Mark Bradley: Next two weeks could tell tale of 2021 Braves. Or not.

Alex Anthopoulos takes questions during his press conference at spring training at the Atlanta Braves CoolToday Park on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, in North Port.  Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Alex Anthopoulos takes questions during his press conference at spring training at the Atlanta Braves CoolToday Park on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, in North Port. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Not everything goes according to plan. In 2015, the Braves of John Coppolella and John Hart had – despite the offseason off-loading of Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, Evan Gattis and both Uptons – played half a season and not been terrible. As of July 7, five days before the All-Star break, they were 42-42. They held third place and were four games out of first in the National League East.

We pause to make the connection: The 2021 Braves are 44-45, holders of third place in the East, four games out of first place.

In 2015, respectability wasn’t what the new administration had in mind. After general manager Frank Wren was “terminated” in September 2014, franchise patriarch John Schuerholz pledged a return to the Braves’ Way, which meant rebuilding a fallow farm system around pitching. It also meant not throwing $75 million at another Melvin (nee B.J.) Upton.

The idea was to do as the Astros and Cubs had done: dump veterans, lose a lot of games and load up on prospects. In those offseason trades, the Braves landed Shelby Miller, Mike Foltynewicz, Max Fried and Matt Wisler. For a club bent on acquiring young pitchers, it was an auspicious start. Trouble was, the major-league Braves refused to hit their mark.

Miller, received in return for Heyward, made the 2015 All-Star team. Fellow starters Alex Wood and Julio Teheran weren’t bad. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons was playing historically good defense. A cobbled-together outfield of Jonny Gomes, Cameron Maybin and Nick Markakis was managing not to trip over itself. Third base was being staffed by Adonis Garcia, signed in April, and Juan Uribe, who was 36.

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman (right), who called the ball, can’t hold on to a foul ball by Padres Justin Upton as pitcher Shelby Miller collides with him during the first inning of a baseball game on Monday, June 8, 2015, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Credit: Curtis Compton

Those Braves were picked to finish last in the East, which would have been dandy. The worse your team, the better your draft pick. (The Astros took Carlos Correa No. 1 overall in 2012; the Cubs snagged Kris Bryant at No. 2 in 2013.) But the Braves started 5-0 and lingered around .500 for a bewildering while. They were 11-12 on May 1, 26-25 on June 1. Even with Freddie Freeman missing because of an injured hand, they won six of their first seven in July.

Nobody thought this would last, though nobody figured winning too much would be an issue. Coppolella and Hart, who’d counted on being ardent sellers at the trade deadline, began to wonder if, to be fair to Fredi Gonzalez and his team, they needed to buy instead. “We could use a little clarity,” Hart said, and finally it arrived.

The Braves lost their final five games before the All-Star break. They would go 4-10 the rest of the month. On July 16, the club announced contract extensions for Gonzalez and his coaches, which was the front office’s way of saying, “We’re sorry – though not that sorry – for what we’re about to do.” (That team would finish 67-95, third-worst in MLB. Their No. 1 pick in 2016: Ian Anderson.)

By July’s end, the Braves had shed Wood, Uribe, Kelly Johnson, Jim Johnson, Luis Avilan and Bronson Arroyo’s deadweight contract. Gomes was dispatched in August. Simmons and Maybin were gone by Thanksgiving. Miller was gone – in return for Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte – by Christmas. Given a window of opportunity, Coppolella and Hart threw open the shutters. Some trades were dreadful. At least one was great.

We move ahead to … now. The Braves are still riding that rebuild, though Coppolella and Hart aren’t around to reap the benefits. (They were dislodged in the wake of MLB’s investigation into misdoings in the international market.) Alex Anthopoulos was hired as general manager in November 2017. His club has won the East every season since. It still might this year, though it hasn’t spent a day above .500.

The trade deadline comes July 30. The Braves’ next 18 games – which will take them into August – are against teams at/above .500: Rays, Padres, Phillies, Mets, Brewers. Conveniently enough, the Braves are set to play a FIVE-game road series against the division-leading Mets from July 26-29. By the deadline, the Braves could be in first place. It’s also possible they’ll be five games below .500 and fading fast. It’s also possible they’ll be where they are, meaning caught in between.

These Braves weren’t built with .500 in mind – their stated goal was to win the World Series – but here they sit. They haven’t been very good. Neither have they been so bad as to be incapable of winning an unassuming division. If they recede soon, real contenders will have interest in taking one-year rentals Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly off their hands. If they do get it going – how many times have we typed those words? – they’ll be among the crowd seeking what we once called playoff insurance.

(Thursday’s trade for Joc Pederson falls under the heading of low risk/low reward. He hasn’t been much of a player of late – his Baseball-Reference WAR for last season and this is minus-0.5 – but the Braves are starved for outfielders. This was an acknowledgement of that desperation.)

The absences of Ronald Acuna and Mike Soroka have lowered the ceiling on 2021. Still, no GM wants to leave a team hanging. If there’s a realistic chance of making the playoffs, an exec is obliged to buy. But how do we define “realistic”, and will Anthopoulos know any more in two weeks than he does today?

Not for the first time, the Braves could use a little clarity.