Said Brian Bridges, the Braves’ scouting director, speaking Monday night: “You have to commit to something. With pitching, the more volume you have, the more quality, it makes it easier to sustain something once you’ve started winning.”
A year ago, Bridges announced that pitcher Kyle Wright of Vanderbilt, taken No. 5 overall, had been the No. 1 player on the Braves’ board. Three guesses who Bridges claims was No. 1 on that same board this time. “I’ve been fortunate,” he said, but sometimes – to borrow from Branch Rickey, who knew a bit about baseball – luck is the residue of design.
The Braves had their eyes on Stewart last year, when he was merely 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds. He has since grown two inches and added 35 pounds. His fastball went from 88 mph to 98, and even at that his fastball isn’t his best pitch.
Bridges: “He has the best curveball in the draft. He had that curveball last year. You either have it or you don’t.”
Then: “There’s one he’s always going to bring to the ballpark, one thing you (media people) are going to talk about. He’s got the big hammer.”
The Braves had a scout on hand for Stewart’s first start of the season. Bridges himself saw him twice. Cross-checker Tom Battista witnessed Stewart put up this nifty line – seven innings, no hits, one walk, 18 strikeouts. When Battista called to report, Bridges said: “I’m not going to see anything better that.”
And now he is. Bridges again: “When we get on ’em, we ride ’em.”
For anyone who wondered if Bridges’ instincts would mesh with those of Alex Anthopoulos, hired as general manager last fall … well, wonder no longer. “Not with the scouting background Alex has,” Bridges said. “He has done my job.”
John Coppolella is gone, forced to resign as GM ahead of MLB sanctions that would leave him banned for life. (Those sanctions included the loss of the Braves’ Round 3 pick in this draft.) So is team president John Hart. With the big-league club in first place, the rebuild they undertook is becoming less of a vision than reality, which isn’t to say that the principles behind it have been abandoned. They have, we stipulate, been around for a while.
Said Bridges, referencing the most famous scout in Braves annals: “There’s a man sitting in that room (down the hall at the Marriott Northwest, this year’s draft HQ) who built that team (in the ’90s) – Paul Snyder. How did they do it? Pitching and defense.”
Add Stewart – who said in a conference call with the Atlanta media that he doubted there would be a snag with him signing – to the roll of young drafted arms that includes Wright, Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard, Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz and Kyle Muller. Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, acquired in trade, are already the Braves’ two best starting pitchers. Luiz Gohara has immense promise, and don’t forget Touki Toussaint, still only 21.
This was John Schuerholz’s state intent when he dumped Wren – a rebuilt farm system constructed on pitching. Not four full years later, that mission has been accomplished.
Which isn’t to say that Bridges and Anthopoulos or anyone associated with the Braves is satisfied. Pitching has always been and will always be the most precious commodity in the sport. Owing to the tender nature of arms, pitchers get hurt. Even if yours remain ridiculously healthy, there’s always a team – there are usually about 29 – in need. (Hence Hart’s description of young arms as “currency.”)
The Braves lead the world in young pitchers. Only a few of those have made real impacts. More will soon. The rush to stockpile arms will not end here. This organization has recommitted to something. The winning-again Braves could win for a long, long time. Kind of like those old Braves.