On the night of July 21, the Braves defeated Los Angeles 4-3 behind the pitching of Alex Wood and a run-scoring hit by Juan Uribe. The win raised the team’s record to 45-49, far exceeding what most expected for a club that had been blown to bits in the winter and then patched with Spackle just before opening day.
Then came the mother of all market corrections. Over the next eight weeks, the Braves went 12-41. They were swept in eight series. They had a 12-game losing streak. There were consecutive series when they were outscored by the Yankees 38-11, the Marlins 18-4 and the Nationals 36-9, give or take an appendage.
It was as if the baseball gods looked down on Braves executive John Hart and said, “You didn’t really think we were going to let you get away with this without some humiliation, did you? Watch this!”
“We collapsed,” Hart said. “That’s going to be a memory that will be seared into a lot of people’s minds this offseason.”
In their minds and in their hands, as they don’t reach for their wallets.
Hart, the team’s president of baseball operations, and John Coppolella, the recently promoted general manager, are the architects of this makeover (which surprisingly including dealing Wood and Uribe in the days following that win over the Dodgers). It’s not difficult to understand why both men believed radical change was needed. The Braves had a poorly designed and underperforming lineup. They bad contracts, minimal payroll flexibility and a once-proud minor-league system that suddenly looked like Kansas after a locusts flyover.
But the fall was so ugly and so dramatic — from 96 wins only two years ago to 95 losses this season — that it’s going to be a while before the masses buy in. Atlanta is not a benefit-of-the-doubt sports town.
The Braves, by their own admission, never attempted to build an attractive and winning product this season. Fans’ scars don’t heal quickly from that. Further, this is a franchise that is owned by a multi-billion-dollar corporation two time zones away and has shown a far greater desire to achieve success in real estate transactions — the shady Cobb County stadium deal; the search for a new spring training home — than in the daily standings.
That doesn’t translate well to the ticket-buying public. The Braves ranked 24th in the majors in attendance. When a club’s relative rallying cry is, “Just wait until 2017!” nobody’s going to rush to the ticket window.
Hart and Coppolella had a plan. Strip it down — although their sound bites would never include such harsh language — reduce payroll and restock the organization with young pitchers, draft picks and international salary bonus slots (there will be a test next week). Everybody within the organization and even famous alums like John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Chipper Jones have praised Hart’s efforts. I’ve sometimes wondered how much of that stems merely from the fact they all despised Frank Wren so much.
Regardless, in a show-me sports market like Atlanta, most aren’t going to buy in until they see a watchable and winning product. Hart understands that.
“What the average fan isn’t going to understand is the attention to detail we’ve had in giving ourselves that influx of young talent,” he said. “It’s not going to show up here. And I don’t blame them. That’s not a priority for the guy who’s coming here to buy a ticket.”
He vows “significant improvement” in the bullpen. He promises he and Coppolella will fix the lineup as much as they think they can in one year. They’ll monitor the health and progress of starting pitchers in the winter and see if they need to go buy one. Also, you probably can assume they’ll be looking for another catcher (or two) because “hot prospect” Christian Bethancourt just isn’t there yet and some in the organization believe he’ll never get there.
There is no next Freddie Freeman or Jason Heyward coming up from the minors. For as many trades as the Braves made, Hart acknowledges: “We know we don’t have a lot of upper-level position player prospects.” They also put a lot of eggs in the Hector Olivera basket (who came from the Dodgers for Woods).
But he promises the team will be better. After a 67-95 season, what would you expect him to say?
He speculated the team could win “another 15, 20 games, maybe.” Quick math: 82 to 87 wins. Not a playoff team this or most seasons.
“We’re all optimistic,” he said. “We’re not Pollyanna, where we (think) we’re going to be a 100-win club. That’s not going to happen.”
I’ll give Hart credit for this. For as much as he tried to sell everybody on a young, scrappy team in spring training, he never promised a contender. And he’s not promising one in 2016.
This comment might be the greatest reality check of them all: “We’re all going to have our hands on our throats a little.”
Because success hinges on the development of all these prospects the Braves have acquired, and prospects don’t come with guarantees.
“I’ve never said it’s all going to be nirvana just because we have all these young players,” Hart said. “What I am saying is we’re doing it the right way and there will be a time when we’re going to reap the rewards for what we’re done. We want to get better. We will get better.”
And we will be watching.
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