The Braves’ rebuild is progressing at a rate unimaginable when it began, which was barely 26 months ago. So much has happened in such a short time that it’s no exaggeration to say there’s a mighty wind at this franchise’s back.
While exercising only one top-10 draft selection — at least of their own; they’ve proved deft at purloining picks made by other clubs — these Braves have compiled the industry’s best farm system. Their big-league team was 37-35 after the All-Star break and ranked, miracle of miracles, third in the majors in hitting over that span. They’ve bought $32.5 million of proven starting pitchers without compromising their financial future. They’re about to move into a new stadium, and even the bittersweet farewell to Turner Field became a rousing moment.
Still, baseball is a sport. Sports are driven by wins and losses. The Braves are coming off a 67-95 season that collapsed at the end and a 68-93 campaign that began horribly but got better. So now, two weeks before the giant peach makes its midnight drop, we ask: How many games can this team reasonably expect to win in 2017?
If we check the records of the clubs who embarked on the tear-down-to-build-up route before the Braves, we see that the Astros went 56-106 in 2011, after which Jeff Luhnow was hired; then 57-107, then 51-111, then 70-92 and then 86-76 in 2015 to grab a wild card. The Cubs went 71-91 in 2011, after which Theo Epstein arrived; then 61-101, then 66-96, then 73-89 and then 97-65 to take a 2015 wild card. Last season the Cubs — stop me if you’ve heard this — won the World Series.
The Astros’ biggest year-over-year jump was 16 games; the Cubs’ was 24 games. (By way of comparison, the worst-to-first Braves of 1991 improved 29 games.) The Braves under current management haven’t hit the 100-loss depths those franchises did, which is good but also not so good.
Starting in 2011, Houston had this run of draft position — 11th overall, then first, first, first, fifth and second. Over that same period, the Cubs had the ninth, fourth, second, fourth and ninth picks. From its first-rounders, Houston landed George Springer and Carlos Correa, franchise-type players. Chicago netted Javier Baez, co-MVP of the 2016 NLCS; Kris Bryant, the 2016 NL MVP; Albert Almora Jr., who scored the winning run in Game 7 against Cleveland, and Kyle Schwarber, who returned from injury to hit .364 in postseason.
Of those six influential players, none is a pitcher. Of the players drafted by the Braves since John Coppolella and John Hart and Brian Bridges took over, the top five are pitchers. Pitchers take longer. That doesn’t make them bad investments. It just means we cannot expect a 24- or a 16-game bounce from an organization where most of the top prospects aren’t big league-ready.
Coppolella has called the Single-A Rome Braves his system’s “flagship.” Those Braves just won the Sally League title. Their starting pitchers in the championship series were Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint, Kolby Allard and Max Fried — all Round 1 draftees, though only two by the Braves themselves. Baseball America named Rome its team of the year.
It will be a surprise if one of those pitchers works in SunTrust Park next season. There’s little chance that third baseman Austin Riley and outfielder Ronald Acuna — also members of that Rome roster — will make a major splash, pun intended, in 2017. Dansby Swanson is already here, and he’s really good. Ozzie Albies will arrive soon. Provided he’s throwing enough strikes, the left-hander Sean Newcomb could be summoned next summer. Regarding immediate help, that’s about it.
Again: That doesn’t invalidate the plan, which has always centered on pitching, which is tough to project and slow to flower. Springer, Bryant and Schwarber were college bats — so was Swanson — and college bats tend to move fast. Correa, Baez and Almora weren’t drafted as collegians; all took at least three years to reach the majors.
Back to our question: I don’t see the 2017 Braves bounding from sub-.500 to the playoffs. The rotation will stabilize with the additions of Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia. Freddie Freeman, Ender Inciarte and Swanson are big-time. The Sean Rodriguez acquisition was a beaut. But, mostly because I remain leery of Matt Kemp, I’m not prepared to believe the Braves’ second-half bashing is the new normal.
As much as I admire what the Braves have done, I don’t see a transforming presence — a Correa or a Bryant — at the ready. (Not yet, anyway. Kevin Maitan doesn’t turn 17 until February.) Next year’s team will go 80-82, which would be an improvement of 12 1/2 games. But 2018 should mark the year this franchise again becomes a winner. Once it does, it will win for a long, long time.