The Matrix is viewed by some to be the perfect story. I’ve heard multiple screenwriters say that if you look at it beat-by-beat, that movie is what every young screenwriter should aspire to replicate. It hits everything along the hero’s journey at precisely the right time. The same praise is not given to Matrix: Reloaded. While that movie does have its charm, it’s a bit more unconventional, and really can only appeal to fans of the original. Then came Revolutions…
That development reminds me quite a bit of what we’re seeing with the Atlanta Braves right now. The Braves team of the ’90s is what every franchise should aspire to be. They had a loaded minor league system and enough big league talent to be a force year after year. Then, as all good things must, it came to an end. The team was still good, still in contention, but not as great as the recent glory days. Now… Well, I’ll just say now there aren’t too many that are excited about the 2015 Braves.
The Braves are in an aggressive rebuild right now, but the question is just how effective are their methods in a sport where 25 men are on the roster and where there isn’t a hard salary cap? If a team is willing to spend big bucks, they can find a way to bring in talent, even when they were at the bottom of the league the year before. (See the 2015 Boston Red Sox and the 2015 Chicago Cubs.) Heck, even the Braves found a way to instantly go from last to first back in 1991. But the usual process in baseball takes a lot longer than that, which is part of what makes this Braves offseason so… peculiar.
I mostly write about the NBA, so let’s transition to some NBA comparisons. In basketball, you can take the route of the 76ers, trying to lose every single game in order to swing some top picks. It’s not a guaranteed way to win, but if you can get in one or two legitimate superstars, your team is going to be fine. On the other hand, you have the Atlanta Hawks. They’re infamous for dwelling in mediocrity, but somehow, this year they were able to leap from 8th in the East to 1st, but that was through the unexpected development of a few solid players and career years out of more than one star. The Hawks path is a lot more common in the MLB, a league where it’s admittedly much more difficult to make the playoffs. Last year’s American League featured three of the five playoff teams finishing third in their division the year prior.1 Moral of the story is, it isn’t unheard of, or even all that rare, to go from mediocrity to the playoffs. But zero teams went from the bottom two spots in the division to a playoff spot the next year. Baseball rebuilds are slow processes, but that also means they don’t require a total stripping down.
The main difference between rebuilding in the two sports is the impact that the draft can have. Last year’s top pick in the NBA is a starter and scoring leader for his team. You have to go back to 2011 to find a top pick in the MLB who is actually going to play in the bigs and have an impact this season.2 So the Braves gathering a bunch of picks for this draft is better than going in bare, but it’s still not going to make a difference for at least a few years. The same can be said for a few other of their moves.
Moving Jason Heyward makes sense from the standpoint of purely looking at his inconsistent hitting over the last couple seasons, but it’s in signing his replacement that things start to get weird. They threw a four-year, $44 million contract at Nick Markakis, an outfielder who can’t really hit anymore and whose best defensive days are behind him. I get bringing in Markakis for the right price ($11 million per is not the right price) but to commit to him for four years seems to be essentially saying that this team isn’t actually going to be competitive for four years.
Obviously the Kimbrel trade is a really painful one for Braves fans, as he was a fan favorite and by far one of the most exciting players in the league. You’d be hard-pressed to find an argument against him being the best closer in the league, and many Atlanta faithful assumed he’d be their Mariano Rivera for years to come. Letting him, and his incredibly cost-effective contract,3 go to San Diego shows that they really have no interest in winning any time soon. There may be some stud prospets in the wings, but there’s no other Craig Kimbrel waiting. Hart spoke the day after the trade about the fan-reaction to losing Kimbrel, and he was sympathetic, but seemed to insinuate there’s someone overseas who can fill in the gap. Considering there’s maybe five guys in the MLB who could fill in for Kimbrel, I’m a bit skeptical. Granted, that trade allowed them to dump Melvin (aka BJ) Upton, but I’d liken that to winning $100,000 in the lottery only to find out that the ticket you bought was $150,000.
I did hear one comparison that I liked a fair bit. Basically, it was said that having Kimbrel on this Braves team is like having a $2,500 Armani suit for the prom when you don’t even have a date. There’s definite logic behind that, but my thought process has always been, you get that suit, wear the hell out of it the first year, and then every girl knows she wants to be there with you in 365 days, no matter how bad your haircut is.
The big name coming to Atlanta in the Kimbrel trade is Matt Wisler. He’s the top pitching prospect in the Padres organization and has the stuff to potentially be a top two guy in the rotation in the not-so-distant future. The main problem is the fact he posted a 5.01 ERA when he was in Triple A last year. I’ve seen multiple articles defending that number, saying that he’s young and that he was throwing in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, but I’m not quite as confident. Yes, he is young, but he’s also playing against mostly young guys in terms of AAA competition. And if you want to talk about the PCL being a murderer’s row, just wait until he gets to throw a game against the Marlins or Nationals. As Keanu would say, “Whoa.”
Also, if the Braves really are in rebuilding mode, wouldn’t it have made sense to take a chance on a guy like Brandon Beachy? He’s someone that was supposed to be one of the top pitchers in the league, and when he was on, was nearly at that level. Obviously the surgery has set him back a bit, but a rebuild seems like the perfect time to wait for a guy to rebound from that sort of injury. And the same can be said for Kris Medlen on all accounts. In Medlen, you’re dealing with a guy who won pitcher of the month twice in 2012 and whose changeup has a career whiff rate of 44%. That’s one of the best in the big leagues among starting pitchers.4
If this entire article seems like speculation from a wannabe GM, that’s because that’s all there is that can be done at this point. This was the most active offseason in modern Braves history, and it happened when the team doesn’t even have a real GM. Making all those moves in that position means there’s nothing that fans can do other than hope.
Here’s to hoping that the next sequel for the Braves is closer to The Matrix than to Revolutions.
In the National League, it was only one of the five ↩
Gerrit Cole ↩
$33 million over the next three seasons, with a $13 million club option for 2018 ↩