It’s April 2, 2018. It’s the second opening day at SunTrust Park. Here’s the starting lineup for the Cobb County Braves.
Catcher: Matt Wieters. The Braves bought him as a free agent for $70 million over four seasons in November 2016. They preferred the younger Wilson Ramos, who priced himself out of their range by having a career year. They still overpaid for Wieters, but their rebuild was at a place where they absolutely had to find a catcher to move ahead. And they’d cleared enough payroll space — and sold enough tickets for their new ballpark — that Liberty Media gave the go-ahead.
First base: Freddie Freeman. There was grumbling after the 109-loss season of 2016 that Freeman was overrated and expendable. Still, he wound up with a WAR value of 4.0 in a lesser season and, with better players around him, had a big 2017. He was never the reason those Braves reeked.
Second base: Jace Peterson. On a fully stocked roster, Peterson would be best deployed as a utility type. (A Ben Zobrist in training, if you will.) That’s what he’d been in 2017. Then circumstances changed.
Shortstop: Ozzie Albies. He scoots over from second base, where he’d played most of 2017 as a rookie. He’ll do just fine at short. (Think Elvis Andrus.) And where, you’re asking, did Dansby Swanson go? Read on.
Third base: Travis Demeritte. The Braves acquired him ahead of the 2016 trade deadline for two journeymen pitchers. He hasn’t disappointed. He broke into the majors in August 2017 and hit 13 homers over the final two months. He came up as a middle infielder, but the Braves are using him at third because it’s a power position. Still, Demeritte might have to move again soon. Kevin Maitan, the Braves’ No. 1 prospect, was likened to Miguel Cabrera when he signed as a 16-year-old in 2016 and could be ready sometime in 2019.
Left field: Mallex Smith. He manned center field for much of 2017 after it was decided Ender Inciarte didn’t hit enough to remain an everyday player. Smith moves here for 2018 because the Braves found a better center fielder.
Center field: Mike Trout. It took years of wheedling, but general manager John Coppolella finally persuaded the Angels that the team with the worst farm system in baseball would clamber from its hole only with the help of the organization sitting on baseball’s best prospects. The only way the Braves would offer such assistance was if they got the best player of his generation in return. For Trout, the Braves parted with Swanson, the National League’s 2017 rookie of the year, and third baseman Austin Riley (their No. 8 prospect), plus pitchers Mike Soroka (No. 4), Joey Wentz (No. 8) and Lucas Sims (No. 10).
The Deal of This Century stirred debate on both sides: Were the Angels crazy for parting with Trout? Did the Braves give too much? But the purpose of stockpiling arms was always to spend the surplus to get what the Braves didn’t have, which was — as those who suffered through the dismal seasons of 2015 and 2016 can attest — hitting. And this trade still left the Braves with pitchers Ian Anderson, Kolby Allard, Touki Toussaint and Kyle Muller, the oldest of whom is 22.
In both personnel and money, Trout represents a massive outlay for a franchise not known for massive outlays. He’s due $34 million over each of the next three seasons — but’s that OK. Because he’s not a rental. He’s a Brave through November 2020, by which time he still won’t have turned 30.
Right field: Matt Kemp. He was acquired in a stunning deadline deal in July 2016 that allowed the Braves to shed the disgraced Hector Olivera. But Kemp, who has been tepid as a Brave, is merely keeping the position warm for Ronald Acuna. Two years removed from Single-A, Acuna can run and hit and throw.
Starting pitcher: Julio Teheran. He finished third in the 2017 Cy Young voting. The Braves’ refusal to trade him in 2016 is the best deal Coppolella never made.
The rest of the rotation: Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Max Fried and Bartolo Colon. Respective opening-day ages: 26, 24, 24 and 44. The Braves signed Colon to a minor-league contract over the winter; he impressed in spring training. Plus he’s fun to watch.
Closer: Mauricio Cabrera. He now throws harder than Aroldis Chapman. That’s fun, too.
Outlook: Coming off the 77-85 season of 2017, this wouldn’t seem a division winner just yet — tons of youth, still some holes. Still, Trout’s arrival means the 2018 Braves will break .500 and challenge for a wild card. So yay for that.
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