It’s easy to forget. The seasons are both long and impressionistic, so they tend to wipe away memories of what came before. Unless what came before was traumatic; those things tend to linger in the mind. The successes fade quickly, though, and especially when they’re modest.
I mean, seriously: Do you remember this, at all?
Two years ago the Braves won 96 games and had the youngest average age of position players in NL and third-youngest pitching staff.
Those 2013 Braves were hardly one-hit wonders, either; the year before, they won 94 games.
But in 2015? In 2015, the Braves posted their worst record and their lowest attendance since 1990. In 1991, they more than doubled their attendance and very nearly won the World Series. Since then it’s almost all been good. Until this year.
So what happened?
Two years ago, the Braves’ best players were all in their 20s, beginning with a trio of 23-year-olds: Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman, and Jason Heyward. Justin Upton (25), Brian McCann (29) and Chris Johnson (28) were also quite good. Those six were so good that even with everyday players Dan Uggla and Melvin (then B.J.) Upton playing poorly, the Braves still finished fourth in the National League in scoring.
Well, as young as those six were, two years later only Simmons and Freeman were still around, and neither of them were nearly as good. Simmons slipped some (but is still an outstanding player) and Freeman spent five-plus weeks on the disabled list with a wrist injury.
Even with their slippages, Simmons and Freeman were still the Braves’ best players, without any real competition. But the Braves’ problem wasn’t that they had too few good players; it was that they had too many terrible players.
Or maybe that’s not fair. Maybe it’s more fair to say the 2015 Braves had too many players having terrible seasons. But it’s not easy to find significant playing time for nine or 10 sub-replacement-level bats, and yet somehow the Braves managed to do exactly that. Which is how you finish last in the National League in scoring.
In 2013, the Braves finished with the lowest ERA in the league. In 2015, they were 13th.
In 2013, Mike Minor (25 years old), Kris Medlen (27), Julio Teheran (22), Paul Maholm (31) and Tim Hudson (37) accounted for 140 starts. Those guys were all pretty good, but the bullpen was even better, with a 2.46 ERA that easily led the league. Craig Kimbrel, David Carpenter and Luis Avilan were particularly good. Oh, and 22-year-old rookie Alex Wood performed well as both starter (11 starts) and reliever.
All those starting pitchers? Except for Teheran, they’re all gone. Wood was nearly the Braves’ best starting pitcher until they traded him to the Dodgers at the deadline this past season. Still, Wood and Teheran and Shelby Miller gave the Braves a pretty decent top three for the season’s first few months.
The bullpen, though, was a disaster. If Atlanta’s relievers had given up just two more runs all season, they would have beat out the Rockies for the National League’s worst bullpen ERA. Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson pitched well, but neither lasted the entire season. Meanwhile, the Braves used 30 relief pitchers. Not including Jonny Gomes. And very few of the-
Hold on. Let’s back up. The Braves used 30 relief pitchers.
It probably wasn’t even the most in the majors, but I don’t think we should just let that pass without some acknowledgment. It wasn’t all that long ago that teams carried only 10 pitchers: five starters, five relievers. Even now, it’s usually seven relief pitchers on the 25-man roster. So the Braves used four complete bullpens this year. Plus a couple of guys they found in the stands toward the end of a long game. And so finally it occurs to me that someday we’re all going to know a major-league relief pitcher personally. He might be your brother or your cousin or somebody in your high-school biology class or your second-best friend’s cousin or the guy three doors down you see at the dog park every two or three Saturday mornings. But you’re going to know one. And it’ll be nice to have something to talk about.
Anyway, considering all the moves the Braves have made in the last year or so, it’s difficult to take them seriously as contenders anytime soon. I suppose you might argue that a franchise that’s given up wouldn’t sign Nick Markakis for four years or trade for 30-year-old Hector Olivera. On the other hand, it’ll be fairly shocking if the Braves clear .500 in 2016.
There is hope, though. Not much on the lineup side, unless Christian Bethancourt, such a huge disappointment last season, actually outplays A.J. Pierzynski next season. On the pitching side, though? Bullpens are the easiest thing to fix, and the rotation is now stacked with youngsters; it’s quite possible that all five starters in the Opening Day rotation next spring will be 25 or younger, highlighted by Teheran, Miller and prospects Matt Wisler and Mike Foltynowicz. Not to mention prospects Manny Banuelos and Williams Perez.*
* There’s also some talk about prospect Tyrell Jenkins, if only because he was named the Braves’ Minor League Pitcher of the Yearthis year. Maybe so, but I’m sure not seeing it. It’s been a few years since he was actually considered a hot prospect, and this year his strikeouts and his walks were wildly unimpressive. Maybe the numbers are wrong about him. Usually they are not.
All those young pitchers, and Andrelton Simmons and Freddie Freeman … It’s not enough, but it’s a pretty good start. So what’s all this talk about trading Simmons about? Well, that would seem to extend the rebuilding efforts past 2017, when the Braves are moving into their new stadium. Unless Sid Bream and Terry Pendleton can be coaxed out of retirement, that is. And Freeman can play shortstop.