The Braves come in to town for the first time since 2013, but the roster looks drastically different. Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran are the only players left from the 2013 roster as the team has undertaken a dramatic rebuild in anticipation of a new stadium opening in the suburbs of Cobb County in 2017.
With so many new faces in Atlanta, we thought it would be best to talk to Demetrius Bell, editor of Talking Chop, on the remarkably bad Braves and whether there are brighter days ahead.
The Braves are in big-time rebuild mode, and it has been fascinating to watch from afar, especially since we remember the days of being a cellar-dweller all too well. Are Braves fans on board with the rebuild and how would you assess the effort to re-model the club?
Demetrius Bell: I'd say that last season brought about a bit of a culture shock around here because an entire generation of Braves fans (including myself, here), have never seen the team just bottom out like they have. When you get used to your team at least being in contention for around two decades, it's hard to get used to seeing them to go down the path that they've currently gone down, and there are definitely some fans who are very loud about their displeasure with the major league team at the moment. I don't blame them one bit.
At the same time, I'd say that the majority of the fanbase got behind the rebuild after last offseason -- especially the trade that brought Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte, and Aaron Blair into the organization from Arizona. That move, plus the overall revitalization of the minor league system and some of the call-ups so far this season have got people thinking that there's an extremely bright light at the end of this dark and nasty tunnel. The losing stinks, but as long as the minor league talent develops into solid major league talent, then the losing hopefully won't be in vain. I'm definitely impressed with what the front office has done so far with the rebuild, and I'm definitely intrigued to see what they can do going forward.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez seems to be a dead man walking. Does he deserve to be? What has been his shortcoming as a skipper?
Demetrius Bell: It's actually a small bit of a shame that Fredi Gonzalez is catching major flack for this particular team, because I doubt that any manager alive could do too much better with the current roster that he's been given for this season. With that being said, you could also argue that he's underachieved with this roster, and that's just astonishing to think about. He's never been the most popular guy with this fanbase, and that's mostly because of the fact that his bullpen usage has been extremely wonky at times, even though he's gotten a little better with that as of late.
With that being said, it doesn't take much to improve upon leaving Craig Kimbrel in the bullpen during a high-leverage situation in Game 3 of the 2013 NLDS (and now I'm sweating bullets again. Thanks). Also, he's developed a reputation for strange lineup construction as well. One of his "solutions" to get Freddie Freeman out of a slump earlier this season was to bat him sixth in the lineup. Even if Freddie Freeman was in a major slump like he was, that's just an absurd decision to make when you look at the rest of the squad. Those are just a couple of examples, and you could definitely make the argument that he'll probably end up getting fired more for what's happened in the past than what happened this season. The team's performance down the stretch of the 2014 season was absolutely abysmal, and that (among other things, including pending free agency of key players) was the catalyst for the current rebuild. He could've been fired after that season, but somehow he stayed on, and now we appear to be heading for the end of the line as far as his time as Braves manager is concerned.
Who on this 2016 Braves team will be part of the next competitive Braves team? Are there some guys to build around?
Demetrius Bell: Looking at the 25-man roster now and ignoring any potential call-ups later this season, I can only see a handful of players who are for sure going to be around. When it comes to pitchers, Aaron Blair, Matt Wisler, and Arodys Vizcaino are the only sure things in my opinion. Mike Foltynewicz could stay around if he can get his control issues settled. Julio Teheran could stay, but this front office has already proven that they're willing to move any veteran (other than Freddie Freeman) if they get the right call from another GM, so I won't make any guarantees when it comes to Teheran. However, with Stephen Strasburg making it so that next year's starting pitching class of free agency is pretty paltry, I think that the Braves are going to hang on to Teheran for as long as they can.
As far as batters/fielders are concerned, the only three guys right now who will probably be around once the team stops being awful will be Freddie Freeman, Ender Inciarte, and Mallex Smith. I'll be shocked if Nick Markakis sees out his entire four-year deal with the Braves, since you figure someone's going to come calling for him eventually. This 2016 team is a real ragtag group, so I can't really see the vast majority of these guys staying around. However, the pieces that will be around are going to be pretty valuable when/if the prospects develop and the Braves do a decent job of building around them via free agency and/or trades.
Which player or players in the farm system are you most excited about?
Demetrius Bell: There's a lot to be excited about with this system, but the two brightest spots are Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies. Swanson has already been promoted to AA and has been doing very well, and Albies has also received a promotion this season and is going to be given time to prove himself in AAA. Both of these guys play shortstop, but the ideal situation is for these guys to eventually become the Braves' keystone combination of the future. Either way, it's been exciting to watch these guys develop so far -- especially Albies.
The guy is only 19, and yet he's been impressing the front office and the coaching staff at every juncture. There's a small chance that both of these guys could be on the major league squad by September if the major leagues continue to under-perform like they have. It'd stink for service time reasons, but watching these guys cut their teeth at the top level would be a lot more intriguing to watch than seeing Erick Aybar scrounge together a wRC+ in the teens. Either way, if all goes well with these two and third base prospect Rio Ruiz pans out, then the Braves could have their infield situation settled for a pretty long time.
Jeff Francoeur is a fan favorite here, although we're happy to see him play baseball on another team. How has the Frenchy experience been the second time around?
Demetrius Bell: Oh man, Frenchy is beloved here. He signed a minor-league deal to come back, but I think that everybody here knew that unless he was completely awful during spring training, he was going to make the team because sometimes you need a good PR story with a bad team, and he definitely fits that bill. He got a massive standing ovation on Opening Day for his pinch-hit appearance in that game, and just last night he got the biggest cheer of the night when he hit the first pitch he saw (naturally) for a game-tying RBI single. He's a folk hero around here. The fanbase definitely missed him, and I'd say that both Frenchy and the fans are benefiting from the lowered expectations as well.
When former GM Frank Wren was fired, the Braves turned their attention to Dayton Moore, although Moore stayed in Kansas City. Is current GM John Coppolella here for the long haul or do you think the Braves will turn to Dayton Moore - or perhaps someone under him - as their GM if this rebuild doesn't work out?
Demetrius Bell: I think that the Braves are going to give Coppolella plenty of time to make this work. Now, if the majority of the prospects end up being underwhelming at the major league level and they're unable to make up for it via trades and free agency in the coming years, then we might start hearing rumblings. The ultimate goal of this rebuild is to make sure that the team is competitive during their early years at SunTrust Park, and if the team is still a dumpster fire by then, then he'll start feeling the heat. This wasn't going to be an overnight retooling, but at the same time, I'm pretty sure that ownership doesn't want this team to still be losing around 90 games by 2018 and expects them to at least be in a wild card race by then. As long as the team is decent by then, he should be fine. I think that the franchise has all the faith in the world in Coppy and they're willing to let him see if he can accomplish his vision.
Many thanks to Demetrius Bell for his time. You can read his work and all the latest Braves news and analysis at Talking Chop.