Braves Season Preview

Plenty of new faces will take the field today in Miami for the Braves.

The words to describe the offseason for the Atlanta Braves have been used carefully. There is even one word – rebuild – that has been basically taboo around the team. But fact is this has been the most active winter in the history of the franchise, which celebrates its 50th year in Atlanta this season.

Monday when they take the field in Miami against the Marlins, the Braves will have a different roster, a different lineup. There are only seven players on the expected 25-man roster who were also on the Opening Day roster a year ago. Fourteen of the players are brand new to the organization, an amazing 56% turnover. There will be five new players in the starting lineup and three new pitchers in the rotation.

There were 11 trades this offseason, to help the major league roster and the minor league depth. The farm system, ranked in the bottom five by many when last season ended, is now considered to be in the top ten by most analysts.

But it goes beyond the new faces on the field. There’s a new man in charge – John Hart. There are new coaches, new scouts. The environment that was soured a year ago with an underperforming team and a farm system that hit rock bottom has been drastically improved in a short period of time.

For an organization that has had historic success and stability the last 25 years, the changes have been dramatic.

“I don’t think it’s ever happened,” said Braves president John Schuerholz. “I knew John Hart was going to be aggressive, and creative and dynamic in the job that I empowered him to do, and that is to come in and evaluate this organization from top to bottom, from the major league club to the bottom of the farm system. He and John Coppolella, our assistant general manager, they did a remarkable job this winter.”

Schuerholz made the first big decision late last season when he fired Frank Wren, who had replaced him seven years earlier as general manager. Last year’s team was a disappointment, but beyond that, the roster was not in good shape and the farm system could provide little help. The Braves had gotten off course and had their worst season in decades.

Hart, the general manager of the great Cleveland Indians teams in the 1990s, joined the Braves as a consultant last season. Schuerholz had to convince Hart to take the job to fix what had been broken.

“He’s a real winner,” Schuerholz said. “This guy is a positive, glass-half-full guy. He’s always believing, always working, always encouraging and he’s always very enthusiastic about his job. That’s great. People love the environment created by a leader like that. That’s what John does.”

It didn’t take long for Hart to realize he had big decisions to make. With outfielders Jason Heyward and Justin Upton a year away from free agency, the Braves decided to get something in return for the pair instead of losing them for nothing. They were not confident either player would re-sign for the long-term, so both were traded for younger players.

Then Evan Gattis, who captured the hearts of fans with his feel-good story, was dealt to Houston for three minor leaguers. Hart also signed veterans, like outfielders Nick Markakis and Jonny Gomes, along with other potential leaders A.J. Pierzynski and Jason Grilli.

“A lot of people think we dismantled the ball club, and we certainly didn’t do that,” Hart said. “You look at Craig Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Alex Wood and Julio Teheran. We’ve got a nice nucleus of what I consider to be long-time Braves players that are going to be a part of us getting to where we want to get to a lot quicker. What we did was we tried to examine how do we rebuild the farm system, how do we protect the long-term and still remain competitive short-term. That has been the entire balance we’ve tried to walk.”

The big picture looks brighter, as the organization as a whole is better. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked Atlanta’s farm system as the sixth-best after all the deals. He had them ranked 26th after last season.

But what about this season? How good can a team be that has had this much turnover? Well, for the first time in maybe two decades, you’re not going to see many analysts predicting the Braves for the playoffs. There are many questions, and it could take time to get the answers.

Last year’s offense, the second-worst in baseball at scoring runs, will be different. Two rookies – second baseman Jace Peterson and catcher Christian Bethancourt – will be in the lineup. There is a true leadoff man, speedy center fielder Eric Young, Jr., who will play for a while for the injured and renamed Melvin (formerly B.J.) Upton. Markakis and Gomes replace Heyward and Upton.

“The last couple of years we’ve been built on the three-run home run,” said first baseman Freddie Freeman. “Obviously, we didn’t do that much last year and the win total reflected that. We changed up the team this year. We’re built more like the Royals were last year, more contact and less strikeouts. Hopefully, we can put the pressure on the defense this year – going first to third, hit and run, moving the guys over, getting runners in from third with less than two out. That was a big problem. Hopefully the dynamic of this team can put together more runs than we did last year.”

Freeman will be important to a lineup that will be a work in progress. Young, who stole 30 bases last year in a part-time role with the Mets, will leadoff. Peterson was a successful base runner in the minor leagues, with 51 steals in High-A two years ago. He’ll hit second. Markakis has always had a high on base percentage. If those three get on, Freeman will need to drive them in.

“We felt we could add an element of speed,” Hart said. “We felt we could add contact. We felt we could add some maneuverability, that (manager) Fredi (Gonzalez) has a chance to do some platooning in a couple of spots if he so chooses. I think we’ve tried to provide that opportunity.”

There are questions about the bottom half of the batting order. Andrelton Simmons and Chris Johnson must rebound from disappointing offensive seasons last year. Gomes might split time with Kelly Johnson in left field. Someone must emerge and protect Freeman in the lineup.

If there are worries about the offense, the pitching will once again need to be the key. Atlanta’s pitching staffs have been in the top five in baseball in team earned run average in each of the last six seasons.

Julio Teheran is back as the ace after two straight 14-win seasons. Alex Wood will be the second starter. The left-hander emerged last year with 11 victories. But then there are three newcomers. Shelby Miller was acquired in the Heyward trade with St. Louis. Many believe the 24-year old Miller could breakout and become an elite pitcher. Veteran Eric Stults was signed as a free agent and won a rotation job in spring training. Trevor Cahill was acquired just this week from Arizona and will be the fifth starter.

The bullpen is led by Craig Kimbrel, who is undeniably the best closer in baseball. Grilli and Jim Johnson were brought in to set up Kimbrel. Both right-handers have been successful as closers the past few years.

“The biggest thing for our rotation and bullpen is consistency,” said Alex Wood. “If we can go out there and be consistent and compete and keep our team in the ballgame, I think we’ve got a chance to win day in and day out. If we get the guys in our rotation rolling all at the same time, it could be pretty fun to watch. We have a lot of confident guys in here.”

The confidence may be coming from the older veterans the front office added this offseason. With a dramatic turnover, along with the number of young players, Hart carefully selected veterans that can help set a tone for the clubhouse, which was sorely missing last season.

“When we lost (Tim) Hudson and (Brian) McCann after 2013, we didn’t really know who to lean on,” Freeman admitted. “Now they brought in Jonny Gomes, Jason Grilli, guys who have a lot of energy. Jonny has a lot of edge to him. He came in here day one and said he expects to win. It’s rubbed off on everybody in this clubhouse.

“We’re evolving a little bit. It’s always going to be the Atlanta Braves, a first-class organization. We all respect it. Maybe just a little edge might help and translates into wins this year.”

And that’s something that was repeated throughout spring training. While the front office has made moves that can help the long-term, there is still hope they can be successful this season. It might be a challenge, but there is hope the new-look roster can be competitive.

“We’re optimistic about this year,” Hart said. “We’re excited about this year. It probably isn’t the most talented club right now within the division. But I think this club is going to play with a lot of energy. I think it’s got a lot of heart. There are a lot of competitive guys that are here, some veteran leaders, some young players. I think the dynamic of a team that has a chance to play good team baseball, we have that here.”

The Braves could have easily completely broken down the team by trading Kimbrel, Simmons and some of the other young talent. But they have tried to balance the need for building for the future with keeping the team competitive. Sure, getting the franchise back on track for Sun Trust Park is important, but the trade getting Cahill this week proves they do not want to tank and have a losing season.

“I know a lot of people are looking at 2017,” Hart admitted. “We’re moving into a beautiful spot there. It’s going to be great. But that’s two years down the road. We want to be competitive. We want to be exciting. We have a great fan base in Atlanta, and I certainly want people to be excited about the product we’re putting on the field now. That said it’s not just about 2017. What we’re doing now hopefully is going to establish what I like to call a sustained level of success to where you have that ability every year to have two or three young guys that can come in and fill in and gives you that ability to have sustained success instead of a one or two year run.”

“Everybody is putting emphasis on building to the 2017 season,” said Freeman. That’s not our goal in this clubhouse. That’s not our motto. We still have 2015 and 2016, so we’re concentrating on this year and getting to the playoffs.”

This season the story for the Braves will be beyond what happens in Atlanta. The young talent in the minor leagues will be important to watch, as well. This is a process, one that Schuerholz believes will get the Braves back on track. “I believe they’re going about it the right way,” he said. “I believe you have to step back a little back to gather yourself and get a good footing to thrust forward. That’s what I believe this year will be. But we’re not going to roll over. This is not going to be a rollover team.”

“I think everybody in this clubhouse expects to win,” Freeman concluded. “Everybody is saying this is a rebuilding or remodeling year. John Hart said it best, ‘Everybody else can not pick the Braves, but the Braves can pick the Braves.’ I think that’s our motto in this clubhouse. We want to win. That’s our job every single year. Our goal is to make the playoffs.”

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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