ATLANTA -- One win away from a World Series appearance for a second straight year, The Braves find themselves reaping the benefits of the painful rebuilding process that began after the 2014 season and concluded earlier than expected in 2018, with the capture of the first of four consecutive National League East titles.
One of the most valuable products of the rebuild, Ian Anderson, will start Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers on Saturday night at Truist Park. The 95-loss 2015 season wasn’t an enjoyable one. But it was one that put Atlanta in position to select Anderson with the third overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft.
While Anderson was a great selection in 2016, the Braves’ 2015 Draft Class was a better one. That year’s first five selections included Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka, Austin Riley, Lucas Herbert and A.J. Minter. Herbert was a pawn pick used to help sign his high school teammate Allard, who underperformed but had enough value to at least be sent out in the trade that netted Chris Martin during the 2019 season.
With Soroka, Riley and Minter, the Braves selected three significant big league assets within the first 75 picks of the 2015 Draft. Minter has served as Atlanta’s closer before and has the potential to regain that role at some point. Soroka’s story might prove to be a sad one: He has torn his right Achilles tendon twice since looking like an annual Cy Young candidate in 2019.
But the 2015 Draft may still net a superstar in the form of Riley, who hit 33 homers and tallied 107 RBIs this season. The 24-year-old third baseman appears to have a long-term future as a middle-of-the-order bat in Atlanta. It’s a good thing the Braves weren’t among the many clubs who were interested in Riley as a pitcher.
The Braves took Riley with the 41st overall pick, a selection they gained via the trade that sent Craig Kimbrel to the Padres. Touted pitching prospect Matt Wisler was the primary target in the Kimbrel deal. But Riley undoubtedly stands as the big prize Atlanta fans were seeking when their dominant closer was dealt the day before the 2015 season began.
Along with having some successful drafts during the rebuild, the Braves bolstered their future via a few other initially painful, but eventually fruitful trades. The first significant deal occurred in November 2014, sending Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden to the Cardinals in exchange for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins.
Jenkins was eventually sent to the Rangers in the deal that brought Luke Jackson to Atlanta. Though Jackson has battled through some rough stretches, he played a key role in the NL East titles the Braves won in both 2019 and 2021.
As for Miller, the Braves used his great 2015 season to acquire Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte and Aaron Blair from the D-backs. Inciarte won a few Gold Glove Awards and played a key role leading up to Atlanta winning the first of its four straight division titles in 2018.
But the prize of the Miller deal continues to be Swanson, who has served as Atlanta’s starting shortstop each of the past five seasons. The 27-year-old infielder hit 27 homers and provided superb defense this year. The Braves continue to gain the value the D-backs sought when they made Swanson the top overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft.
The Swanson trade was made approximately one year after the Braves accelerated their rebuild by sending Justin Upton to the Padres a week after the Winter Meetings ended in San Diego. The target of the Upton deal was a young left-handed pitcher who was recovering from Tommy John surgery. That hurler was Max Fried, who has been one of the game’s top starters over the past two years.
Fried stumbled during Game 5 on Thursday night, but he helped the Braves gain an early lead in this year’s NLCS by limiting the Dodgers to two runs over six innings in Game 1. He may not pitch again during this series. But he is a key reason why Atlanta is once again just a win away from what would be its first World Series since 1999.