The Braves’ rise from oblivion has begun

The Braves awoke on Labor Day mathematically alive in the National League East. That mightn’t sound like much – and they were officially eliminated with Monday’s 6-4 loss to the division-leader Nationals – but still: When a team starts 9-29 and is 18-46 as of June 14, you’re pondering a season of historic awfulness. This will not be that.

On May 17, the day they finally fired Fredi Gonzalez, they were on pace to go 39-123. On the morning of June 15, they were on track for 46-116. At the All-Star break, they were looking at 56-106. Miracle of miracles: As of Labor Day, they weren’t even on pace to lose 100 games. (That they’d moved three games ahead of the Twins in the siege for baseball’s worst record was a mixed blessing: Finishing 29th means you don’t pick first in next year’s draft.)

In February, this correspondent suggested that the Braves would be better over the second half because they’d improve once the first wave of prospects hit the majors. Well, Dansby Swanson hasn’t flopped but hasn’t had a galvanic effect, and he’s the only big-name prospect to arrive. What has happened is that some Braves who couldn’t play dead have sprung to life. Jace Peterson was demoted to Gwinnett on May 2 but has been OK since his June recall. Ender Inciarte has been more than OK.

What made the Shelby-Miller-to-Arizona trade so stunning wasn’t just that the Braves hooked Swanson; it was that they also landed Inciarte, who was coming off a 5.3 WAR year (as calculated by Baseball-Reference) at age 24. But Inciarte was hurt in the season’s third game and, as of June 2, was hitting .202 with an OPS of .523. His glove and arm were stellar, but he seemed little more than a late-inning defensive replacement.

As of Monday morning, Inciarte was hitting .291 with an OPS of .737. There’s a real chance he’ll finish with a 4.0 WAR. (He’s at 3.6.) If you add Nick Markakis’ seasonal WAR to Matt Kemp’s month as a Brave, you get 0.7. Among Braves outfielders, Inciarte lately has been Willie Mays.

I’m still leery of Kemp, who’s carrying so much weight he can barely run, but he hits enough to bring a semblance of balance to a batting order that was once Freddie Freeman and eight empty chairs. (Huzzah! The Braves have soared above Philadelphia to claim 29th place in runs scored.) With Mallex Smith expected back, the guess is that the Braves will try to move Markakis over the winter. He’s not the world’s worst player; he’s just not worth $11 million per year.

Inciarte is a keeper. Swanson is a keeper. A thinner Kemp might have real value. Assuming Ozzie Albies is ready next season, Peterson could become a utility type, a role for which the Braves are already grooming him. (Don’t knock utility types. Ask anyone who has employed him how essential Ben Zobrist is.) That leaves a hole at catcher and third base, which is actually progress. It wasn’t long ago that there were more holes in this order than in Augusta’s Amen Corner.

A word about Freeman: Amid the Braves’ mass sell-off, we’ve sometimes wondered if they kept the right guy. They kept the right guy. He’s fourth among National League position players in WAR. He’s fifth in on-base percentage, fourth in slugging. He’s fashioning a career year when a lesser guy might have taken to half-stepping months ago. Big kudos.

As for the pitching: Julio Teheran’s rebound season was slowed by injury, but he’s still excellent; Mike Foltynewicz has the stuff but not yet the command; Matt Wisler was transformed by his demotion/recall; Aaron Blair, alas, was not. Among prospects, Sean Newcomb has an ERA of 2.04 over his past seven starts at Class AA Mississippi; Kolby Allard has 62 strikeouts against 20 walks in 60 2/3 innings since his promotion to Class A Rome; Max Fried has 112 strikeouts in 103 innings in his comeback from Tommy John surgery. Not every young pitcher will pan out, no. But enough should.

In sum, there are reasons to feel better if not quite good about next season, not least the relief that this big-league club won’t be the worst in the history of humankind. (Kudos to Brian Snitker, too. The Braves would never have steadied under Fredi G., whose history of second-half collapses made this awful start even more chilling.) They’ll surely finish behind the Phillies, but the Braves wouldn’t trade futures with Philly. They wouldn’t trade futures with many teams.

The first half of this season marked the bottom. We’re seeing the start of the climb. Better times are coming, folks.

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