The Braves plan for 2017

The Braves are broken, so how can they be fixed? Here's an example of what might be in the works to get the Braves back on track.

The hardcore fans of teams love to put themselves in the shoes of a general manager. That’s why many of us play fantasy baseball. That’s why many of us participate in discussions with other fans about what we would do if we were in charge.

I’m going to play general manager in this column, but it will be for a different purpose. Instead of trying to put a team together for the upcoming season, I want to take a big-picture approach. I want to put myself in the shoes of the men in charge now, who must be thinking about the same thing. I want to map something out organizationally that will help the Braves prepare for an all-important season.

2017. Yes, it’s all about 2017, isn’t it? It’s the year the Braves move into SunTrust Park. It is two years away, so it gives the front office time to fix what is broken. And it’s enough time to get more talent into a talent-hungry organization.

This is an exercise to try and see what the Braves are facing. The new men in charge have a huge task, one that won’t be accomplished overnight. While it is a cliché, it is a ‘process,’ which will take time and require tremendous patience.

Some things have already been done. While the front office is telling all of us they are not rebuilding, we know better. They have to say that to make sure people know they are going to try and remain competitive while retooling the organization.

That’s fine. That’s business. And there’s no reason to believe the Braves won’t be competitive. They’re not going to win the division in 2015. The Nationals are very good and the Marlins may be even better. And look out for the Mets, who have pitching to make them relevant.

But that’s okay. As long as there’s a bigger plan in place, we can deal with having a difficult season. It can’t be worse than 2014, regardless of the record. They won 79 games last season. If they win 69 games in 2015, it’s doubtful to be worse than the season we went through last year.

While the front office has to worry about fielding a lineup in 2015, I’m going to look more at what has to be ready for 2017. It gives me two years to implement my plan and to make sure that when the Braves enter the new ballpark the organization is in much better shape than it’s in right now.

Again, this is a sample plan. I’m putting myself in charge to make decisions to show the type of things that must be done to get this organization back on track. I’m trying to show the task ahead of fixing a once-proud franchise that has been severely damaged by bad management.

Let’s first start with the things we know, the things already in place for 2017.

Here are the players under contract for 2017:

Freddie Freeman ($20.5 million), B.J. Upton ($16.45), Craig Kimbrel ($13), Nick Markakis ($11), Chris Johnson ($9), Andrelton Simmons ($8) and Julio Teheran ($6.3). That’s $84.25 million bucks.

Now, I can tell you right now that there is no way Upton and Johnson will still be on the roster in 2017. I will do everything I can do trade them whenever I can for whatever I can. It would be the last year under contract for both of them, but they’ll be gone by then.

The $84.25 million is a fairly big chunk of the projected payroll I envision for the Braves in 2017. The budget for 2015 is between $105-$110 million. I will estimate the Braves budget for 2017 will be somewhere near $120 million – due to the increases in revenue due to the stadium.

So even with Upton and Johnson gone, that’s $58.8 million dollars of $120 – almost half. That’s actually not bad considering those contracts lock up the first baseman, shortstop, right fielder, closer and one of my starting pitchers.

I can also project that a couple of other positions will be locked down in 2017. While still cautious, I’m going to gamble that Christian Bethancourt will be the starting catcher then. I will tell my scouting department to keep an eye out in the next two drafts for a college catcher that might be available as a backup option. But Bethancourt is such a talent that I’m going to believe he can be my long-term answer at that position until he proves otherwise.

Jose Peraza will be locked in as the second baseman. He’ll be in his second full season in 2017, so he’ll be under control for four seasons after 2017.

The rotation situation will be as follows: Teheran will be locked in through 2020 (including the option), so we’ll have several more years of his services. Shelby Miller will be under contract through 2018. If he’s doing well, a potential long-term deal will be possible. That would lock him up past 2020.

Considering the health status of Alex Wood and Mike Minor at the end of last season, I’m a bit more cautious with my two left-handers. Minor is under control through 2017, while Wood is under control through 2019. So if they remain healthy, my rotation will be in good shape. And if they remain healthy, I may wonder how to lock them down for the long-term past the end of this decade.

So the following positions are not huge concerns right now for the long-term: catcher, first base, second base and shortstop. Right field is tied up with Markakis through 2018, but there’s no doubt outfield needs to be a priority moving forward to plan for the next decade.

But let me be honest. One of those five under contract for the long-term will be traded. I’m saying publicly right now that Craig Kimbrel is not going to be traded, but deep down I know he will be dealt at some point in the next 12 months. A team that is not very good does not need a star closer. Sure, it gives you value to have the best player at any position, even closer. But when teams see we are struggling and that we are building for 2017, they are going to come after Kimbrel.

So I know right now that Kimbrel will be traded – either before the trade deadline this July or next offseason. I start right now doing due diligence on teams that might need to trade for a closer. Which teams might call me to want Kimbrel?

Which teams will be in contention and may want a stud closer in 2016? Off the top of my head, I identify the Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox, Tigers, Angels and Rangers as possibilities for a Kimbrel trade. So I watch those farm systems a little more closely in the beginning of 2015. I have my list ready in case they call so I’ll know who to ask for if they want Kimbrel.

The Red Sox and Cubs seem like the best candidates. Both have excellent farm systems, so I want them to call. Boston has plenty of pitching. I want to watch Henry Owens very closely. He’d be perfect to have at the forefront of a trade for Kimbrel. Owens is a tall left-handed starting pitcher who should be in Triple-A all year in 2015, so he could be ready to start the 2016 season in the Atlanta rotation.

I also like Brian Johnson, a big thick lefty starter who was a first rounder out of Florida for the Red Sox in 2012. He is on a similar timeframe as Owens – possibly ready for 2016 or 2017 at the latest. Matt Barnes is another possibility. He’s another college pitcher drafted by the Red Sox in 2011. Then I’m keeping my eye on Garin Cecchini, a third baseman who may be ready in 2016.

Those are the four players on my wish list. I won’t get all of them, but when the Red Sox call I’ll be ready. Owens would be perfect to add as a potential high-impact starting pitcher. We might have to add in another player, but if the Red Sox are in a race they may need another veteran we have on our roster (Callaspo?).

If I want position players for Kimbrel, the Cubs would be the better. My one target would be Addison Russell, who I would project as a potential third baseman. That’s one position I know I have to worry about, and Russell might be the answer. He’s a shortstop, but I would wonder if he could make the move over to third base like Chipper Jones did two decades ago.

The Cubs will have Kris Bryant at third base. They already have Starlin Castro at shortstop. So Russell could be their most important trade chip to get them something they will desperately need – a closer.

The Dodgers could also provide me with a third baseman. Corey Seager, like Russell, is a shortstop for now. But he’s projected to be a third baseman down the road. Zach Lee and Chris Reed are two Dodgers pitching prospects that I like, so I’ll keep my eye on them.

Third base is such an important position, and with Jones the Braves had it locked down for so long. Kyle Kubitza and Dustin Peterson are my only in-house third base candidates for the long term. Kubitza may be ready in 2016, but can he provide enough power at that position? I like Kubitza, but he might be a Chris Johnson-type player, which is not too bad as long as the salary is in line.

Peterson is an unknown, at least right now. He might be the perfect third base candidate for the future. He will go to Carolina in 2015 and we’ll see how he does offensively and defensively. So he’s on the radar, but third base prospects to me are like pitching prospects – you can never have enough.

It’s not out of the question that Kubitza is the third baseman to start 2017. I could see that happening. He’s a good player – solid, yet unspectacular, but a good player. But we still need more in the farm system, and a trade of Kimbrel might provide that. If Kimbrel could bring back Seager or Russell, that would be hard to ignore.

I will also tell my scouting director, Brian Bridges, and his mentor/boss Roy Clark to be on the lookout for third basemen in the next two drafts. If there is a solid player out there at that position in the top five rounds, don’t hesitate to take a look at him closely.

So if Kimbrel could produce a potential long-term third baseman (Russell or Seager) or another potential top of the rotation starting pitcher, why would we not do that? Sure, Kimbrel might be a Hall of Famer, but this organization has significant needs. It will be too tempting to ignore the calls we get on Kimbrel if that’s the possible return.

The Braves already have a pretty good number of relief candidates, and the next two drafts will provide more. So there will be options to replace Kimbrel, including guys on the roster now like Michael Kohn, Shae Simmons and Arodys Vizcaino. Will they be as dominant as Kimbrel? No, probably not. But Kimbrel is the biggest trade chip we have, and if he can produce that kind of significant return, you can’t say no.

I’m worried that Kimbrel will inevitably need Tommy John surgery. Pitchers who throw hard usually do need that procedure. I would rather trade him before it happens to maximize his value. I just can’t imagine someone throwing that hard avoiding elbow issues down the road. So I’d rather trade him now to get good value in return.

Of course, the progress of the pitching prospects we have now and the progress of Kubitza and Peterson will go a long way in determining my priority for a Kimbrel trade. I know I will want pitching, but will a pitcher (like Owens) be the main piece, or will it be a third baseman (like Seager or Russell)? The development of the current prospects in the system could determine that course.

But let me be clear: pitching is my priority. Period. It’s all about pitching for me. You can never have too much pitching. You can never have too many pitching prospect. Never. It’s just not possible.

Let me take you back 25 years. The Braves were building their organization around pitching. Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were already up. Guys like Steve Avery, Pete Smith and Kent Mercker were in the picture. But the Braves had a number of prospects that were behind those pitchers that supplied the depth that made the farm system the best in baseball.

Sure, Glavine and Smoltz were the stars, even then. But do you remember guys like Kevin Coffman, Gary Eave, Derek Lilliquist, Kevin Blankenship, Ben Rivera, Matt Turner, Rusty Richards, Andy Nezelek, Turk Wendell, Eddie Matthews, Paul Marak, Pat Gomez, John Kilner, Rick Seibert, Danny Weems and Dale Polley?

Those were other Braves pitching prospects in the late-1980s. Most of them did not make it. Some were traded. Some got hurt. Some just weren’t good enough. But that was a talented group of prospects. Paul Snyder, the legendary Braves scouting director, once told me that you had to have more pitchers than anybody.

“Billy, I’m telling you, the more pitching prospects you throw up against the wall, the more that will stick at some point,” he said, chewing on his cigar at the same time while spouting out valuable baseball knowledge.

That’s what the Braves must get back to. This turnaround, this comeback, this recovery must be concentrated around pitching. I want so many pitchers my pitching coaches are sitting around in spring training every single year saying, “What in the hell are we going to do with all these guys?”

See, when you are in a situation like that, you can get whatever you might want. If you need a right fielder, as long as you have some arms to barter with, you can get what you need and want. If you need a third baseman, same thing. Pitching will get it done.

That’s why I am trading Evan Gattis in the next few weeks, before this year’s spring training starts. The Braves have already gotten Tyrell Jenkins and Max Fried, two potentially high impact pitching prospects. I want one more before this season starts, especially since Fried will be rehabbing all season from Tommy John surgery.

I want to trade Gattis to either Texas or Baltimore, two teams that have not done much this offseason. The Rangers aren’t sure about Prince Fielder’s health, so Gattis could play some at first base. They have Robinson Chirinos at catcher, but reports have them looking for someone else to compliment him. There is concern about the health of Shin-soo Choo, who might be their left fielder.

Gattis is from Texas. It’s a good fit. The Rangers have two pitching prospects I have my eye on – right-handers Alex Gonzalez and Jake Thompson. I also want either Luis Ortiz or Luke Jackson as the second pitcher involved in the deal. Two pitchers for Gattis. They would have him for four seasons. It’s a fair deal.

The Orioles are another possibility. Baltimore has not replaced the production lost from Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz leaving. They’re not going to give me Dylan Bundy or Kevin Gausman. So give me Hunter Harvey and Tim Berry. Harvey is a right-handed prospect and Berry is a lefty. I’d make that deal.

If we got either Gonzalez or Harvey, they would be on par with Fried and Jenkins as pitchers that might be ready sometime in 2016 and most likely in 2017. That’s what we need.

One thing I will do this season is have my scouts fully evaluate the talent already in the farm system. John Schuerholz told me the most important thing to an organization is self-scouting, knowing what you already have before you know what you need. Therefore, we need a lot of eyes, particularly the new scouts in the organization, to give us unbiased opinions on what they think about our players.

What pitchers already in the farm system will be big leaguers in the next two years? Well, the top names are Lucas Sims, Jason Hursh, Williams Perez, Wes Parsons and Chris Diaz. I’ll keep Garrett Fulenchek out of this discussion because I think he’ll take three or four years to reach his potential (and I like his potential a great deal). There are tons of bullpen arms, but I’m worried about starting pitchers. There is no doubt that Jenkins and Fried should be in this conversation, but what about the guys we already have?

Sims is the top prospect. He’s due to go to AA Mississippi this season. He’s had two solid seasons of development, and he’s now up to 307.1 innings. There is a theory I subscribe to that most minor league pitchers, at least high school arms, need between 400-500 minor league innings before they are ready. So a full season this year for Sims will put him knocking on the door in another year.

Sims is on track to be ready, if he stays healthy, in 2017. He’ll be 23 that May, so if his development continues there is no doubt Sims is a candidate for my 2017 rotation.

For me, Hursh is a bullpen arm. That’s not a bad thing to have, obviously, but I’m not counting on him being an option for the rotation. He should be ready later this season and, especially if it is in the bullpen, next season.

Perez is not talked about much but he should be. Coaches like this guy’s approach and believe Williams can be a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher. He needs to head back to Double-A this season and have more success. Perez has 477 career innings, so he’s closer than we think. Perez should be ready for an audition later this season or early next year if needed.

Parsons is a wildcard, since he was not drafted. I think every team needs a wildcard, someone that could surprise us all with a jump in development and become a serious prospect. Parsons is on most prospect lists for the Braves, but if he does well in Double-A this season he will garner more attention.

Diaz is a reach, since he was just drafted last June. But Diaz was a college pitcher. He did well in his initial stint in pro ball, so if he makes the jump to High-A Carolina this year and does well and maybe then sees time in Double-A Diaz could be on the radar quicker than we might think.

That’s not a huge group of names. Adding Fried and Jenkins to the list helps, but it still is a work in progress. That’s why deals for Gattis and Kimbrel are important.

And there’s one more area that could provide help the pitching depth – the draft. While I want Bridges and Clark to do their thing, knowing that I trust them completely to recognize the needs to the organization and to plan accordingly, I would tell them that for this year – at picks 15 and 30 – we need pitching.

I would love to add a college pitcher with the 15th pick, someone like Phil Bickford, Kyle Funkhouser, Kyle Cody or Carson Fulmer – whichever one they think has the highest upside. The Braves have done pretty well with college pitchers drafted high the past few years, with Minor and Wood at the top of the list. Sean Gilmartin is the one exception. But one of those kids could instantly be one of the top pitching prospects and likely have a good chance at being ready by 2017.

Then I would want Bridges and Clark to take a high school arm with high upside at 30, so that pitcher can be developed at a slow and steady pace to be ready near 2019 or so. Let pitching be the focus of this first draft, and then next year (when the Braves will likely have another mid-round pick) make it more split between pitchers and position players.

I just trust the scouts ability to pinpoint pitchers more than position players, and that’s not a knock on them directly. I have bad memories of Matt Lipka in my mind that won’t leave, wasting a top pick on an athlete that could never learn to hit. Instead, the Braves could have had a pitcher like Noah Syndergaard or Taijuan Walker, who went in the next 10 picks after Lipka.

Clark has such a great reputation with picking pitchers. It’s not perfect. He did pick Brett DeVall as a first rounder in 2008, but Clark made up for it by taking Kimbrel in the fourth round. The guy just knows pitchers. He knows how to identify quality pitching prospects. His very first draft pick as Atlanta’s scouting director was Adam Wainwright.

Need we say more?

So with the condition of the farm system, and needing pitchers as it does, I would demand that this June’s draft start off with two pitchers. And I am confident that between the 2015 and 2016 drafts, Bridges and Clark would give the organization several top pitching prospects going into 2017.

Let’s take some of these possibilities I’ve pinpointed and come up with a sample of what could be in place going into 2016:

Right now - Gattis traded to Texas for Alex Gonzalez and Luke Jackson
This July - Kimbrel and Callaspo traded to Boston for Henry Owens, Matt Barnes and Gabe Cecchini
Draft - Phil Bickford with pick 15 in the first round this June< br>
This would give the Braves the following pitching prospects entering 2016: (not rated)
- Max Fried – will need full season in 2016 to come back from TJ, ready in 2017
- Tyrell Jenkins – should be ready sometime in 2016
- Alex Gonzalez - should be ready sometime in 2016
- Luke Jackson – should be ready sometime in 2016
- Henry Owens – should be ready sometime in 2016
- Matt Barnes – should be ready to start 2016
- Phil Bickford – should be ready by 2017
- Lucas Sims – should be ready sometime in 2016

Hopefully, others, like the in-house prospects mentioned earlier (Perez, Parsons, Diaz, etc.) will emerge as well in the next two years. But that’s eight pitching prospects that could be ready between the end of 2015 and sometime in 2017. That’s the kind of back log the Braves need with pitching prospects, and it’s only going to happen through trades and through the draft.

Of course, one name that needs to be added to this conversation is Manny Banuelos, who was acquired from the Yankees on New Year’s Day. If he is healthy and can show durability, there is no doubt he is right there on this list as a potential member of the rotation.

If there is anything like that type of depth in place, the Braves are going to be in great shape. Just imagine if when they enter SunTrust Park they have a rotation of Teheran, Miller, Wood and then two of those young pitchers – with the others desperately competing to crack the rotation. That’s a great situation to be in.

There will be money available, and while I’ll be tempted to go after a high-priced free agent pitcher like David Price, I’ll resist and say now. The Braves need to build up the rotation with young arms and then use the excess to get position players in areas of need. If you blow money on one player, and use a high percentage of the payroll on that one player, you may be going down a road that will lead you off your plan.

The organization is not ready for that, at least not yet. Now in a few years, like in 2020 after the plan has been implemented and has been in place for a while, that might be the time to strike on a big-money free agent pitcher. Remember, that’s what the Braves did when they added Greg Maddux to the homegrown talent of Glavine and Smoltz.

The Braves need as many high-impact arms as possible. This is the type of structure and organization that led Atlanta to an unprecedented 14-straight division titles starting in 1991. That backlog I mentioned earlier that was in place when Glavine and Smoltz came up was a big reason.

Look, not all pitching prospects make it. But the competition that is in place with quality prospects – many quality prospects – only breeds success. It’s been tough the last few years with the farm system down to have those kids truly know what competition is all about. But you fill a system with solid prospects from start to finish and that competition is only going to make your prospects better.

And at the same time, coaches will be asking, “How are we going to get innings for all these guys?”

What will this backlog create? An opportunity to use the pitching depth to get what you need in trades – whether it’s an outfielder or third baseman or anything else. We will know, as well, how close Peterson may be or if he can be the future third baseman. We will know if Mallex Smith is a legit prospect. We will know if any of the other position players can be serious options for the future.

And that’s the primary word of this entire presentation – options. Any general manager must have options. John Schuerholz was so good for so many years. Why? He had options. He had talent, quantity and quality. The more options a GM has, the more leverage he will have and the better position he can be in to improve the ball club, whether it’s internally or externally.

The Braves don’t have many options right now. They must spend the next two years accumulating options, so that when 2017 rolls around this organization is back on track. These are the types of moves, types of decisions that must be made now. It can’t wait until the winter of 2016-2017. These things must be mapped out right now, and I’m certain that’s exactly what the new front office is trying to do.

It all starts with pitching. If I’m in their shoes, that’s where it starts and ends. You can work around everything else, but the pitching strength must return or the organization will have a tough time of rebounding to the level it once was.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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