Are Braves ready to follow Astros’, Cubs’ ascension to glory?
The Atlanta Braves stormed into first place with a three-game sweep of the New York Mets this week. For three long years it’s been all about the rebuild, but now the club appears to be emerging from the fog.
Yes, it appears that the future could very well be now.
Ronald Acuña Jr.’s arrival signaled a seismic shift in the franchise’s trajectory. The fact that Mike Soroka was hot on his heels only strengthened the idea that this team may not be that far away from a return to glory.
The offense has been potent; the pitching capable.
Young and old alike, these Braves appear to be transforming from perennial also-ran into possible contender in the early stages of the season.
Three consecutive 90-plus loss seasons tested the resolve of the club, the players and the fans alike. There were lows on and off the field that seemed at times to consume much of the goodwill the team had built in nearly two decades of consistent winning.
Atlanta’s offseason started with a bombshell that changed the front office altogether. Alex Anthopoulos stepped into a team in turmoil and worked quickly to right the ship.
Fortunately, the sanctions from the club’s international scandal under the previous regime affected neither the big league roster nor the high levels of the minor league system.
Anthopoulos did some addition by subtraction, turned the focus to improving in areas that could have an immediate and quantifiable impact – things like defense and base running – and placed a higher value on analytics and advanced scouting.
The new general manager also took an inventory of the bevy of prospects knocking on the door of SunTrust Park.
When Acuña and Soroka were promoted, they joined Ozzie Albies as the three youngest players in Major League Baseball. Don’t let their age fool you though, because the talent speaks volumes.
Albies has been among the National League’s most fearsome hitters over the first month, while Acuña wasted little time establishing himself as one of the most exciting young players in the game. He is a five-tool phenom that may quickly become one of the best players in the game period. No qualifiers need.
Soroka’s pure stuff and pitching acumen make him one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, truly wise beyond his years.
It’s an exciting time to be a Braves fan.
It should only get better from here.
In recent years, both the Cubs and Astros completed rebuilds that led to World Series championships. Constructing a young core through the amateur draft and international scouting along with making the right trades and signing the right free agents has put both clubs in position to contend for years to come.
To get there, however, the growing pains were acute.
Chicago averaged 93 losses per season from 2010-2014 before returning to the playoffs in 2015. Houston had it even rougher, losing an average of 104 games per season from 2011-2014 before earning its Wild Card berth in 2015 as well.
The Braves have lost an average of 93 games over the past three years, the first time they’d suffered consecutive losing seasons in nearly three decades.
Atlanta’s current roster has an average age of 28 years old. The Astros found their way back to the postseason with average age of 28.6 in 2015. The Cubs won the World Series with average age of 28.8 in 2016.
Acuña, who is just 20 years old, is the youngest player in the big leagues. He plays the role of Carlos Correa on that 2015 Astros club. The top prospect in baseball, bursting onto the scene with the talent and energy that provides a lift to the club. The effect of knowing their most highly touted young player has arrived cannot be understated. While Acuña should not be counted on to put the team on his back just yet, there will be times where he most certainly can do so.
Who could have expected the offensive explosion from Albies?
The 21-year-old second baseman is putting up big-time slugging numbers regardless of position and has carved out a spot at the top of the order. While Albies drew comparisons to Jose Altuve before his hot start, the two now seem to share a similar offensive profile in addition to their shared height and build.
With Freddie Freeman playing an MVP level and other veteran hitters making regular contributions, the newest crop of Braves hitters have added to the mix and formed perhaps the best offense in baseball.
That may be as much by surprise as it is by design. Time will tell if it’s sustainable.
The Braves’ collection of young pitchers is unsurpassed. The rotation is still coming into its own, as evidenced by the early season success of Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb. The arrival of Soroka only strengthens the starting five, which is anchored by veterans Julio Teheran and Brandon McCarthy.
Both Chicago and Houston put together young, talented, hungry teams complemented by the right veterans. Atlanta is hoping to follow that blueprint.
If history is any indicator, Atlanta could simply take a look back in order to catch a glimpse of what may lay ahead.
Just like this year’s squad, the 1991 Braves got their first taste of first place in May. Though fleeting, it was a sign of things to come. That Atlanta team initially spent roughly a week in first place and wouldn’t get back to the top of the division race until late August. Ultimately, the Braves outdueled the Dodgers to win the NL West crown.
A couple of crazy stats about that team: It spent just 25 days in first place and never led by more than two games. Their path eventually led from worst to first and all the way to the World Series.
What does this year hold?
Atlanta is eagar to find out. The fan base seems re-energized by the fresh young faces who are grabbing headlines on a near nightly basis.
There is a lot of baseball left to be played the season, but the Braves have to like both the direction they are headed and how they’ve gone about getting there.