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It may feel like centuries ago to Atlanta fans, but midway through 2014 the Braves appeared poised for another mid-'90s run. They had won 96 games the previous season, were in first place as the July trade deadline approached, and fielded a young, talented core of exciting young superstars under club control well into the future.

Then a sputtering offense and a late-season collapse ended the year on a dismal note, Atlanta’s 79-83 record putting them in a tie for second place but a whopping 17 games behind the Nationals. Rather than retool for a quick turnaround, the Braves fired general manager Frank Wren in September and took a radical approach to remaking the roster, trading off many of those young, exciting players to replenish the farm system and slash payroll. Not just Justin Upton and Jason Heyward—both creeping up on free agency—but Evan Gattis, Craig Kimbrel, Alex Wood and Andrelton Simmons, not to mention Cameron Maybin, who’d been acquired in the first round of sell-offs. There are rumblings, too, that Atlanta's shopping Freeman, a 26-year-old first baseman entering year three of an eight-year, $135 million pact, and anyone else owed money. (General Manager John Coppolella says otherwise).

Slow-burn rebuilds are all the rage these days, as organizations like the Astros and Cubs—and even the Royals, though with less fanfare—have shown the payoff to a patient, process-driven. What makes the Braves sudden about-face puzzling, however, is that they had drafted and developed and extended the young stars that a rebuilding team is in constant search of—the Simmonses, the Kimbrels, the Freemans, the Teherans—while generally avoiding the albatross contract. The core was in place, and it was young and reasonably cheap and performing well, and yet the Braves decided to throw it in reverse and go in another direction.

Despite the series of head-scratchers, the Braves are probably really smart—no, they're definitely smart. There's 72 combined years of front office experience between John Schuerholz and John Hart, new GM John Coppolella has been a darling of Future GM lists for years, and there's a decades-long organizational tradition of superior scouting and development. So let's concede for a moment that the Braves know their own organization better than the outside world, and that a rebuild was indeed a smart—or, at least, defensible—route for them to take. Let's concede that they're nabbing the right prospects in trades and that they're going to restock the minor-league pipeline with the right draft picks and international signings, developed smartly to turn into productive major leaguers. Let's concede that in three or four years the Braves might regain their position as NL East favorites and start spitting out 90-plus-win seasons annually.

But here’s the problem: The Braves are set to move into a new, publicly funded stadium in Cobb County in 2017, and even if the rebuild goes smoothly, they seem unlikely to be in a position to win by then. There's an unwritten rule to the art of stadium-building that says if you're going to use the public's money to fund shiny new digs (and you bet the Braves are), you at least have to make a good-faith effort to put a solid product on the field. The Braves are trending in the opposite direction, cutting payroll and trading off cornerstone players while construction crews are turning the $672 million SunTrust Park from blueprint to reality.

Have other teams acted similarly? I checked. Since 1990, only a quarter of teams cut payroll the year they headed into a new stadium, and three of the exceptions—the Cardinals, Astros, and Yankees—shed costs by five percent or less. Not a single team had a lower payroll the year they moved into a new stadium than in the average of the three prior years. On the other hand, 65 percent of teams increased payroll by at least 10 percent when changing addresses, led by the Marlins (107 percent), Pirates (95 percent), and Indians (81 percent).

The following table displays how much the average team's attendance shifted in the four years prior to moving into a new stadium.

N-4 to N-3

N-3 to N-2

N-2 to N-1

N-1 to N

4.77 %

10.41 %

11.61 %

21.38 %

On average, a team's payroll increased 21 percent the year it moved into a new stadium, and it jumped a staggering 57 percent during the four-year span prior to Opening Day in the new park—there's some plain ol' inflation mixed in there, but much of the increase is due to owners willing to shell out big contracts in exchange for the discount on a franchise-altering stadium deal.

For the Braves to follow a similar trajectory as the typical team, their payroll would need to sit around $142 million by the start of the 2017 season. Right now they've committed just under $70 million to players under contract for the 2016 season—not counting arb-eligible and league-minimum guys—and $51 million by 2017, a large chunk of which is owed to possible trade candidate Freeman. Here's why:

Traded Player

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

Andrelton Simmons

$3.1M (paid)

$6.1M

$8.1M

$11.1M

$13.1M

Craig Kimbrel

$9.3M

$11.3M

$13.3M

Justin Upton

$14.7M

Jason Heyward

$8.3M

Melvin Upton

$14.5M

$15.5M

$16.5M

Cameron Maybin

$7.1M (paid)

$8.1M

There's some cash considerations and option year money unaccounted for, but you get the point.

Remember when we conceded that the Braves were smart. Well, they probably are, but baseball is unrelentingly difficult to figure out, and sometimes smart doesn't cut it. The Braves have focused their rebuild on young pitching, and everybody loves young pitching. The Kimbrel return was headlined by Matt Wisler; the Simmons return was headlined by Sean Newcomb; the (Justin) Upton return was headlined by Max Fried; both the Heyward and Maybin deals spun a pair of pitchers Atlanta's way. Shoot, even the Gattis deal brought back two hurlers to every one position player.

Young pitching is great when it works out (see: the Mets), but the Braves have turned a capable roster inside out for a high-stakes gamble on the fates of eight or 10 arms, two or three of which could be ravaged by Tommy John surgery, another by an imperceptible but important loss of deception, another two to velocity drops and mechanical issues. Young pitching as an abstract concept is great; in practice, it's something else.

Another thing smarts can't fully combat is frugality. If ownership wants Player X traded because he signed a reasonable extension two years ago, then player X is probably headed elsewhere. Atlanta's trade binge appears to be more about cost-cutting than a true, organic, this-is-what's –best-for-the-organization rebuild. When the Braves dealt Kimbrel to San Diego, for example, they got back a weaker-than-expected package of prospects because they attached (Melvin) Upton's bad contact into the deal (Atlanta did take on the contracts of Maybin and Carlos Quentin). The Padres turned around and dealt an untethered Kimbrel—a year older, coming of his worst season, with just two years left on a team-friendly deal—a week and a half ago and received a significantly better haul of prospects than the Braves did back in April.

Even if the Braves decide this isn't a long-term rebuild—and GM Coppolella and Co. insist it isn't, with the CEO mentioning expected payroll jumps by January 1, 2017—it's still fair to question their approach. Why trade homegrown players familiar to the organization for other teams' risk-drenched prospects? Maybe, instead of going down that road, Simmons and Kimbrel (etc.) could have served as the franchise players when SunTrust Park opens in 2017, and the Braves could have found a less extreme way of turning an 83-loss team back into a contender.

If you've made it this far and you're a Braves fan, here's some good news: There are rumors floating about Liberty Media, the current ownership group, selling the franchise before the stadium opens. Of course, ownership transitions are notoriously deliberate, likely leaving little time to save face before 2017 if a sale does go down. Not to mention, similar rumors emerged two years ago before fizzling.

The good thing about baseball is that it's so darn hard to predict. When the Braves win the pennant out of nowhere in 2017, remember, you heard it here first. More likely, though, the Braves have set themselves up for a self-mandated stretch of losing and a bunch of empty seats in Cobb County once the new stadium shine wears off.

References and Resources

Cot's Contracts
The Baseball Cube
Effectively Wild Episode on Braves rebuild
Look Out Below, by Matthew Trueblood

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fantasyking
11/24
Where did this team with the "young, talented core of exciting young superstars under club control well into the future" play their home games? Because when I went to Turner Field in 2014, I saw a team that scored the second-fewest runs in all of baseball. The pitching was really good, thanks to a couple of lightning-in-a-bottle seasons by Aaron Harang(!) and Ervin Santana and a career year by Julio Teheran. If not for that pitching, the Braves might have lost 95 games in 2014. The lineup could not score enough runs to be a contender, and the 2 best hitters in that lineup were about to walk in free agency after 2015 (and the third-best was a DH playing catcher). I know this isn't really the point of the article, but I'm seeing a lot of revisionist history around here lately when it comes to what the Braves decided to tear down.
davewoody12
11/24
I think that quote was about the 2013 team, which was the youngest and best team in baseball.
Richie
11/24
And by 'Decision Time' come October 2014, that team was pretty clearly gone. It happens in pro sports. I actually commend the Braves for recognizing that.
Richie
11/24
I vote with the king, here. Their core was OK, but nothing more than that.
dutt22
11/24
Fair points, but Simmons-Kimbrel-Freeman seems like a better-than-average core to me, and the 2014 Braves were a year removed from a 96-win team full of mostly the same players. There was definitely work to be done, but throw in Heyward and Justin Upton, who the Braves could have kept through the '15 deadline (at least), and it's not hard to envision a scenario where Atlanta wins 85 or 90 games last year and are still solidly set up for the future.
fantasyking
11/24
I agree they might have been able to patch together 85-90 wins in 2015 with some reasonable upgrades. I disagree that would have set them up solidly for the future. For starters, 85-90 wins would have missed the playoffs. Then, you're left with one of the worst farm systems in all of baseball, a few talented players and a lot of big roster holes. And BJ Upton's contract. If you believe they could have re-signed Heyward and Upton, and afforded additional upgrades in CF, at 2B and at 3B (not to mention a Catcher who can catch), then yes, they might have been solidly set up for the future. Since there's no indication that was going to happen, they would have been up a creek.
kmbart
11/24
Steve Avery, Kevin Millwood, Tommy Greene, Tommy Hanson, etc. - the list of "great young pitchers" who never lived up to the hype after the Braves traded them away or let them go in free agency is legendary in fantasy baseball circles. Is this another example of the Braves doing the same thing, but this time with all of their players? Sure, Kimbrel was very good last year, but not as good. Justin Upton had a fine year, but not that good. Gattis and Simmons have exceptional skills in one area, but significant deficits in others. Perhaps the Braves have decided to retain only true star-level pitchers and players whom they can get at below-market costs (Heyward is certainly a true star, but he's not signing for below-market). With their bottom-of-the-barrel TV contract they may have to adopt a philosophy that is all-or-nothing on the players they choose to commit to.
dutt22
11/24
Good points. There's definitely something to be said for a team having more information about its own players when dealing them away. That also works both ways, in theory, with the trading partner having the same advantage.
Richie
11/24
I think the Braves actually have this timed perfectly. Come 2017, when you can expect 'rebuilding fatigue' to set in re the fan base, the spanking-new Stadium itself will sell tickets. By 2018 the team sure ought to be trending upwards, and everyone will be happy with that.
jfranco77
11/24
That's exactly what I was thinking... but I'm not 100% sure if it's right. I agree that fans are likely to show up in 2017 no matter what. But in order for fans to come out in 2018, don't they sort of need to be competent in 2017? Have they torn it down too much to win 80 games in 2017? Not that many fans show up to see prospect lists play.
Richie
11/24
To sell more season tickets for '18, they ought to be competent in '17. But once/if the '18 team proves competent, they'll start getting the walkup tickets, along with people enjoying the still-new stadium. I doubt they'll win anywhere close to 80 games in '17. That's the price of a full commitment to rebuilding. But once the young guys do start showing improvement, enthusiasm rebuilds mighty quickly.
dutt22
11/24
From strictly a business perspective, it makes perfect sense for the Braves. They get a brand new stadium with solid attendance, save on payroll, and as you mention, should have things turned around before attendance/fan morale craters. Of course, as jfranco77 mentions, what if the rebuild doesn't pan out, and the 2018 team stinks too? The relationship with the fans could get ugly in a hurry. And, without considering Atlanta's bottom line, a rebuild while heading into a new stadium is a shady tactic to begin with, especially when it wasn't necessary.
Richie
11/24
The Brewers sure didn't promise 'no down stretches anymore ever!' when they campaigned for their new stadium. I don't see any ethical connection between rebuilding and stadium status. If the rebuild fails, it'll just be like the Pirates and PNC for all those years. Once the team FINALLY! got good, the fans were fully re-revved up.
davescottofakron
11/25
The 1993 Indians certainly didn't have a big payroll a year before entering Jacobs (no Progressive Field) but Hart knew the foundation built by Hank Peters would be a powerful force. At best, payroll is a fragment of what leads to keeping the customer satisfied. It seems likely the Braves looked into their crystal ball and saw high-priced mediocrity that would look out of place in their new suburban paradise.
darthack2661
2/07
I think this is jon hart doing the exact opposite of what he did with the Indians. Has he acquired a single position player? Who, mallex smith?