A longtime executive chatted last week about how the Commissioner's Office could help some beleaguered front office types by educating some anxious, hyper-competitive owners about the merits of losing.
"They should arrange some sort of presentation and show how it can really pay off, if you’re patient," said the executive.
That useful lecture would include some words about weathering the discontent of fans, something that the Atlanta Braves officials will have to do this year and next year and maybe the year after that, as they follow the same general path taken by the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros. The Braves traded Andrelton Simmons for prospects Thursday evening, just as they traded Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Craig Kimbrel last offseason. And in 2016, they are going to lose a lot of games -- and believe it or not, it’s happening for the sake of winning.
Eventually. If everything goes according to plan. If they picked the right players.
At the very least, the Braves have managed to escape the worst possible place to be for any organization serious about pursuing championships now or in the future: They got out of the middle, which is where the Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinnati Reds, Seattle Mariners, Oakland Athletics and San Diego Padres resided at the end of the 2015 season.
The Mariners are working to climb upward, making moves in recent days to build upon their core of Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz and contend for the American League West title in 2016.
The Padres are the best working definition of residing where no team wants to be: They kept a subpar team intact at the trade deadline, and as currently constructed, have a dysfunctional payroll and are probably a .500 team at best, which means they probably can’t get to the postseason and, at the same time, they won’t pick near the top of the draft.
The Braves, on the other hand, will pick third in next summer’s draft and presumably will slot in with one of the first picks in 2017, after taking a step backward, strategically.
In the NBA, this would be called "tanking," and as mentioned here many times before, there is something ugly about that. But so long as Major League Baseball and the Players Association are OK with the strip-down and draft-up strategy, it is a time-honored path to success, especially for small-market and mid-market teams.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays, as they were known then, finished at the bottom of the standings year after year, and that netted them Carl Crawford, Melvin Upton Jr., Evan Longoria and David Price, among others, and Tampa Bay reached the 2008 World Series and contended annually for the better part of a decade. Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman, armed with that great talent, had success and established reputations, for which they have been paid handsomely.
Royals GM Dayton Moore took over Kansas City in 2006 and, with the patient backing of his ownership, built a championship team with the help of players picked at the top of the draft. Zack Greinke, a sixth overall pick in 2002, was traded for Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain. Mike Moustakas was the second overall pick in the 2007 draft, and Eric Hosmer was picked third overall in 2008. The Pirates had a similar rise, taking Andrew McCutchen 11th overall in 2005, and Gerrit Cole first overall in 2011, among others. If you consistently pick at the back end of the first round, the best talent will not be accessible to you, consistently. Any measure of the draft will tell you that. Your best chance to get the best players occurs if you pick early.
This doesn’t guarantee success forever. The Royals’ window will probably last for two more seasons, before Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain reach free agency, and then they’ll have to recycle. They’ll probably have to descend again, before rising -- if they choose the right players, as Moore and his staff have done over the past seven years, and if the owners are patient, as they have been in Kansas City and Pittsburgh.
But if the Royals, Pirates, Cubs and Astros are examples of the best of times, then what the Braves (and the Phillies, for that matter) are experiencing today are the worst of times. On Twitter Thursday evening, many Braves fans, tweeting in response to the Simmons trade, mentioned finding a new allegiance, called the deal stupid and asked if there was a plan.
There is, assuredly. The Braves have stockpiled an enormous wealth of prospects, with the newly acquired Sean Newcomb near the top; he throws a fastball in the 97-98 mph range. “Big arm, wild as hell,” one evaluator noted. When other teams asked about Newcomb before the July 31 deadline, the Angels insisted he was untouchable.
But new Angels GM Billy Eppler, seeking a long-term solution at shortstop, moved Newcomb for Simmons in a deal that he said hurt him in the gut. Now it’s up to the Braves’ minor-league and major-league staff to do what the Mets have done successfully with their pitching prospects -- help Newcomb and the others realize their potential.
If that happens, the disaffected Braves fans could have reason to climb aboard the bandwagon again in 2018 or 2020. When the Cubs eliminated the Cardinals in the National League Division Series last month, fans who hovered around Wrigley Field afterward probably didn’t fret about the terrible Chicago season of 2012, which resulted in the drafting of Kris Bryant the next summer. Those Cubs fans probably weren’t complaining about the frustration of 2013, which led to the drafting of Kyle Schwarber in the draft that followed.
If the Braves manage their assets the way that the Cubs and Astros have, there could be great days ahead. But those are probably years off, and the fans, like the Atlanta owners, would probably be well-served to steel themselves for some really bad days in the immediate future, because the Braves may not have hit rock bottom yet.
You can’t help but laugh about this: On the same day that the Braves swapped Simmons, they announced they will publicly trade team stock.
The Braves’ offseason is already looking like the last one, writes Jeff Schultz.
Some notes from ESPN Stats & Information: The Angels as an organization have minus-26 Defensive Runs Saved from the shortstop position since 2012, 25th in baseball (Fangraphs.com). Since his debut season in 2012, Andrelton Simmons has been the best defensive shortstop in baseball and it's not even close.
From ESPN Stats & Info: We all know about Simmons' amazing defense, but if we look at just his offensive numbers from last season, he'd be a slight upgrade over what the Angels trotted out at shortstop last year. Simmons provides some offensive upside, too. He hit 17 home runs in his first full season in 2013, but he's hit only 11 total since then (four in 2015).
The Braves acquired Newcomb, the Angels' top prospect. Atlanta has been on a roll acquiring young arms, stockpiling a mess of young talent since the start of the last offseason. Since the start of last offseason, the Braves have acquired eight pitchers who are current or former top-100 prospects.