This is how the Braves got so good so fast

August 15th, 2018

Teams with a strong farm system often surge at the big league level sooner than expected. The most famous recent examples are the Cubs and Astros, who suddenly reversed years of losing with postseason appearances in 2015, a prelude to winning World Series in the next two seasons.

The Red Sox went from last place in the American League East in 2015 to first place in '16, and they haven't looked back since. The Twins' youngsters needed a little more time to percolate, then sparked a 36-game improvement in '17 that made Minnesota the first big league club to reach the playoffs following a 100-loss season.

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Now the Braves are making the jump, leading the National League East and challenging for the best record in the Senior Circuit after posting four straight losing seasons from 2014-17. After the first of those sub-.500 years, they fired GM Frank Wren and fully committed to rebuilding a farm system that had fallen into disrepair.

However, unlike the Braves' NL East dynasty of the 1990s and early 2000s, this team has not built through the Draft, but instead found alternative methods of bringing in talent. To illustrate this, let's take a look at their lineup in 2005 -- the last of their record 14 straight division titles -- compared to their lineup today.

2005 (How acquired)

C: Johnny Estrada (Trade)

1B: Adam LaRoche (Draft)

2B: Marcus Giles (Draft)

SS: Rafael Furcal (International free agent)

3B: Chipper Jones (Draft)

LF: Kelly Johnson (Draft)

CF: Andruw Jones (International free agent)

RF: Jeff Francoeur (Draft)

2018 (How acquired)

C: (MLB Free agent)

1B: Freddie Freeman (Draft)

2B: (International free agent)

SS: Dansby Swanson (Trade)

3B: (International free agent)

LF: (International free agent)

CF: (Trade)

RF: (MLB free agent)

That 2005 team had five draftees and two international amateur free agents among its regulars, while the current squad has only one drafted player in its everyday lineup (Freeman). So how did they do this? Let's break it down.

International focus

Under former president of baseball operations John Hart and GM John Coppolella, Atlanta engineered a slew of veterans-for-prospects trades, acquiring nine former first-rounders and four future Draft picks (more on that later). But perhaps more than anything, the biggest shift was the Braves' focus on the international amateur market, though overly so, with Hart stripped of power and later stepping down, Coppolella forced to resign and subsequently banned from MLB for life and 13 signees declared free agents after an investigation revealed the club had violated signing rules from 2015-17.

Interestingly, Atlanta's two best young players -- and two of the best in baseball -- are international signees from the Wren administration, and predate the international violations. The Braves landed Albies for $350,000 out of Curacao in July 2013, then grabbed Acuna for $100,000 out of Venezuela a year later.

Albies, now 21, already has 21 homers two-thirds of the way through his first full season as a big leaguer after never hitting more than nine in any Minor League season. Acuna, now 20, was the consensus Minor League Player of the Year in 2017 and has had no problems transitioning to the Majors. He has led off his past three games with home runs, giving him 19 in 67 games and becoming the youngest player to homer in five straight contests.

They're well-rounded players and much more than sluggers, with Albies worth 3.5 Wins Above Replacement and Acuna worth 2.8 so far this year. Only three teams in baseball history have had two players 21 or younger compile 2.5 WAR in the same season: the 1959 Giants (Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey), the '39 Red Sox (Bobby Doerr, Ted Williams) and the 1893 Baltimore Orioles (Joe Kelley, John McGraw). All six of those players are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, incidentally.

Third baseman Johan Camargo (age 24) was another astute international signing ($42,000 out of Panama in 2010) under Wren, but many of the Braves' young standouts have Hart and Coppolella's fingerprints all over them.

Outside-the-box trades

Many clubs are hesitant to trade cost-controlled players, including homegrown guys they have given long-term contracts to prior to free agency. The Braves, however, have exploited this, and brought back a lot of value in the process.

Perhaps the most famous example is when they acquired Swanson (age 24), the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 Draft, along with defensive standout Inciarte in a trade that sent to the Diamondbacks and could go down as one of the most lopsided trades in history and the standout transaction of the Hart/Coppolella era. Of course, that trade was only possible because Hart flipped to the Cardinals in a trade for Miller prior to the 2015 season. At the time, Heyward was a year from free agency, while Miller had five years of team control left, so it was a nice bit of arbitrage.

Along those lines, the clubs' two best starting pitchers, Mike Foltynewicz (age 26) and (age 25), arrived in deals with the Astros for Evan Gattis and the Angels for . The Simmons deal was notable because it came in the fall of 2015, just a few months after he had signed a seven-year, $58 million extension.

The Braves first demonstrated a willingness trade homegrown players signed to long-term deals the previous April, when Hart sent closer -- given a four-year, $42 million extension by Wren in 2014 -- and Melvin Upton Jr. to the Padres in a deal that brought back (then the top prospect in the trade), Jordan Paroubeck, , and a 2015 competitive balance Draft pick, which they turned into third baseman Austin Riley at No. 41 overall. That pick may end up being the key to the deal, as Riley now ranks as their No. 4 prospect and No. 43 on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 list.

Other less-heralded -- but equally shrewd -- trades are when they acquired 21-year-old flame-throwing lefty from the Mariners in a swap that saw them surrender , and the infamous deal with Arizona in which they sent infielder to Phil Gosselin to the D-backs in exchange for 's onerous contract and right-hander Touki Toussaint, who now, at 22, looks like a potential lynchpin of the rotation.

Best of the rest

Of course, the Braves do have some key contributors who came from the Draft, as well as Major League free agency.

Co-closer (age 24) was a supplemental second-round pick in 2015 despite having Tommy John surgery earlier that spring, and couple of other pitchers who have made cameos this year and should play larger roles in this future are 20-year-olds and , both of whom were first-round picks in '15.

And, of course, there is Freeman, who at 28 years old remains Atlanta's most dangerous hitter. He was the Braves' second-round pick back in 2007 (Atlanta's top pick that year was Heyward).

In terms of Major League free agents, right fielder Markakis and starter are having career renaissances at age 34, while the over-30 catching duo of Suzuki and Tyler Flowers has been surprisingly effective. But make no mistake -- this is a young team that's only going to get younger in the next couple of years.

The Braves placed second in MLB Pipeline's midseason farm-system rankings and top all organizations with nine players on our Top 100 Prospects list: Soroka, right-handers Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson, Riley, outfielder Cristian Pache, Gohara, Toussaint, Allard and outfielder Drew Waters. They're contending ahead of schedule, and 2018 should only be the beginning of an extended run of success.