Braves to wait for next year, and the next year, and the next year

Last night I was having trouble sleeping when I heard my phone buzz with the news that the Atlanta Braves had traded All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel and the much maligned artist formerly known as B.J. Upton to the most interesting team in the bigs, the San Diego Padres. This was the perfect cap to an offseason in which the Braves and Padres were in many ways the most active and transformed teams in baseball, albeit in very different directions: the Padres went from irrelevant to a potential wild card contending team by acquiring  Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Matt Kemp, and now Craig Kimbrel, while the Braves gutted a team that won 96 games in 2013 by trading away three of their top four hitters in a brazen attempt to restock their farm system so they might be competitive when they open their new park in 2017.

On the merits, the trade is probably a good one for the Braves. An elite closer, even one as dominant as Kimbrel, is an unnecessary component of a team that will be lucky to win 70 games this year, battling the Phillies for last place in the National League East. By trading him, the Braves were able to rid themselves of Upton’s awful contract (and awful baseball) and get a couple of prospects who might pan out. (The Braves also got Cameron Maybin and Carlos Quentin, but they were just salary and roster filler.) Fittingly, on Easter Sunday it also resurrected the best meme in baseball.

But it got me thinking about the Braves’ strategy, which could essentially be boiled down to this: lose now so we can win later. I would compare them to the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, the ultimate example of a team tanking to put itself in a position to succeed later on. There are many attractive elements to this strategy, and it makes some sense. But only some — especially when winning now was an actual option.

PR reports to the contrary, the Braves have essentially thrown in the towel this year. Their lineup is cringe-worthy: Freddie Freeman is the only Brave who projects to more than 11 home runs, the only Brave who projects to have an OPS (on-base-plus-slugging-percentage) above .710, and, along with defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons, the only position player who projects to more than 2 WAR (wins above replacement player), which is the standard for an average starter. This team will set records for offensive ineptitude. Their offense will truly be offensive.

Here’s the thing: It didn’t have to be this way. Sure, the Braves can say they could not have afforded to resign Justin Upton and Jason Heyward. But why not? There is no salary cap. They never even approached Heyward, who grew up in the Atlanta area, about signing an extension. As Craig Calcaterra perceptively noted on Twitter, last year’s Braves team, with a little bit of tinkering, could have easily contended for a Wild Card spot. While they probably could not have won 96 games (and that team overachieved), they were not as bad as the team that won 79 games last year. Here was their lineup coming into the offseason (with 2015 Steamers projections):

C- Evan Gattis (25 HRs, .463 SLG)

1B- Freddie Freeman (.285/.374/.478 slash line, 4 WAR)

2B- Unknown

3B- Chris Johnson (bleh)

SS- Andrelton Simmons (3.8 WAR)

LF- Justin Upton (24 HRs, .254/.336/.442, 2.9 WAR)

CF- Melvin Upton, Jr. (nothing good)

RF- Jason Heyward (.269/.352/.439, 4.8 WAR)

SP- Julio Teheran (10-12, 3.77, 2 WAR — the record is bad because of the Braves’ projected offense)

SP- Alex Wood (10-11, 3.54, 2.5 WAR)

SP- Mike Minor (7-9, 4.04, 1 WAR

CL- Craig Kimbrel (2.17 ERA, 34 SVs, 1.4 WAR)

They probably wouldn’t be projected World Series champs, but they could contend — and that is all you need in today’s baseball. Nobody would have projected a Giants-Royals World Series last year. It’s all about getting hot at the right time. The Braves could have still traded away Gattis for prospects and been competitive. They could have still traded for Trevor Cahill to be their 4th or 5th starter. Find another spare pitcher and maybe add someone to platoon with Johnson at third base, and that is a team that could make the playoffs — and then, who knows?

Alas, that is not the case. The Braves are building for the future. And, all things considered, they have done as good a job at achieving that goal as they could — their farm system has gone from one of the worst in baseball to one of the best. They are certainly better positioned to succeed five years from now than they were.

But that’s all it is — positioning. The Braves could be back to winning baseball by 2017, or they could be continually chasing relevance, making “smart” deals for “top” prospects, all the while languishing at the bottom of the standings and wasting the primes of Freeman, Simmons, and Teheran. The Braves don’t have to be, nor could they be the Oakland A’s — they have more money, a city that they want to be in, and they don’t have Billy Beane.

It’s one thing to be the Houston Astros and tear down a middling team to try to get younger and play for the future. But when you are the Braves, with a legacy and culture of winning, along with the exact same set of players who have proven they could win together in the past — that, well, that just makes no sense.

For now, every season, it seems, Braves fans will be saying, “wait ’till next year.”

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