Dansby Swanson (left) and Brandon Phillips (right) are expected to be the middle infield duo for the Braves in 2017.
With a group of new faces and a new stadium to call home, the Atlanta Braves look to take the next step in their long and arduous rebuild.
Rebuilding is hard. There’s really no other way to describe the process.
Well, there are many ways to describe the emotions, feelings, anger, fleeting of optimism, and general ornery sentiment that fans of the rebuilding team experience over the course of the slow and debilitating process.
The rebuild is a tough pill to swallow for fans of every team in every sport. No one wants to do it. It takes time and patience, something that does not describe the typical sports fan. From baseball to hockey, football to basketball, lacrosse to racquetball, there isn’t a single sport where rebuilding isn’t a giant pain in the collective necks of the impacted fanbase.
I learned this the hard way while playing Madden ’17.
A video game that has spanned decades, Madden is the de facto sports game. It’s one of the highest-selling franchises in video game history, and it continues to grow every year. Since the early ’10s, Madden has included among many other game modes the option to run your favorite team as its head coach or owner.
As the team’s owner, you determine who will be the coach, what offensive and defensive schemes the team will run, how much money you will sign and re-sign players for, even determine concession and ticket prices to maximize your team’s revenue stream. If you really dislike your team, you can relocate them to such exotic locations as London, Ireland, or Mexico City among other destinations.
The most frustrating thing about rebuilding a franchise is dealing with the salary cap, making sure you pay just enough money to veteran players while having enough room to sign newer, younger talents to your squad.
After six Super Bowls and four separate undefeated seasons for my fantasy version of the Chicago Bears, I realized that there is no such thing as a quick and easy rebuild for a team that wants to be competitive for more than just a fluke season here or there. You simply can’t buy yourself a title and expect to win for more than a handful of years. Eventually, you must purge your roster of key high-salary players in order to find the next best stars of your team’s future.
The same rule applies to baseball.
Luckily, teams don’t have to worry about a salary cap. But they do have to worry about budgets. We Cubs fans know a thing or two about this sort of deal.
Back in 2009 when Tom Ricketts purchased the team, he warned Cubs fans that the path to a World Series would take some unexpected twists and turns. There wouldn’t be a ticker-tape parade until the team acquired the right group of players. And before they could find those right players, they needed the right man leading the charge from the front office.
Enter Theo Epstein.
When Epstein and Jed Hoyer took the reigns in 2012, the former Red Sox front office team inherited a club that finished 25 games behind the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers in 2011. The roster was saturated with huge contracts tied to mostly aging veterans and washed out younger players. The average age of the 2011 Chicago Cubs roster was 29.5. They went 71-91.
The plunge to the bottom only continued in 2012, seeing the Cubs finish with their first 100-plus loss season since 1966. It was the low-point of the franchise, a season that made even the most battle-hardened Cubs fans question their loyalty.
Eventually, the losing began to pay off.
Right before the 2012 season, the Cubs acquired young first baseman Anthony Rizzo, a former Red Sox draft pick who battled cancer, from the San Diego Padres for starting pitcher Andrew Cashner. Thanks to the futile 2012 season, the Cubs were able to draft Kris Bryant in 2013. They later traded starting pitcher Scott Feldman to the Baltimore Orioles at the trade deadline for two struggling pitching prospects named Pedro Strop and Jake Arrieta.
A year later, the team sent then-ace Jeff Samardzija and free agent signee Jason Hammel to the Oakland Athletics for young shortstop prospect Addison Russell. In the draft, they selected Kyle Schwarber. When the Cubs bottomed out once more at 73-89 under first-year manager Rick Renteria, the team registered its fifth consecutive losing season under the Ricketts family. The minor leagues were teeming with young prospects like Jorge Soler and Javier Baez. There was room for improvement and, most importantly, room in the budget for more impact pieces.
Enter Joe Maddon and Jon Lester.
All of that losing made more of this possible in the long run.
It was sheer luck that the Cubs were able to get Maddon to jump ship from the Tampa Bay Rays to Chicago. Thanks to an obscure contract clause set in motion by the departure of the Rays’ former general manager Andrew Friedman, Maddon could opt out of his deal with the Rays and become a free agent. He did so, and after a rendezvous with “Thed” (Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer), Maddon took the helm of the Cubs. In the following Winter Meetings, the Cubs signed free-agent pitcher Jon Lester, the Red Sox hero of the 2013 World Series who was scouted and drafted by Theo and Co. in Boston. From there, the chips began to fall into place.
The Cubs took a complete 180 in 2015, going 97-65 thanks in part to a Cy Young season from Jake Arrieta and a Rookie of the Year campaign for Kris Bryant. The Cubs won their first playoff game since 2003, defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Wild Card game 4-0. 2014 first-round pick Kyle Schwarber drove in three of those four runs with a double and a towering home run into the Alleghany River. The other run was scored on a solo home run by leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler, acquired in the previous 0ffseason when the Cubs traded away third baseman Luis Valbuena.
The Cubs would later rout the hated St. Louis Cardinals four games to one in the NL Division Series before getting swept in the NLCS by the New York Mets.
And well, you know the rest of the story. The Cubs would sign Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and John Lackey in the offseason, acquire Aroldis Chapman before the trade deadline, win 103 games during the regular season, beat Jeff Samardzija and the San Francisco Giants in four games, defeat Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers to clinch their first pennant since 1945 in six games, and of course…The unthinkable over the Cleveland Indians in seven. The average age of the 2016 Chicago Cubs roster was 27.4. They went 103-58-1 en route to their first World Series championship in 108 years.
It hurt like hell, but it was worth it.
So what does any of this have to do with the Atlanta Braves? Well, if they play their cards right, quite a lot.
Just five years ago, the Braves clinched a Wild Card spot in the 2012 playoffs. The next season, they won their first NL East Division title since the 2005 season. Respectively, Atlanta went 94-68 and 96-66, featuring a powerhouse of a lineup with Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, Andrelton Simmons, and Evan Gattis. In 2013, third baseman Chris Johnson was tasked with filling the shoes of the recently retired Chipper Jones, a Braves legend with a career batting average of .303 over 19 seasons. Johnson hit .321 and added 12 homers, the second most of his career to that point. Freeman led the team with 109 RBIs, a .396 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage of .501. Starting pitchers Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen, and Mike Minor won a combined 42 starts that season, while closer Craig Kimbrel notched a career-best 50 saves. The average age of that 2013 Braves roster was 26.8. Unfortunately, the Braves could only muster one playoff victory, a 4-3 win against the Dodgers in Game 2 of an NLDS they would eventually lose three games to one. They lost four out of the five games they appeared in over two consecutive seasons.
Despite their playoff futility, the Braves had the look of a perennial contender with solid young talent. Even with the departure of Brian McCann in the offseason, the Braves were strong favorites to win the division in 2014.
Then things went south.
Injuries and regression hit Atlanta with hurricane-force winds, sending the team spiraling to a 79-83 finish and the firing of general manager Frank Wren. John Hart would be named the interim GM until the team could find a suitable replacement. In the middle of this fracas of a season, the Braves announced quite suddenly that the team would be relocating to the suburbs of nearby Cobb County in 2017.
Since the announcement on November 11th of 2013, the Braves have taken a sledgehammer to its roster up and down their entire system. First, they traded young outfielder and hometown hero Jason Heyward along with reliever Jordan Walden to the St. Louis Cardinals for Shelby Miller and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins. The team later unloaded Justin Upton to the San Diego Padres for four prospects, including young infielder Jace Peterson. They next dealt Evan Gattis to the Houston Astros for young pitching prospect Mike Foltynewicz and two others. Finally, one day before the start of the 2015 season, the Braves traded Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton Jr. to the Padres for center fielder Cameron Maybin, outfielder Carlos Quentin, a competitive balance draft pick, and pitching prospect Matt Wisler.
In about one year and five months, the Braves offloaded over $41 million in yearly salary. That doesn’t include the team buying out Dan Uggla and his $13 million in the middle of the season.
2015 will hopefully be known as the low-point for Atlanta. They inexplicably signed Atlanta native Nick Markakis to a four-year deal that will guarantee him $44 million, roughly $11 million per year. After that deal, the Braves went for cheaper options in free agency such as A.J. Pierzynski, Kelly Johnson, Jim Johnson, Jason Grilli, Todd Cunningham, and Adonis Garcia to fill out the roster. They went 67-95, finishing 23 games out of first place behind the New York Mets in 4th place ahead of only the 63-99 Philadelphia Phillies.
On the same day that they re-signed Pierzynski for the 2016 season, Atlanta dealt Andrelton Simmons to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for Erick Aybar and two prospects, Chris Ellis and Sean Newcomb. They soon dealt Cameron Maybin to the Detroit Tigers for young pitchers Ian Krol and Gabe Speier. These trades continued to bring in younger players for the minor league system.
Then, the Braves made a splash. No more than a couple of weeks after the Maybin deal, the Braves packaged Gabe Speier with Shelby Miller to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a package that included center fielder Ender Inciarte and shortstop Dansby Swanson, the recently-drafted number one overall pick of 2015. A Cobb County native, Swanson would fly through the minor leagues and eventually join the big club in mid-August of last year. He went 2-for-4 in his first Major League game. Unfortunately, the Braves fell that night 10-3 to the Minnesota Twins. The score was indicative of the 2016 season, as the Braves floundered to a 68-93 last place finish. Longtime manager Fredi Gonzalez was fired early in the season, leading to the eventual full-time promotion of current skipper Brian Snitker. Along the way, Atlanta managed to acquire more veteran players such as Matt Kemp in a deal with the Padres around the deadline.
An all too common crowd at a Braves game for the past few years. Atlanta looks to make crowds like this a thing of the past.
This past offseason saw Atlanta sign veteran starting pitchers R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon. They later added Jaime Garcia through a trade with the Cardinals in exchange for Chris Ellis and another prospect to round out the rotation. The team also reunited with Kris Medlen and Jordan Walden with a pair of minor league deals and invitations to spring training. The Braves once again acquired an Atlanta-area native, trading for All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips along with $13 million from the Cincinnati Reds.
It remains unclear what the Braves will do with last year’s starting second baseman in Jace Peterson, but with Swanson at shortstop and another middle infield prospect Ozzie Albies waiting in the wings, Peterson’s days in Atlanta may be numbered.
Either way, the Braves are in unfamiliar territory. A franchise that, in terms of recent history, hasn’t suffered nearly as much as other teams in baseball, the Braves aren’t in a position to seriously compete. Though no one from the team will bluntly admit it, they’re hoping to maybe scratch .500, or at least 10-15 games below. Those aren’t unrealistic expectations for a team with many over-the-hill veterans and budding prospects. The trick will be integrating all of their prospects gradually over the season while not rushing players along just to get some cheap thrills from the fanbase.
There’s no sure-fire way to execute a successful rebuild. Yes, the strategy employed by Thed in Chicago helped the Cubs reach the mountain top, but not without an unbelievable amount of luck. In fact, luck is perhaps the most important ingredient to such rebuilds.
If it weren’t for Joe Maddon, the Cubs likely don’t make the playoffs in 2015 let alone win it all in 2016.
The same goes for the Dansby Swanson trade.
If Dave Stewart and Tony LaRussa had the presence of mind not to let go of a number-one overall drafted player, the Braves could have been behind a significant 8-ball entering 2017. Now, there is no guarantee that the Braves aren’t on a collision course with another 90 or more loss season, but there wouldn’t be nearly as much optimism surrounding them without Swanson.
Time will tell what becomes of the Braves. But if they stick to their plan, and have some lucky bounces go their way, Atlanta could be looking at the dawn of a new age for Braves baseball. They’ve already pulled off a worst-to-first metamorphosis. Before the beginning of those division-winning dynasties of old, the Braves finished 1990 with a 65-97 record. Then 1991 came, along with young star pitchers John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. It took a few years (and a strike), but the Braves reached baseball’s pinnacle in 1995, winning their only title in Atlanta and the franchise’s first in 38 years since they were the Milwaukee Braves in 1957. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the ’95 Braves ended a championship drought against the Cleveland Indians.
It’s been awhile but, at the very least, it hasn’t been over a century.
I guess to wrap this up, you won’t know when the time will come. To paraphrase a well-known axiom, the darkest hour always comes before the dawn. So fear not, Braves fans. This world may be new and somewhat terrifying, but it will soon feel like home in more ways than one.
Once that lucky moment comes, it can turn a team’s entire trajectory around in ways you will never expect.
Just ask the Cubs.