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Sheehan: Braves Rebuild Nears Fruition

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here have always been teams looking less toward the current season’s standings and more toward future ones—what we colloquially call “rebuilding.” One of the earliest sabermetric findings was that wins that don’t put you into contention, say the ones between 65 and 81, also don’t move the needle when it comes to attendance and revenue.

The 2012 Collective Bargaining Agreement enhanced the incentives to lose, providing bad teams with higher draft budgets to go with their higher picks, and higher budget caps in the international market. “Rebuilding” gave way to “tanking,” where for teams at the bottom of the league, the incentives to lose became higher than the incentives to win. Coupled with aggressive revenue sharing and sharply higher income streams nationally, many teams have gone through multi-year cycles of non-competitiveness with an eye toward eventual success, while taking little to no financial risk.

As frustrating as that process has been to watch, it’s hard to argue with the results. The Astros were the first to race to the bottom, losing 324 games from 2011-13. In 2017, they won the World Series. The Cubs were next into the breach, finishing fifth in the NL Central for five straight seasons—the first few not necessarily planned—starting in 2010. By 2016, they were champions.

Those two teams had young, controlled, highly productive hitters who formed the core of a champion. If we’re looking for the next team to emerge from the abyss to reach the peak, it would make sense to find the one with a strong offensive core.

It’s not that pitchers are unimportant, but their development risk makes them hard to plan around. Consider the Mets, who made the 2015 World Series behind an awesome young rotation. They haven’t had a single season in which their five young guns have combined for even 100 starts or 600 innings.

What we need is a rebuilding team that can match up with the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber or the Astros’ Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman.

The White Sox completely overhauled their farm system not via the draft and the international market, but through trades. Of their five Top 100 Prospects, three arrived in deals for Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Adam Eaton. That doesn’t include Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito, who graduated from the list last year. Chicago, however, is early enough in its process that another rebuilder is likely to beat them back to the postseason.

The Padres have executed a rapid turnaround thanks to a massive investment in overseas talent just before that door was closed. Adrian Morejon and Michel Baez were big-dollar Cuban signees, and the team laid out roughly $80 million in bonuses and penalties in the last year of the previous CBA. San Diego also has hit on promising first-rounders (MacKenzie Gore and Cal Quantrill), developed a low-profile Mexican signee in Luis Urias and made one of the better trades of this decade dealing James Shields for Fernando Tatis Jr. They’re on their way, but the Dodgers are a formidable barrier.

The Phillies finally started tearing down the Chase Utley-Ryan Howard teams in 2015, and they’ve lost at least 91 games in each of the last three seasons. They’ve had trouble turning prospects into players. Maikel Franco stagnated after a strong rookie season. J.P. Crawford’s stock has dropped, though he remains promising. Jorge Alfaro had a .291 on-base percentage in his first exposure to Triple-A last year. Much is riding on Rhys Hoskins, who will try to follow up his .262/.368/.535 debut while playing full time in left field. The Phillies’ biggest problem, however, is that a team in their own division is about to pass them.

The Braves were five wins away from the World Series in 2013, and in first place in the NL East as late as July 20 in 2014. They lost 35 of 56 to end the year, then stripped the team, trading Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis that winter; Andrelton Simmons, Shelby Miller and Cameron Maybin the next. They’ve lost 90 games three seasons running . . . and they’re maybe the most exciting young team in baseball.

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Baseball America Prospect Report -- September 19, 2018

Jorge Alfaro finishes strong despite Philadelphia's collapse, and Ronald Acuna Jr. continues to be one of the best hitters in the NL.

The Braves placed eight players on the Top 100 Prospects and rate as having the best farm system in the game. They have the top prospect in center fielder Ronald Acuna. Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson are an exciting, young double-play combination. That kind of up-the-middle core is the envy of any team. Throw in No. 54 prospect Austin Riley, who tore up Double-A for two months at 20, and there’s the Braves’ equivalent core: Acuna-Albies-Swanson-Riley.

The Braves supplement that group with six pitching prospects in the Top 100. There’s an adage that the best way to end up with two pitchers is to start with 10 prospects. By year’s end, Luiz Gohara, Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard could all be in the Braves’ rotation. Kyle Wright, Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz and Bryse Wilson form the crop behind that. The Braves can bring them all along, or trade some of them to add more certain value.

The Braves will also benefit from the competitive landscape. After 2018, Bryce Harper will almost certainly leave the Nationals, turning the NL East into a wide-open race. It’s not hard to see the Braves jumping above .500 this year and going into 2019 as division co-favorites. With just $38 million in obligations in 2019, they’ll be well-positioned for next year’s deep free agent market as well.

The Braves have a young up-the-middle core. They have both upside and depth in pitching prospects. They have a low projected payroll while playing in a new, publicly financed ballpark. They play in a division that will be opening up in a year’s time. Everything points to them being the next team to follow the Cubs and Astros as rebuilding teams turned champions.

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