The Braves are better than you think
Roster makeovers are never easy, but Atlanta has made wise moves
The first Major League team to 3-0 this season wasn't the Dodgers, with their massive payroll and overwhelming talent. Neither was it an Angels bunch expected to live up to its hype after all of these years. It wasn't even one of those franchises supposedly on the rise, spanning from Seattle to the North Side of Chicago to the New York team not named the Yankees.
It was the Braves. You know, the rebuilding Braves. We're talking about the Braves with so many new players after nine trades and seven free-agent signings before Spring Training that super closer Craig Kimbrel had T-shirts designed for everybody that said, "Hello my name is (fill in the blank)."
Kimbrel later was traded -- not because Braves officials were upset with his T-shirt thing, but because they needed to move their most celebrated player since Chipper Jones as part of an attempt to restructure their roster for the opening of their new ballpark in 2017 and beyond.
Well, that, and there is something else to consider: Braves officials had to implode their roster. They really did.
The early success of this makeover is just a fluke.
Or is it?
What's for sure is that the Braves entered their home opener Friday night at Turner Field against the Mets after starting the season in Miami with a sweep of a Miami team slated to do nice things. In contrast, the Braves were picked by most folks to wallow at the bottom of the National League East with the Phillies. Such a scenario hasn't happened yet for Atlanta, and it won't happen, because the Braves are much better than you think. They still can pitch, and in baseball, that's more than halfway toward goodness.
The front end of the Braves' starting rotation is impressive with Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and Shelby Miller. Yes, Kimbrel is gone with his otherworldly numbers during his four years as baseball's best closer, but his replacement is Jason Grilli, a former All-Star closer with the Pirates. The rest of the bullpen includes Jim Johnson, a former All-Star closer with the Orioles.
Not only that, but the Braves are better offensively. That's because they've completely remade a roster that struck out too much and had issues knocking in runners in scoring position. As a result, the Braves couldn't manufacture runs on a consistent basis in recent years while finishing above only the Padres in runs scored in the Major Leagues.
The Braves are faster, too. Among their slew of trades, they acquired the speedy Eric Young Jr., who is their first true leadoff hitter since Michael Bourn left as a free agent after the 2012 season.
There also is this: Freddie Freeman, the Braves' clutch hitter and smooth-fielding first baseman, isn't going anywhere. The same goes for Andrelton Simmons, the game's most prolific defensive shortstop. Then there are newcomers such as Nick Markakis, Jonny Gomes and A.J. Pierzynski providing leadership in a clubhouse where there hasn't been any since the retirement of Jones after the 2012 season. Markakis is a two-time Gold Glove Award winner in right field. Plus, with a career batting average of .290 and a history of making contact more often than not, he is among those who will provide Atlanta with the situational hitting the team has lacked for a while.
Still, the screaming throughout the land of the choppers and the chanters hasn't stopped. In response, Braves officials keep doing the right thing by acknowledging the public outcry each time they unload a popular player, and then they do what they have to do, which is they keep purging.
Most of the Braves' top hitters weren't retained. While Justin Upton was shipped to the Padres, Jason Heyward went to the Cardinals and Evan Gattis joined the Astros. As for pitchers, Ervin Santana was allowed to leave through free agency despite his solid right arm. The same went for Aaron Harang, who was efficient enough last season at 36 to win 12 games with a 3.57 ERA.
Then came the shocker: Kimbrel? I mean, he joined Freeman as their most popular player. But the day before Atlanta opened its season this week in Miami, team officials shipped Kimbrel to San Diego, along with center fielder Melvin Upton Jr., the brother of Justin.
To which I say to all of this: good, very good.
What comes to mind is that old line from Branch Rickey, when he traded a stunned Ralph Kiner and his prolific bat during the early 1950s from the Pirates to the Cubs: "We can finish last without you."
This isn't to say the Braves were awful before their makeover. They were just destined to remain what they were in recent years: Slightly better than mediocre, stale, another team destined to add to Atlanta's string of playoff losses in the NL Division Series or NL Wild Card Game. The Braves' streak is at seven and counting after dropping three of four to the Dodgers in the 2013 NLDS.
So they had to implode their clubhouse, and they got lots in return. Most noticeably, they improved their farm system, which ranked among baseball's worst before the purging. Jace Peterson was one of the prospects the Braves received in the Justin Upton trade to the Padres, and Peterson was so impressive in Spring Training that he is now Atlanta's starting second baseman.
The Braves didn't just get prospects. They acquired the established Miller, for instance, when they dealt Heyward to the Cardinals. In Miller's first start for the Braves on Wednesday against the Marlins, he pitched five scoreless innings of what became a 2-0 victory for Atlanta.
Looks like the future for the Braves is now.