Between now and Opening Day, we'll be previewing each team with a focus on answering the question: "How will this team be remembered?" For the full archive of each 2017 team preview, click here.
Unless they wildly exceed their PECOTA projection, the most memorable moment of the Braves’ 2017 season is already on the calendar. On April 14, the Braves' new $622 million ballpark is scheduled to open, with a Friday night game against the Padres. While the Braves aren’t expected to be contenders in the NL East or for a Wild Card spot, the new ballpark is opening at a point when the light at the end of Atlanta’s rebuilding tunnel is finally beginning to shine.
For fans of a franchise that was one of the most successful teams in baseball for such a prolonged period, biting the bullet on a rebuild was difficult From 1991 through 2013, no team topped the Braves' 2,122 regular-season wins, and the Yankees (at 2,121) were the only other franchise in the sport to come within 130 victories of Atlanta. If everything goes according to general manager John Coppolella’s master plan, 2017 is going to be remembered as the year that the foundation was laid for the next great Braves dynasty.
That 76-win season PECOTA projects represents an eight-game improvement over 2016. For some teams, this would be a disappointment. For Atlanta, this would signal that the youth movement is beginning to produce results. The Braves are projected to finish 12 games behind the Nationals and 13 games behind the Mets, but 2017 won’t be measured in wins and losses. It will be measured in progress.
Perhaps recognizing that the team was at least one year away, Coppolella brought in a few grizzled veterans to fill out the lineup, rotation, and bench. If you knew nothing about Atlanta’s recent path and solely focused on the players they acquired this winter, you might believe that the Braves were focused on the here and now, and not the future.
Brandon Phillips finally agreed to waive his no-trade clause, allowing the Reds to move him for a pair of minor leaguers. Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey both signed one-year deals to eat key innings while the kids spend one more year in the minors getting ready. Jaime Garcia was acquired from the Cardinals for John Gant and two other minor leaguers.
In all, 14 of the 25 players projected to make the Opening Day roster are 30 years old or older, including five of the projected starters in the Opening Day lineup, three-fifths of the starting rotation, and the team’s bullpen stopper, Jim Johnson. This is going to be the team future Braves fans look back at and say “wait, that guy was a Brave?”
The players this team will be remembered for as more than merely a historical asterisk are likely to be Dansby Swanson, Freddie Freeman, Ender Inciarte, and Julio Teheran. It is no accident that the team’s payroll commitments past 2018 do not extend to anyone else excluding these players and a large portion of Matt Kemp’s 2019 salary. While Tyler Flowers, Nick Markakis, and Adonis Garcia will surely produce their share of on-field highlights, most of the team’s future core will start 2017 in the minors.
The joy from the 2017 Braves will come not from the win-loss column, but rather from watching the beginnings of the next great thing. It will start with Swanson, BP's no. 2 overall prospect. He gave Braves fans a taste of what he could do in his big-league debut in 2016, holding his own against major-league pitching in 145 plate appearances, including a sizzling September in which he posted an .881 OPS and gave fans more than a hint of his potential greatness.
Swanson will soon be followed by others, although many of these others are not likely to find their way to the big club until mid-2017 at the earliest. Phillips’ acquisition pushes Ozhaino Albies’ timetable back somewhat, but Albies’ talent and drive will get him to Atlanta sooner rather than later. Sean Newcomb may not make it to the big club in this year, but if he harnesses his command and takes that last step he could make a significant impact. If the Braves flip Jim Johnson for prospects, Mauricio Cabrera and his triple-digit fastball could take over in the ninth inning as soon as midseason.
If you have followed baseball for long enough, you are aware that not every rebuilding path ends the way it did for the 2016 Cubs, in the glory of a World Series title and a glorious parade. But the Braves have taken all of the right steps thus far. They have assembled baseball's deepest and most talented farm system, including eight prospects in BP's top 101. The casual fan may look at 2017 as another lost season, but the Cubs’ blueprint offers hope to the Braves, as well as the realization that today’s also-ran is tomorrow’s World Series champion.
The anticipation of the thing is almost as exciting as the thing itself.
Seventy-six wins. There was a time a generation or two ago when every season was measured in a vacuum, when it was understood that anything short of a World Series win— or failing that, a playoff appearance—was a huge bust. Only a few old-school types espouse this philosophy these days. Success traverses many paths. Anything can happen, but the odds of Colon and Dickey finding their respective Cy Young forms and pitching the Braves to a championship are virtually nil. This season isn’t about what happens for the Braves this year. It is a staging ground for a future that is about to get extremely interesting and fun in Atlanta.
SunTrust Park will host a team that is on the cusp of competitiveness. The wailing and gnashing of teeth about tanking misses the larger point. In this modern era of baseball, building a championship-caliber future often requires living in a suboptimal present. The lean times in Atlanta aren’t quite over. But even if 2017 isn’t a giant leap, it will almost definitely be a noticeable step in the right direction.