Let’s stick a fork in the Braves playoff hopes for the 2017 season. They are dead. The Jaime Garcia trade likely made that clear for some fans, but the trade itself isn’t what killed the chance at contention. It was simply the first acknowledgment from the Front Office that they knew these hopes were already dead.
It is time to admit that, and I’ll make clear why with a few tables courtesy of Baseball-Reference. If we go back to May 11, we were a season’s worst 11-20, sitting 9 games under .500. It was a dark time in the season as the Atlanta Braves had already fallen 9.5 games behind the Division leading Washington Nationals and 6.5 games out of the Wild Card:
But following that low point, the Braves went on a little run, and over the course of the next two-and-a-half months, started to instill hope in the fans despite the unfortunate loss of emerging superstar Freddie Freeman to a broken hand. Since May 11, the Braves have played 5 games above .500 at 36-31 (through July 24). Along with the improved record, Braves fans dared to dream once again of playoff contention. And why wouldn’t they? The team remained tantalizingly close to .500 and within sight of the front runners. However, the reality is illustrated not in the Braves improved record, but the context of the other teams who are actually contending:
The Braves playing better overall baseball is a good sign for the rebuilding team. We are at that point in the rebuild where the team should start showing improvements, even if inconsistent as young players come up and management is determining what is working and what isn’t.
However, the hopes of playoff contention haven’t really been as present as we’d like to think. The playoff odds have always remained at long-shot levels (below 5%), and a big part of that is the other contending teams haven’t stopped playing as well or better than the Braves.
In the 47 game run of above .500 ball represented in the table above, the Braves have actually lost three games on the Nationals and Diamondbacks, and played even with the Rockies. So the gap between the Braves and the leaders has grown by three games even as the Braves have played better ball. Even if the Brewer’s slide out of division contention, the Braves have only managed to pick up half a game in the standings on them during this stretch. Turns out, better than 2016 is still not good enough to do more than hang around well behind the more complete teams. Yes, there were periods within that run where Atlanta closed the gap a little, but if you break down the little runs, you’ll see like I did that the team played pretty much .500 ball all season, with a run of 4-1 raising hopes, and a run of 1-4 dashing them to pieces again.
That’s been the pattern. Inconsistent but not wildly so. And don’t forget this a good thing in context of the rebuild, which is what we should be measuring ourselves against. But measuring the Braves record against other teams should tell us fans what we’ve really known deep down for a while now: The Braves aren’t in this thing, not this year.
And really, that shouldn’t come as a big surprise. At no point has the team been above .500. They hit that mark at 6-6 in April, and again at 45-45 on July 16th. That’s a good sign considering they were 31-59 after 90 games last year, and much was made of that. But, again, in context of other teams, it’s not up to par. Now, after the loss to the Diamondbacks on July 24th, the Braves are guaranteed to hit the 100 game mark of the season below .500. They haven’t caught up at this point, and they are quickly running out of season.
Don’t Settle for Long Shots: Stay the Course for Perennial Contention
In this context, it is clear that the front office is making the right decisions to sell at the deadline. They can see the light at the end of the rebuilding tunnel, and I’m sure it is easy for them to get excited about the hope of playoff contention again, just as we are. It is the Front Office, after all, that has invested much time and effort to rebuild this team from the ground up. But John Coppolella, John Hart, and others see the big picture, and are playing it smart by not getting ahead of themselves. They see the season for the stepping stone it is to a long run of playoff contention, and that is only possible if we keep adding talent to the prospect pool.
Perhaps if the team wanted to go all in a shot at the Wild Card, the Braves could have made some splashes by trading away top prospects for a revamped rotation and some bullpen help. I’ll concede that the team might have been close enough at one point that the big moves would give them a fighting chance at the Wild Card, assuming some of the front runners falter. But would you trade multiple players like Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, Kolby Allard, and Ian Anderson for a real – if long – shot at the Wild Card this year? If we want any chance to relive the ’90s (with more World Series rings), it takes waves of talent, which means a deep system with, for example, Outfielder Ender Inciarte under contract at the MLB level, but Outfielder Ronald Acuna rising quickly to the top ranks of the minors, and Outfielders Christian Pache and Randy Ventura in full season ball (international signings), and Outfielder Drew Waters (draft pick) getting his feet wet in Rookie ball, and even Outfielder Dustin Peterson with the potential to be a value added role player soon (trade). The rebuild starts and ends with the strength of the farm, for that is where the ability to maintain success lies, either through player development or trades.
Because of this, it made no sense to keep Jaime Garcia. Garcia was brought in to add rotation stability. But as a veteran on a one-year contract, he has no value to the Braves beyond the last day of the regular season, so his only value to the braves playoff window is in trading for a player who has any non-zero chance of contributing to it (in other words, higher odds that Garcia’s). Garcia pitched well enough to get a return, but his 4.30 ERA/4.86 DRA/4.21 xFIP all tell the same story – mediocre. Turning slightly more than two months of mediocre into 19-year-old prospect Huascar Ynoa is the way the team builds foundational depth. Trading rentals for prospects with full control and some small level of upside is how contenders stay contenders. And it starts by recognizing the right time to buy and the right time to sell. Thankfully, the front office had the wisdom and the wherewithal to make the right decision in 2017.
Trade Deadline Moves Focused on Future, Not Present
So on that note, the Braves are likely looking to sell others. The most obvious next choice is Brandon Phillips. He also is on an expiring contract, and he has played reasonably well, slashing .290/.333/.442 (102 wRC+), with average to slightly above defense. That said, we are again primed for fans to think we should keep a fan favorite who loves Atlanta and will therefore expect too much in return. Keep in mind, Phillips is a rental at a single position not in high demand. So while I expect a reasonable prospect in return, I expect many will be underwhelmed. I also think it’s possible we keep Phillips, but only because the Braves couldn’t find a partner, not because they weren’t looking for one.
Also expect others to be on the market. Matt Adams was the right person at the right time, but he has limited value to the Braves as a guy who can only play first base. Also he’s returned to earth offensively, and his value to the team and on the trade market is likely falling. In July, he’s slashing a more typical .255/.276/.527 in July (92 wRC+). His extra year of control means Atlanta can get value for him in the offseason if the John’s decide the current return isn’t enough. And whatever happens, he at least makes a nice power option off the bench. There are also a few pitchers under contract through 2018, such as Jim Johnson, who isn’t as bad as many think and could bring some project prospect in return if a team needs late inning bullpen depth. There’s also R.A. Dickey, who has an option for next year and has been pitching well overall if a team needs rotation stability, but doesn’t want to sacrifice much for a more expensive options, in other words, Garcia Part II. One of the outfielders, Matt Kemp or Nick Markakis could be moved, but the Braves are now at the point in the rebuild where the clearing of money is less important (though not unimportant) and the clearing of a spot in the outfield for rising talent is more important, another sign that the rebuilding efforts are starting to bear fruit. This type of move might be better suited for the offseason also, depending on demand for defensively limited outfielders.
The Braves also are in talks to bring in controllable MLB talent, another sign that we are nearing the end of the rebuild. The Braves are likely very serious about Sonny Gray, as they reportedly were about Jose Quintana as well. However, many fans mistakenly think this is a move geared toward competing this year. As should be clear by now, that is not the case. Acquiring a player like Gray would be about adding a solid rotation piece for 2018 and 2019, when the window really starts to open but the strong core of pitching prospects (such as Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka, Luis Gohora) are just starting to establish themselves in the majors, if all goes well. While Julio Teheran could be traded, based on his lower value, team-friendly contract, and the team’s need for pitching, it makes much more sense to pair Gray with Teheran as two solid rotation pieces for young pitching to emerge around. (Gray and Teheran are similar overall pitchers who are good-not-great, though Gray is much more ground ball inclined.)
Personally, I would be very disappointed if some of the core talent was used in an overpay at the deadline. The Front Office in the past has used the deadline to make some creative value moves when the supply-demand equation favored the Braves. I’m not just talking the obvious trades like Jason Heyward for Shelby Miller, but more savvy under-the-radar moves like essentially buying Touki Toussaint for Phil Gosselin at the cost of assuming Bronson Arroyo’s dead-weight contract. Forcing a trade now would be a mistake, and there have been a few of those mixed in, too (cough. Hector Olivera, cough, cough.) The Braves right now should be looking for a favorable deadline deal as they look beyond 2017, but not feel pressured to make a deal now because waiting until the offseason to try again is a perfectly acceptable outcome for everyone but Phillips. In fact, I expect them to use some of the prospect depth to fill position of needs between the end of this season and the beginning of 2019. That’s the year in this rebuilding process to make the big splash for the right player at the right position.
For the rest of 2017, though, Atlanta Braves fans need to continue to be patient (or maybe more accurately, start to be patient). There is no chance for the Braves to make a run at the World Series this season, but look just beyond where we are now and focus on the sliver of light coming through the opening door of perennial contention. The Braves are only a few steps away from walking through it if they stay the course.