It being football season, maybe you’ve stopped tracking the Braves. Maybe you got so fed up that you tuned out way back when it was basketball season. Maybe you should consider giving them another look. What they were is not what are and, better yet, what they’re becoming.
Beggaring-belief stats: The Braves, who finished next-to-last among the 30 MLB teams in scoring in 2014, dead last in 2015 and were again last as of the All-Star break, rank fifth in scoring and first – first! – in batting average and on-base percentage since. That’s not an improvement. That’s a transformation.
The past four days have seen the Braves take four games from the Nationals and the Mets, playoff-caliber opponents. If you think, “It’s September and nobody cares,” be advised that the Nats and Mets care very much. The team we once feared might lose 120 games probably won’t lose 100, and if the Braves had gotten a bit better pitching – they’re 28th in post-break ERA – they mightn’t have lost 90.
We wondered when, perhaps even if, a corner would be turned. It just was. This organization is no longer in full-blown rebuild mode. Not two full years after John Coppolella and John Hart were given control, this bears the bold look of a franchise again on the rise.
Of his team’s newfound offensive prowess, Coppolella said Tuesday: “It’s a great credit to our hitters and to (hitting coaches) Kevin Seitzer and Jose Castro. It’s also a credit to getting right mix in here. Matt Kemp has been great for us.”
The Braves’ general manager likes his numbers, but he concedes that not everything in baseball can be quantified. If we go by Baseball-Reference, Kemp’s WAR (wins above replacement) value as a Brave is minus-0.2. Still, his presence has helped lend this batting order a balance it has lacked since 2013, and even that powerful assemblage was literally a hit-or-miss thing.
Your top of the lineup now: Ender Inciarte, Adonis Garcia, Freddie Freeman, Kemp, Nick Markakis, the worst of whom is batting .272. (Also: Lefty, righty, lefty, righty, lefty.) We cannot credit Kemp with everything – Inciarte and Markakis started to hit before Kemp was acquired; Freeman has crushed everything since mid-June – but this is no longer a discordant everyday eight of Freddie and the Banjo Hitters. This is a real batting order.
In the dark days of April and May, we’d have said there was one keeper – Freeman – among the starting eight. This surge has made us (and surely the Braves) rethink many thoughts. Example: If the 31-year-old Adonis Garcia is your second-best hitter, you’re in trouble; if he’s you’re sixth-best, he’s probably worth keeping as your 2017 third baseman.
Another: Where once we asked if the Braves had any outfielders, they figure to go to spring training with something approaching a surplus: Kemp, Inciarte, Markakis and Mallex Smith. Said Coppolella: “It’s good to be dealing from a position of strength.”
And here’s the best part: The strongest part of this organization remains its minor leagues. The top three affiliates – Class A Rome, Class AA Mississippi and Class AAA Gwinnett – made their respective league’s playoffs. Each won a postseason series. Rome took the South Atlantic title.
Last month, Royals GM Dayton Moore — once John Schuerholz’s deputy here – stressed the importance of building from within and of young talent growing as a team. “You can buy players,” Moore said, “but if they haven’t come up together, they won’t play the same way.”
Said Coppolella: “Rome was our flagship. Our (meaning this administration’s) first four draft picks were on that team. That’s where we started over. Higher up were guys we traded for.”
Actually, two trade acquisitions – Touki Toussaint and Max Fried – comprised half of Rome’s playoff rotation. The other half: Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard, the Braves’ top two draftees in 2015. The third baseman was Austin Riley, their third draftee last year; he hit two homers in the title series.
“It was great seeing that Rome team, seeing all those arms,” Coppolella said. “We aren’t winning (at Rome) with old guys. We’re winning with kids. That’s the way Dayton built the Royals. There’s a bond being built.”
In Dansby Swanson, who has been as good as advertised, we’ve seen the tip of the first wave of New Braves. Rio Ruiz was promoted last week. Ozzie Albies will be here soon. Then maybe Riley and Ronald Acuna and surely many of those young arms. (Down the road: Kevin Maitan.) Coppolella’s vision of “wave after wave” of young talent doesn’t seem such a pipe dream, does it?
As to other matters: Coppolella reiterated that the biggest needs for the offseason are catching – “Though we’ve been very pleased with Tyler Flowers; he’s been everything we hoped he would be” – and big-league-ready starting pitching. “We’ve seen the struggles of our young pitchers, all of whom we still have faith in. But we need to win more games next year. It’s more likely we’ll do that through free agents than in trade because we don’t want to give up any kids.”
We figured the Braves’ kids would be all right, given that this farm system is rated baseball’s best. What we didn’t expect was that a lousy big-league team would stop being lousy. Good stuff is starting to happen. Better stuff is coming.