Ian Happ Should Stay in Chicago

Happy and you Know It

See? Rizzo agrees. 

It’s a small sample size, but the former University of Cincinnati Bearcat has made a fine case for the Cubs to keep him in the majors.  

The Cubs look like they are starting to get things together. After a rough couple of weeks, they’re beginning to faintly resemble the championship club from 2016. A big part of the Cubs’ recent success is their number two prospect, Ian Happ.

Originally drafted as a second baseman, Happ has been cross-trained to become the second coming of Ben Zobrist. The switch-hitting infielder by trade has not once started a game at his natural position since being called up (thanks to the Wizard of Puerto Rico Javy Baez). He debuted in right field and then proceeded to clobber his first MLB hit for a two-run homer off of up-and-coming Cub-killer Carlos Martinez. In his first game at Wrigley Field, Happ homered again, this time sending an outside pitch into the bleachers for an impressive opposite-field dinger. In the same game, he drew a crucial bases-loaded walk and has made a fine defensive play as well.

In just five games, Happ is hitting a solid .353 with two homers, and 4 RBI with an on-base percentage of .500. On top of those numbers, Happ has struck out as many times as he’s walked with five of each. For a 22-year-old, he’s shown tremendous poise at the plate and in the outfield. More importantly, he’s leaps and bounds ahead of where he was just one year ago.

At this time last year, Happ was the everyday second baseman for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, the Cubs’ Class-A Advanced affiliate of the Carolina League. The young prospect was hitting a mere .266 with the Pelicans before his club came to Lynchburg, Virginia. I had the chance to witness Happ in person, and he didn’t disappoint. He had a .333 batting average with a triple and 3 RBI in the four-game series against the Hillcats. He started one game in left field and the rest at second base. From the moment I personally watched him, it was apparent to me that the Cubs never planned on letting Happ get too comfortable in the infield. He shagged flies from his coaches in the outfield and practiced defending against runners tagging up on fly balls.

So far in Chicago, Happ has been parlaying those skills he learned in the minors quite nicely. His versatility, coupled with a healthy Ben Zobrist and Happ’s switch-hittting ability, makes it clear in my mind that Happ should stay put. Tommy La Stella is a solid backup infielder, but he can’t match the Pittsburgh native Happ in terms of power and defensive skills.

No one other than Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer knows for sure whether Happ will remain with the big club or go back to Iowa. But if it were my choice, I’d keep him right where he is. He’s certainly earned it.

Broadcaster Selfie

Adam Cipinko @Cipinko5

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These Are Not Your World Champion Cubs Anymore, But That’s Okay

Bryant K'sAfter an uninspired start to the new season, it’s time for us all to admit that the party is over. But that doesn’t mean these 2017 Cubs can’t win it all again. 

In 2016, the Chicago Cubs looked unstoppable. On May 12th, they held a 25-8 record, seven games ahead of the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates atop of the NL Central, and were 12-5 at Wrigley Field.  

Aside from playing one more game a year later, the 2017 Cubs have not dominated the league in the same way. So far, the defending champs are 17-17, hold fourth place in the NL Central behind the Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinnati Reds, and first-place St. Louis Cardinals, and are a lowly 7-9 at the Friendly Confines.

So, what’s changed so much in 365 days?

Well for starters, the starting pitching is lacking. After holding the league’s best ERA a year ago, the 2017 Cubs starters carry a 4.56 ERA. That’s the ninth-highest in all of baseball, a ranking made more clear by the Cubs rotation’s dubious stat of leading the majors with the most runs surrendered in the first inning.

Brett Anderson has been the weakest link in the rotation so far. Signed in the offseason to a one-year deal, Anderson is 2-2 with a team-worst 8.18 ERA and a whopping 13.9 hits per nine innings. Jake Arrieta and John Lackey haven’t fared much better. While both Arrieta and Lackey sport solid strikeout numbers (10.2 and 9.9 per nine respectively), they are giving up too many runs. Both with seven starts each, Arrieta is 4-2 with a 5.35 ERA, and Lackey is 3-3 with a 4.29 ERA. Those numbers must change if the Cubs expect to make a serious run for at least the division title.

Surprisingly, this is somewhat unfamiliar territory for this group of Cubs. Since the arrival of Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber in 2015, Chicago has rarely fallen below .500. They were at .500 in one instance during 2015 after Bryant become a Major Leaguer on April 17th, 2015. But until 2017, they were never below .500. The last time the Cubs were a .500 team in 2015 was May 10th. Since then, they are a combined 202-125-1 (not including the postseason). Since Bryant’s debut, in particular, the Cubs have been at .500 merely six times (five of those instances in 2017) and below .500 twice (April 3rd and 17th of this season). We are living in the Golden Age of Cubs Baseball. The Cubs have never been this dominant during the regular season after the introduction of divisions in 1969. You have to go all the way back early in the pre-division era of Major League Baseball to find such a dominant group of Cubs.

If you’re like me and you find yourself surprised by the Cubs’ recent struggles, now you know why. It’s been more than two years since the Cubs have been a pedestrian club. But right now, that’s exactly what the Cubs are: pedestrian. As a team, they aren’t hitting nearly as well as they did a year ago. The bullpen outside of newcomer Wade Davis has been questionable. And as previously noted, the starters have not lived up to their very high expectations. Jason Heyward and Brett Anderson went on the DL after the conclusion of the previous homestand, paving the way for highly touted third base prospect Jeimer Candelario’s recent call-up. He impressed Joe Maddon in his first two games of 2017, so much so that he may have earned himself a starting job. This may well be a temporary arrangement, but then again Kyle Schwarber’s call to the show wasn’t expected to last more than a week in 2015.

Speaking of Schwarber, his .195 batting average hasn’t helped out a team with a combined .241 average, the 11th-lowest among all offenses in Major League Baseball. The lead-off experiment has failed, and hopefully, that means Schwarbs will return to a more natural place lower in the lineup. The loss of Dexter Fowler has certainly impacted the top of the order, but the offense still draws plenty of walks. Kris Bryant is the only everyday Cub hitting close to .300 (he currently has a .299 batting average entering Friday night).

Long story short, the Cubs are no longer the Murderer’s Row from 2016. They’re a .500 team hitting below .250 as a club and hemorrhaging runs in the first inning more than any other team in the league. These aren’t the World Champions. But it’s okay, folks. We’re only in May.

While they haven’t been the same club from last year’s World Series run, the Cubs have made more comeback wins than anyone else in the young season. That’s one positive to take away from this disappointing start to 2017. At the very least, the Cubs have shown that they can steal victory from the jaws of defeat. Such a skill helps win championships. You know, like what they did in Game 7 last November.

After a frustrating series against the New York Yankees and a lackluster showing against the Colorado Rockies, the North Siders find themselves back in the lion’s den when they return to St. Louis for a three-game series against the Cardinals beginning on Friday night. They fared well against St. Louis following a dramatic Opening Night loss in extra innings, winning the next two games by a combined score of 8-5. Starting pitcher Eddie Butler will make his Cubs debut and his first start since June 28th of last season as a member of the Rockies when he suffered a 14-9 loss to the Blue Jays at Coors Field. If Butler’s career 6-16 record and 6.50 ERA are any indications of his skill as a starter, he likely won’t be a long-term solution for that fifth spot in the rotation. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Cubs make a move for a starting pitcher at this year’s trade deadline. Will Thed likely make the leap for a top-line ace? One must think that they’ll make some phone calls, but they ideally wouldn’t unload a Baez or a Schwarber for such talent.

With prospects like Candelario and Ian Happ in the fold, it’s not crazy to think that the Cubs are pretty content with their situation. All that’s left is addressing the back-end of the rotation, figuring out who should lead off, and adding more reliable options in the bullpen to compliment Wade Davis. Unfortunately, we may never see another season like 2016.

But maybe we’ll be saying the same thing about 2017 next year.

Broadcaster Selfie

Adam Cipinko @Cipinko5

 

Human Decency Prevails in Boston…At Least for One Night

Adam Jones Fenway Ovation

Adam Jones receives a standing ovation from Red Sox fans at Fenway Park after facing racial heckling the night before.

Old wounds never truly heal. They scab over, leave behind scars, but they never go away. Such is the case with racism and the United States, specifically in sports.

Race plays an unfortunately big role in baseball. It’s been that way since the earliest days of the game. Some of the greatest players to ever play never got to do so in the majors thanks to Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ infamous Gentleman’s Agreement with MLB owners to keep non-white ballplayers out of the game. Eventually, progress would forever banish the old ways to the history books.

Color barriers were broken. Baseball opened its borders and eventually became an international phenomenon, forever changing the face of the sport. From Jackie Robinson to Luis Aparicio, Sandy Koufax to Satchel Paige, Ernie Banks to Roberto Clemente, Henry Aaron to Ichiro, Ken Griffey, Jr. to Andrew McCutcheon, Manny Ramirez to Manny Machado, baseball is now a game for more than just white men.

That sadly doesn’t prevent people from reminding us of the “good ol’ days.”

On Monday night, Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones was heckled by unruly Boston fans at Fenway Park with some racial epithets. One fan, in particular, hurled racist remarks and a bag of peanuts at Jones while he was in the dugout. Rightfully upset at the events that transpired, Jones told the press that this night stood out for all of the wrong reasons:

“Tonight was one of the worst,’’ Jones said, slowly exhaling, “it’s different. Very unfortunate. It is what it is, right. I just go out and play baseball.

“But it’s unfortunate that people need to resort to those type of epithets to degrade another human being. I’m out there trying to make a living for myself and for my family.

“The best thing about myself is that I know how to continue to move on, and still play the game hard. Let people be who they are. Let them show their true colors.’’

He continued by stating that stadiums should enact harsher penalties on fans caught heckling players with racist taunts, including thousand-dollar fines and lifetime bans.

Should we still be surprised when drunk fans pop off “n-words” and other disgusting comments towards opposing black players anymore? No, but we should ideally strive to be something greater. Luckily on Tuesday night, the fans at Fenway rose to the occasion.

After the Red Sox and the mayor of Boston themselves issued public apologies to Adam Jones, fans at Fenway took it all one step further in the right direction.

Does this ovation undo the events from the night before? Hardly, but consider this. Adam Jones has spent his entire career as an opponent in Fenway. He has not once worn a Red Sox uniform, nor is he from the Boston area. Typically when an opposing player gets a standing ovation, they’re playing their first game against their former team or on their way to ending an outstanding career.

This is a classy move from a group of fans known for their rabid loyalty to their teams for better and for worse. Of course, racist insults aren’t exclusive to just Bostonians.

Far too many fans across the spectrum of professional sports throw racial slurs at opposing players. This has been a problem since day one of American sports and continues to plague leagues across the world. Just ask American soccer player Jozy Altidore or Canadian hockey forward Wayne Simmonds. This isn’t news to anyone paying attention.

Perhaps the Adam Jones Incident stands out more than it usually would thanks to the current political climate. We live in a time where the President of the United States signs executive orders to ban refugees from Muslim countries, pledges to build a wall to keep Mexicans from crossing the border, hires known anti-Semites and racists to influential positions within his administration, and whose very election elicted celebratory hate crimes around the nation. Racism is not some marginal issue that happens in the backdrop of our daily lives.

It’s alive, well, and spreading.

The ovation for Jones at Fenway shines a glimmer of hope for the future. Even though the Red Sox and Orioles continue a crazy feud that has boiled between both clubs since Opening Week, we as baseball fans can look proudly at the moment Red Sox fans decided to embrace Adam Jones the human being despite the color of his jersey.

But we can’t forget about the event that sparked Tuesday’s nice moment in the first place.

Earlier that day, a few Cubs were asked to provide their thoughts on the Adam Jones Incident. Jason Heyward, Carl Edwards, Jr., and Kyle Schwarber all provided good takes. But the best statement came from the skipper himself, Joe Maddon. After recalling an incident from the ’80s that disturbed him during his days in minor league baseball, Joe offered a simple solution:

“At some point, you have to do something about it,” Maddon said. “You can’t just listen to it.”

One round of applause can’t erase decades of ignorance. It can, however, begin to cover that old wound with some sort of protective dressing. It may feel like using a bandaid to cover the Grand Canyon, but it’s better than enlarging that gap with an earthquake.

So for one night, let’s salute the Fenway faithful for showing some measure of decorum and humanity. Everyone can take away an iota of knowledge with them to help combat the next racist outburst, no matter where it is or whomever throws that stone.

Friends don’t let friends degrade society with ignorant prejudice and malice. We don’t have time for any of that anymore.

Broadcaster Selfie

Adam Cipinko @Cipinko5

Jason Heyward Is Back

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Heyward (center) is greeted at home plate by his teammates following his first inning three-run home run Monday night in Pittsburgh.

After being labeled a free agent bust by pundits and fans alike one year ago, the J-Hey Kid is showing us all just what $184 million can buy. 

Let’s face it, Jason Heyward had a pretty bad season in 2016. After signing the biggest contract of his young career, the Cubs right fielder struggled to find success in his new home. Coming off of the 2015 season in which he had a career-high .293 batting average for the St. Louis Cardinals, armchair GM’s everywhere declared Jason Heyward to be the biggest bust of 2016.

In spite of his personal struggles, Heyward still won a Gold Glove and, more importantly, a World Series. But aside from his now legendary speech to his teammates during the rain delay of Game 7, Heyward failed to make a significant contribution to the Cubs’ stat line.

After the champagne showers and parades concluded, Heyward immediately got to work fixing his swing. Fans waited with bated breath for any signs of improvement for the once highly touted Braves rising star. Videos surfaced of Heyward taking batting practice, inspiring many think pieces from observers and insiders from ESPN to MLB Network alike. Then spring came and went, and Heyward still looked as though he would suffer similar issues at the plate going into 2017.

Well, it’s still early, but if his recent play is any indication, the kid’s alright.

That’s a nice sight, isn’t it?

If the one highlight doesn’t convince you, just look at the stats. The Cubs have played 18 games in this young season, and the difference is pretty obvious.

Here are Heyward’s numbers through his first 18 games in 2016:

.221/.338/.265, 0 HR’s, 9 RBI, 17 SO’s, 11 BB’s, 3 doubles.

And here’s Heyward’s stats through the same amount of games in 2017:

.294/.342/.456, 3 HR’s, 16 RBI, 11 SO’s, 4 BB’s, 0 doubles, 1 triple.

The strikeouts are a little high for comfort, but the drop in walks won’t matter if Heyward continues hitting. He currently leads the Cubs in batting average and RBI. Perhaps he won’t end the season as the team’s best hitter. But if Jason Heyward hits half as well the rest of this season, it’ll be more than enough for a Cubs lineup loaded with power.

The Cubs continue their series against the Pittsburgh Pirates tonight at 7:05 p.m. ET/6:05 CT. Kyle Hendricks (1-1, 6.19 ERA) looks to get some revenge against Gerrit Cole (1-2, 4.70 ERA) in a rematch of their previous matchup two weeks ago at Wrigley Field. Hopefully, Jason Heyward continues his hot hitting and sends a ball or two into the Allegheny.

 

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Adam Cipinko @Cipinko5

 

The Wait is Almost Over

Hey Chicago, whaddya say? Let’s get this season started already.

I must make a confession.

I love this game more than life itself. I’ve watched baseball since the tender age of 6 during Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire’s epic home run race of 1998.

I have been to nearly 20 major league stadiums and quite a few minor league parks as well. I spent seven months working for a Class-A ballclub in a town named Lynchburg, Virginia. I saw every pitch of every home game with the exception of one weekend in May thanks to a concussion I suffered while helping the rest of the office pull the tarp during the last of the five rainiest days I have ever witnessed in my life.

If I could calculate the amount of time I have spent watching baseball on TV, I’m almost 99.9% certain that the figure would be about 1 million hours over the span of 19 years (I couldn’t watch baseball as a baby…I don’t think).

Acknowledging how much I adore the game of baseball, I have one terrifying, earth-shattering confession to make.

I hate Spring Training.

Now before you make any conclusions about my right to be a proper baseball fan, know that I indeed have seen Spring Training once in my life in 2015. That year was particularly amazing due to the ridiculous performance put on by the future Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant. He hit the highest home run I have ever seen in my 24 years of life.

I stood maybe a few feet away from Jorge Soler and Dexter Fowler, two towering outfielders that made me look and feel like an ant staring up at a pair of skyscrapers.

That spring in 2015 is easily one of my favorite vacations of all time.

But that being said, I still hate Spring Training.

It’s nice to see the first at-bats of the spring when the players are back taking their first competitive cuts. I smile each and every time I see the start of the games.

But by the time the 3rd inning rolls around, I’m likely passed out on my couch dreaming of champagne showers and parades down Michigan Avenue before being startled awake by the frenzied barking of my wannabe watchdog Collie-mixed-with-something-that-barks Jasmine.

It’s not that I don’t respect the process of crafting the new rosters, evaluating the minor leaguers and stacking them up against the field of competition around the league. I just don’t have any patience for it.

When spring rolls around, it’s equally the best and worst feeling in the world. On the one hand, you get to see the sun along with the return of mild to not subzero temperatures. But on the other hand, baseball is still one month away and Passover is coming up. Ugh.

Sure okay, fill out your brackets, fine. Make your office pools and your various Facebook posts and tweets about your bracket being dismantled by the likes of eight-seed Cuyahoga State knocking out your Final Four teams Kansas, Drake, Nicki and Wiz Khalifa. Blah blah blah, rinse, lather, repeat.

It’s all fine and good having other sports to watch and believe me, I love filling out brackets as much as the next guy.

But for a baseball junkie like myself, there’s nothing to preoccupy my time. Not counting Netflix or Xbox, of course. But again, not much to care about when the baseball isn’t being competitively carried out.

Luckily there was some reprieve this year thanks to the World Baseball Classic. Watching the best players from around the globe battling for the pride of their home countries is always cool to watch.

It still isn’t baseball, though. It’s not the Cubs against those dastardly red birds from Hell. There’s no Schwarbombs or Bryant blasts or Rizzo tarp gymnastics. There are no walk-off grand slams, no first-pitch-of-his-career dingers, no no-no’s, no on-field mobs, no pennants or World Series droughts ending.

It’s all just the warm-up for the long, 162-game soap opera.

It’s necessary, but it’s boring.

Like every other preseason in every other sport, baseball takes the proper time to ease everyone back into the game. To the chagrin of us pesky fans, there is no on-off switch to kickstart the season at full speed.

But thankfully, the end is nigh.

We’re under 10 days away from the beginning of something no human being has witnessed in more than a century: a Chicago Cubs defending-World Series champion season.

In just a few days, the fun really begins.

I’m stoked. I’m anxious. I can’t possibly take anymore!

But alas, I have no way of making the days move quicker.  I can distract myself until the time finally arrives. But, like the rest of you, I have to patiently wait.

Then again, we Cubs fans know a thing or two about patience, don’t we?

2016 Cubs Selfie.jpg

Adam Cipinko @Cipinko5

A Brave New World in Atlanta

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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.

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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.

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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.

ted-2016

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.

 

BRAVES

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.