Complete rebuilds, by their very nature, are ugly little messes that go against the whole point of sports, which is to win. It’s why even after the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs showed just how effective a to-the-studs teardown can be, a certain cognitive dissonance among fans still exists. Winning is great, so long as it doesn’t take losing to get there.
Here, then, are the Atlanta Braves, who are losing but don’t exactly want to say they’re losing because they picked about the worst possible time to start losing: in the run-up to the opening of a new stadium that gets somewhere between half and two-thirds of its funding from public money earmarked by politicians and not an open vote. So, essentially, the Braves will benefit from money unwittingly offered by the citizens to whom they’re now peddling bad baseball as an amuse-bouche for a stadium some citizens may not have wanted in the first place.
The best intentions can fall prey to bad timing, and that’s where the Braves seem to find themselves now, after the trade of shortstop Andrelton Simmons fomented unrest and the chatter about the Braves’ willingness to trade first baseman Freddie Freeman made even more waves.
Here are the facts: Ken Rosenthal’s report that the Braves talked about dealing Freeman was 100 percent true. Three sources told Yahoo Sports that Freeman’s name came up in conversations with the Houston Astros as part of a mega-trade that would’ve included more than five players. It went nowhere. Neither did light chatter with other teams. Discussions about franchise-type players owed more than $100 million rarely do, and that context is vital in understanding what Atlanta is trying to do.
Full rebuilds demand open-mindedness, the idea that no player is off-limits, and it’s how the Braves were operating before the backlash against their dealing Simmons to the Los Angeles Angels for a package headlined by top pitching prospect Sean Newcomb. Nothing should matter aside from best practices, and best practices call for the maximization of talent, something the Braves have tried to achieve in the last year as they traded Simmons, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Alex Wood, Evan Gattis and Jose Peraza.
Emotion happened to intervene, and in a process that demands calculating maneuvers and cold decisions, it put the Braves’ brain trust in a perilous situation. General manager John Coppolella went public almost immediately saying the Braves would not trade Freeman, telling USA Today: “I’d give my right arm before we trade Freddie Freeman.”
Coppolella’s words were meant to sate a fan base that, like any, would struggle with the idea of emptying the cupboard, particularly considering the Braves for a decade and a half managed to exist by annually restocking theirs. That was old Atlanta. This incarnation needs to subsist on a payroll lower than what it spent in the early 2000s. Baseball’s revenues as a sport have nearly tripled in that time.
The Braves’ baseball-operations department is operating under the sort of restrictions that run in direct conflict with taking a team into a new stadium with momentum, and that short-sightedness falls on the carpetbagging Liberty Media ownership group that treats the Braves more as investment than ballclub. Which is well within its rights. Why an owner would make decisions that positions a product to fail before asking consumers to invest even more time and money into it, on the other hand, defies reason.
Nonetheless, that’s where the Braves find themselves. They say they won’t listen on Freeman even though limiting their options goes against their best interests. They’ll bank on the huge infusion of young talent they received in the big-name trades to grow into productive major leaguers, particularly the stockpile of young power arms. Plenty will fizzle, as arms do. If enough hit, the Braves will have a surplus from which they can trade and acquire the bats they desperately need.
The lack of good pitching in next year’s free agent market and price of starting pitching in the current trade market portends well for that strategy, though banking on the development of starting pitchers is risky. It’s the Braves’ play, though, and judging it before the arms themselves develop is pre-emptive. It’s not that Coppolella and the organization’s two chieftains, president John Schuerholz and president of baseball operations John Hart, should be automatically given the benefit of the doubt. It’s that judging any rebuilding project not even in its second full year is unfair.
Atlanta has done plenty right. It dealt Heyward and Upton before they hit free agency. It landed a legitimate center fielder in Cameron Maybin. It dumped bad contracts and shifted other money, like the deals of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, to the present with the idea of clearing cash for 2017, when the stadium opens. Of course, the idea of a full rebuild lasting just two years seems dubious, and the prospects of the Braves going to the new stadium with a bad team is palpable.
Perhaps the animus among Braves fans would be the same without the public-funding aspect of the stadium, but it’s reasonable to think those contributing between $300 million and $400 million in Cobb County tax dollars would at least like some respectability from the team set to profit from SunTrust Park. The anger comes from that place, and from knowing the Braves are more bullish on signing teenagers this year than they are capturing a National League East that once was their birthright.
This is how it works, or how it’s supposed to if a team sticks to the plan. The Braves should land a top talent with the No. 3 overall pick in the draft this year. People familiar with the international amateur landscape peg them as the favorites to sign Kevin Maitan, a switch-hitting shortstop from Venezuela considered the best Latin American 16-year-old since Miguel Sano.
It’s what makes the duality of Freeman so painful. The Braves, by all means, should be seeking trades for him to see the market. This is not wrong. This is not a sign the Braves don’t care about their fans. This is the best way to build a baseball team.
Fans are predictable. Those who don’t understand the benefit of rebuilding bellyache about it until the team turns around, and then they hail the architects damn geniuses. Winning is the greatest salve, and if the Braves follow the path of the Astros and Cubs, they’ll be feted throughout Atlanta.
In the meantime, nobody needs to speak in absolutes or offer limbs as penance, least of all those running the Braves. Freddie Freeman can be theirs for another six years and $118.5 million or another team’s if its offer makes the Braves of 2017 and ’18 and beyond a better team. No matter what they say, the Braves of 2016 are going to lose, and they may lose spectacularly, and it’s what they should do. Rebuilding is not for the faint of heart, and it’s certainly not for those who engage in half-measures.
The Braves started this plan knowing it might get ugly. Now that it has – now that the reality of losing while trying to open a new stadium has hit – the worst thing they can do is abandon it.