For a five-year stretch from 2009 to 2013, the Braves averaged 91 wins a season and made the playoffs three times, capped off by a 96 win NL East title in 2013. After a disappointing NLDS loss to the Dodgers (to move the playoff series losing streak to 8), the Frank Wren-led Braves front office made a series of contract extensions with a core group of young players including Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman, and Julio Teheran. Key contributors like Tim Hudson and Brian McCann were allowed to walk off to lucrative free agent contracts, and young, proven pitchers such as Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Eric O’Flaherty, and Jonny Venters were all lost to injury. However, after five good seasons highlighted by the division win in 2013, the franchise emitted an overall feeling of optimism as a core group of contributors was locked up to long term team-friendly contracts. Frank Wren and Braves fans expected to keep winning.
But then the last fifteen years caught up, 2014 saw just 79 Brave wins. In an era when team payrolls are exploding because of excess revenue from TV contracts, the Braves are limited by one of the worst TV contracts in Major League Baseball (around $20 million per year compared to contracts in the $200 millions for the Dodgers, Yankees, and Angels) and an ownership that prefers not to spend big. Frank Wren didn’t have much to work with when it came time to sign free agents, which meant that when he did spend he couldn’t afford to miss. Unfortunately, he missed big. The marquee contracts under his tenure, BJ Upton and Dan Uggla, under-performed drastically, leaving massive holes in center field and second base that the Braves couldn’t afford to fill.
Meanwhile, a win-now attitude over the preceding decade and a half left the Braves with an empty farm system that lacked the top prospects needed to reload. Trades under the John Schuerholz era for star rentals JD Drew and Mark Teixeira cost the franchise long term rights to then-prospects like Adam Wainwright and Elvis Andrus. These trades and the Wren-led Justin Upton trade prior to the 2012 season were all successful in the short term, but in the long run they left a Braves franchise that used to pride itself on a productive farm with a bottom-five system.
The Braves entered the 2015 off-season with three devastating problems: a bad team coming off a disappointing season, an empty farm system, and financial limitations crippled further by the B.J. Upton contact. The franchise was at a crossroads, with just two options. They could stay on the same path and sign over priced veterans to ineffectively patch holes in a sinking ship, or they could make a drastic overhaul. The Braves management opted for the latter, and they determined that Frank Wren wasn’t the man for the job.
In came the Coalition of the Johns (President John Scheurholz, President of Baseball Operations John Hart, and General Manager John Coppolella). Between Scheurholz and Hart, the new Braves front office combined for seven World Series appearances in the ’90s as general managers of the Braves and Indians, respectively. The management decided that in order to win in the long run, and win big, they would have to break up the current core. The coming season would be a contract year for two of the 2014 Braves’ most productive players, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton. Given the bad TV deal and each player’s value, chances were they would be impossible to resign. Under the reasonable assumption that the Braves could’t contend in 2015, the Johns made the wise decision to trade the two players for long-term value before they walked and left the Braves with nothing. In return the Braves received Shelby Miller, who would provide an All-Star season (and more to be described soon), and prospects, including current starting second baseman Jace Peterson, centerfielder of the future Mallex Smith, and the current #9 prospect, pitcher Max Fried.
As the busy off-season came to a close, the Braves seemed finished trading. However, the Braves’ biggest liability, B.J. Upton, was still on the payroll. Then, on the eve of Opening day, the biggest domino in the grand scheme fell. The Braves convinced the Padres to take on the remaining years of B.J. Upton’s contract along with dominant closer Craig Kimbrel. The Braves received outfielder Cameron Maybin (who far outperformed expectations) and two more prospects, including top pitching prospect Matt Wisler (who made meaningful starts in 2015).
In five short months the Braves drastically altered the direction of the franchise, becoming much worse for the immediate future while clearing payroll and stockpiling young prospects, especially pitchers. The 2015 season went as expected, with the Braves winning just 67 games, their worst record in a quarter century. The one notable of the season was the Braves’ willingness to relieve the Diamondbacks of Bronson Arroyo’s $10 million contract in exchange for another top ten prospect, 2014 first rounder pitcher Touki Toussaint. So far this off-season the Braves have gotten even worse- and that’s a great thing for Braves fans.
In a decisive move this fall, the Braves traded Andrelton Simmons, the best defensive shortstop in a generation, for Eric Aybar and two more pitching prospects, Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis. Simmons was widely believed to be an integral part of the Braves’ long-term plan, so this deal left many experts and fans puzzled. Then, in the magnum opus of the rebuild, the Braves answered this question. In December Scheurholz, Hart, and Coppolella pulled off what will likely be the best of the last year’s many trades, sending Shelby Miller* to Arizona in exchange for outfielder Ender Inciarte, pitching prospect Aaron Blair, and 2015’s number one overall draft pick, shortstop Dansby Swanson. In addition to the numerous highly touted picking prospects, the Braves have the first number one pick in their system since Chipper Jones, and someone with the defensive and offensive tools to more than replace Simmons.
Not every move Schuerholz, Hart, and Coppolella have made make perfect sense. Signing veteran Nick Markakis to an expensive four-year deal contradicted the strategy of a team that made no pretensions of trying to contend. Trading a young, proven starting pitcher in Alex Wood along with pre-rebuild top prospect Jose Peraza for Hector Olivera, a 31 year old Cuban third-baseman with no major league experience, still does’t make much sense (although the Dodgers now project Wood as a reliever, and Peraza is now considered a utility man rather than a starter).
Overall, in the last year the Braves have done a miraculous job turning around the direction of the franchise. While at the end of 2014 with no light at the end of the tunnel, the Braves now have a clear path to contention. What was a bottom-five farm system devoid of meaningful prospects is now a top five farm system that contains 2017’s middle infield of Swanson, Ozzie Albies, and an overabundance of young arms. Seven to eight (depending on your source) of the Braves’ top ten prospects were not in the organization during 2014, including five of MLB.com’s top 89 prospects (Swanson 10, Newcomb 21, Albies 29, Blair 56, and 2015 first round pick Allard 89). Although the Braves have fallen from a top-five payroll team to a bottom-ten team as their spending has remained level at around $90 million over the last fifteen years, what was a franchise strapped for cash due to bad contracts now has an open payroll that can make meaningful signings when the time is right.
Trends in Major League Baseball support the Braves’ strategy, too. As free agent contracts continue to inflate, young players still on their original contracts have become more valuable than ever. The market for veteran starting pitchers is especially sparse, meaning even mediocre free agents are tough for smaller market teams to sign (like Jeff Samardzija signing a 5 year/$90 million deal with the Giants with a career 4.09 ERA). Being able to develop a crop of young, effective pitchers like the Mets have done in recent seasons is a proven path to success that the Braves hope to replicate. The Braves only need a few of the stockpile of prospects like Sean Newcomb, Aaron Blair, or Lucas Sims to be hits in order to build a formidable staff. As for the others? The rest of the league will be happy to take a risk on developing their own young pitchers, and the Braves will be in an excellent position to capitalize on the demand.
As the Braves traded away star player after star player, there was a lot of frustration among casual fans. I can certainly understand it- you grow attached players you love to watch and identify with, and it hurts seeing them in another uniform. But, if the Braves want to win, they simply didn’t have another choice. For a small-market team, building a strong farm system while making financially savvy moves is the only way to win. For a Braves fan like me who wasn’t old enough to witness and appreciate the greatness of the ’90s this is an exciting time. We get to watch a group of extremely talented kids grow up right in front of us. The losses this year and probably next year will be tough, but soon the Braves are going to win. Unlike the pretty good Braves teams between 2009 and 2013, these next Braves teams will be built from the ground up to win and win big for a long time to come. Sticking through these next few seasons will be tough, but that will make it even more gratifying when the Braves do turn things around. Going through 1989 and 1990 was and will be tough, but 1991 is just around the corner.
*Essentially, between two trades, the Braves traded one year of Jason Heyward for one year of Shelby Miller, top 15 pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins, Ender Inciarte, Aaron Blair, and Dansby Swanson.