The names have changed a lot over the last few years at Turner Field. It’s been a revolving door of players as the Braves have searched for the right formula to return to their glory days of yesteryear.
There are just two players – Freddie Freeman and Eric O’Flaherty – who will be on the 2016 opening day roster who were with the team that started the season five years ago. O’Flaherty actually left for two years, only to return this past week.
The changes have been most dramatic in the past two years, as Freeman and Julio Teheran are the only players left from the opening day roster in 2014. In fact, only nine players from last year’s opening day roster will again be with the team when the season starts Monday against the Washington Nationals.
The Braves hit a wall two seasons ago, when a talented team with high expectations and a large payroll flopped and went 79-83. The general manager, Frank Wren, was fired. The organization, depleted in young talent on the farm, decided to start over.
With that move, the first year was painful as the Braves had their worst season since 1990. The 67-95 record in 2015 shocked many fans, some of whom were not even around the last time the Braves were rebuilding.
But a number of trades and one pitching-rich draft later, the Braves feel they are on the road back. When John Hart and John Coppolella took over for Wren in late October, 2014, the Braves had one of the worst farm systems in baseball. Last month, ESPN’s Keith Law rated Atlanta’s as the best, while Baseball America had the Braves second-best behind the Dodgers.
Just this past week Baseball America featured the Braves and nine of their best prospects on the cover of its latest issue.
The rebuilding process is in full speed mode, and the results are starting to show.
“We didn't think it would happen this quickly, but we approach every day with the goal of improving,” said Coppolella at spring training. “It's relentless and monomaniacal, and probably not healthy, but all of us - starting with John Hart and (former general manager) John Schuerholz, two great leaders I am fortunate to have as mentors - want more than anything to bring another championship to Atlanta and our fans.”
And when that happens, chances are there will be more new names above the lockers. The names in Triple-A Gwinnett, Double-A Mississippi, High-A Carolina and Low-A Rome may be just as important to know this season as the players in Atlanta.
Coppolella, who was given the title of general manager late last season, made two major offseason trades that gave the Braves their two new best prospects. First, he traded fan-favorite Andrelton Simmons to the Angels for a package that included Sean Newcomb, a left-handed pitching prospect scouts project as a potential ace. Then he traded Shelby Miller to the Diamondbacks for three players, led by infielder Dansby Swanson.
“Those two trades added six young players who we feel have a chance to impact the organization as soon as this season,” Coppolella explained. “We feel that Erick Aybar, Sean Newcomb, Chris Ellis, Ender Inciarte, Aaron Blair, and Dansby Swanson will make us better in both the short- and long-term as we try to build for sustained long-term success.”
Newcomb, Ellis and Blair – three pitching prospects - simply add to a long list of pitchers that have made Atlanta’s prospect list so impressive. The depth is reminiscent of the late-1980s, when the names were Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, Pete Smith and Kent Mercker.
There may not be a future Hall of Famer in the bunch, but that’s the plan – to stockpile as many good young arms as possible.
“We got pitching in every single trade,” Coppolella said. “The Braves under John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox were built around pitching, and we are trying the same formula here with an emphasis on quality as well as quantity. We saw the enormous value placed on pitching in the free agent market and we wanted to get ahead of the curve by creating what we feel is the best collection of pitching talent in all the minor leagues.”
Newcomb is likely a year away, while Blair could join the Atlanta rotation sometime this summer. Ellis will join Newcomb and Lucas Sims in Double-A to start the season. Touki Toussaint and Zach Bird are two solid prospects slated for High-A, while Max Fried, Mike Soroka, Ricardo Sanchez and eventually Kolby Allard (coming back from back surgery) will lead Rome’s rotation.
Of those 10 pitchers, only three were drafted by the Braves – Sims in the first round in 2012 and Soroka and Allard last June. The other seven all came in trades.
It’s not like the current rotation in Atlanta is full of graybeards. Teheran, the number one starter, is only 25 years old. Matt Wisler, the number three starter, is just 23, while Williams Perez and Mike Foltynewicz (who will join the rotation soon) are only 24 years old.
Not all the pitchers will make it, but the idea is to create logjams and provide depth that can help fill in other needs around the diamond. If the Braves need help at a certain position, and if the pitchers are backed up, one could be used in a trade to fill that need.
But the position players are coming, as well. Swanson was a major addition, as he is a hometown kid (from Marietta, GA) with name recognition. He had a great career at Vanderbilt before being picked with the number one selection last June. Now, Swanson may be as important to the Braves as the last infielder they had who was picked first overall – Chipper Jones.
Swanson has been compared more to Derek Jeter. As one scout said in the Lindy’s preseason baseball magazine, “He’s got talent, great makeup and great work ethic. Maybe he’s not going to be an All-Star every year, but he’s going to help you win.”
The Braves have a unique situation with Swanson and 19-year-old Ozzie Albies. Both are natural shortstops, but both can also play second base. Atlanta’s front office will take this year to closely evaluate both players at both positions and then decide where they will stick for the future. But a year from now, Swanson and Albies could both help the Braves open new Sun Trust Park.
“They aren't far off and both are exciting players our fans are going to love -- and the same goes for Mallex Smith,” Coppolella said. “This trio will give us the first homegrown up-the-middle impact speed talent we have had since Rafael Furcal.”
Smith is a speedy outfielder who will start the season in Triple-A Gwinnett. He could push one of the projected starting outfielders in Atlanta out of the way with a solid start.
The Braves will most likely add to the young talent this summer, as they have the third overall pick in the draft. Plus, rumors persist the team will be aggressive and active on the international market, and they have already been linked to several high-profiled free agents that could command major financial commitments.
So it’s very possible the highly-rated farm system will be viewed as being even stronger a year from now, which will help the rebuilding process even more.
This year’s team must do better than the dismal season in 2015. The Braves must improve on offense, as last year’s squad was last in baseball in runs scored. And the key to the lineup is once again Freeman, who will start his sixth season as the starter at first base.
The 26-year-old Freeman is under contract for six more years, so the Braves are building around him. As his friends have all been traded away, Freeman is now the veteran who has worn the Atlanta Braves’ uniform the longest. He’s a career .285 hitter and has averaged 20.6 home runs and 84.6 runs batted in for the last five seasons.
Freeman will be counted on for leadership as the younger players surround him, but he’ll also need to be the main player in the middle of the lineup – this season and in the years to come.
“Freddie is our David Wright,” admitted Coppolella. “He may have gone through some adversity in terms of the performance of the franchise, but when we get really good again -- and that's not as far off as people think -- he is our best player, our constant, our rock.”
Freeman will headline a lineup that will include several new players, including Inciarte and Aybar, who will be atop the batting order. Hector Olivera, acquired last summer from the Dodgers, will be counted on to help protect Freeman in the lineup, as will third baseman Adonis Garcia.
The Braves have brought in several veterans, like Kelly Johnson and Jeff Francoeur – two members of the Baby Braves team from 2005 – to help provide leadership. Gordon Beckham and Drew Stubbs are two additional older players who can help make the team better.
Atlanta’s season fell apart last year when Johnson was traded to the Mets. The lineup was never the same. Then closer Jason Grilli was injured in late-July and missed the rest of the season. Arodys Vizcaino did well replacing Grilli, but the middle relief was awful.
While the Braves have three rookies in middle relief to start the season, they believe the pitching will be better. Grilli is back and he will share closing duties with Vizcaino. O’Flaherty and Jim Johnson should help in the middle innings.
The rotation will be young, with Teheran leading the way. Teheran had a great spring, and the Braves are counting on him. Wisler is expected to improve on the work he did last year in his 19 starts. Veterans Bud Norris and Jhoulys Chacin will help eat innings until many of the younger pitching prospects are ready to join the rotation.
Many of the names on Monday’s opening day roster might change during the season. Last year, Coppolella made several in-season trades. More could be expected again this year, particularly if the team struggles and veterans can be dealt for younger players or prospects.
How the Braves survive those trades might be important. Last year, the talent wasn’t there to replace the traded players, but this season the talent level should be better to withstand any veteran who is dealt away.
The main priority for the Braves this year seems simple – to improve last year’s abysmal record. Most everyone realizes what’s going on with the organization and realize the expectations are low. But taking the next step seems to be the priority.
“It's my 10th year with the organization and we feel like we are closer to becoming a championship-caliber team once again than at any point in those 10 years,” Coppolella said. “We always built competitive teams, but not championship-caliber. That could explain why we have not won a playoff series in 15 years.”
“The goal for us is to put a better product on the field each season. We feel we will be better in 2016 than 2015, better in 2017 than 2016, and so on until we have a team where we can honestly feel like we have they type of talent on our roster that gives us a chance to reach the World Series each year.”
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