Welcome to 2020. It’s a new year and a new decade, one which comes with tremendously high expectations for the Atlanta Braves. Expectations that may be as high as they were for the run that made them a National League empire for a decade and a half.
And they are in good shape to reach them, so far.
Judging by the Twitterverse and information highway that is the Internet, Braves’ fans seem to have mixed emotions on the rebuild so far. It’s hard to argue that first-round exits aren’t pleasing and the sacrifices made at the big-league level from 2015-2017 should be paying off by now with at least a trip to the World Series.
That’s partly true, especially based on recent champions. And while there are still two big needs (in my opinion) I think the Braves rebuild is an overwhelming success, ready to show what it can do.
I have an odd relationship with the Braves, especially the past decade. I’m not a lifelong, die hard Braves fan, but I do root for them. I worked at Turner Field for the end of the Chipper Jones and Bobby Cox era, and was front and center (literally, I worked in the Hank Aaron section) for the Dan Uggla experience. In 2015, I began writing for Minor League Ball and when Jose Peraza was traded, I headed out to Rome to interview this 18-year-old fella named Ozhaino Albies. That’s when I first started to really learn about the Braves system and the picks that were made and what was coming. In 2016, I covered the Rome run to the South Atlantic League championship for two sites, and I was officially excited for what was in store.
So, what was in store? The Braves tore it down and fans were told that a youth rebellion was on the horizon and to be patient for their arrival. Sites and experts far and wide tabbed the Braves one of the best farm systems in baseball for the past three or four years, which immediately put the Braves minor leaguers under the microscope.
The Braves had six or more Top 100 prospects from most outlets for the better part of three years. That’s not normal. You really have to come to grasps with how special that is. Think about it this way. There are currently so many minor leaguers that MLB wants to cut hundreds of them from existence. To make that Top 100, you were in the upper one or two percent. The Braves had more than a handful of those guys annually for three years — and that included losing a few of them expected to be even higher.
When you look at the Top 100 overall, think about how many of those bust out. Now, think about how many of the Braves that were Top 100 prospects are not only big leaguers, but are amongst the best at their positions. You’ve probably heard of Ronald Acuña, Jr., Ozzie Albies and Mike Soroka.
But there was a downside to all that farm system hype. The notion of the “untouchable” prospect and building a home grown team spread throughout Braves fandom far and wide. I never bought that. Don’t get me wrong. There are untouchable prospects, but you know them when you see them. A lot of people labeled Ian Anderson untouchable the day he was drafted, and I was never on board with that (and I like Anderson a lot).
Maybe that’s because I grew up a Yankees fan. They are an organization that believes that for every star prospect, there’s three or four that will be traded (and many times, grossly overhyped). And they don’t wait to cash in, wheeling and dealing prospects on the regular. That’s what made the “Core Four” (for the record, I can’t stand that nickname) so special. The Yankees were led by four homegrown talents (even though it was really five) to greatness.
Kind of like how the Braves are set up to do.
Remember that 2016 Rome Braves rotation? Three of them — Soroka, Max Fried, and Kolby Allard — are all in a major league rotation just three years later, albeit Allard somewhere else and Max Fried not “homegrown” (although developed and matured on the Braves farm). But when you look at some of the other arms — the Kyle Wrights, the Touki Toussaints, the Bryse Wilsons — it may look like the rebuild and all those arms were misses. Of course they may turn out that way. That’s how baseball works. To walk away with a Cy Young contender and one of the best young lefties in the game is something most teams would die for. The notion of a Soroka, Fried, Anderson, Wright, and Wilson rotation (and those notions very much existed at one point) were a bit of a fantasy. If none of those other pitchers hit, they way Soroka and Fried looked this year, those draft and prospect strategies of the Beau Bridges era are still a huge win.
But it does look like, in one way or another, most of those arms will be usable big-league arms, right? That’s why I think it’s time to start moving them and getting one of two pieces in to the system. But I digress.
You can be down on the bats in the minor leagues as not panning out, and that would be a fair assessment. The catching prospects are all question marks — but that’s what catching prospects are — and it would be nice to have a legitimate third base power bat with the ongoing Josh Donaldson saga. Will Cristian Pache ever be a reliable bat? Will Drew Waters not swing at every pitch? Those are legitimate questions.
Instead of dwelling on that, we should be happy that the Braves farm system has pumped out three of the very best position players that look like they are about to anchor this team for years to come (I couldn’t imagine a world where Freddie Freeman walks away in 2022).
A lot of people look to the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros — even those Kansas City Royals teams — as the rebuild models. They burned it down and quickly won a World Series title. But look how quickly it’s fading. The Royals are a mess (and took a long time to finally pan out), the Cubs seem to be selling off stars with weekly Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber rumors and have zero young pitching to be excited about, and there were even Carlos Correa rumors this offseason. We’re talking a three or four year swing of perennial power to huge question marks. I’m not sure that’s what Braves fans want.
The Braves rebuild was a bit more of a slow burn, one which has resulted in back-to-back NL East titles. That seems pretty good. None of those previous World Series winners had pitching prospects like Soroka and Fried (in my opinion). Imagine if the Braves can bring in their version of a Justin Verlander or Jon Lester on the bump to go along with them? Or a Nolan Arenado at the hot corner? And if that means trading off the farm system to do it, then do it. Right now, there isn’t an untouchable prospect in the system. With the long term deals of Albies and Acuña this team is set up for much longer success than some of those other clubs. The Braves are really just a move a two away from great things.
Will they make said move? Who knows, but this offseason has been more promising than any other in recent years. And think about this: Alex Anthopoulos DID trade away some highly-rated prospects last year to get some key pieces. But he didn’t have to sell off any of the elite prospects to do so. Wonder where the Cubs would be now if they kept Gleyber Torres?
Would it be nice to see the Braves out of the first round of the playoffs by now? Of course. Does that mean things are awry? I don’t think so. Success was a little harder to attain as quickly as the other rebuilds, but baseball is also changing quickly from those models. Let’s not forget, the reigning national champs were the oldest team in baseball last year, built largely from free agents while letting their homegrown hero walk away to a division rival.
There have been some misses. I surely miss Andrelton Simmons, and would have loved to have some of the bats over Kyle Wright, but the actual rebuild part that began after that 2014 season has been an overwhelming success. I’m really happy with it, and you should be to.