Once you get past the organizational maelstrom that sucked the front office into the undertow and led someone at corporate headquarters in Colorado to wonder, “Wait, we own a baseball team?” there isn’t much difference about the Braves today than there was a few months ago.
They have a new, eager general manager, Alex Anthopoulos. They have a corner outfield opening for The Next Great Prospect (Ronald Acuna) following the trade of Matt Kemp, who left behind a grease spot on the payroll ledger that will take a year to come out. There have been some changes on the coaching and office staffs.
But it’s generally the same team that lost 90 games last season. That shouldn’t come as a shock. Anthopoulos can’t decide to trade or keep what he doesn’t know has. The man stores Warren Buffet quotes on his phone -- “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get” – because investing in stocks isn’t dissimilar to investing in power hitters. So he’s intentionally moving slowly.
He knows the Braves are young, and they’re thin at some positions, and the starting rotation is short on proven commodities. But when there are trade conversations involving prospects, his staff often is split on whether to trade a guy or hold onto him. This is a problem.
“You almost become a little bit paralyzed,” he said Saturday.
It’s his job to break ties. But his limited hands-on knowledge, which can’t come from a spreadsheet or a scouting report, makes that problematic. So he’s being careful.
That’s OK. That won’t last forever. It’s only a problem if Anthopoulos loses sight of what’s most important: His success ultimately will be defined by how the Braves do, not any of their affiliates. This is about the 162-game major league season, not some publication’s prospect rankings.
Anthopoulos spoke to a group of fans at Saturday’s Chop Fest at SunTrust Park. The subject of the organization’s youth and how that factored into his plans predictably came up, and Anthopoulos didn’t dance around it.
“Ultimately, we may have to make the decision to move some of these guys because I don’t think you’re coming to the ballpark for us to tell you how good Gwinnett is and Rome is,” he told the crowd. “We love the affiliates. But that’s not what this is about. I learned early on that the 25 guys on the field drive the whole organization. They drive the bus.”
It was refreshing to hear that because that didn’t always seem to be the focus in the previous regime. Anthopoulos has shifted the Braves’ focus from tomorrow to today, even if his personal learning process of the next-generation players dissuades him from a lot of deal-making.
When asked later off-stage about his comments, he doubled down.
“We’re the Atlanta Braves,” he said. “The major league team is what runs this whole place. Let’s be real. We’re not here to be ranked No. 1 in Baseball America.”
And the angels sing.
The Braves report to spring training in a little more than two weeks, and they open the regular season against Philadelphia on March 29. Keep expectations in check. Anthopoulos’ first objective after taking over was to dump Kemp, but the five-player trade to Los Angeles meant taking on an extra $30 million in payroll in 2018 to have the Kemp off the books in 2019. So if you’re wondering when the Braves can get busy in the player-acquisition department, it’s next winter.
Anthopoulos still is deciding whether to go into the season with Johan Camargo as the starting third baseman, and he would like to improve the bullpen. What ultimately will determine whether this is even a .500 team however is the suspect starting rotation, which will come from the following: Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz, Brandon McCarthy, Sean Newcomb, Luiz Gohara, Max Fried, Lucas Sims and, potentially, Scott Kazmir (who didn’t pitch in 2017 because of a hip injury).
The Braves, “kicked around trying to get a (number) one- or two-type starter,” Anthopoulos said. But they decided to hold off for now until better gauging what they have.
This isn’t meant to dismiss the player analysis of former executives John Hart and John Coppolella. But player evaluations change with time, and a new set of eyes from the outside also can see things differently. It’s common for every team to overvalue their own prospects.
So they sit, and they watch, and they wait.
This isn’t easy for the new general manager. Anthopoulos has a history of being proactive in the trade market.
“It’s tough sometimes because the offseason is so long and you want to improve your team,” he said. “You keep looking at the same list of the same players. You can talk yourself into things and make a mistake. Being able to stay disciplined and not be rash or impulsive is challenging.”
The obligatory pre-spring question: How good will the Braves be? Las Vegas hasn’t put out over/under win projections yet, but one set of odds has them as the third biggest long shot (75-1) to win the National League pennant, ahead of only Cincinnati (100-1) and Miami (500-1).
Sounds about right. The Braves should be able to avoid a fourth consecutive season of 90-plus losses. But the international signing rules scandal and front-office shakeup forced an organizational reset.
“We’re young, and there’s no way of getting around that,” Anthopoulos said. “We need a lot of things to break right. But there an upside to the roster, too. A year from now you can pin me down a little better about the season.”
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