Braves Look To Past To Find Way Forward
SEE ALSO: 2014 Trades Kicked Off Rebuild
SEE ALSO: How Farm System Was Rebuilt In 18 Months
SEE ALSO: Shortstop Dilemma
ORLANDO—Wherever they turn, fans on the back fields of the Braves’ Disney spring-training complex find themselves surrounded by talent.
On one field, lefthander Max Fried is quickly shaking off the rust from nearly two years away from the field to strike out the side. Across the quad, righthander Touki Toussaint is breaking off unfathomable curveballs against intriguing, 18-year-old outfielder Ronald Acuna. One field over, lefty Sean Newcomb is battling against shortstops Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson in a duel of Top 100 Prospects.
Thanks to a flurry of trades, the Braves have the deepest group of pitching prospects in the minors, a mix of high-ceiling, high-risk arms with worlds of potential and others with more modest ceilings but greater proximity to Atlanta.
It’s a massive improvement from just a couple of years ago, when the Braves had to spackle holes in their minor league rotations by signing minor league free agents and making independent-league pickups. Now, the Braves have more pitchers than innings to give.
"In years prior we had a different puzzle and we didn’t have all the pieces,” assistant farm director Jonathan Schuerholz said. "Now, we have a puzzle with too many pieces.”
Talent gives teams an understandable energy. Competition gives games and drills an unmistakable edge. But something else is going on with the Braves.
A trip to their back fields a couple of years ago was a joyless experience. There was less talent, to be sure, but there also was the grim determination of people doing a job. Now, you see coaches and scouts who can’t wait to get to work.
"Maybe things got off track a little bit,” Braves farm director Dave Tremblay said. The longtime minor league and major league coach, manager and instructor had been with the Braves in 2011 and 2012 when he left to join the Astros. He returned last season after Atlanta hired John Hart as president of baseball operations.
Tremblay is not the only old Brave to come back home. The calls, texts and pleas bounced around the country: "Come home. We want you back.”
The pleas went out to Tom Battista, the Southern California-based scout who had signed Freddie Freeman, Tommy Hanson and Kris Medlen before leaving to join the Red Sox. The calls reached Roy Clark, the Braves’ scouting director from 2000-2009. Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox took on a larger role, and all-stars Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones both took official roles with the organization.
All were intrigued by the message: Make sure that the next generation of Atlanta players follows the "Braves Way.”
Chipper Jones was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1990 draft, at the very beginning of the Braves’ resurgence. He spent his entire 23-year pro career in the organization, but he had moved to Texas after retiring in 2012.
With the Braves family reunion under way, however, he returned. He and his family bought a house in Atlanta when Jones took a job as a special assistant to the general manager.
The cloud has been lifted. The old Braves are back.
They come in golf carts, because the Braves’ Wide World of Sports complex is one of the most sprawling facilities in Florida.
At one field, Cox and longtime scouting director Paul Snyder, two of the chief architects of the 1990s Braves, share a cart to watch Fried pitch. Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff are working with hitters in the back-field batting cages. Hart and longtime president and former GM John Schuerholz bounce from field to field. Former players Mark Lemke, Marquis Grissom, Steve Avery and Phil Niekro make appearances.
"There was one day where we could have had an alumni game—we had everyone here,” said Jonathan Schuerholz, son of John. "They want to be a part of (the rebuild), because the Braves were that way when they were coming up. We’ve tried to rebuild that and bring it back.”
The hordes have come back to an organization that, from the outside, appeared to be in solid shape. Former GM Frank Wren may have not made many friends in the organization in his time in Atlanta, but the Braves did win. They made the playoffs in 2010, 2012 and 2013 and averaged 88 wins in Wren’s seven years at the helm.
Atlanta had a number of successful, if conservative, drafts under Wren as well. While 2010 second-round shortstop Andrelton Simmons is the only star drafted and developed in recent years, the Braves have scored multiple big leaguers.
But behind the scenes, many longtime Braves officials believed the organization had lost its way. Ex-players didn’t feel welcome. The coaches and front-office officials who stayed were grimly buckling down and enduring, but the all-for-one mentality, long an organization strength, was lacking.
The new old guard (or is it old new guard?) has endeavored to fix that.
"It’s the Braves Way as defined by John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox,” current GM John Coppolella said. "Us and we. Not I and me. Everyone’s opinion matters. Everyone’s opinion is respected. We’re all a part of this and trying to bring the next World Series to Atlanta.”
Bringing back old Braves hands helped speed that process.
"They are all back on board,” Tremblay said. "There were some wounds to heal there a little bit. But everyone has been welcomed back, and everyone feels they have a contribution to make. Those guys have been such a big part of the Braves. They want the Braves to do well. They don’t want it to crumble.”
To rebuild the Braves Way, Atlanta decided to take a big step back, a move that was guaranteed to upset many of the team’s fans.
With a still-young core of talent that included Simmons, first baseman Freeman, starter Julio Teheran, closer Craig Kimbrel and outfielders Jason Heyward and Justin Upton—not to mention a roster that had won 96 games as recently as 2013—the Braves could have made one more push in 2015 before Heyward and Upton reached free agency.
Instead, they tore the roster apart, keeping only Freeman and Teheran. As Coppolella saw it, the team had few other options. To him, making one more push with Heyward and Upton would have left the team powerless to succeed for years to come.
"We were the 29th-ranked farm system by Baseball America (in late 2014),” Coppolella said. "We were over budget. We lost 400 innings from (Aaron) Harang and (Ervin) Santana at the end of the season. We didn’t have the young players.”
Coppolella credits the foresight of chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk, Schuerholz and Hart. They made the courageous choice to take one step back to take two steps forward. They know what it’s like to build a team from the ashes.
"The hardest part for us is, when you trade away Jason Heyward or Justin Upton, you know you’re going to take a little bit of a hit,” Coppolella said. "We want to put a winning product on the field for Braves fans. There’s a good reason they aren’t happy when you trade away their favorite players. But we have to take a long view.
"We took a short view for too long.”
The 2014 Braves won 79 games and finished tied for second place in the National League East, albeit 17 games out of first place. With the expected free agent departures of Harang and Santana, the 2015 rotation would feature Teheran, lefthanders Mike Minor and Alex Wood, and little else. Top pitching prospects, such as righthanders Lucas Sims and Jason Hursh, were not ready to contribute.
The forecast for the lineup was equally dim. Atlanta scored the second-fewest runs in the NL in 2014, while its strikeout rate continued to rise.
The immediate result of the rebuild has been exactly what was expected. The Braves lost 95 games in 2015 for the worst franchise record since 1990, the season before Atlanta began its run of 14 consecutive division titles.
Now Atlanta also has the promise that before too long, it should have the talent to contend. While the Braves have made seven playoff appearances in the past 14 seasons, they haven’t won a playoff series since meeting the Diamondbacks in the 2001 NL Championship Series.
"Frontline starting pitching—that’s what we lacked,” Coppolella said. "We had good pitching, but not great pitching.”
Since Hart arrived, the Braves have traded away big league talent (and some onerous contracts). Almost every move has brought back pitching talent in return, complete with loose arms, hot fastballs and big curveballs.
Atlanta has placed an emphasis on developing pitchers with plus breaking balls. Many organizations develop pitchers with sliders, but the Braves have more pitchers who throw a true big-breaking curve. The deuce is a weapon for Fried, Sims and Toussaint, as well as 2015 first-round lefthander Kolby Allard and southpaw Sean Newcomb, whom Atlanta acquired from the Angels last November in the Simmons trade.
That may not seem like a significant difference, but some pitching coordinators believe that developing fastball-curveball pitchers into starters can be more difficult—and more rewarding. Sliders are easier to develop, but the best curveballs in the game often belong to aces. Jake Arrieta, Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw are three examples.
The Braves are not where the Royals were in 2011 or where the Cubs were in 2015. Atlanta’s prospects are further away from the majors. Not only that, but pitching prospects carry more risk than elite position talent such as Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas or Chicago’s Kris Bryant and Addison Russell. Heading into 2011, the Royals had three of the top 10 prospects in the game, five of the top 20 and a record nine of the Top 100. Last year, the Cubs had four of the top 20 and two of the top three.
The Braves currently have two of the top 25 prospects in baseball: shortstop Dansby Swanson at No. 17 and Newcomb at No. 24. Atlanta has five more in the top 100. The Braves don’t have the combination of near-ready top talents and depth that marks a franchising-changing farm system.
At least not yet.
It’s not unrealistic to think the Braves could be there a year from now. After graduating a first wave of prospects in 2015 that includes righthanders Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz and Williams Perez, Atlanta is expected to work Cuban rookie Hector Olivera into the lineup this year. Righthander Aaron Blair should be close behind, and center fielder Mallex Smith could show up sometime this summer.
But the majority of the Braves’ best prospects will start 2016 in the minors, stacked in waves that should reach Atlanta over the next several seasons.
The next wave, led by Swanson, Newcomb, shortstop Ozzie Albies (No. 63 on the Top 100), Sims and righthander Chris Ellis, should spend at least half of 2016 in the upper minors. A number of them will get at least a taste of the majors this season in preparation for larger roles in 2017.
The group below them will begin 2016 in the low minors. Between Allard, Fried, Toussaint and others, such as third baseman Austin Riley and righty Mike Soroka (both 2015 draft picks), Atlanta will have no trouble populating rosters at low Class A Rome and high Class A Carolina.
"We hope to have waves coming through, not just windows (in which to compete),” Jonathan Schuerholz said. "We’re not going to say our goal is to compete for a World Series title in 2018 or 2019 or 2020. We want to maintain the success.”
The farm system should get another significant talent infusion this summer with the team in good position to take advantage of what should be a deep draft class. Atlanta selects third overall and has one of the largest overall bonus pools, and is expected to make a massive push on the international market. The Braves have been linked to switch-hitting Venezuelan shortstop Kevin Maitan, the top international prospect this year.
It’s an impressive potential tsunami of talent, but it’s also one that still has plenty of work to do.
Newcomb could be a future ace, but he has current control issues after walking 6.0 per nine innings at Double-A. Toussaint has a mid-90s fastball with life and one of the best curveballs in the minors, but his control trouble is equally acute. Fried has missed most of the past two seasons after having Tommy John surgery. Allard missed almost all of his high school senior season with a back injury.
To try to spread that risk, Atlanta has looked for volume in pitching prospects.
It is also bringing in more data. When Hart arrived, the Braves added Trackman devices to all six of the their minor league parks to improve the data collection.
The team also has added to its analytics department. The Braves hired a coder to significantly upgrade their proprietary database "Tomahawk.” This year, Atlanta will have a member of its analytics department who will be in the clubhouse at home and on the road to present manager Fredi Gonzalez and his coaching staff with information.
The future looks bright in Atlanta. The Braves farm system is dramatically improved, ranking No. 3 on the BA talent ranking this spring, and they should add significant amateur talent in 2016. They have no bad contracts to hold them back when they move to a new ballpark in 2017.
When it comes to trying to recapture the glory of the 1990s, the Braves’ front office believes that bolder will be better.
After Falling Short At Vanderbilt, Kyle Wright and Dansby Swanson Have Braves Within One Win Of A Title
Kyle Wright and Dansby Swanson fell one win short of a national championship at Vanderbilt. With critical performances on Saturday night, they now have the Braves within one win of a World Series championship.
"We feel we are closer to winning a World Series now than at any point in the 10 years I’ve been here,” Coppolella said.