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The Atlanta Braves Rebuilt Their Way to the World Series

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It’s been many years and many heartbreaks, but the decision to tear it down in 2015 has delivered the Braves to heights they’ve longed for for decades

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Braves rapid rebuilding process has come to its zenith, with the team punching its ticket to the World Series just five years after holding the third overall pick in the MLB draft. The 2013 Atlanta Braves team was one of the most successful in franchise history, punching a ticket to the postseason with a 96 win season that marked their 4th 89+ win season in a row and their best record since 2004. Helped by a 10 game winning streak in April and a 14 game winning streak in August the team was in first place from April 5th to the end of the season. Another disappointing postseason appearance ended in a four game loss to the Dodgers, but going into 2014 there was hope that Atlanta could once again run with the heavily favored Washington Nationals. For much of the season that was the case, as while they weren’t playing as well as that 2013 squad, they were 58-48 on July 28th and just half a game back of Washington in the division. What followed was a tremendous collapse down the stretch, as the team sputtered to a 21-35 record down the stretch and finished 17 games back of Washington. General Manager Frank Wren was deposed and the franchise was handed over to Wren’s 35 year old Assistant General Manager John Coppolella running the team alongside new President of Baseball Operations John Hart. Faced with a roster of expiring contracts, disappointing players, and a seemingly insurmountable division rival, Hart and Coppolella were forced into a rebuild in an effort to move on from poor free agents decisions and a farm system that had fallen to the bottom of Major League Baseball.

Trades

Hart and Coppolella were hell bent on dismantling the roster that offseason, and quickly built the Braves into a bottom feeder with a respectable crop of prospects on the way. Many of the early moves weren’t done entirely with players that were expected to be years off. The first major trade was sending off Jason Hayward for MLB pitcher Shelby Miller, who was one of the top players on the horrible 2015 team. They also signed Nick Markakis to a long term deal, and gave out the most important signing in franchise history when they brought in Gwinnett Braves and Stripers legend Sean Kazmar Jr. Even prospects like Mike Foltynewicz were expected to be immediate contributors at the major league level, and ultimately many of those early moves to clear players and money ended up not having a huge impact on the core of this World Series team. The biggest trade of that offseason ended up being the move that sent away Justin Upton, a risky bet on a young left handed pitcher coming off of Tommy John Surgery. 7 years later, and that risk has paid major dividends as Max Fried has solidified himself as the most consistent member of Atlanta’s rotation and given them multiple big outings in the playoffs. They also signed William Contreras as an amateur that offseason, but going into the beginning of the season they still had a huge payroll hit in Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton on the roster. On April 5th they moved both for a package centered around top pitching prospect Matt Wisler and a competitive balance pick in the upcoming draft. One day later they got another competitive balance pick from the Diamondbacks in exchange for minor leaguer Victor Reyes. In the middle of the season they swapped Phil Gosselin for Touki Toussaint and Bronson Arroyo’s contract, a move seen as one of the best in the tenure although Toussaint seems unlikely to ever reach his full potential. Also Ultimately the Braves got relatively little major league production out of those early trades, though we’ll come back to that draft pick, and the subsequent trades for Hector Olivera and Sean Newcomb were complete disasters as they gave up solid, controlled talent for ultimately no real contribution. The draft pick received in the Olivera trade was likely the biggest from either trade. The early Coppollela days were exciting, but many trades weren’t turning into much of anything with staying power.

That brings us to December 9th, 2015. In one of the most shocking trades in major league history, the Braves flipped Shelby Miller off of a career year for Ender Inciarte, first overall pick Dansby Swanson, and Aaron Blair. While injuries ultimately derailed Blair’s career, Inciarte become one of the most important players in the Braves transition to success and Swanson is still the lynchpin of Atlanta’s infield defense. Miller went on to produce -1.5 bWAR for the Diamondbacks while Inciarte and Swanson have produced 9.6 bWAR and 9.1 bWAR for the Braves, respectively. The Braves were relatively quiet on the trade from for awhile, with nothing of real value to move anymore, but made some key pick ups throughout the 2016 season like receiving a competitive balance pick in exchange for two low level minor leaguers. In December they moved minor league players for major league pitcher Jaime Garcia, who will be very important in about 7 months. They also received Luke Jackson for two minor leaguers who did a whole lot of nothing in Texas. In late November the Braves traded for Alex Jackson, and in the last relevant trade of the Coppolella era flipped Garcia for some raw right handed pitcher named Huascar Ynoa. Perhaps the biggest moves of Coppolella’s career were the ones he never made. On many occasions top draft picks like Mike Soroka and Austin Riley were requested in trades, and current stars Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna Jr., and Ozzie Albies were one of only a handful of players incumbent from the Wren era that Coppolella didn’t ship out. Coppolella had missteps, but on many occasions rightfully evaluated the talent of his players and was able to rebuild through trades with a bunch of players that ultimately would not have contributed in Atlanta.

Amateur Draft

Atlanta did solid work in these years in trades, but ultimately many of those moves were to get depth and Coppolella was aggressive in trading for draft picks. The draft is where these Braves excelled and built the farm system up. Starting in 2015 the Braves loaded up on prep talent and many of those are major contributors to this postseason run. The Braves struck gold up top in 2015 with a trio of solid draft picks starting with Kolby Allard as their true draft pick. As compensation for losing Ervin Santana in free agency they selected Mike Soroka with the 28th overall pick, and that competitive balance pick the Braves received in exchange for Craig Kimbrel turned into the Braves top hitter this season in Austin Riley. As the last pick of the first day of the draft the Braves turned that Victor Reyes trade into Texas A&M left handed pitcher AJ Minter, who has only been one of the best relief pitchers in the postseason for the past two seasons. This is already an impressive crop of players to get from one draft, and doesn’t even include 7th rounder Patrick Weigel 16th rounder Trevor Belicek, and 17th rounder Evan Phillips who all became trade pieces that bolstered the Braves success the past four seasons.

One year later and holding the third overall pick, Atlanta stocked up again, starting with their current No. 3 starter Ian Anderson. Joey Wentz was selected with the pick the Braves got in the Olivera deal, and Kyle Muller rounded out a trio of top pitching prospects. These two drafts vaulted the Braves to the top of organizational farm system rankings, and on down were even more key pieces. Bryse Wilson went to the Braves in the fourth round, Brett Cumberland was a piece in a key trade, but of the greatest importance from those later picks was 19th rounder that almost no one saw coming. The Braves took a chance on Tucker Davidson, and while he wasn’t a major contributor this season due to injury he is poised to take a shot at the rotation in upcoming seasons. The 2017 draft was the final draft of Coppolella’s tenure, and thus far has been the only one to not deliver huge dividends. Second rounder Drew Waters is one of the Braves current top prospects and third rounder Freddy Tarnok is on the rise, but 5th overall pick Kyle Wright seeming to be a bust was the only thing to put a sour taste on a fantastic run of drafts. The Braves have yet to get major league contributors out of the Anthopoulos-era drafts, but 2018 fourth rounder Tristan Beck, and three 2019 draft picks became center pieces in major trades for the Braves.

Even more trades and non-trades

The Braves farm system has obviously produced a lot of their talent, but after three years of losing the team needed to show signs of recovery. Having a top farm system is great, but the time for the Coppolella deals to pay off needed to be soon even though they would go on without him as he was replaced by Alex Anthopoulos following the former’s lifetime ban. Anthopoulos has on the whole held onto the vast majority of the remainder of the Coppolella’s top prospects for better or worse, but he has also utilized the talent in creative ways to build a now four time National league East champion. The team was ultimately bolstered by the top trio of Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, and Ronald Acuna Jr. making their ways to the major leagues, and contributions from rebuild acquisitions Austin Riley, AJ Minter, William Contreras, Huascar Ynoa, Mike Foltynewicz, Arodys Vizcaino, Luke Jackson, Bryse Wilson, and Wren holdovers like Johan Camargo and Jacob Webb to help fill out the roster. However, the Braves still needed a kick on multiple occasions, and despite calls of him being too conservative with top prospects, Anthopoulos has delivered key trades on multiple occasions without sacrificing the best prospects.

At the deadline in 2018 Anthopoulos used struggling prospects Lucas Sims and Matt Wisler to get Adam Duvall, and while Duvall’s contributions in 2018 were negative he became a huge piece for Atlanta over the next two seasons. Brett Cumberland, Evan Phillips, and 2017 5th rounder Bruce Zimmermann turned into Kevin Gausman who was instrumental in the Braves success late in 2018. At the deadline in 2019 he was back at it, moving Kolby Allard for relief star Chris Martin, Joey Wentz for Shane Greene, and Tristan Beck for closer Mark Melancon. This year he did everything he has in years past but in a bigger way to greater success. In April he made a minor move to send Chad Sobotka and Patrick Weigel away for backup shortstop Orlando Arcia, and in July he possibly won himself Executive of the Year with one of the greatest deadline retools in history. Using 2019 24th round pick Bryce Ball, 2018 33rd round pick Mason Berne, 2019 8th round pick, Ricky DeVito, 2019 fourth round pick Kasey Kalich, and finally Alex Jackson Anthopoulos added Joc Pederson, Stephen Vogt, Richard Rodriguez, Jorge Soler, and Adam Duvall to the Braves roster. While Anthopoulos has yet to make the headline move that Braves fans are clamoring for, he has managed to take expendable prospects year in and year out and use them to bolster his roster down the stretch. The Braves have leveraged their prospect pool from the rebuild to make up nearly their entire roster, with 18 of the 27 players on the NLCS roster coming via their minor league depth.

Here is the breakdown of that:

Five players came directly via trades Anthopolous made out of his prospect pool (which excludes Eddie Rosario): Joc Pederson, Adam Duvall, Chris Martin, Jorge Soler, and Orlando Arcia.

Four players came as minor leaguers from another organization via trade: Max Fried, Dansby Swanson, Huascar Ynoa, Luke Jackson.

Three players were in the organization from Frank Wren and came up under Coppolella: Ozzie Albies, Jacob Webb, and Johan Camargo.

Two players were international signings by Coppolella: William Contreras and Cristian Pache.

Two players were drafted with Atlanta Braves draft picks: Ian Anderson and AJ Minter.

One player was drafted via a pick the Braves traded for: Austin Riley.

One player was signed as a minor league free agent: Dylan Lee.

This National League pennant was won in large part thanks to the Braves rebuilding at the right time, making enough of the right moves, and drafting well over the past seven years. It’s been a long road from third overall pick in 2016 to here, and key moves have been the difference in a team that has tasted postseason success for the first time in decades. While the system has taken a hit, many of the key pieces are under control for the next few seasons and reinforcements at pitching, catcher, and outfield seem to be nearing major league readiness. Atlanta will no longer be a surprise success, as they have set themselves up to be a legitimate World Series contender for the next half decade at least especially with the return of superstar Ronald Acuna Jr next season. The rebuild was a tough one, and if you stuck with the Braves through it you deserve a pat on the back. It was worth it, as they’ve taken a whole bunch of minor league talent and turned it into one of the best teams in the league. Now, let’s go out and beat the Astros.