OK – the Braves’ finish upset some fans since they not only didn’t secure the #1 pick in the 2016 Draft (and additional signing bonus and international signing flexibility that would’ve provided), but back away from the ledge glass half-full fans – there are several really good things to get excited about.
The team closed with series against the Phillies, at the Mets, at the Marlins, against the Nationals, and against the Cardinals, finishing 10-5 while winning 4 of those 5 series. I know, I know – the naysayers will say that taking 2 of 3 from Philadelphia is no big deal since they finished with the worst record in MLB and that getting swept by the Marlins looked bad, but the Cardinals were the best team in baseball in 2015, the Mets won the NL East, and the Nationals were almost everyone’s preseason favorites to win it all.
While keeping those things in mind to create context, here are several things that happened that SHOULD give Braves fans reason for hope following a lost season…
The young Pitchers began to make adjustments.
During this long and frustrating season, it became easy to forget that most of the Pitchers the organization ran out there are virtual “babies” when you consider their age – and particularly their experience at the MLB level. The “old men” on the rotation side of the staff are 2015 acquisition Shelby Miller (24 years, 360 days old – 96 career MLB starts) and Julio Teheran (24 years, 251 days old – 100 MLB starts). The team finished the year with 2015 acquisition Matt Wisler (23 years, 23 days old – 19 career MLB starts), the organization’s 2014 Minor League Pitcher Of The Year Williams Perez (24 years, 137 days old – 20 career MLB starts), and 2015 call-up Ryan Weber (25 years, 54 days old – 5 career MLB starts) rounding out the rotation. Each Pitcher had his share of struggles, but the majority of those struggles can almost entirely be attributed to the learning curve for young Pitchers when promoted to “The Show”. Wisler and Perez had some early success before anyone began to develop a book on them, and then understandably regressed as advance scouts and hitters began to see them a bit more. The main problem from afar seemed to be the extended time it took for them to understand that you simply have to stay out of the middle of the plate – no matter how much movement your pitches have (or how good your stuff is). This has always been an issue with the vast majority of kids when they’re getting their first taste of competition where almost EVERY mistake is punished. As former Braves’ pitching guru Leo Mazzone and Braves’ Hall Of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz have consistently preached – hitting spots with your fastball is the most important thing an MLB Pitcher can do – no matter how hard you throw it. I’ve always likened it to real estate – it’s ALWAYS location, location, location. The rest helps, but if you can’t hit your spots consistently in any count you’re in deep trouble.
Teheran had been through that all before and understood it, but his struggles this season were mainly attributable to falling in love with his two-seamer and failing to locate it as well. He also really struggled to throw his breaking ball effectively early on, often just spinning it up there and hanging it. Julio and Pitching Coach Roger McDowell spent quite a bit of time watching video in an attempt to find any sign of something he was doing differently mechanics-wise than last season when he was so effective. After several tweaks, an adjustment to where he toed the rubber (moving more to the first base side), and a renewed commitment to throwing his four-seamer more often, the breaking ball finally started finishing OUTSIDE of the zone instead of just spinning flatly within reach of hitters.
The #2 through # 5 SPs worked hard on mechanical – as well as mental – adjustments on the fly (during the first taste of MLB action for Wisler, Perez, and Weber), and results of those efforts began to pay dividends down the stretch…
Julio Teheran’s last 6 starts: 2-1, 39 IP (6.6 IP/start), 30 hits allowed, 7 earned runs, 1.62 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 32/18 K/BB Ratio
Matt Wisler’s last 5 starts: 1-2, 34.2 IP (6.93 IP/start), 30 hits allowed, 9 earned runs, 2.34 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 24/9 K/BB Ratio
Williams Perez’ last 6 starts: 3-1, 35.2 IP (5.95 IP/start), 42 hits allowed, 12 earned runs, 3.03 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 21/10 K/BB Ratio
Ryan Weber’s starts (excluding one start in Miami): 0-2, 26.1 IP (6.58 IP/start), 21 hits allowed, 9 earned runs, 3.08 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 19/5 K/BB Ratio
I’ve often heard both Glavine and Smoltz mention that they feel you’re not “really a MLB starter until you’ve made 30 starts in the big leagues”, so the strong finish for these kids should fill lots of Braves’ faithful with plenty of hope moving forward as they further apply the lessons they’ve learned thus far.
As an aside, I think Shelby Miller’s struggles over the last 6 weeks of the season are directly attributable to the lack of run support he received in 2015 (#78 among MLB SPs – a measly 2.64 runs per start) while continuing to consistently pitch well even during his epic winless streak. Miller finished the season with the 14th lowest ERA in MLB (3.02), while getting at least a full run less of support than every Pitcher to finish in the Top 20 in that category other than Max Scherzer and Lance Lynn (who had 0.91 and 0.46 more runs scored for them respectively). It was pretty easy to see how big a weight had been lifted from Shelby’s shoulders when he was interviewed after the streak was stopped yesterday. He showed great resolve and said every “right thing” every time anyone asked him about not having won a game in four and a half months (May 17th until October 3rd – covering 24 starts) despite pitching as well as anyone over much of that time, but you know he was dying inside every fifth day as the team found yet another way to leave him hanging time after time. Having been able to end that streak against his former team had to make it that much sweeter, and should help his spirits and help springboard him into 2016.
Several unexpected potential longer-term assets began to emerge.
We somewhat surprisingly “discovered” that a few young players that hadn’t previously been considered highly thought of prospects in the Braves’ system might actually be pretty nice extra pieces that can help the big club in several different capacities moving forward. The season started with Braves Nation favorite Kelly Johnson hitting his way onto the 2015 roster and becoming a very useful bat, platooning with Jonny Gomes in LF, the since-traded Chris Johnson at 3B, spending some time at 2B, and even playing some at 1B when Freddie Freeman was out for periods of time. When KJ was packaged with Juan Uribe and shipped off to the Mets as they searched to add offense ahead of the non-waiver trading deadline, there were plenty of ABs available for utility players. Two of the ones that stepped up and made the organization take notice were Adonis Garcia and Daniel Castro. Both players have certainly made it tough for Hart & Company to not at least pencil them into the early preseason 2016 25-Man Roster. Garcia still needs some work defensively if he’s going to contribute as a 3B, but he showed surprising pop after he was called up as well as a willingness to go the other way – something that we all know Kevin Seitzer loves. In the event Cameron Maybin isn’t traded this winter, Garcia would make a good potential right-handed platoon option for LF and he or Nick Swisher could fill-in at 1B if/when Freeman gets a day off or goes down for a bit at 1B and Freddi Gonzalez wants to use a lineup with a little more “thump”. Castro also showed an ability to turn on inside pitches that hadn’t been seen before. He showed more than enough with the glove and arm to spell Andrelton Simmons at SS if the need arises, surprised several people with his speed at times, and displayed enough instincts to be the team’s best option for 2016 as a utility infielder (at the very least) if not enough to be a very strong platoon partner for Jace Peterson at 2B in the event Jace’s struggles with left-handed pitching continue. While Todd Cunningham saw enough time on the big club this season to convince me that I’m right in pegging him as a 4th OF/AAAA player at best, he plays above-average defense with an above-average arm at all three OF spots, has better speed than previously thought (even if it’s not as a true consistent SB threat), and doesn’t seem to be overmatched against MLB pitching. Cunningham could be that proverbial 4th or 5th OF guy to help bide time until the organization feels Mallex Smith is ready for a look as the CF of the future – if Maybin is indeed moved this winter, Michael Bourn could be the main option in CF and Cunningham could still provide them with an option there without having to rush Mallex.
The hot streak shouldn’t significantly alter Hart & Company’s offseason plans.
So the Braves don’t get the #1 overall pick in next summer’s draft and the biggest pool to sign their first ten picks that goes along with it. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not about to say that the extra money wouldn’t be helpful, nor am I saying that there’s no chance that the Phillies or Reds might not scoop up the player that winds up atop the team’s Draft Board next June. However, while most pundits have so far been consistent in saying that no “slam-dunk” #1 pick has emerged (yet), most also agree that there are between 5 and 10 players who’ve already established themselves as elite talents and future potential “difference-makers”. Atlanta WILL no doubt get a very good player picking third. They also received Miami’s Competitive Balance pick in the Alex Wood/Hector Olivera deal. That pick will begin at #35 with a solid chance to rise into the high to mid-20s (where the organization often has had its’ first pick in many years) when teams that don’t have protected picks begin to sign free-agents who are offered Qualifying Offers by their current teams (assuming the Braves themselves don’t sign one of those players and have to surrender that pick of course). Their 2nd Round pick should also give them the opportunity to grab another player in the top 75 or so selections. Given the depth of talent “The Johns” have added to the farm system since hitting the reboot button, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if they chose to spend a couple of picks on perceived “tough signs” with potentially high bonus demands that might begin to slide next summer – even at the expense of signing a couple of later picks. While there have been several pundits praise the way the rebuild has gone so far, an overriding theme from them is that while the depth that’s been stockpiled is at or near the top of everyone’s list, the system falls a little short of being a Top 5 (or higher) system because of a lack of players that are considered to be “elite” or true “difference-makers”. That’s a topic up for discussion of course, but 2016 is the year that the front office may well choose to go over slot looking for higher-end talent in the Draft than in past years to address that. With the current CBA expiring and most of the big spenders on the international market unable to play on the top end of next year’s July 2nd international class, the Braves have long been expected to blow the budget and are considered the favorite to land (supposedly rumored to already have a “handshake agreement” in place according to Keith Law – hat tip to Rowland’s Office) the unquestioned top player in next year’s class – Kevin Maitan. Maitan’s been compared favorably to recent phenoms such as Yoan Moncada, Rusney Castillo, and other top young talents – as well as the famed Kiley McDaniel going so far as to hang a potential Miguel Cabrera comp on him.
They’re also considered the favorite to sign several other players considered at or near the top of the 2016 class – blowing well past their budget as the Yankees did under former Farm Director and top international scout – and current Braves’ Special Assistant to the GM – Gordon Blakely.
So don’t fret Braves Nation, to quote the aforementioned Kiley McDaniel – “the Braves rebuild is going pretty damn well” – there’s even more to look forward to in 2016 and 2017.