I live?

Well, I’m back. WordPress has really shit up the interface in the four years(!) I’ve been gone, huh?

The original goal of this place, if you’ll recall (although I couldn’t blame you if you didn’t) was to write every day. I eventually fell out of that habit due to real-life complications, and felt vaguely guilty about it, so it didn’t feel right coming back out of the clear blue sky and picking it back up again. I wish I could say that those real-life complications were all worth it in the end and that I’d since moved to a better place in my life, but I’d be lying — those complications were ultimately much ado about nothing, and I’m roughly back in the same place I was four years ago when I was rambling interminably about game design and writing execrable fiction.

Nor can I say I’m planning on picking the daily schedule back up again, either. Rather, I remembered this place because there was something that’s been on my mind that I wanted to get down somewhere less ephemeral than a rant buried in a forum thread. And to make sure you go ahead and click the ‘X,’ I’ll go ahead and say that it’s about the current state of the Atlanta Braves.

At the end of the 2014 season, the Braves had a major issue. They had a mediocre major league team — not a horrid major league team, as they’d been in the hunt for most of the season and had finished around .500 despite a truly hideous collapse down the stretch. Moreover, they had problems going forward: The farm system was barren, they were set to lose 400 starting pitcher innings due to the loss of Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang to free agency, and the free agency of corner outfielders Justin Upton and Jason Heyward was looming after the 2015. The organization was at a crossroads, and they had to decide which direction to take the team: Make one last try at contention with their current core of talent and pick up the pieces as best they could afterwards; or blow the whole thing up with the idea of piecing together a new core a few years down the line.

They picked the latter. They traded Heyward and Upton for packages of young players, but they didn’t stop there. Evan Gattis, a young slugger they’d brought up in 2014 but who didn’t have a natural position and didn’t hit enough to cover for that, was moved to the Astros. They signed mostly stopgap players in free agency like A.J. Pierzynski, Kelly Johnson, and Jason Grilli — short-term assets who could play out the string and then be shipped out at the deadline for more parts. Then, on the last day of Spring Training, they traded closer Craig Kimbrel, a guy they’d spent the winter swearing up and down they would not move. They got a pretty good pitching prospect for Kimbrel, but the real prize was getting out from under the salary of Melvin Upton, Jr., who had become an albatross.

And here’s the thing: I was fine with all of this.

A lot of other fans were furious with this blatant dismantling of what had been a successful major league team, but I could see the logic to it. The team hadn’t been good enough in 2014, and they had big holes to fill just to keep the team at that level. And even if they managed it, they’d be in big trouble next season when Heyward and Upton walked — they couldn’t afford to sign either player, and even if they could, it was still deck chairs on the Titanic. The team had major issues, and they could solve those issues neither in free agency (because they didn’t have enough money) nor in the trade market (because they didn’t have enough prospects). Tearing down the team and starting over, as much as it hurt, was the right call, I felt, and if you accepted that thesis then the team had done a good job of it. Every evaluator said that the team had done well in picking the prospects it had gotten in return for its major league players, especially with regards to the pitchers it received. In one offseason the team’s farm system had jumped from bottom-of-the-barrel to a top five or ten system.

You could see the plan, if you looked closely. The team would be awful in 2015 and probably 2016; there was no getting around that. But they’d be using that time wisely — evaluating young players, trading short-term assets for long-term ones, taking other teams’ dead money in exchange for premium prospects. Bad money would come off the books and could be reinvested. They’d finish low at the major league level, but receive high draft picks. Then, when the team’s new stadium opened in 2017, they’d have a new core, something that could compete long into the future without the constant patching that the latter years of Frank Wren’s tenure required.

You could even see the kind of team the Braves wanted to build — it looked, more or less, like the current Royals. Lockdown pitching, one through twelve. A tight defense, led by the greatest defensive player of his generation, to make sure that the team was even harder to score against. And an offense built around batting average and speed, to try and adapt to a game that had been changing. Frank Wren was a GM for the aughts, the Moneyball era, where on-base and power ruled the landscape. But power was down across the league and it seemed like pitchers were throwing harder than ever, so the patient, low-batting average, high-power players Wren favored weren’t as effective as they might have been ten years ago. Common wisdom is that Dan Uggla and Melvin Upton, Jr., collapsed as players, but it may have been the case that the game had simply changed around them; no longer allowed them to exercise their strengths.

The Braves had acquired high-ceiling pitching prospects, like Max Fried, Mike Foltyniewicz, Tyrell Jenkins, and Matt Wisler. The hitters they acquired were scrappy line-drive types — Jace Peterson, Mallex Smith, Rio Ruiz. Even the veterans they’d picked up, though largely past their prime, had been this type of player in their youth — A.J. Pierzynski, Alberto Callaspo, Nick Markakis. It was easy to envision them less as major league assets and more as player-coaches, teaching the young guys the way the Braves wanted them to play.

Losing is never easy, but it’s easier to stomach if you think the organization has a plan. The Braves were awful in 2015, playing to the third-worst record in the league, but I wasn’t as upset as I might have been, because I expected them to be. Honestly, I’d been much more frustrated with the 2014 squad, which had supposed to compete but had ended the season as an afterthought. Moreover, they stuck to the plan. They acquired Bronson Arroyo’s useless contract from the Diamondbacks. Arroyo would never throw a pitch for the Braves, but along with him came highly-touted pitching prospect Touki Toissaint, whom Arizona’s new front office had soured on for no real reason (their GM making the absurd argument that he’d taken a ton of college pitchers in the draft, so he no longer needed the high-ceiling prep prospect his predecessor had taken the previous year). They moved out Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe at the deadline for prospects. They made a bad-contract swap with the Indians, sending out Chris Johnson for Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Bourn and Swisher were more expensive in the short term, but their contracts were up after 2016, when the Braves would be in position to reinvest the money, while Johnson’s terrible deal persisted for several more years. They even made a big, risky trade that initially shocked me but that I liked upon reflection — trading Alex Wood and Jose Peraza for Cuban import Hector Olivera from the Dodgers, who at thirty was not the kind of young talent rebuilding teams are supposed to be hoarding, but who was undervalued in his way: His contract was absurdly cheap, with most of the money being tied up in a signing bonus that would remain on the Dodgers’ payroll, and he was supposedly nearly major league ready. It seemed like the Braves had managed to pick up a major league slugger at a position of need (third base) who was far cheaper than his talent merited (at least in terms of dollars). Sure, the price in players had been steep, but still less steep than trying to acquire an equivalent known quantity would have been.

So 2015 sucked on the field, but off the field it seemed like things were progressing. The Braves continued hiring highly-regarded scouts and analysts to man the front office. They promoted assistant GM John Coppolella, who had been the mastermind of the rebuild, to the big chair. And then things started to get questionable.

First, reports filtered out of the winter leagues that Hector Olivera, their big deadline pickup, had been moved to the outfield. Now, Olivera hadn’t impressed at third base during his cup of coffee late in 2015, but the front office and coaching staff assured us that this was because of Olivera’s whirlwind year — he’d defected from Cuba, been the center of an offseason bidding war, played at two or three different minor league stops, been traded, and was recuperating from a hamstring injury. You try playing at your best under those conditions, they said. However, they fully believed that after a few weeks in winter ball shaking off the rust and a full, uninterrupted Spring Training, he’d be the guy the Braves expected him to be. But there he was in the outfield, where the Braves had options (not good options, but nevertheless) rather than third base, which had been, is, and promises to be a barren wasteland for the foreseeable future. Olivera’s bat might play in left, but it’s incredibly optimistic to think that he’d be a plus out there. Trading Wood and Peraza for a solution at third base was one thing; trading them for a possibility in corner outfield was quite another.

Then came the trades. Reports trickled out that the Braves were listening on Andrelton Simmons, their young, all-world defensive shortstop. The free agent market for shortstops was so shallow, the argument went, that some team who wasn’t willing to invest in Ian Desmond might overpay for him. Fair enough — there’s no harm in listening. But then, basically the next day, they announced that they’d traded him to the Angels for the Angel shortstop Erick Aybar (who would be a free agent after the season) and two pitching prospects.

Look. I understand that when you’re rebuilding, no one should be off-limits. But Andrelton Simmons is the best defensive player in the world, at a position where you’re light on long-term options. He’s young. He has upside with the bat. He is signed very reasonably for a long time. If your rebuilding organization doesn’t have room in its plans for that guy, who does it have room for? And it’s not like they got blown away — I’ve seen the return repeatedly described as “light,” and the prize of the the deal, lefty Sean Newcomb, walked five per nine at three levels last year and is by no means a sure thing even as pitching prospects go. Moreover, pitching prospects are the organization’s major strength at present. They’ve accumulated a half-dozen promising prospects from other organizations, one of their best prospects remaining from the previous regime (Lucas Sims) is a pitcher, and they took approximate half a billion pitchers during the 2015 draft, including highly-regarded youngsters Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka. You can never have enough pitching, except when you can. So essentially the organization traded one of its most valuable major-league assets to beef up what was already an organizational strength. Coppolella can talk all he wants about how you can’t turn down that deal, but I think you turn it down very easily, and demand position players.

Then they traded Cameron Maybin, who resurrected his career with the Braves in 2015 after being part of the contract-balancing in the Kimbrel deal, for… more pitchers. Relief pitchers, even, including a guy (Ian Krol) who has never been effective at the major league level, and a guy (Gabe Speier) who has a big arm but even at 18 years old was slotted to the bullpen (and has been traded twice before he can drink, just incidentally). Now, I was of the opinion that Maybin should have been traded last summer when his value was at its peak, before he had a chance to revert back to being Cameron Maybin — and I was right. But more pitchers?

I can no longer see the plan. How does this team compete in 2017, the year they’ve been publicly trumpeting as their return to contention? Even if Olivera is the big hitter their scouts identified him as, that leaves Olivera and Freddie Freeman (who they are reportedly shopping!) as the only real hitters on the major league team come 2017. Aybar’s a free agent. Markakis, to the extent that he is presently useful, probably won’t be by then. They’ve still got holes at catcher and third, and uncertainty at second and center. Where is the hitting coming from?

The party line has been that the Braves will be able to move their surplus pitching for hitting, just as they did in the ’90s when John Schuerholtz made an art form of hyping up a pitching prospect, trading him for major league help, then watching him collapse for his new team. But I don’t see it. Quality pitching is more common than it’s been since the ’60s right now, and quality hitting is as rare. Who are these teams that have bats to spare and are willing to cash them in for a pitching package? The Cubs, I guess, but that’s about the end of the list.

Free agency? The list of free agents for 2017 looks like this. It’s a good market if you want a reliever; not so much if you want, oh, basically anything else. The Braves will have money to spend, but who are they spending it on? The corpse of Adrian Beltre?

Promote from within? The Braves’ best hitting prospect is 18 years old. Their second-best hitting prospect… is 18 years old. Third-best is Mallex Smith; he’s major league ready but might end up being a fourth outfielder. Fourth-best… 19. Fifth-best… 17. These guys are exciting, for sure, but they’re also really, really far away, and the road they have to travel is long. Austin Riley might be the best power prospect the Braves have produced since Andruw Jones, but he’s 18 and there are already questions about his weight. If they’re counting on him to man third base when the team is good again, a) they’re going to be waiting a while, and b) he might be a first baseman or DH by then.

It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that the Braves will have a quality pitching staff by 2017 — they’ve acquired a lot of talented guys, and some of them are bound to work out. If a bunch of them figure it out at once, they could be special. But that’s only half the battle, and I can’t see any road that leads them to a quality lineup by then. And the Braves are making the road longer by trading their tangible major league pieces for more pitching.

Look. The purpose of running a baseball team is not to try and get peak value for every single player in your organization. The purpose is to try and build a winning core, and supplement it with complementary pieces. The Simmons trade strikes me as John Coppolella reading his own press clippings and buying into the idea that he’s the smartest guy in the room. Maybe the Braves did trade him at peak value — I doubt it, but anything’s possible. But if you trade everyone at their peak value, you will never have a good team. What you will have, instead, is roster churn — a collection of assets being moved in and out according to the whims of the market, but never a coherent team. Billy Beane, as sharp a guy as he is, has fallen into this trap numerous times — you can’t read last year’s Josh Donaldson trade as anything other than that.

The reason I was inspired to write this down was because I’ve seen a lot of people make comments to the effect of “Well, rebuilding is hard for the fans, but the front office has a process, and they’re making good moves, and they’ll get there in the end.” As if I don’t understand what rebuilding is all about, and am still just sore about trading homegrown favorites like Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons.

I get rebuilding. I was in favor of rebuilding, in fact. But rebuilding has a purpose. It’s not about showing people how smart you are, or how clever your trades can be, or zigging when people though you’d zag. It’s about taking one step back so you can take two steps forward. The Braves, I fear, have become addicted to taking two steps forward and two steps back, and they’ll never get anywhere on that business plan. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Maybe I’ll start writing blog posts again. I don’t have the time for a daily schedule anymore, but there are still subjects I’m interested in exploring in writing, and it seems a shame to let this place lie fallow just because I couldn’t keep to its original idea. God knows I could write page upon page about Hearthstone alone, these days. Watch this space.


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