The 2018 season will be the fourth season in command of the Atlanta Braves for general manager John Coppolella and his front office. The group came over at the end of the 2014 season and after some expected rough patches in 2015 and 2016, there was some slight progress in 2017. While that progress was very small, the Braves farm system has started to produce some big leaguers. I bring this up because when you're getting into front office/coaching contracts and timelines, five years is a very common time to expect to start to seeing results.
Regardless of your opinion on Coppolella and the rebuild, even the biggest supporters can only have so much patience. I should know because I am also a Philadelphia 76ers fan and they went through their own rebuild- an even more drastic rebuild. The 76ers finally now have some momentum, and they’ve just begun to come out of the basement after four very rough years.
Why do I bring up a basketball team like the 76ers here? I do because it’s worth noting though that not every rebuilding story(Cubs, Astros) has a happy ending for those responsible. Look at the 76ers and see that the general manager who was responsible for “The Process” was forced out of his job, lasting just three seasons. That just shows even though ownership might give full support at the start of a dramatic rebuild, they can very easily lose patience as fans/media complain and the bottom line isn’t quite where they want it to be since this is a business to them. An owner starting to lose patience, especially heading into year five with a front office is always a real possibility.
That's not to say Coppolella's job is in any danger at the moment (nor should it be right now), but if he can't make enough progress in 2018 it is fair to say that may not be the case a year from now. I'm not saying the Braves need to win the division in 2018, or even make the playoffs for that matter but progress is necessary.
While the farm is starting to produce talent having both your team ERA and WHIP among the bottom four in the National League can't happen again. Especially not when your offense is in a similar spot with the team OPS and runs scored both ranked 11th of 15 in the NL. If your pitching is among the worst in the league and your offense is below average as a whole, you've got no chance of going near even a .500 record.
It's not as though the team's struggles on the field alone are why 2018 is so important. The fact that former Top 100 prospects like Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair haven't found big league success is troubling to some, especially when you know that both of those two were guys the current front office added via trades. Then you've got former top prospect Dansby Swanson, who not only is in the middle of what can be best described as an uneven season, but was handled in a questionable manner with the way his benching and demotion went down.
None of the blame for this falls on any one individual move or person. It’s spread out among multiple sources. The new park this year causing a premature acceleration to the rebuilding schedule, the fact that Blair was really the third piece in the Shelby Miller deal, the fact that the trade to get Wisler was one done for multiple reasons other than just to get him, along with some missteps by the front office.
No one is perfect in evaluating players, as even Hall of Fame executives don’t always get it right. That said the young guys this front office added need to start producing better than the early returns have, otherwise trades can start to be held against him. That means Luiz Gohara, Max Fried, Sean Newcomb, AJ Minter, and even Swanson among others need to give the team some production(note Acuña and Albies came from previous regime).
Wins and losses and prospects helping at the big league level would go a long way to helping to show progress in the rebuild, but those aren’t the only things. Below highlights some of the other areas the Braves can show progress.
What Else Needs To Be Done?
The Braves need to pitch and hit better to win. No really, as simple as that sounds that’s what they need to do. But of course it’s not as simple as that. So I've highlighted some key things that need to happen in the next year. Some are performance based, some are personnel based, others are progression based- but all of these things are objectives within reach and will determine what's next. Not all of these objectives will be accomplished, but that's expected. What needs to happen for progress to be made is at least four or five of these objectives need to be achieved.
Improve the bullpen: Outside of three guys the bullpen has been a disaster. Of the guys who have seen 40+ innings out of the pen, just Arodys Vizcaino, Sam Freeman, and Jose Ramirez have consistently pitched well. Closer Jim Johnson along with others like Ian Krol and Luke Jackson have ranged from bad to inconsistent. The Braves are going to have some help from the farm coming from most notably AJ Minter along with some others, but they are going to need to add a veteran or two through free agency or trade. That's not to say they need to go after an Aroldis Chapman or Wade Davis, but they can use at least one or two established, solid big league relievers to add into the pen. With a move of two it's hard to see how improvement won't happen next year.
Improvement from Julio Teheran: Whether you like it or not Julio Teheran is the Braves ace. It's easy to see why as 2018 will be his age-27 season and he's a two time All Star already. Unfortunately Julio wasn't very good in 2017, whether it was the move to the new park or just a down year like 2015 or even 2012 in the minor leagues. But Julio has bounced back. He rebounded nicely in both 2013 and 2016 after coming off his two down years. He's been better of late with a 2.25 ERA and 1.21 WHIP over 52 innings in his last eight starts, but the Braves are going to need a guy to front the rotation next year and no one is more likely than Julio.
Steady Play from Dansby and Other Young Bats: The Braves need to see steadier play from their young hitters. Obviously Dansby Swanson is a big key, as he's had some real highs and lows this season, and the Braves can't afford to allow him to struggle in that way again. He's fared better since his demotion to the minors and return to the big leagues, but him continuing that into next year will be very big. While he hasn't quite struggled the way Swanson has, Ozzie Albies is another young bat who is looking at considerable playing time in his first full big league season in 2018. The Braves don't need him to be a star right away as that's asking too much of any kid, but their offense would benefit greatly from him being a consistent presence at the top of the lineup. Ronald Acuna will also be in Atlanta for a major role in 2018, whether or not he opens the season in the big leagues. Just getting solid consistent at bats from Acuna in his rookie season would help the Braves offense. Of course if these guys aren't able to be consistent, it opens up the dreaded play them through it/bench them/send them down conversation.
Young Big League Arms Being More Consistent: I kept Teheran in his own category because he's the guy at the front of the rotation. That doesn't mean that the rest of the rotation has been much better this year. Mike Foltynewicz has looked great at times, but he's been rocked more often than he should be. Sean Newcomb has shown real flashes of being something, but his command has been a big issue at times. Lucas Sims is another young arm who has mixed some solid with some forgettable performances. Then you've got Max Fried and Luiz Gohara, and while neither of those two lefties has had enough time in Atlanta to make a real judgement, both will be in position to grab major roles for 2018. No one needs to become an All Star overnight, but cutting walks or being more consistent from start to start would be a huge help for the Braves as they look to build a rotation around their No. 1(Julio) and their veteran innings eater R.A. Dickey, assuming that he doesn't retire. If Dickey does retire this one becomes a little tougher as now four spots need to be filled rather than just three and you lose a consistent presence.
Improve Third Base: There's just no other way to say it, Atlanta Braves 2017 third base production has been atrocious. The guys manning the hot corner have combined to hit .250/.297/.367. For a position that is expected to produce offense at the big league level to have a group OPS that's 10 points lower than what came from those playing shortstop says a lot. Especially when you consider shortstop isn't generally an offensive production position and the struggles of Dansby Swanson are being factored into that OPS. That's Adonis Garcia, Jace Peterson, Danny Santana, Johan Camargo, Rio Ruiz, Sean Rodriguez, Brandon Phillips, and of course Freddie Freeman. With Rodriguez and Phillips traded and Freeman back at first full time, that lessens the internal options for next year a bit. Johan Camargo has shown some promise and Rio Ruiz has some upside and it's easy to see them sharing the job next year unless the Braves decide to bring in someone from the outside. Austin Riley is another option, but probably won't be ready until at least the second half of the season after reaching Double A this year. No matter who is manning the hot corner, the offensive production needs significant improvement. An All Star isn't needed, but getting even league average production would be huge.
Find More Power: The one thing missing from the Braves this year is power, despite playing in a home park which is one that it's easier to hit the long ball. Outside of 28 homers from Freddie Freeman, 19 each from Matt Kemp and Matt Adams, and then a combined 30 from catcher duo Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki, there isn't anyone who has shown much power. That's 47 homers from first base, 30 from catcher, and 19 from left field and not much else. Sure adding Ronald Acuna in will help the power somewhat, but he might take time away from Matt Kemp, and Matt Adams won't have an easy time at finding at bats with Freddie back in action. The Braves are a team in need of a little more power. Obviously I identified third base as a spot which needs improved production, but the outfield does as well as the three starters only have a combined 38- with 19 from Kemp. If you can keep Kemp around 20 in 100 games played and get similar production from Ender in center along with the boost from Acuna and whatever else you can get from Nick Markakis or someone else, you've done quite a bit to add maybe 20 more homers into the outfield. This is where the loss of Sean Rodriguez really hurts, because if he was healthy this year he could have helped give that power boost this season coming from third base.
Make a Big Acquisition: Like it or not a big acquisition is coming. Maybe not in 2018, but soon. The Braves have been connected to too many big names in trade talks for there not to be fire where there's smoke. It makes sense too, because you don't accumulate prospects the way the Braves have not to eventually deal some. Look I don't like the idea of trading some of the prospects I've come to enjoy watching, but there's just no room for everyone on the 40 man roster- let alone the 25 man roster. It's only a matter of time before the Braves are the team who makes a significant move, and there is a chance it comes via free agency now that the Braves are seeing an influx of new money thanks to the new ballpark and the area around it.
Get the Next Prospect Wave Ready: Ronald Acuna will be up in 2018, and likely early on. He's probably the one guy ready to step in and assume a big league role. But for the Braves rebuild to work they're going to need the rest of the next wave to get ready. That means they need Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard, and even the slightly further away Kyle Wright, to keep improving in the minors so that they're ready either on their own or if the guys in the rotation at the big league level stumble again. The same can be said for Austin Riley and the third base job, or even a guy like Travis Demeritte to come up and show some power.
Don't Be Afraid to Take Action: Dansby Swanson is the reason for this. If they call up a prospect and he struggles, they can’t afford to hesitate in taking action. That action could vary by player or situation, but they need to do a better job of handling these young players when/if they struggle. It goes without saying the player’s long-term future should be the biggest factor in whatever the decision is, but they can’t afford to keep trotting out a guy who just isn’t looking like he belongs. Dansby has responded well after action was taken, but you have to wonder what his production might look like had that action occurred sooner.
If the Braves can see third base improve significantly, get a little power increase from the outfield, and get consistent production out of Dansby Swanson while getting solid at bats from youngsters like Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies, the offense looks much different. You surround that group with a core featuring Freddie Freeman, Matt Kemp, Ender Inciarte, and the duo at catcher(even if the production drops a bit there), and suddenly it's a new look offense. Just a full season out of Albies, Acuna, and Freeman with improvements from short and third would likely be enough to get the offense as a whole to league average.
Pitching isn't as clear for it's solution and has some more moving parts. The biggest and most obvious fixes are getting Julio Teheran back on track and getting the bullpen fixed. If that happens suddenly the Braves have consistent pitching at the No. 1 and No. 5 spots in the rotation and a solid pen. More is needed to really improve upon this year's numbers, but if you come to camp with Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz, Luiz Gohara, Max Fried, and Lucas Sims to compete as five guys for three spots I like the chances of getting at least two guys who can be consistently average or better. Not to mention the possibility of adding in a big name, and suddenly you've got five guys competing for two spots.
One of two things will happen after next season. The Braves will have made progress, meaning we had nothing to worry about. That means John Coppolella and the front office are safely in place to continue the long-term rebuilding project that they began when they took over.
Or not. The other option is that the general manager’s seat could start to get a little warm. That’s scary to fans for two reasons. The first is that it could lead to moves being made as short term fixes to try to save a job. That pretty much speaks for itself. The second reason is because it’s ideal for Coppolella to finish the rebuilding process himself.
Coppolella acquired the players he did because he liked them, or they fit into the style he wanted out of his ballclub. Anytime you change out the guy in charge you are going to bring in someone who has different viewpoints, and that means they may see players or certain attributes in a different way. No matter how like minded a potential replacement might be, they will never view things exactly the same.
What that means is if the front office isn’t able to show progress next year is that they’ll likely start to feel pressure as they enter the fifth year of their contracts. As fans of the team in this stage that’s a bad thing because any kind of change could slow down the rebuild, or even ditch it all together in an attempt to see more wins right away.
For the fans who have suffered through the past few years that would be hard to swallow. After first seeing our best players traded away, then watching some terrible quality of baseball as reflected by the win column in the standings, the rebuild is what gave us all hope. Hope that these moves would work out and return the Braves into a regular contender again. As a fan not seeing results in 2018 and/or seeing the front office in a bad spot would be a huge blow to all of those who believe this is the right thing to do, as it means that once again the reset button may need to be pressed. After the last few years, the Braves just can't afford to get this wrong.