Jump on Braves' bandwagon, even if it's unpopular
Fans understandably didn't want to see Kimbrel dealt, but Atlanta's plan the right one
MIAMI -- This is not being written because the Braves are 2-0, although that doesn't hurt. This is not being written because the post-Craig Kimbrel bullpen ate up the Marlins' bats on Opening Day. Or because the new-look, much-maligned lineup jumped all over a flat Mat Latos on Tuesday night and made the Marlins Park crowd -- ahem -- Latos intolerant. But that doesn't hurt, either.
This is being written because the Braves need more people in their corner right about now, at a time when fans are understandably frustrated and the roster has more people coming and going than Five Points Station.
No, I don't think the Braves are going to magically contend this year, nor do I think they're a safe bet to flirt with .500. But what they've done these past few months -- taking a definitive direction with a roster that needed an honest evaluation -- was the logical, sensible, reasonable thing to do.
It was also extremely unpopular.
Perhaps never more unpopular than Sunday, when Craig Kimbrel -- a guy who had grown up rooting for the Braves and wound up establishing himself as the Best Closer Not Named Mariano Rivera in their uniform -- was unceremoniously shipped to San Diego.
Kimbrel was collateral damage within the bigger-picture rebuild/remodel/whatever taking place in the Atlanta organization, and, all along, that rebuild/remodel/whatever was intent on ensuring the onerous and odorous Melvin nee B.J. Upton Jr. contract was unloaded. On the heels of the rest of the Braves' winter upheaval, finding a taker for both guys made all the sense in the world. With Upton, the reasons were obvious. With Kimbrel, it's a little more complicated. But the short version is that guys who make a lot of money ($34 million over the next three years, to be exact) to pitch around 65 innings a year aren't valued commodities on clubs not projected to contend.
(I'd argue they're not worth that kind of investment even on clubs that are projected to contend, but that's another topic for another time.)
Now, in place of Kimbrel, the Braves have another polished pitching prospect in their system in 22-year-old Matt Wisler. There were many other elements to the deal, of course, but the heart of the matter was adding Wisler to a strong, controllable stash that now includes Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins (from the Jason Heyward trade), Mike Foltynewicz (from the Evan Gattis trade), Manny Banuelos (from the trade that sent David Carpenter to the Yankees) and Max Fried (from the Justin Upton trade). This, in addition to some nice young position player pieces like Jace Peterson and Rio Ruiz, to say nothing of the Draft pick help and bonus pool money netted along the way.
All of this points to a much-improved Major League outlook by the time SunTrust Park opens in 2017.
Still, because the Kimbrel trade went down when it did, the Braves had that rare locker room in which players were introducing themselves to each other on Opening Day -- an oddly amusing sight, to an independent, unemotional observer. And even though guys in this business all eventually grow to understand the inevitable adjustments that accompany the brutal business side, this definitely qualified as an odd and awkward situation.
But that doesn't make it wrong.
Even Freddie Freeman -- who was as close with Kimbrel as anybody, and could be forgiven if he doesn't want to see any of his prime years wasted in a losing effort -- can understand that.
"On the personal side of it, you hate the deal," Freeman said shortly before contributing to Latos' status as a trending Twitter topic. "I don't think anybody could ever get used to the personal side. But you've got to look at it from the business side. When you trade away a Craig Kimbrel, the timing is never going to be right. But this was the only way we could do it and free up some money, and we got some good prospects in return."
You get lip service from athletes all the time. But this is not lip service from Freeman. And his words mean something, because Freeman, just 14 months ago, signed an eight-year extension that solidified his standing as the face of this franchise for the foreseeable future.
If Freeman were to whine or grumble about the absences of Heyward, Gattis, Justin Upton and Kimbrel, he'd be far from the first player to grouse about what a front office is up to. But Freeman has sat down with assistant general manager John Coppolella, seen the statistically solid sales pitch, been presented with the prospect rankings pre- and post-upheaval. He gets it. And that, frankly, is as important as any element of the plan John Hart and Coppolella put into action.
"We in this clubhouse can feed off each other," Freeman said. "If I'm on board, that carries over to everybody else. The fact is, we didn't have a good farm system at all. Now we're in the top five. You want to win as soon as you can, but sometimes that's not going to be the case."
Hey, despite all the turnover, the Braves are winning right now. Definitely don't go printing playoff tickets on the basis of the 2-0 start, but the starting rotation looks solid, and an offensive approach built more on contact and a little speed (witness the way offseason acquisition Eric Young Jr. totally took over on the basepaths in the sixth inning to manufacture the go-ahead run in the opener) might prove to be more productive than what we saw last year, back when Atlanta had all those key lineup pieces in place and still managed to lose 83 games.
"Hopefully that translates to more guys on base, more pressure on the defense," Freeman said. "And we're getting a lot of pitching back from these trades, so hopefully that translates to many years of success."
A guy like Freeman has to stay hopeful, because there's a ton of external negativity that accompanies the departures of so much starpower. But in the long run, the Braves were far better off making a definitive decision about their future rather than trying to maintain an unsustainable present.
Better to enter 2015 with a puncher's chance, a chip on your shoulder, than to go into it with unrealistic expectations.
"All of us here are invested in this," Freeman said. "Fans can get on board if they want. All we can do is try to get some W's. The more we get, the more fans we're going to regain."
The Braves are 2-0. So far, so good.