NEW YORK – Monday at Citi Field is not just opening day for the Braves, it’s opening day in Season 3 of the first rebuilding project for the organization in more than a quarter-century, or since it became a top-tier franchise (and later receded to one that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2001).
This is big stuff in Braves Country, where fans and team officials alike want so badly to have a team that's relevant again beyond July 4. It's been a while.
But it's also opening day in a Braves season that is the most difficult to characterize and forecast in recent memory. To wit, consider the range of opposing views that I’ve heard when talking to folks inside the organization and around baseball about the 2017 Braves season, which go something like this:
This is an extremely important season for the Braves, the turning-point year in a major rebuilding project and the inaugural season in their new ballpark.
Or, this is not really such an important season for the Braves, since they didn’t really expect to contend until 2018, have made it a point to note they won’t rush prized prospects before they’re ready, and they’re guaranteed big crowds anyway because fans want to come check out SunTrust Park and The Battery.
This is a team that should easily surpass the 75.5 over/under win total set by Las Vegas’ largest sportsbook, given that the Braves return all key contributors from the team that was 50-47 in their final 97 games last season and won 20 of the last 30, then added three proven veteran starters including two former Cy Young Award winners.
Or, it’s a team that could struggle to get to 73 wins and avoid a third consecutive 90-loss season, given that you should never put too much stock in September results, the bench is weak, and those former Cy winners are baseball’s oldest pitchers, Bartolo Colon (nearly 44) and R.A. Dickey (42), neither of whom did much to inspire confidence this spring. Oh, and other rotation addition, lefty Jaime Garcia, has had an injury-plagued career and pitched fewer than 130 innings in four seasons before staying healthy for most of 2016 and totaling 171 2/3 with his worst ERA (4.67) as a starter.
So there are distinctly different views of what this season means for the Braves from people inside and outside the organization, and wide-ranging opinions as to whether their offense can be expected to repeat the second-half surge of a year ago and how many wins were really purchased with the $32.5 million in one-year commitments made to the three new starters.
There’s also the matter of defense, which I personally think should be pretty good because of the up-the-middle trio of shortstop Dansby Swanson, former Gold Glove second baseman Brandon Phillips, Gold Glove center fielder Ender Inciarte, along with underrated defensive first baseman Freddie Freeman.
But not all agree. At all. One high-ranking scout from a National League team whom I chatted with in the final week of spring training said the Braves were slightly below-average to outright bad at five of eight defensive positions. He thought shortstop and center field were their only defensive strong suits. Hey, I’m just telling you what the man said (and there are defensive metrics that reflect his opinion more than they do my opinion that it’s a pretty solid defense).
See what I mean? So many disparate views in so many ways about the 2017 Braves team -- and opinions as to the big-picture importance to the franchise.
Here’s the one area where everyone I’ve talked to who’s followed the Braves’ rebuilding strategy seems in agreement: the next two years are hugely important in terms of the development of Braves pitching prospects. They’ve invested so much in terms of draft picks and trades to acquire a veritable stable of elite pitching prospects, and now the Braves need to see a few step forward and prove they’re ready to take over rotation spots in the next year or two.
When I asked general manager John Coppolella last week how he’d rank his top pitching prospects in terms of being closest to the majors, and how many (without naming names) legitimate top-of-rotation starters he thought the Braves now had in their system, he said, “We feel a number of our top pitching prospects are close to the majors and will have a chance to make an impact this season. It’s difficult to say how many legit top-of-the-rotation starters we have, but, with all due respect, we can confidently say we have more than any other team — and it’s not even close.”
Let’s put it this way: If the Braves need to again sign multiple aging veteran starters next winter to serve as temporary bridges until the prospects arrive, well, that will be a bad sign about the progress of the commodity the franchise is counting on most to be the foundation for long-term success, as was starting pitching the backbone for the team during the Braves’ heyday in the 1990s.
If at least one or two from that trio of veteran rotation newcomers don’t perform as the Braves hope they will in the first half, it could undermine the team’s chances of staying anywhere near .500 through summer and quash trade value that one or more of them might have if the Braves were to fall far out of the race and decide to move veterans with expiring contracts before the trade deadline.
They might then have to hope the likes of Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair or top prospects such as lefties Sean Newcomb and Max Fried – to me, Fried looks to be the next great Braves starting pitcher – is ready to fill in during the second half. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the old guys struggle, not if a couple of young arms such as Newcomb and Fried shine in the minors and show they’re ready by late summer.
The Braves will be careful with a talent like Fried, but he showed in some Grapefruit League games that he's real close to being ready.
But if the veteran starters struggle and none of the prospects is ready? Then the second half could be a situation similar to 2016 when Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz, the only rotation holdovers this year, were forced to carry most of the load for a patchwork rotation that didn’t contribute much to the team’s second-half success and put too much pressure on a bullpen that eventually buckled.
I don’t really see that happening, though. Maybe one of the veterans struggles, but not all of them and probably not two. I don’t draw conclusions about a 20-year veteran like Colon based on spring training results; he says he’s healthy and was working on stuff in spring training, and he deserves benefit of the doubt after the stunningly good four-year improbable late-career run he’s had.
Dickey, on the other hand, struggled much of last season with Toronto and lost his rotation spot late for the playoff-bound Blue Jays.
Garcia looked sharp as camp progressed, but that’s not much of a surprise – with him the real question is, can he stay healthy all season? There is plenty of added motivation for some pending free agents in the last year of contracts.
Teheran is what he is, an All-Star who’s still young (26) and still improving. Hard-throwing Foltynewicz made strides last season and especially this spring in terms of controlling his emotions and limiting the damage in innings that have been his bugaboo in the past.
The Braves offense of the second half of last season, to me, wasn’t an aberration, even after as awful as it was for most of the first half.
Ender Inciarte thrived after a full-time move to the leadoff spot, and when Matt Kemp joined the lineup at the beginning of August, one of baseball’s finest hitters, Freddie Freeman, had a dangerous right-handed power hitter behind him. Freeman went from already sizzling to an even higher gear. Kemp’s arrival also enabled the move of Nick Markakis down to a more suitable fifth spot, where his steady at-bats and renewed strength 1 ½ years removed from neck surgery made him another pain for pitchers in a suddenly strong middle of the order.
Rookie sensation Dansby Swanson’s call-up to the majors a couple weeks later added depth to the bottom half of the order and gave the Braves enough of a look at him for manager Brian Snitker to believe Handsome Dans was ready for a move this season to the important 2-hole position, a prime spot for a solid bat-handler, behind Inciarte and in front of Freeman, Kemp and Markakis.
For the record, three straight 90-loss seasons has been done only twice by the franchise since 1930 -- the Braves lost more than 90 in five consecutive seasons through 1979 and again in four seasons through 1990, the last year before they began an unprecedented streak of division titles in 14 completed seasons.
I’ll be surprised if the Braves lose 90 again this season or in the forseeable future. This probably isn’t the pivotal season in the rebuild, but I do think the Braves turned a corner in the second half last season and should finish closer to 80 losses than 90 this year, then make an even bigger leap forward in 2018.
Let's get this thing started and find out.