Rebuilding Braves Opt To Play Waiting Game

Image credit: Ozzie Albies (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty)

No one would ever accuse Alex Anthopoulos of timidity.

When he was the Blue Jays general manager, Anthopoulos was aggressive at making trades to rebuild the long-struggling club.

He made trades both good (acquiring Josh Donaldson and Marco Estrada at a very low cost) and bad (Noah Syndergaard to the Mets for R.A. Dickey). But since taking over the Braves in November, Anthopoulos’ front office has been quiet. Atlanta has not signed a major league free agent in the three months since the new regime took over. The Braves’ only significant trade (Matt Kemp to the Dodgers) was more about clearing salary than acquiring talent.

It’s a dramatic difference from Anthopoulos’ first stint as GM, which saw him trade staff ace Roy Halladay soon after taking over. The Braves have the top farm system in baseball with more pitching prospects than spots in the rotation. Not all of those pitchers will pan out, and it is Anthopoulos’ job to figure out which ones to keep and which ones to deal away to fill needs on the big league roster.

Those decisions are coming, but not too quickly. “(Coming to the Braves), I spoke to general managers who came into similar situations,” Anthopoulos said. “In hindsight they wish they might have waited. If they could go back in time, they would have waited before (making significant moves).”

Some of the patience is a product of what precipitated Anthopoulos’ arrival.

Previous Braves GM John Coppolella suddenly resigned in October under the cloud of an investigation by Major League Baseball into whether the Braves violated international signing rules. In November, MLB ruled the Braves committed numerous violations and permanently banned Coppolella. Special assistant Gordon Blakeley was also suspended for one year as a result of the investigation. Team president John Hart left shortly after, and the organization was slapped with nearly unprecedented penalties—the loss of 13 international signees, a two-year ban on international signings and forfeiting this year’s third-round draft pick.

The fallout from those punishments dramatically changed the Braves’ offseason plans. With a team that has won 72 games or fewer each of the past three seasons, the previous front office would have under pressure to show progress at the big league level.

Anthopoulos faces no such pressure. Understandably, his first offseason as the Braves’ GM has been about evaluating more than tearing apart. That’s been by design. While much of the scouting and player development staff that built the Braves into the No. 1 farm system remains, Anthopoulos knows that he doesn’t have enough information on his own yet to make a blockbuster deal.

Not that other teams didn’t try.

“Ronald Acuna—clearly a lot of teams have asked about him (this offseason) for very good major league players,” Anthopoulos said.

Acuna is going nowhere. In his second stint as general manager, Anthopoulos would rather be a little too patient rather than a little too hasty. When he ascended to the top job in Toronto, he had been in the organization for years, so he had plenty of first-hand knowledge of the talent in the minor leagues.

In Atlanta, while he has plenty of experienced front office officials to rely on who have worked with those prospects for years, Anthopoulos himself, and some of his top lieutenants, are going to be getting their first looks at the farm system this spring, as well as their first extended exposure to coaches and evaluators on staff.

“It’s on me to learn everybody, not for them to learn me. It’s up to me to learn,” he said. “Let people continue to do their jobs, but if i have some ideas where I think there’s something that I can add? If it’s additive, that’s great.”

Eventually, the Braves have a lot of decisions to make. Acuna will slot into the outfield at some point early this season. He, Ender Inciarte, Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies appear to be lineup fixtures. Shortstop Dansby Swanson could join that group, but after a poor 2017 season, he still has much to prove. While the Braves are set at catcher for 2018 with Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers, they have to figure out if Alex Jackson is the team’s long-term answer behind the plate. It’s a similar story at third base with Austin Riley.

The pitching staff remains unsettled as well. Atlanta enters the 2018 season with Julio Teheran penciled in at one spot in the rotation. Beyond that, a number of young big leaguers like Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz and Lucas Sims and prospects like Luiz Gohara, Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard and Max Fried will try to prove they can be part of the next great Braves’ rotation.

So for now, the Braves are waiting. Before long, they will have to begin making major moves, but it will come after the new front office gets to know the players better.

“There may be opportunities this offseason that we don’t pursue,” Anthopoulos said, “that maybe six months from now we do.”

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