I believed it would come. I had seen the beginnings. But reality hit with full force in Game 1 of Monday’s doubleheader. Touki Toussaint, age 22, worked a 1-2-3 first inning in his big-league debut. Ronald Acuna, 20, led off the bottom of the first with a home run. (He has since hit three more.) And I recalled the words Elliot/Mr. Robot spoke to Tyrell as their 5/9 hack of EvilCorp commenced:
The difference being, “Mr. Robot” is a televised work of fiction. The Braves, also televised, are real.
So: This is REALLY happening.
Not quite four years after the team terminated Frank Wren and embarked on their great rebuild, the Braves are rebuilt. They lead their division by two games. They have the National League’s second-best record. Baseball Prospectus assigns them an 81.1 percent chance of making the playoffs. They didn’t go from bad to middling; no toe-in-the-water season was required. They just cannonballed off the diving board and made a majestic splash.
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They won 72 games last season. They’re at 67, with 44 still to play. There are better teams, though not many, in the majors right now. There’s no team that figures to stay as good for as long as this one. Yeah, weird things happen – this is baseball, and we’re Atlanta – but the Braves’ collection of young talent isn’t just the most impressive of this moment. It’s among the most impressive ever.
In the spring, the estimable Joe Sheehan noted that, since the 19th century, only five teams had seen two players 21 or younger produce 2.0 of Baseball-Reference WAR in the same season. Acuna and Ozzie Albies have become the sixth such duo. Albies is at 3.5, Acuna at 2.8. The three tandems above their collective 6.3:
Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell of the 1978 Tigers – 6.8.
Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey of the 1958 Giants – 6.9.
Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr of the 1939 Red Sox – 9.3.
We note: Of those six, five are in the Hall of Fame. (Whitaker is the exception.) We also note: Albies and Acuna have 44 games to go.
With these Braves, it’s not just two guys. Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis are the best 3-4 pairing in the league. Mike Foltynewicz made the All-Star team. Sean Newcomb has established himself as a big-league starter. Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard and Toussaint have made their MLB debuts. Best of all: Of the top 12 Braves as judged by WAR, only Markakis and Anibal Sanchez are over 30.
Half of those 12 were acquired by John Coppolella. That’s six in three years, not counting those who haven’t yet graduated from the star-spangled farm system. That was three years to tear a team down and rebuild it, if not completely, then well enough for it to be leading its division in August.
Freeman was drafted under John Schuerholz. Albies, Acuna and Johan Camargo were signed under Wren. (Though Coppolella resisted the many overtures to trade the first two.) Alex Anthopoulos landed Sanchez and Charlie Culberson.
Coppolella’s contributions to this dozen: Markakis, Foltynewicz, Newcomb, Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson and Arodys Vizcaino (reacquired from the Cubs for Tommy La Stella). And remember: Coppolella’s three years in charge – he did the dealing, though technically John Hart was president – were geared toward restocking the organization, as opposed to winning big now. He restocked so well the team he left behind is already winning big.
Coppolella resigned last October under pressure of an MLB investigation into the Braves’ international signings. That probe yielded dire penalties: The Braves lost 13 prospects; Coppolella was banned from the sport for life. He has since moved to Florida. He’s working in a different field. (Banned for life means what it says.) Apart from a released statement of apology last winter, he has made no public comment. He declined when asked this week. He’s trying to get on with his life.
He messed up, yes. He didn’t, however, make a mess of his main mission. Not every trade worked. Not every young pitcher panned out. That happens. The Hall of Famer Schuerholz would love to have a few deals – David Cone, David Justice, Mark Teixeira – back. But the reason the Braves are so far ahead of schedule is that the intensity and ingenuity of their now-defrocked general manager cared nothing for schedules.
In a wicked twist, the architect of this restoration isn’t around to enjoy the fruits of his labor. (This being weird ol’ Atlanta, there’s local precedent. Danny Ferry was on administrative leave when the Hawks he built won 60 games.) The 2018 Braves have been a source of continuing wonder, and those wonders shouldn’t cease anytime soon. Remember Coppolella’s stated vision of “wave upon wave of prospects”? The first full wave has hit with massive impact.
For what lies ahead, Anthopoulos might well be the better GM. He’d done the job in Toronto, and his months of watchful waiting capped by sagacious deadline dealing was the work of a seasoned pro. Still, the Braves wouldn’t be where/what they are without the executive in exile.
It’s happening for this team. It’s happening because John Coppolella made it happen.