, come March 29, 2018, Acuna could be in the starting lineup at SunTrust Park. In a dark October for the local club, the presence of yet another rebuilder in the Fall Classic should serve as a reminder: These things can and do work. It could still work here.