Nearing final stretch, Braves search for 2018 contributors

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Nearing final stretch, Braves search for 2018 contributors

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ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.co
Marietta's Dansby Swanson recorded two hits in his major league career on Aug. 17, 2016, before a home crowd. He hit .302 with an OPS of .832 in 32 big-league games in 2016. The 22-year-old shortstop struggled at the plate in the 2017 season before being demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett in late July.

After a 3-4 road trip, the Braves return to SunTrust Park for a nine-game homestand, their third from last stint at their new home, that begins Friday night.

The latest week away was more of the same enigmatic Braves who’ve been both exhilarating and frustrating in the third season of general manager John Coppolella’s rebuild.

The Braves are on a roughly 73-win pace, which would be a five-game improvement from 2016. Yet that could still be considered a disappointment; the team’s collapsed since sweeping the Diamondbacks to reach .500 (45-45) on July 16.

But in some ways, they’re ahead of the curve. Coppolella told the AJC before the season they expected to build baseball’s best farm system in five years. They did so in two.

“We are better,” Coppolella said at the end of spring training. “Our organization is better. Our major league team is better. Our minor league talent is better. All that said, we still have a lot of room for growth and improvement. We are barely two years into this rebuild — two drafts, two foreign signing periods, two trade deadlines — we haven’t had five years like the Cubs, seven like the Astros, nine like the Royals, or 20 like the Pirates. The improvements we have made the last two years have been incredible.”

“Incredible” wouldn’t be a word to describe the recent Braves. Since climbing to .500, they’re 9-20. They’ve inexplicably lost 11 of 13 to the majors-worst Phillies. A 17-2 loss to Colorado on Wednesday was a new low, though the team salvaged a series split. 

The starting rotation’s inconsistency again sank the ship. Coppolella said he expected to get 550-600 innings from the veteran trio of R.A. Dickey, Bartolo Colon and Jaime Garcia. Colon posted an 8.14 ERA in 63 innings before he was designated for assignment. Garcia was adequate over 113 innings with a 4.30 ERA before he was traded to Minnesota in late July. Dickey has been perhaps the team’s best starter, pitching to a 3.89 ERA across 141 innings.

So Coppolella, who ideally hoped for an average of 183 innings from each of his offseason acquisitions, got 176 total from Colon and Garcia (granted, surely Coppolella hoped to sell at least one of them at the deadline, so that average may never have been realistic).

Mike Foltynewicz provided reason for optimism, going 9-1 with a 3.56 ERA from May 12-July 25. But after falling victim to Coors Field on Tuesday, Foltynewicz’s ERA ballooned to 11.02 across his past four starts. The Braves will have to discover the “real” Foltynewicz, but at least they’ve seen some return in one of their pitching investments.

After ranking 25th in league ERA a year ago (4.51), Braves pitching has been worse in 2017. Its 4.77 ERA is second-worst in the majors behind the Reds (5.30).

That’s certainly not what Coppolella expected. When asked if the rotation was “significantly improved” before opening day, the general manager was blunt.

“Last year our starting five was Julio Teheran, Bud Norris, Matt Wisler, Jhoulys Chacin and Williams Perez,” he said. “This year it’s Julio, Bartolo Colon, Jaime Garcia, R.A. Dickey and Mike Foltynewicz. What do you think?”

One probably thinks controllable pitching will stay atop Coppolella’s shopping list.

As September nears, the Braves will dive deeper into evaluation mode. Rookie pitchers Sean Newcomb, Lucas Sims and Max Fried have been getting a taste in the majors, and they’ll be allowed to fight through rough patches.

For a rebuild dependent on pitching, the team needs to see development from that trio, especially after watching Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair fail to fulfill their prospect statuses.

Infielder Johan Camargo has been the season’s most pleasant surprise. Second baseball Ozzie Albies had had moments in his brief time with the Braves. Shortstop Dansby Swanson has seven hits in his past six games, perhaps rediscovering some of his success from this time a year ago.

But the growth of some of the players at Triple-A Gwinnett and Double-A Mississippi might be more important than those currently in the majors. 

Ronald Acuna, 19, may play in the SunTrust Park outfield next month after a meteoric rise. Pitchers Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard and Luiz Gohara have shown immense promise, with the former two not yet old enough to legally purchase alcohol. 

The team can’t cling to the “help is on the way” mantra. The priority is 2017’s remaining schedule. The Braves have 25 home games left spread across three homestands. The final stretch is approaching, and all the Braves can hope for is a strong finish resembling last year. Not necessarily in the win-loss column, but in determining which players can be relied upon going into 2018.

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