Wait 'Til Next Year: For awful Braves, is even worse to come in 2016?
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it's only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait 'Til Next Year series. Next up: The Atlanta Braves.
Previous Entries: Phillies
Current Record: 56–88 (.389, fourth in the NL East)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 10
What went right in 2015: The Braves spent most of 2014 in contention before an 11–22 finish led to the dismissal of general manager Frank Wren and a surprising plunge into rebuilding, one that saw the team trade Evan Gattis, Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, Justin Upton and more. That trimmed the Opening Day payroll by about $15 million and began the refurbishment of a farm system that Baseball America ranked 26th last year. Despite the makeover, the team remained competitive through the first half of the season, splitting its first 84 games before plunging into a 14–46 nosedive that featured further trades.
Still, there isn't much to point to that's been particularly successful in the short term, and even Atlanta's successes carry caveats. Shelby Miller, acquired in the Heyward deal, earned All-Star honors by pitching to career bests in both ERA (2.86) and FIP (3.34), though his 2.5 runs per game of support has limited his record to 5–14. Freddie Freeman has turned in a Freddie Freeman-esque season, hitting .282/.371/.473 with 16 homers, though he's missed 43 games due to right wrist and oblique injuries. Andrelton Simmons has again shown off his amazing glove, netting 22 Defensive Runs Saved and rebounding somewhat with the bat; his 84 OPS+ is 10 points better than last year because he's walking at a career-best 7.3% clip, though he's also posting a career-worst .072 isolated power.
Cameron Maybin, acquired in the Kimbrel/Melvin Upton Jr. deal, has rebounded with the bat (.268/.332.382), though the defensive metrics haven't liked his glove work (-16 DRS, -8 UZR). Nick Markakis, Atlanta's marquee free agent from the past winter, has played in a team-high 141 games and hit for a representative 107 OPS+, something that didn't seem likely after he underwent off-season neck surgery, though why exactly the team committed $44 million to him over four years for has yet to be answered.
Thirty-eight-year-old A.J. Pierzynski, signed for just $2 million, has reversed his decline with the bat, hitting .292/.331/.411, though his work behind the plate remains subpar. Jason Grilli saved 24 games, but a ruptured left Achilles ended his season at the All-Star break. Jim Johnson and Juan Uribe boosted their value during their short stays, though the puzzling trade that sent Johnson to the Dodgers on July 31 also cost Atlanta six years of top prospect Jose Peraza and four-plus of Alex Wood. In return, the Braves got Hector Olivera, a 30-year-old Cuban infielder whose 2015 season has mostly been lost to injuries. They also more or less stole 2014 first-round pick Touki Toussaint from the Diamondbacks, but the 19-year-old righty has posted a 5.73 ERA in 10 starts at Class A Rome since the deal. And that's the good stuff.
What went wrong in 2015: That 14–46 slide is worse than any 60-game stretch the franchise has endured since 1935, when they were still in Boston, and likewise for the tail end of it, a 3–24 death march during which they've been outscored by 108 runs, or 4.0 per game. Beyond the possibility of beating out the Phillies for the No. 1 pick in next year's draft, it's still difficult to make heads or tails of the rebuilding effort—not because of the lack of immediate returns, but because of the lack of an underlying philosophy beyond preparing for the team's 2017 move into suburban SunTrust Park.
Sure, GM John Hart and company trimmed $15 million for 2015 and $7 million in '17 commitments by unloading Kimbrel, Melvin Upton and Chris Johnson, but the Braves also absorbed a net of $20 million worth of 2016 salary for Michael Bourn and on-his-last-legs Nick Swisher, who were acquired from the Indians in August. Furthermore, they have around $33 million committed to the age-31–35 seasons of the still-unproven Olivera, offsetting those previous '17 cuts. For just about every other team, that's just money to shrug off, but Liberty Media Corp. is as bottom-line focused as any owner in the game, and every dollar committed carries a steeper opportunity cost than just about anywhere else. Recall that it was the commitments to the aforementioned Upton and the since-departed Dan Uggla—sunk costs that another team would have recognized as such—that undid Wren and set the stage for the teardown of a perennial contender.
And then there's the pitching. For a team that prides itself on producing a pipeline of young arms, the Braves sure have burned through some of their best in recent years, even beyond the non-tenders that followed two-time Tommy John surgery recipients Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen last winter. Mike Minor, who didn't pitch and underwent season-ending shoulder surgery to repair a slight tear of his labrum in May, seems fated to join Tommy Hanson among the ranks of could-have-beens. Julio Teheran, who's still just 24 and cost-controlled through 2020, has added 1 1/2 runs to last year's stellar 2.89 ERA through exorbitant home run and walk rates, though at least there's nothing to suggest he's injured. Wood, also 24 and under club control through 2019, produced 6.2 WAR for the team in 291 innings over '14–15 before being sent to the Dodgers.
The rookies who have dotted the rotation in place of Minor, Wood et al.—Matt Wisler (from the Kimbrel/Upton deal), Mike Foltynewicz (from the Gattis deal), Manny Banuelos (from the Yankees for David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve) and homegrown Williams Perez—have all been torched for ERAs and FIPs above 5.00 while combining for 53 starts. It's certainly too early to write them off, but pitching like the rookie editions of Tom Glavine and John Smoltz doesn't mean they're about to anchor a run of division titles, let alone wind up in Cooperstown.
Beyond the pitching, catcher Christian Bethancourt, the team's third-ranked prospect according to Baseball America, has hit an abysmal .188/.209/.271 in 148 PA and has allowed seven passed balls (fifth in the NL) in just 325 1/3 innings behind the plate (24th), ranking among the worst at pitch-framing as well. Jace Peterson, acquired from the Padres in the Justin Upton trade, has hit all of .239/.313/.336 for an 80 OPS+ and 0.3 WAR.
Overall outlook: Despite having made the playoffs three times from 2010 to '13, the Braves had no intention of contending in '15, and they've lived up to that strange promise while keeping an eye towards their move to the suburbs. They've done a good job of restocking the farm system; ESPN's Keith Law ranked them second in July, though that was before the loss of Peraza, and his ranking emphasized their depth while noting a lack of near-ready stars. Their major league roster is a mess that promises more of the same in 2016 unless multiple young arms take steps forward, and even then, too much of their continued overhaul depends upon the fruition of Olivera rather than the emergence of the next Carlos Correa or Kris Bryant.