After massive rebuild, Braves still need starting pitching

It’s much easier to tear down a team than it is to build it up.

That is certainly true in baseball. Front office executives sell the public on hopes for the future while slashing current and future payroll commitments, dumping veterans and and stockpiling prospects, draft picks and international signing bonus slots (which few understand but each deal comes with an explanation guide in seven languages, as well as that little wrench that accompanies every IKEA product).

The Braves went 68-93 this season. I’m not sure that fulfilled John Schuerholz’s offseason mandate after going 67-95 in 2015: “We will not allow another year like this to occur. We made a vow internally that that is not going to happen.” Oops.

But the season left a lot of people feeling good about the future. The Braves won 12 of their last 14. They went 37-35 after the All-Star break following a 31-58 first half. But where they go from here and affirming that the last six weeks of the season was not an aberration depends largely on three issues — and the biggest issue isn’t the manager. 

» Starting pitching: When Team John (Schuerholz, Hart, Coppolella) correctly surmised that the shelves were empty and the player developmental system needed to be fixed, they were correct. The Braves needed young talent, particularly pitchers. So they stocked up. Several pitching prospects have since been lined out, whether because of injuries, flameout or simply because they weren’t very good. That’s normal.

What wasn’t expected was that the Braves would have to go shopping for two top-line starters this winter. Not one. Two. Coppolella first acknowledged three weeks ago on Twitter — “The progress, or lack thereof, of our starting pitchers” — was his biggest disappointment this season. The Braves have acquired a number of young pitchers but most of them were so young and/or not major-league ready that it added to the risk-element of the deals.

This is no small thing. Developing starting pitchers was needed to avoid overspending in the free agent market and/or giving up major assets to acquire them. Julio Teheran, who was inherited by the current regime, presumably will be back as the No. 1 or No. 2 starter. He’s followed on the depth chart by Mike Foltynewicz (9-5, 4.31), Matt Wisler (7-13, 5.00) and Aaron Blair (2-7, 7.59). To say there’s a lack of certainty after Teheran would be an understatement. As Chipper Jones said in late August, acquiring a No. 1 starter would push everybody down a spot in the rotation. So the Braves have to spend money or assets this winter, and that’s what they were trying to avoid. 

» The manager question: From the time of Fredi Gonzalez’ firing, there was a feeling inside the clubhouse that Braves would go outside for the next manager. That wasn’t a reflection on interim manager Brian Snitker or any coach but rather a reality of pro sports: These decisions often are part marketing.

The Braves want to give the impression that they are starting fresh as they move forward with a new team, a new plan and into a new park. Does “new, new, new” scream “Brian Snitker”?

Snitker surpassed all expectations. Yes, he benefited from things Gonzalez didn’t have — among them: a healthy Ender Inciarte, Matt Kemp, Dansby Swanson and a Freddie Freeman who didn’t hit .200 for the season’s first three weeks — but he pulled together a reeling team. He was baseball’s version of a 60-year-old grandfather with “old man strength.”

But this decision can’t be based solely on the last six weeks when the Braves won — and here’s the cold truth — largely meaningless games. It has to be based on projections for the next five years. Who is the best manager to develop young talent and handle a pitching staff? Who projects best for a young, aggressive team?

This decision has to be about what is next, not what’s in the recent past, and there has long been a feeling that Hart and Coppolella want to put their stamp on the organization with a new face. It will be an interesting decision. 

» Is this the real Kemp (or lineup)? Coppolella made amends for the biggest mistake of his tenure (trading for Hector Olivera). He sent Olivera to San Diego for Matt Kemp. (The Padres didn’t really want Olivera; they just wanted to decrease their future payroll obligations.) Kemp was rejuvenated by the deal. He hit .280 with an .855 OPS with the Braves after going .262 and .774 as a Padre. There was a positive ripple effect in the lineup, notably with Freeman.

The Braves committed to paying Kemp $54 million over three more seasons. (Kemp will make $64.5 million through 2019 but San Diego is paying $10.5 million of that total.) If Kemp maintains that level of production, the Braves will consider the contract worth it. If not, the contract becomes another albatross.

Swanson has fulfilled early expectations and gives the Braves maybe their most marketable and identifiable player. If Ozzie Albies can win a starting job in spring, the Braves are solid at shortstop and second base. Kemp, Inciarte, Nick Markakis (possible trade bait for a pitcher or catcher) and Mallex Smith are four nice outfield options. If all perform in 2017 as they did in meaningless games this year, it’s a good sign.

The biggest question: Will 2017 look like the end of 2016?

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