It’s the selling-hope time of the season.
Look at the potential of this lineup. …
Look at this beautiful new stadium. …
Look at our prospect rankings. …
Don’t look at the 188 losses in the past two seasons because those years don’t matter anymore — except for the final 30 games last year, because that part we like …
The Braves are ready to open season No. 3 since their rebuild. They are oozing with optimism, as they should be in April. Their newish manager, Brian Snitker, who calmed a frazzled clubhouse last year, said in spring training, “I don’t want to just come out here and get better. We’re already better. If our focus isn’t winning the division then we’re wasting our time here.”
It’s the right words and the right mindset, even if not completely attached to reality.
Strange things happen in sports. But there’s a reason why, amid all of this local optimism, the Las Vegas wiseguys have set the Braves’ over/under win total at 71.5, which equates to another 90-loss season. Pitching. It has been at the center of the organization’s rebuilding efforts, but the young arms aren’t ready yet.
Some of the pitching prospects were developing too slowly for general manager John Coppolella’s liking, so he fired pitching coach Roger McDowell, against the preference of others in the organization. This was followed by Coppolella’s tacit acknowledgement that, yes, help was needed, because he then signed starters Bartolo Colon, who turns 44 years old next month, and R.A. Dickey, who is 42.
The message: McDowell apparently can’t coach 40-somethings either.
Meanwhile, back on earth: president of baseball operations John Hart and Coppolella have done a nice job restocking the Braves’ minor-league system that was run down by predecessor Frank Wren. The major league team’s everyday lineup also is better. The projected first five players in the batting order — Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson, Freddie Freeman, Matt Kemp, Nick Markakis — project as a group that can consistently produce runs, even if Kemp backslides somewhat from the numbers he put up after coming over from San Diego last season.
But that’s where most of the good ends. The bench looks weak. The bullpen is suspect. The starting rotation (Julio Teheran, Colon, Jaime Garcia, Dickey, Mike Foltynewicz) recently was ranked 23rd of 30 teams by USA Today. The analytics-driven site Fangraphs ranks it 27th.
The Braves have allowed 760 and 779 runs in the past two seasons, with run-differentials of minus-130 and minus-187.
They used 60 players each of the past two seasons, at least 10 more than in any other year in franchise history.
They used 37 pitchers in 2015 and 35 in 2016, the two highest totals in franchise history.
They used 16 starting pitchers last season, six more than the year before. If anything close to that happens again, it won’t matter how good the lineup is.
The thinking in signing Colon and Dickey is that while they’re obviously old and near the career exit ramp, they’ll consume innings and take pressure off the bullpen. The question is whether the spring training numbers of the two represent foreshadowing or an aberration: Colon had a 9.20 ERA with opponents hitting .367; Dickey a 6.00 ERA with opponents hitting .311.
The future is bright if pitchers currently at various minor-league levels develop. But they’ll unlikely make an impact at the major league level this year. So the Braves hope to dazzle you with some offense and all the bells and whistles associated with a new stadium.
They don’t need any more bad PR. They’ve lost too many games. Attendance has spiraled. On top of the controversial move to Cobb County, which is complicated by expected traffic and parking problems, the organization announced a policy change that would prevent fans from bringing food into the stadium (masked as a “security” issue). But there was a backlash so they made a fast U-turn.
This is an organization that really hasn’t tried to win for a while. That’s not a shot at players, managers, coaches or scouts. It’s merely the reality of misdirection sound bites from the front office in the past few years and the detached decision-making from the billionaire bean counters at Liberty Media.
The Braves are less about baseball than they are about real estate. They’ve built ballparks in Cobb and minor-league towns, squeezing hundreds of millions of dollars in public money from fan-boy politicians. They left downtown Atlanta, going completely against the trend of pro sports teams staying or moving in town, so they could become commercial real estate landlords with restaurants and retail space around SunTrust Park.
They will draw a lot of fans this season, at least early, because the stadium will be the attraction. But they need to start winning because that won’t last. It needs to be about baseball. It needs to be about winning. But winning follows good pitching and that might be a problem this season.