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Today, The Hardball Times published an article by Alex Remington titled “How to Lose Fans and Alienate People: The 2016 Atlanta Braves.” It’s a long look into the current team, with many fans chiming in with their assorted disappointment. “I hate these guys,” one suggests. “You wonder if they know what they’re doing,” ponders another. And then there is Jim Tremayne, “the editor of DJ Times magazine,” who says, “It feels like every move has backfired.”
Fans are fanatical because they love the team hard and let their failures cloud their judgement. It’s easy to focus on the negative especially when you are essentially writing a column about how awful things are right now. But there is little thought given to the other side of things during the column. Actually, that’s wrong. There is NO thought given to what the Braves are doing outside of the things that aren’t working.
I get it. A lot of bad things occurring together makes it difficult at times to support the franchise. The move to Cobb County was a curious one given Turner Field’s age and the location of the new ballpark, but on the other hand, is anyone making an argument that Turner Field was a benefit for the Braves? Not really. Instead, we are given the old standby that a team from that city should be based in that city. The Giants and Jets don’t even play in the state of New York, but somehow, no one cares about that.
The article focuses so much on the negative, but where it really loses me when it suggests that “fans who have been with the team for years may not be with them” when they do start to win and fill up Suntrust again. While certainly some have given up on the Braves for good, most fans will forget their misgivings over this rebuild when the team wins. Every rebuilding team makes the bet that they may struggle with attendance and might even lose some fans in the process, but the result will be worth it. Do you need to watch how fans passionately followed the Royals last fall for that to ring true?
One other small tangent before I focus on my bigger theme. One fan, Chris Nicholson, said that he thought “Bobby Cox cried the day he traded Dale Murphy. Well, okay! That’s my general manager. He feels the way I feel. I think [GM John] Coppolella traded Simmons to show everyone he could do it.” Ignoring the absurdity of the last point – and that Remington repeats it – what is ignored is that people are far more cynical than they once were. Since Cox’s trade of Murphy and the alleged tears that followed, our society has lived through a Strike, a steroid scandal, the rise of sabermetrics, and that doesn’t even get into the things that have robbed us of much of our innocence unrelated to baseball. We don’t expect the general manager of our team to cry when he makes a trade. We expect him to do his job and build a better team. By the way, the trade of Simmons does that, but we’ll get back to that, I’m sure.
Let’s focus on the one quote that really prompted to write this diatribe. “It feels like every move has backfired.”
Disclaimer: I certainly realize that the statement is a generalization. It’s an exaggeration of events built upon the Braves’ failures this year. But that doesn’t excuse the statement, only explain it away.
Has every move backfired? Last fall, I went over the many trades of John Hart‘s first year when he was “in charge.” Of course, John Coppolella was mostly responsible for engineering the trades, but Hart had final say. Did trading Jason Heyward and Justin Upton backfire? It made the Braves worse in 2015, but it requires a leap of faith to believe that the Braves would have been able to scratch together a competent rotation to make having Heyward and Upton worthwhile in 2015. Have the deals backfired? Well, Shelby Miller was wonderful for the Braves and was cashed in for three highly valuable players (the article only mentions Aaron Blair and not in a positive light). Mallex Smith is the current starting leftfielder for the Braves from the Upton trade and while we still need to see if the other two prospects from the trade take off (Max Fried and Dustin Peterson), it is difficult to accept that either trade backfired for the Braves. Instead, they have helped the Braves.
Did the Evan Gattis trade backfire? Only if you believe Gattis should be a major league full-time catcher.
How about the Craig Kimbrel move? Matt Wisler‘s advancement this year and the dominance of Arodys Vizcaino (another trade acquisition) makes that clear. The trade also produced a draft choice, which Atlanta used to draft Austin Riley, and another player in Jordan Paroubeck, who Atlanta later traded for international bonus slots to avoid penalties for their two top pickups last summer from the international signing period.
The better question should be – what moves HAVE backfired? The Hector Olivera one, certainly. And?
Keeping Fredi Gonzalez around? I don’t believe that holds water, but I’m struggling to come up with another move that really backfired. You could argue, as the article does, that it’s the Andrelton Simmons trade that has backfired based on the play of Erick Aybar. But that implies the trade was made for Aybar, which it wasn’t. Was Simmons’ contract team-friendly as the article suggests? The point is debatable. From a WAR standpoint, certainly. But the Braves were on the hook for an additional $53 million through 2020 for a player who had hit .252/.301/.357 over his first three full seasons. Certainly, watching Aybar totally forget how to play baseball has been rough, but paying Simmons $6M this year to make a tremendous amount of outs and $47M for the next four years does little to help, either. Oh, and the Braves picked up two good pitching prospects in the trade.
The Braves of 2016 wouldn’t have had Heyward and Upton, would be paying large amounts of money to Kimbrel and Melvin Upton, and still would be bad. The only real difference between that hypothetical Braves team and the current one is that the latter actually has a future. Sure, buying heavy into Olivera was a mistake – though it could be made better by whoever Atlanta drafts with the choice they acquired last July from the trade. Bringing back A.J. Pierzynski might have backfired, though adding Tyler Flowers didn’t. And neither has – to this point – adding Gordon Beckham. Bringing back Jim Johnson and Eric O’Flaherty – yuck – but those moves get massively overshadowed by the additions of Dansby Swanson and Sean Newcomb to the organization.
Alex Remington sought to talk specially about the major league team in 2016. The problem is that focusing solely on the 2016 team misses the point. The Braves aren’t trying to be good in 2016. They are trying to build a long-term successful team that can generate not just talent from their minor leagues each year, but impact talent. I agree that the team built is largely unwatchable. Some of that is awful luck, some of it was bad decisions. Mostly, however, it’s that the focus of the organization is currently not on building a competitive major league team. We knew that coming in 2016. Teams interested in being a .500 squad or competing for a Wild Card spot don’t include signing Emilio Bonifacio or Jeff Francoeur as their big free agent pickups.
The key to watching the 2016 team is to ignore the win-loss record and focus on the future. If you are going to ignore the minor leagues, that becomes increasingly difficult, but you can still watch Wisler and get excited. You can rejoyce when Mike Foltynewicz throws a good game and “gets it” a bit more. You can watch Vizcaino finally realize his potential that made the Yankees excited about him all those years ago. Julio Teheran is having a solid bounceback campaign and Ender Inciarte is a keeper. Oh, and you have to know that Mallex Smith is going to be better at swiping bases than we have seen so far.
“Diehards” may hate this team right now and certainly it’s difficult to watch every game.
A rebuild happened. Whether it was right or not can be questioned, but once the rebuild started, losing perspective on why moves were made will only makes things worse. The Heyward trade was not made for 2016. Neither was the Justin Upton trade, the Gattis move, or even the Simmons trade. If you are a casual fan or even a “diehard” that doesn’t consider why the moves were made and what the future can bring, you will hate the team more than you need to.
That’s okay, though. More times than not, they come back when the winning does. Jim Tremayne and Chris Nicholson may hate the team right now, but the smart money is on them cheering as loudly as anyone when the winning comes.