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    Wednesday, March 29, 2023

    Comparing and Contrasting the Braves' Rebuild

    Last year while I was writing my article on the Orioles' Trade Deadline, I dug up an older piece of mine with an interesting opinion that I wanted to dig into a little bit when I had more time. I ended up sort of looking into it at the end of the 2022 season, and slowly plugging away at it in between playoff stuff and Hall of Fame stuff and all of the other offseason writings that I did. I wanted to post it a little earlier in the offseason, but ended up having to reflect on some of it a little more and then push it back. I think it’s finally to a good place though, and getting it up before the start of the season seems like a good idea!

    It’s sort of a companion piece to that mini-series I did last year looking at the Orioles’ Rebuild, this time approaching the question from a different angle. For background, in the back-half of the 2010s, it seemed like there were a lot of teams who were trying to copy off the Astros’ and Cubs’ strategies of a full teardown and rebuild, and I thought in the moment that maybe some of those decisions were a little premature; the Astros and Cubs were notably devoid of talent in both the majors and minors prior to their complete rebuilds.



    I feel like that gets lost in a lot of these discussions on “tanking”; go back and look at those 2010 and 2011 Cubs and Astros teams. Both had spent several years stuck in neutral at the bottom of the NL Central. The 2011 Astros’ best players were a pair of very-good-but-not-great outfielders (Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn) who were a year and a half from free agency, and another 35-year-old “left fielder” who really looked like he should have been at first base (Carlos Lee). The Cubs, meanwhile, were relying on their 21-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro to bolster their core of… 33-year-old corner infielders Carlos Peña and Aramis Ramirez. Their aces on these teams were Brett Myers and Matt Garza, respectively.

    Those cores would maybe barely work, were all those players at their peaks, with very strong supporting casts and the potential for star prospects to bolster them down the stretch. None of that describes the rest of those teams, which were thin at the top and regularly ranked in the bottom third of Farm System rankings (with the Astros even picking up several last place finishes). Their drafting and player development was atrocious, Houston’s especially; Baseball-Reference’s has the Astros’ first round draft picks from 1999 to 2009 worth a combined 11.9 WAR for their careers, a number overwhelming supported by Jason Castro’s 12.4 total (plus Jordan Lyles’s 1.0 mark last season, the third-best year of his career).* Feel free to do the math on everyone else there, it’s pretty bad! That wasn’t the only factor in their lack of success obviously, but it’s a pretty good representation of the larger failure going on.

    *The Cubs during that stretch look a lot less disastrous; it still wasn’t fantastic, but other clubs with similar records could turn it into strong minor league systems, with things like successful later picks, international signings, trades, or player development. The Cubs… did not do any of that.

    All of that is to say: when the Cubs and Astros decided to do their total teardowns, there was a very clear logic behind it. Long gone were the early-to-mid 2000s glory days, of Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt and Derrek Lee and Carlos Zambrano, and the window on the late-2000s inglorious days of Carlos Peña and Carlos Lee seemed to be closing rapidly. But despite how much the teams sold off, every trade made sense; most pieces being sent out were some combination of aging, not great, or rapidly nearing free agency on a bad team. It’s part of why the 2018 Orioles made sense following their path, given their atrocious record, neglected minor league rosters, and a major league roster consisting of Manny Machado (in his final season before free agency) and a bunch of question marks.

    However, that scenario did not describe every team going for a rebuild in subsequent years, and I think my general sense that too many teams in the late 2010s were going for that strategy has held up. Sure, some of them fit that Astros/Cubs mold: for instance, the Phillies under Ruben Amaro Jr. had been ineptly patching an aging roster for years up until 2015, and it had all fallen apart. Or the Tigers, who had seen a lot of their roster suddenly start to look very old come 2017. You’re always going to have a few cases like that, teams that went all-in on an aging core or something and stretched themselves thin (and sometimes it even works, like with the 2019 Nationals!).

    But that clearly couldn’t describe over 20% of the league, like I called out in that original 2018 piece that I linked to, especially not when teams with win totals in the high-80s could still be in playoff contention (in fact, 2017 had just seen Wild Card teams with 87 and 85 wins). And I was arguably even playing it safe and just going with teams that were unambiguously already in the middle of a rebuild, and not teams that were just about to enter one (like the Orioles and Rangers), or the more muddled edge cases (like the Pirates and Royals).

    Take the Marlins for instance, who famously traded a stellar young outfield of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna rather than do literally anything to reinforce that core beyond hoping their draft pick lottery tickets all suddenly became All-Stars at once. Or the White Sox, who dealt their two top, all-star level starters rather than bump up their middle-of-the-pack payroll even slightly while playing in baseball’s weakest division.

    But there’s one team from that group that stood out. All of the teams I called out back then finished 2018 in a manner exactly as uninspiring as predicted… except for the Braves. And of course, ignoring the eventual end result of the 2021 World Series and looking only at where things stood at that moment, I absolutely understand why I included the Braves here.

    Going into the 2014 season, the Braves were coming off of four straight seasons where they averaged 92.5 wins and made the playoffs three of four times. They had a young, homegrown core of stars, and things looked bright. Sure, their playoff runs had been short (two Division Series losses and one Wild Card Game loss), but October is pretty random, so just making it to the playoffs seemed like the thing to focus on.

    And then, they mildly underperformed in 2014, going 79-83. Granted, that was still second in the middling NL East, and they still had their young core, so it wasn’t hard to predict a possible rebound. Except… Atlanta didn’t do that. Instead, they sold off a ton of talent, including Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, and Evan Gattis. It might be easy to forget given that we’re nearly a decade removed at this point, but back in 2014, that was half of their eight best players (by Baseball-Reference WAR), and they ranged in age from 27 (Gattis) to 24 (Heyward). The team took a corresponding tumble, going 67-95 in 2015.


    Regardless of what you thought of the Cubs and Astros’ complete teardowns, they very clearly did not sell off that quantity of talent, let alone youth (Bourn and Pence, for instance, were already 28 and 29 when they were dealt). And the Braves would keep going from there, dealing Andrelton Simmons, Alex Wood, and their lone 2015 All-Star Shelby Miller before the start of the next season (all of whom were 25 or 26), as well as a host of other veterans. And there were rumors of further trades, possibly involving Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, and recent-signing Nick Markakis, although nothing ultimately came to pass. They were in for two more years of 90 or more losses, which brings us right to that 2018 pre-season and the article I linked in the beginning, where I said they had given up too soon.

    The other “rebuilding” teams I mentioned there have had a pretty rough track record since that point. The Tigers are still yet to record a winning season post-2016. The Marlins and Reds technically have playoff appearances, after both going 31-29 in the 2020 season, but that’s looking a lot like a fluke from a strange year as both franchises muddle around.

    The Phillies finally notched a winning season (barely, at 82-80) in 2021, and finally ended the major’s second-longest playoff drought last season after four years idling around .500. Even the White Sox and Padres are a little rough; both would take until 2020 to register a winning season. Chicago made the 2021 playoffs but were knocked out right away by the Astros, and took a step backwards last year. San Diego would miss the postseason in 2021 after a collapse, but they at least bounced back in 2022.*

    *This is one of the parts of the article that I started with, prior to the end of the 2022 regular season, and I needed to go back and edit the parts about the Phillies and Padres following the postseason. Maybe it’s just a bias based on their recent performance, but it seems notable that the two biggest success stories from this bunch, even lumping in some of the edge cases, are the ones that have also chosen to heavily invest in bringing in top free agent targets and trade targets.

    The Braves, meanwhile, have matched all six of those teams combined in that same stretch: they’ve made the postseason every single year, with five division titles in five years, at least two NLCS appearances, and a World Series title. So what did they do differently?

    Well, most notably, some of their best 2020s players were already in the Braves’ system: Freddie Freeman was already on the Braves, while Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies were signed as international free agents in 2014 and ‘13, respectively. They have that in common with those 2010s Astros, who had players like Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel in their minors even at the beginning of their rebuild. And a lot of the success of a rebuild like this is going to come down to having good scouting and player development, which is a little harder for us to evaluate as outsiders.

    Like, I can notice the Braves’ success with homegrown talent over this era; they clearly have a lot! I can even point out specific shorthands to emphasize that; for instance, look at their first picks from the 2015 to 2017 era; Austin Riley has been a star, Kyle Wright and Michael Soroka have had strong years, and plenty of other first-round picks have been dealt in useful trades. But none of that really tells us what specifically they’re doing better than other teams (Is it a different philosophy? More info? Just better decision-makers? Something else?), and “develop players better” or “get better at scouting” feels like hollow advice without those specifics.

    So let’s go back and look at the other stuff, then. What did their dismantling look like that they managed to minimize their rebound time like that? Were they making especially canny trades? Did they get big returns for shipping off their stars early? Did they do a good job of picking up undervalued prospects and future stars? Was it something else entirely? Let’s take a look:



    The 2015 Season (and before)

    As I mentioned earlier, this was the start of the process. Atlanta underperformed in 2014, finishing in a tie for second in the NL East by four games under .500 and 17.0 games out of first place. In response, starting that offseason, they:


    -Traded Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden to the Cardinals for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins

    Heyward was their best player in 2014 and would go on to an All-Star season in 2015, but was going to be a free agent in just one more season. I think that was also the case with Walden, although he signed an extension to cover the next two years in St. Louis (despite never throwing a pitch in the majors or minors after 2015 due to injuries).

    In return, Jenkins would only throw 52.0 innings in the majors, but Miller would go on to have an All-Star season in Atlanta, and he was still under contract for a few more years. All in all, this by itself is a very good trade, one young all-star for another, but there was also more to it (we’ll return here in a minute when we get there, though).


    -Traded Evan Gattis and James Hoyt to the Astros for Andrew Thurman, Mike Foltynewicz, and Rio Ruiz.

    Gattis would play four seasons with Houston and retire after becoming a free agent (before the 2019 season). Hoyt had 2+ middling years in the Houston bullpen.

    In exchange, Foltynewicz gave them 5+ seasons, one of which was an all-star level, three of which were unimpressive, one of which was him still developing, and one of which was an injury-wrecked 3.1 inning season. He made four unimpressive playoff starts, and has also been virtually out of the game since becoming a free agent. Ruiz never broke through, and Thurman never even made the majors. Again, at the worst, this looks like getting back at least what they gave up. Not a huge steal or anything, but Foltynewicz helped get them to the playoffs a few times, and had one really good year.


    -Traded Justin Upton and Aaron Northcraft to the Padres for Max Fried, Dustin Peterson, Jace Peterson, and Mallex Smith
    Traded B.J. Upton and Craig Kimbrel to the Padres for Jordan Paroubeck, Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin, Matt Wisler, and a Competitive Balance pick in the draft.


    Like Heyward, Justin Upton was due to become a free agent after the year. He also had an All-Star season in San Diego. Kimbrel was in the same contract status, but his 2015 was a noticeable step back from his Braves level and he wouldn't make the All-Star team. B.J. Upton was a salary dump of a bad contract, although he would rebound to a playable level with the Padres. Northcraft was negligible.

    Of their return, Quentin was cut before the season (a salary dump to match B.J.); Maybin had a mediocre year and was dealt the next winter for Ian Krol and Gabe Speier; Paroubeck never reached the majors; Smith, Wisler, and the Petersons all had minimal impact… But Fried more than makes up for all of that. This is a definite win, turning one All-Star season into multiple years of an ace.

    And that Competitive Balance Pick wound up turning into the 41st overall pick in 2015, which they used on Austin Riley. That’s definitely another win, although it feels more conditional; like, would they have gotten another chance at him later without that pick? Or would they have used an earlier pick on him if they didn’t have it? That wasn’t even their first compensation pick that year, since they also got one for Ervin Santana leaving in free agency. And they still had to do the work of scouting and training him, which are some of the things I’m trying to avoid evaluating. It was definitely necessary for the Braves here, but maybe less of a guideline for any other teams looking to copy their strategy.


    They continued making trades during the 2015 season, including but not limited to:

    -Traded Phil Gosselin to the Diamondbacks for Bronson Arroyo and Touki Toussaint
    -Traded Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe to the Mets for John Gant and Rob Whalen

    Two trades of utility players (one of whom, Uribe, they acquired in a different small trade a few weeks before). Arroyo (who would miss the rest of the season from injury before becoming a free agent) was a salary dump to get Toussaint, who had been a first round pick the year before. Gant would be used in an upcoming trade.


    -Traded Chris Johnson to Cleveland for Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn

    Johnson had come over with Justin Upton and been signed to a big extension after a hot start, but he had fallen off, making this a swap of bloated contracts. The Braves would release both Swisher and Bourn eventually.


    -A big three-team trade with the Dodgers and Marlins, which saw the Braves lose Arroyo, Jim Johnson, Luis Avilán, José Peraza, and Alex Wood, in exchange for Zachary Bird, Héctor Olivera, Paco Rodríguez, and a competitive balance round pick.

    Most of this deal was a bust. Olivera was a salary dump to match Arroyo, and Johnson would underperform in the Dodgers bullpen. The three biggest things of interest were Wood having some good years in L.A., Avilán becoming an adequate middle reliever out west, and the Braves using their extra draft pick on Joey Wentz (who they would trade for reliever Shane Greene in 2019). The number of moving parts here far exceeds the actual value swapped, but Wood probably swings this out of Atlanta’s favor.



    After the 2015 Season

    As mentioned, 2015 was a rough, 95-loss year and fourth-place finish for the Braves. How did they respond?


    -Traded Andrelton Simmons and José Briceño to the Angels for Erick Aybar, Chris Ellis, and Sean Newcomb

    Simmons would go on to have several great seasons with the Angels before hitting the wall. Aybar would not wait at all before hitting the wall, with the Braves dumping him on Detroit before the end of the season. Newcomb had a few good years and a few bad years in the Atlanta bullpen, and Ellis was mostly notable for being paired with the aforementioned John Gant in a trade. This is a pretty unambiguous loss for Atlanta.


    -Traded Shelby Miller and Gabe Speier to the Diamondbacks for Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte, and Aaron Blair

    In contrast, this was a pretty clear win for Atlanta, selling high on Miller to Arizona in an era where their front office often looked overmatched. Miller would throw 139 innings of 6.35 ERA ball over three years for the D-backs before they let him go; his collapse made what already looked like an overpay turn into a complete looting. Inciarte was already a Gold Glove-level outfielder coming off a 5-WAR season, and he would continue that production. Swanson had just been picked first overall in the draft six months earlier, and while his development was maybe a little slow compared to some first overall picks, it did eventually happen.
     

    The 2016 Braves would lose 93 games and finish last in the NL East, firing Fredi González and bringing in Brian Snitker to manage during the season. The big sell-off basically ended there. From then on, they’d make a few small veteran signings for next season like R.A. Dickey. They flipped Tyrell Jenkins (from way back in the Heyward trade) for reliever Luke Jackson, who ended up being a big part of the 2021 Championship Team after they fixed him up (although they would release and then re-sign him in 2018, so it was a little less straightforward than it seems). And they’d trade Gant and Ellis to St. Louis for Jaime Garcia (in his final year before free agency). When the 2017 team turned out pretty middling, they flipped Garcia to Minnesota for Huascar Ynoa (who also ended up in that 2021 bullpen, albeit mostly in a “last man in the bullpen” role).

    And… that was basically the end of the Braves’ rebuild. That 2017-18 offseason would be mostly quiet, with their biggest free agent signing being Aníbal Sánchez (who would give them one very good season) and their most notable trade being another mutual salary dump with the Dodgers (Matt Kemp for Charlie Culberson, Adrián González, Scott Kazmir, and Brandon McCarthy). In spite of that, the Braves would win 90 games in 2018, taking the NL East crown by finishing 8.0 games ahead of the Nationals. Their return to the playoffs wouldn’t be super dramatic (they lost in the division series to the Dodgers), but it did mark the start of their current five-year (and counting) string of postseason appearances, obviously including their 2021 title.



    Trying to Build a Conclusion


    So, what can we take away from all of this? Were the Braves right to do their big tear-down when they did? How much did it lead to their eventual title? Obviously, the answer for them is “you don’t change anything and risk the 2021 season playing out differently”, but we’re not really asking this for them, we’re asking them for prospective teams looking to emulate them.

    And… I don’t know? The thing that stands out is that a lot of biggest parts in 2021 aren’t affected here, between free agents (e.g. Charlie Morton), guys that they already had at the start of the rebuild and held onto (e.g. Freddie Freeman), or guys that they picked up later in trades when they were already winning (e.g. Jorge Soler). And draft picks made during this time feel like a whole other issue, since it’s not like we can re-run them. Like, a better Braves team doesn’t get to pick third overall in 2016, but what if that means swapping Ian Anderson for Will Smith, or Bryan Reynolds, or something like that? Scouting and player development does kind of remain the black box here, and I don’t want my conclusion to just be “be good at those things, and your rebuild goes fine”.

    The Justin Upton-Max Fried trade is a clear win, no two ways about it; one year of a good player for several years of a star. They kind of lost the Simmons and Wood trades, though, giving up multiple good years of players for not very much. The Evan Gattis trade seems like a lateral move. The Kimbrel trade is a win, but mostly for how they used the draft pick rather than any player they actually acquired.

    The Heyward is though to evaluate, getting a good season and not much else from Miller in exchange for a star in his walk year… except that they could flip Miller to Arizona for a ton of value (although even this ties back into the player-development side; would Miller have struggled like that in Atlanta, did Arizona somehow screw him up, was it something else?). Of course, I’m not sure most rebuilding teams now can count on being able to shake-down teams for bonus value like the Braves did to the Dave Stewart/Tony La Russa-led Diamondbacks.* Still, even if that second trade disappears, I think a second good year from Miller would have probably made it feel like a fine deal.

    *My memory from 2015 was that everyone immediately called it a massive overpay at best, and that memory seems largely correct. Like, it’s not every day that you get a lopsided trade, let alone one so bad that people are calling it out as such the day it happens. You just have to take those offers when they come up, I think.

    The thing I’m noticing in those trades is that the ones that went best (outside of the D-backs one) were the ones where the player the Braves lost was about to be a free agent. The more years of a player they were giving up, the more uncertainty they were getting in return. I don’t know if that’s because the packages they went for in these specific cases were riskier, or if it’s something inherent to that type of trade, or if it was just random luck, but it’s there nonetheless. And sure, it’s not like Simmons or Wood would have stuck around until their 2021 win, or made them a winning team from 2015 through 2017… but I’m sure the team would have been slightly better to watch with them those years, and it wouldn’t have deprived them of anything they needed for 2021, either. And honestly, given how the trades went as-is, they might have been better off holding onto them a little longer, given that the players traded with fewer years remaining seem to have gotten better returns too?

    Either way, this doesn’t seem to be the primary thing driving the rebuilding cycle, even in cases like the Braves’ where they were theoretically selling early. As a fan, though… if even teams like the Braves struggle when selling players earlier, I’d probably generally prefer if my team holds off on selling specific young players who aren’t hitting free agency within the next year, maybe two. Exceptions can be made for overpays, but really make them wow you with their offer.

    And like the Astros, the Braves definitely stopped selling earlier than people seem to think they did, and shift into more of a buying mindset before a lot of people thought they were ready (although the Braves’ pre-2018 buys were a little more modest, they were bringing in players before 2018, buying at the 2018 Trade Deadline, and going harder in the free agent market the following winter). That’s probably the best takeaway, for anyone hoping their struggling team follows this model.

    I’d be interested if anyone can think of another case like this, where a team moved multiple young players with several years of control remaining earlier than necessary, to use as a point of comparison to the Braves. Especially since there’s just some info we’re never going to get, like why they moved the players they did; it wasn’t a complete sell-off after all, just most of one. And we haven’t really dug into some of the deeper questions beneath all of this, like how much a few more years of good players where you lose anyway is worth, to both fans and the team, especially if those there doesn’t wind up being that much extra payoff for letting them go earlier.

    Right now, I think Atlanta might have sold a little harder and sooner than they needed to? Although they were good enough at every other part of rebuilding, not to mention that trades of non-walk-year players are such a small part of the process anyway, that it didn’t matter all that much. It’s something to keep in mind for future teams looking to them for inspiration, though. 

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