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Braves' 2016 season a tale of two halves

After a rough start, club flashes its potential for a brighter future
October 2, 2016

ATLANTA -- Though the overall record might not have been aesthetically pleasing, the significant improvements made over the final two months enabled the Braves to exit the 2016 season with a sense of satisfaction and reason to believe they might indeed be nearing the final stages of their rebuilding process.Freddie

ATLANTA -- Though the overall record might not have been aesthetically pleasing, the significant improvements made over the final two months enabled the Braves to exit the 2016 season with a sense of satisfaction and reason to believe they might indeed be nearing the final stages of their rebuilding process.
Freddie Freeman produced an MVP-caliber season that was enriched by Matt Kemp's arrival as well as the second-half surge Ender Inciarte generated, while proving to be a legitimate catalyst in the leadoff spot. The Braves possessed one of the game's least productive lineups through the season's first half -- and one of the most productive during the second half.
Unfortunately, the hope-inspiring stretches experienced during the final stages did not erase the damage created by the nine consecutive losses incurred to start the season -- or the 9-29 record at the time Fredi Gonzalez became Atlanta's first manager to be dismissed in more than a quarter of a century.
Braves targeting complementary pieces for 2017

Brian Snitker accepted the challenge of handling the managerial duties over the remainder of the season. In the process, he proved he would be more than capable of handling this role on a full-time basis in the future. The players responded favorably to Snitker, who was certainly challenged while dealing with a starting rotation that was depleted by both injuries and growing pains that forced a couple of young starters to return to the Triple-A level.
A seven-game winning streak in September helped the Braves avoid a 100-loss season, which had seemed inevitable as late as early August. At the same time, it strengthened the positive vibes that were taken away from a season that certainly possessed contrasting halves.
Record: 68-93, fifth place, National League East
Defining moment: Freeman was in the midst of a pedestrian season, plagued by some minor ailments before he hit for the cycle during a 13-inning comeback win over the Reds on June 15. This started a six-game winning streak and a 3 1/2-month surge that enabled the first baseman to complete this season ranked near the league leaders in many different offensive categories. Some pitching woes prevented the Braves from maximizing the value of Freeman's production. But once Kemp was acquired from the Padres on July 30 and Inciarte moved back to the leadoff spot on Aug. 5, the offense proved to be strong enough to occasionally cover for some of the team's weaknesses.

What went right: Kemp provided Freeman with protection, lengthened the lineup and, from an offensive perspective, exceeded the expectations many had when he was acquired from the Padres in a swap of bad contracts (Héctor Olivera was released before ever playing for San Diego). The veteran outfielder is not as athletic as he was during his MVP-caliber seasons, but the 30-plus home runs he hit this season prove there is still value in his bat.

Inciarte spent the first month of the season on the disabled list and did not find a consistent groove until after the All-Star break. But once he got going, he distanced himself from the struggles he experienced against left-handed pitchers last season and provided the Braves with the consistent leadoff hitter they needed. The center fielder also dazzled in the field, while positioning himself to win a Gold Glove Award.

Nick Markakis also deserves some credit for the second-half success. Markakis suddenly regained the power he had lacked since undergoing neck surgery before the 2015 season. He provided a reason to believe the Braves might be wise to keep him around next year, while giving Mallex Smith more time to develop or at least serve as a fourth outfielder.
Mike Foltynewicz showed flashes of his potential to be a top-flight starting pitcher and also put to rest thoughts that he should be utilized as a reliever. But the only semblance of consistency this rotation possessed this year came via Julio Teheran, who earned an All-Star selection and then overcame a few minor injuries to end this season in respectable fashion.
What went wrong: Olivera's brief career with the Braves essentially ended when he was arrested for assaulting a woman less than two weeks into the season. His resulting suspension provided consistent playing time for Smith, who was actually more productive than Olivera prior to being sidelined for approximately three months by a left thumb fracture suffered on June 19.

Matt Wisler at least provided some glimpses the Braves can rely on him to develop into a dependable starter over the next few seasons. But Aaron Blair's struggles cast doubt on whether he will ever live up to the expectations generated when he entered this year as one of the game's top pitching prospects.
Erick Aybar was acquired when the Braves targeted top pitching prospect Sean Newcomb in the deal that sent Andrelton Simmons to the Angels. Instead of serving as a reliable short-term fix until Dansby Swanson was ready, Aybar statistically ranked as the game's least productive player most of this season. He was traded to the Tigers in mid-August to create an opportunity for Swanson, who spent this season's final six weeks proving he's ready to serve as Atlanta's starting shortstop for many years to come.

When Freeman and Markakis both slumped throughout most of May, the Braves' offense struggled mightily. The team's woeful start negatively influenced the clubhouse, as too much of the focus was placed on whether Gonzalez would be relieved of his managerial duties.
Biggest surprise: Maybe we shouldn't have been too surprised to see Adonis García produce a second straight double-digit home run total. But after he was sent to Triple-A Gwinnett to learn how to play left field because his glove was a liability at third base, we certainly didn't expect to see him return to the Majors in June and spend the remainder of the season providing value with both his bat and his glove at third base.

Hitter of the Year: Along with notching his first 30-homer season, Freeman also joined Chipper Jones as the only players in Atlanta history to collect at least 80 extra-base hits in a season. He entered June 15 with a .248 batting average, and got that mark above .300 near the end of September. Chicago's Kris Bryant, Cincinnati's Joey Votto and Washington's Daniel Murphy were arguably the only other NL players who produced an offensive campaign that rivaled Freeman's.
Pitcher of the Year: Teheran tossed a one-hit shutout against the Mets on June 25 and produced a 2.71 ERA through the 20 starts he made before he began battling an upper back strain that sidelined him during the first few weeks of August. He struggled through a couple of starts and then spent most of September looking like the reliable starter he was throughout most of the year.

Rookie of the Year: Smith established himself as the early favorite and right-handed reliever Mauricio Cabrera gained some consideration, as he proved he could consistently command his triple-digit fastball and 91-mph changeup. But even though he played just six weeks, this honor goes to Swanson -- who certainly didn't look like he was just one year removed from college. The young shortstop successfully handled big league pitching and gave Braves fans reason to believe he can do at least some of those things that made Simmons so special.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for since 2001.