The Braves’ season is lost and their future is a big question mark
The Braves are 5-17. The season is lost. Manager Fredi Gonzalez will be fired. So much for the final season at Turner Field, which was never all that promising to begin with.
The real question is what the Braves will look like in their first year at the new SunTrust Park next season, and in all the years to follow.
The Braves will gain significant financial flexibility this offseason, thanks to at least $50 million in expiring contracts. Some of their top prospects will be ready for the majors, or close to it, in 2017. Bud Black, or someone like him, could be the new manager.
Here’s the problem:
If the Braves failed to properly evaluate this year’s roster — an understatement, the way things are turning out — who’s to say their other evaluations can be trusted?
General manager John Coppolella, after the team started 0-9, told the Braves’ MLB.com website that he believed the club’s 25-man roster was better than the group that finished last season 67-95.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution followed up by asking Coppolella why he thought that way.
"I think it’s a deeper lineup, better bullpen, growth of young players and improved health," Coppolella said. "Those four factors, I think, put a better team out there for us. Whether or not it leads to a better record … it’s a better 25."
Coppolella, contacted on Thursday by FOX Sports, adopted a more somber tone.
"We’re obviously disappointed in the way this season has gone," he said. "We’re not going to make excuses. We know we need to play better.
We’re obviously disappointed in the way this season has gone. We’re not going to make excuses. We know we need to play better.
Braves GM John Coppolella
"We’re excited about our future. There are a lot of good things going on in our farm system. But we need to start playing better now. We can’t finish the year the way we’re playing right now."
Some of the Braves’ troubles are beyond Coppolella’s control — new center fielder Ender Inciarte played only three games before going on the DL with a strained left hamstring. Some also are unexpected — new shortstop Erick Aybar became one of the worst players in the majors seemingly overnight.
The Braves have hit four homers. Their No. 2 starter, Bud Norris, has an 8.74 ERA. Their one actual star, first baseman Freddie Freeman, is batting .219 with a .680 OPS.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, continues to draw scrutiny with his decision-making, not that Bobby Cox could get much more out of this bunch.
Maybe things will improve slightly once the Braves dismiss Gonzalez — it’s difficult to imagine him surviving past the team’s current eight-game road trip, with the Braves facing the Red Sox, Cubs and Mets. But whichever coach the Braves appoint as Gonzalez’s interim replacement — most likely, Eddie Perez or Terry Pendleton — will be just as doomed.
Which brings us back to the construction of the present roster.
It was Coppolella who acquired Aybar and two highly regarded pitching prospects for Andrelton Simmons, an elite defensive shortstop who was under club control for five more years.
And it was Coppolella who acquired third baseman Hector Olivera in a complex 13-player trade that cost the Braves both young talent and money; Olivera remains on paid administrative leave while baseball determines his penalty for a domestic-violence incident.
Some trades work out, some do not — that’s baseball. Coppolella certainly scored big in landing Inciarte, shortstop Dansby Swanson and right-hander Aaron Blair for Shelby Miller, and some of his other deals look good, too.
Prospects, though, are like trades — hit and miss.
(The Braves) have plenty of upside and lots of high picks left.
One rival executive
The Braves are excited about third baseman Rio Ruiz, who is batting .329 at Triple A at age 21; shortstop Ozzie Albies, who is batting .351 at Double A at 19; and Swanson, who is batting .333 at High A at 22.
They also are excited about two right-handers at Triple A, Mike Foltynewicz and Lucas Sims, both of whom throw in the high 90s, and Blair, a No. 3 or 4 type starter who made his major-league debut last Sunday.
On the other hand, left-hander Sean Newcomb, acquired in the Simmons trade, continues to show questionable command at Double A. And righty Touki Toussaint, the prize of the Bronson Arroyo salary dump, has a 12.66 ERA in his first three starts in the Class A South Atlantic League, though he is just 19.
Prospects do not always develop in linear fashion; players do not always transition into new organizations seamlessly. To be sure, the Braves’ farm system is in a better place than when Coppolella and president of baseball operations John Hart took over after the 2014 season. Albies and Sims were among the players the new regime inherited, and all of the trades helped the system improve from 29th to third in the Baseball America organizational rankings.
Still, many of the Braves’ top young pitchers have an injury history, and none of the hitting prospects is the next Kris Bryant or Carlos Correa.
Such players, of course, are difficult to find. And sometimes — see Paul Goldschmidt and Jacob deGrom — they come out of nowhere. So, while some in the industry believe that the Braves lack impact young talent, one rival executive counters, "I don’t think you can say that. They have plenty of upside and lots of high picks left."
Problem is, this is not a great year for the Braves to hold the No. 3 overall selection; the top of the draft does not include a player at the Bryant-Correa level, industry observers say.
This also will not be a great offseason for the Braves to regain financial flexibility. The free-agent market will be thin, though the Braves at least will be in position to sign the front-line catcher they desperately need, with Matt Wieters, Francisco Cervelli and Wilson Ramos all expected to hit the market.
Ultimately, the Braves believe they can be like the Royals, a team without major stars, but athletic, strong up the middle and maybe even deeper in pitching. Coppolella can use some of his young pitchers as chips to acquire position players, and others to form a powerhouse bullpen; two relievers coming off Tommy John surgery, Shae Simmons and Paco Rodriguez, also should be back in ’17.
The plan seems reasonable enough. But as the Braves are so cruelly discovering, plans do not always develop smoothly.