It's really quite amazing how much a franchise's fortunes can change in three years. In 2013, the Houston Astros were 51-111 and a trainwreck. Now? They are coming off a playoff appearance and one of the American League 2016 favorites. Also in '13, the Chicago Cubs were 66-96 and last in the NL Central again. Now? They are coming off a playoff appearance, have a young roster that's the envy of every other team in baseball and are World Series betting favorites.
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That brings me to the Atlanta Braves. They were NL East champions in 2013 at 96-66 but lost in the NLDS. The team slipped to 79-83 in 2014. Thus, team management saw the truth: that 2013 season was really fool's gold and it was time to start rebuilding for when the team moved into its new stadium in 2017. So the Braves dealt the likes of Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis and Craig Kimbrel before last season. Atlanta slipped to a 67-95 mark, the team's worst since 1990 (the Braves dynasty began the next year).
This offseason, the team went crazy in selling off just about every piece it had for prospects with an eye on '17 and beyond. The Braves are following in the model of the Astros and Cubs: tank and land high draft picks and large draft salary pools.
Gone this offseason were the team's best pitcher, Shelby Miller, who was acquired in that Heyward deal, as well as defensive wizard shortstop Andrelton Simmons even though he's still young and was locked up long term. That has led many to wonder whether the Braves might keep dealing this season with the likes of pitcher Julio Teheran and first baseman Freddie Freeman.
But give Atlanta credit: It has a plan and is sticking to it and now has one of the best farm systems in baseball where a few years ago it was one of the worst.
Atlanta opens the season Monday at home against Washington.
Braves 2016 Projected Lineup
Simmons hit .265 with four homers and 44 RBIs in 2015. He won't be missed at the plate but in the field. Also traded was outfielder Cameron Maybin to Detroit. The Braves sold high on the injury-prone Maybin, who hit .267 with 10 HRs, 59 RBIs and 23 steals. That was a brilliant trade (for two young pitchers). Not sure about the Simmons deal yet.
Most MLB experts believe the Braves robbed Arizona in the Miller trade, which netted Atlanta excellent center fielder Ender Inciarte as well as shortstop prospect Dansby Swanson (and others), the No. 1 overall pick in 2015. Swanson will probably be up later this summer if he keeps hitting in the minors.
As for Inciarte (.303, 45 RBIs, 21 steals), he will leadoff and play excellent defense. Teams around MLB call on him every day. But he's only 25, so the Braves would have to be blown away. The new shortstop and No. 2 hitter is Erick Aybar, who hit .270 with 44 RBIs and 15 steals with the Angels. He was part of the Simmons trade with the Angels, which largely was about young pitching heading to Atlanta. Aybar is just a one-year stopgap in the final season of his contract. I fully expect him to be dealt and then Swanson can take over in July.
The face of the franchise now clearly is Freeman (.276, 18 HRs, 66 RBIs), a very good player if not perhaps the star many projected. He's locked up long term, so maybe the team keeps him. Right fielder Nick Markakis (.296, 53 RBIs) is another trade candidate as the veteran doesn't fit long term. Still not sure why the team signed him to a big free-agent deal last season.
Last July, the Braves traded pitcher Alex Wood in a three-team deal with the Dodgers and Marlins that landed Atlanta some prospects and Hector Olivera, a Cuban who had gotten $62.5 million from L.A. It's still hard to know what Olivera is as he hit .253 with two HRs in 79 at-bats as a rookie. He's ticketed for left field right now but also can play third.
That first five isn't too bad, but the bottom is: a catcher platoon of A.J. Pierzynski/Tyler Flowers, third baseman Adonis Garcia (.277, 10 HRs, 26 RBIs) and second baseman Jace Peterson (.239, 52 RBIs, 12 steals).
Last summer, the Braves got outfielders Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, both way past their prime, from Cleveland. Bourn is still around and will back up in left and center. Atlanta released Swisher this week even though it has to pay him $15 million in 2015.
Braves 2016 Projected Rotation & Closer
Atlanta's system is absolutely loaded with young pitching, so a lot of these current guys are placeholders. Teheran seems like he has been around forever but is only 25. He was terrific in 2013 & '14 but regressed to an 11-8 record and 4.04 ERA last year. If Teheran gets off to a good start, the Braves might sell high on him.
There's not much after him currently. Matt Wisler (8-8, 4.71) and journeyman Bud Norris (3-11, 6.72) currently slot in after Teheran. Williams Perez, Jhoulys Chacin, and John Gant are in the mix for the final two spots in the starting rotation as of now, but guys like Manny Banuelos and Michael Foltynewicz could factor in. At some point this season, the Braves are likely to call up three of their top five pitching prospects in Sean Newcomb, Aaron Blair and Tyrell Jenkins.
Former top prospect Arodys Vizcaino (3-1, 9 saves, 1.60 ERA) takes over as the full-time closer. Jason Grilli led the team with 24 saves last season, but his year ended due to a ruptured left Achilles tendon that delayed his spring debut. He may or may not be ready for Opening Day. Grilli could still share some chances with Vizcaino when healthy. Or be traded too.
Braves Futures Odds
At BetOnline , Atlanta is +17500 to win the World Series, +10000 for the NL pennant, +6600 in the NL East and has an "over/under" wins of 67.5, with the over a -120 favorite. The only player prop at the site is Olivera at +700 for NL Rookie of the Year.
Braves 2016 Predictions
FanGraphs projects Atlanta to finish 67-95 and last in the NL East; only Philadelphia (64-98) is projected with fewer wins. Wow, 67.5 wins is really low. But someone has to lose at least 100 games every year, right? Go under. No ROY for Olivera -- that will be won by the Dodgers' Corey Seager.
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Read more articles by Alan Matthews
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