Bats To The Future

Image credit: Ronald Acuna Jr. (left) and Ozzie Albies (Photo by Tom DiPace)

Walt Weiss arrived in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., this spring a curious man. 

The longtime shortstop and former manager was beginning his first year as the Braves’ bench coach. He had heard all about the organization’s assemblage of young talent and wandered into spring training intrigued to see it for himself.

Weiss knew what he was joining. He anticipated seeing a burgeoning group of talented players in their early 20s. That was a big reason he took job.

What Weiss didn’t anticipate was the feeling that hit him. The feeling of familiarity. The feeling he had seen this before.

Weiss was 23 years old the first time he walked into the Athletics clubhouse in 1987.

He was welcomed by a 23-year-old Mark McGwire, a 22-year-old Jose Canseco and a 25-year-old Terry Steinbach. A 23-year-old Stan Javier and Luis Polonia were there too, as was a 25-year-old Storm Davis.

They didn’t know it yet, kids on a middling 81-81 team, but they would form the core that carried the A’s to three consecutive World Series from 1988-90.

It was a special group of young talent. One of the best and most successful in the last 50 years.

And when Weiss walked into Braves camp and laid eyes on Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuña, Mike Soroka and the rest of the Baby Braves, he felt the unexpected tingling of a treasured memory coming to surface.

He saw a group he felt could compare.

“This group here is every bit as talented as the group we had in Oakland those days,” Weiss said during a Braves homestand in May. “These guys that we’re seeing here with the Braves, it’s been well documented about the farm system, they’re worth the hype. I really think that.”

The Braves entered July in first place in the National League East, and with the best record in the NL overall. After building a rich farm system that finished first in Baseball America’s organization talent rankings in 2017 and 2018, they are seeing the fruits of their youth movement earlier than expected.

Albies, 21, leads the majors in extra-base hits. Acuna, 20, was on a 20-home run pace before going down with a knee injury. Mike Foltynewicz, 26, ranks second in the National League with a 2.02 ERA. Sean Newcomb, 25, ranks eighth with a 2.71 mark. Johan Camargo, 24, has stepped in and become an above-average everyday third baseman. Dansby Swanson, 24, has rebounded to hold down the everyday shortstop job. Soroka, 20, posted a 3.51 ERA in five starts before being felled by shoulder inflammation.

The Braves have shot from tied for 10th in the NL in runs scored a year ago to second. They’ve cut their ERA by more than a run, from 4.72 to 3.70. They have winning records both at home and on the road, as well as in every month.

After four consecutive losing seasons and a painful rebuild, the payoff has arrived.

“Like I said when we were losing, sticking through (that) time, it makes when you’re coming back up that much more rewarding,” said first baseman Freddie Freeman, one of only two holdovers from the Braves last playoff team in 2013. “Obviously no one wants to go through a down period, but we did and it just makes it that much more sweeter when you start winning again. Especially when a lot of people didn’t expect us to win this early on in the rebuild and we’re coming out here doing it every single night.”

Albies and Acuna have been at the forefront; the McGwire-Canseco anchors if you will.

They bat 1-2 in the lineup, two of the three youngest position players in the majors. They set the table with their power and speed, their high-wattage smiles, and the infectious energy that has electrified their clubhouse and the city as a whole.

Albies made the All-Star Game and has an MVP case. Acuna, the reigning Minor League Player of the Year, is back from his injury and in the thick of the Rookie of the Year race. And this is just the start of the Albies-Acuna era. Both are in their first full seasons in the majors, with at least five more years of club control ahead.

“They’re championship-caliber players,” said Weiss, who played on four World Series teams. “And that’s really when I evaluate players, right away I go to ‘Can you win a championship with this guy or that guy?’ And I think with both those guys you can win a World Championship. And the beauty of it is they’re so young. There’s a lot of time that they’re going to be out on the field together in years to come and that’s only going to make them better.”

That the Braves are winning with key players in their early 20s isn’t entirely unique. The Dodgers reached the 2017 World Series with Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager playing starring roles at age 23 or younger. The Cubs won the 2016 World Series with their entire starting infield—Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo—26 or younger.

The Braves are just taking it to an extreme, playing with three of the four youngest active players in the majors, and it’s working.

“You’re less surprised by young guys coming in and performing at not just acceptable levels, but MVP-type levels,” said veteran starter Brandon McCarthy, who played on the Dodgers with Seager and Bellinger. “Guys that are an instant force. It’s different just in my time in the game where you were brought up and if you were a starter, you pitched in relief for a little bit and then you started. And you started in the seven or eight-hole as a young hitter and now it’s you hit five or two. There are expectations when you come in now that you’re ready to go. Young talent kind of now is allowed to flourish as opposed to ‘We’re going to artificially tamp it down before you go’ for whatever nonsensical reason. Now it’s ‘Hey you’re very good at baseball, go do that at the biggest level.’”

To be fair, the Braves veterans have been integral as well. Freeman, 28, has blossomed into a frontrunner for National League MVP. Nick Markakis, 34, is in the midst of a career renaissance and leads the NL in hits. Kurt Suzuki, 34, and Tyler Flowers, 32, have combined for one of the most effective catching tandems in baseball. Anibal Sanchez, 34, has the second-lowest ERA on the staff.

“I do think that the influx of young players and young talent has given the veteran guys maybe a little shot in the arm,” Weiss said. “Not that they needed it. They were all very good players already. But it’s a young, enthusiastic group and I think that adds energy to the club. I think everything about it has been positive. What the kids bring from a talent perspective and also the level of enthusiasm and energy, I think has been a very positive element.”

The Braves players have something else fueling their success: a bond. Specifically, a bond between the players that was formed on their way up the minors. Swanson, Albies and Camargo made up three-quarters of the infield at Double-A Mississippi in 2016, with Newcomb and lefty reliever A.J. Minter on the pitching staff. Acuna, Soroka and lefty Max Fried first came together at low Class A Rome in 2016.

They rode buses together, slept in sketchy hotels together and honed their skills together, all in pursuit of the same goal of reaching Atlanta.

It fostered bonds that go beyond just wins and losses, and that buoy the team as a whole now that they’re all in Atlanta.

“Me and Ozzie joke about it, ‘Remember when we used to play in Mississippi together?” Swanson said. “The amount of guys that are up here that played with one another at one point in time is really cool to see. I feel like you don’t see that too often, with a group of guys that come up together and develop a bond not up here but starting down there.

“I think we just really, really enjoy each other’s presence. We don’t really look at anything else but just being around each other. We don’t like or have to focus on everything else going on around us. We just continue to develop and love on each other and hopefully it leads to good things.”

It’s all led to the Braves contending a year earlier than expected. The window, expected to open in 2019, was instead thrust open by the 20-somethings, faster than even those internally expected.

“I think if people are going to be honest, even the people that are on this club, did we know we were going to come out of the gate this well? It’s hard to say that,” Weiss said. “Coming out of spring training we knew we had some talent, but they were very young. There’s just too many unknowns with that many young players to say we’re going to be that good right away. You just don’t know.

“But these kids have come up here and they haven’t been rattled at all by this big stage. As a matter of fact I think they’ve elevated their game once the season started. They’re playing probably better than we even anticipated right away.”

And the fact they’ve opened it a year early doesn’t mean it’s going to close early.

One key difference between the Weiss-era A’s and today’s Braves is that the A’s farm system after the McGwire-Canseco- Weiss-Steinbach burst was left largely empty, leaving the team unable to supply reinforcements after their veterans aged out or the young players moved on. The result was six consecutive losing seasons from 1993-98, and it wasn’t until the end of the decade—when Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson blossomed as a second homegrown wave—that Oakland returned to contention.

The Braves still have no such talent gap. Third baseman Austin Riley, lefthander Kolby Allard, righthanders Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson, outfielders Christian Pache and Drew Waters and catcher William Contreras headline another deep group of prospects making their way through the minors, and the Braves system remains one of baseball’s deepest.

With all the young cornerstones blossoming in Atlanta and multiple waves of reinforcements coming up from behind, the Braves are positioned for long-term success in a way few others are in the game today.

Weiss isn’t ready to predict they’ll reach three consecutive World Series as his A’s did. No one can.

But quality of the young talent is eerily comparable, and enough that Weiss can see the foundations of something special once again.

“When you look at the future here, it’s really, really exciting,” Weiss said. “Because all the pieces aren’t even here yet, and this is a really good team already.

“The thing that’s really exciting for me when I look at the future here is that window is pretty big. It’s a large window we’re talking about because we’ve got 20 year olds, 21 year olds running out here every night and there’s more on the way. It’s a large window.”

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