Phillies Rivals Struggling in Atlanta


The end of the 2015 season is approaching for the Phillies and Braves, who begin a 3-game weekend series tonight at Turner Field. For the two teams and their fans, that means an end to what has proven to be a miserable, grueling season.

But as we look forward to 2016, the Phillies appear to be headed in a positive direction, while the Braves could be in store for even more frustration over the next few seasons as a result of some puzzling moves made by their front office.

Since last offseason, it has been hard to identify whether or not the Braves want to rebuild, or try to re-tool through free-agent signings and trades. The club finished 79-83 a year ago, and for many there was still plenty of reason to believe that Atlanta could be competitive in 2015.

The Braves were set to begin this season with two-time All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman, slick fielding shortstop Andrelton Simmons, lights-out closer Craig Kimbrel, and a number of young pitchers, led by Julio Teheran. That appeared to be a pretty solid core with which to begin putting together a contending club.

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The first few moves the team made over last offseason seemed to make a lot of sense as the Braves brass seemed to be constructing a team that could make a run at the division favorites, the Washington Nationals.

Last November, the team traded talented young outfielder Jason Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals for starting pitcher Shelby Miller. While Heyward was productive in his time with the Braves, he was set to become a free agent at the end of the 2015 season. Miller, on the other hand, could provide the Braves with a top of the rotation arm for the next several seasons.

To replace Heyward, the club signed outfielder Nick Markakis to a 4 year, $45 million contract last December. Markakis, a Georgia native, was a two-time Gold Glover with the Orioles before signing in Atlanta. He would be a bat to plug into the middle of the Braves order to pair with slugger Justin Upton.

Then, just weeks after acquiring Markakis and seemingly out of nowhere, the Braves shipped Upton off to the San Diego Padres for prospects, less than two years after they acquired him from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

In January, the Braves sent power-hitting catcher Evan Gattis to the Houston Astros, in an effort to give prospect Christian Bethancourt a chance to prove himself. Gattis had hit over 20 home runs in both seasons with the Braves, but they clearly wanted to go in a different direction.

From the outside, it looked as if the Braves decided to rebuild around young, controllable players. However, the team extended some questionable contracts to a number of veteran players who would provide little at this point in their careers.

While every rebuilding team likes to have a veteran presence on their club, as with the Phillies and ex-Braves star Jeff Francoeur, Atlanta signed six players age 30 years or older. This group included Jonny Gomes, Jason Grilli, Alberto Callaspo, Jim Johnson, Josh Outman, and A.J Pierzynski.

It started to become more difficult to see what plan the Braves were trying to put into place for the 2015 season. Would they try to compete with a mix of young and veteran players? Were they going to tear everything down and start from scratch?

Things got even more murky when Braves general manager John Hart pulled off the ultimate stunner just a day before the Braves season was set to begin. He sent Kimbrel and the older Upton brother, Melvin Jr. (formerly B.J.), to the Padres for prospects and a first round draft pick.

The move shocked people all across the baseball world. What were the Braves doing? Kimbrel was already signed through 2017, and was one of the most dominant closers in the game. Anyone other than Kimbrel in the closer’s spot for the Bravos would be a downgrade.

Surprisingly, the Braves actually found themselves with a .500 record after the first two months of the season, and just three games back of the division lead. That wouldn’t last long, as an 11-16 June and a 10-16 July dropped them into third place, 9 games back of the Nationals.

But before July was over, Hart pulled off another strange move, trading number one prospect Jose Peraza, starting pitcher Alex Wood, who had been very serviceable for the club and was under contract through 2019, and three others for 30-year-old Cuban defector Hector Olivera, reliever Paco Rodriguez, and minor-league starter Zach Bird.

This move was puzzling in that the prize for the Braves seemed to be Olivera, whom they had offered a contract to the previous offseason, but were outbid by the Dodgers.

Hart also extended the contracts of manager Fredi Gonzalez and his coaching staff, showing that they believed Gonzalez could be the one to lead the Braves back to being a playoff caliber club in the National League.

Hart outdid himself again this past month when he traded 3rd baseman Chris Johnson to the Cleveland Indians for Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, two players who signed huge contracts with the Tribe only to never live up to them.

While Johnson had a bad contract himself, and the Indians did send the Braves cash in the deal, both Bourn and Swisher are owed about $38 million on contracts that run through the 2016 season. Much of the reason they unloaded both Uptons and Kimbrel was to clear salary. This deal appears to have counteracted those.

To make matters worse, starting pitcher Julio Teheran has struggled mightily this season, owning a 10-7 record with a 4.34 ERA in 30 starts. An All-Star last season, Teheran’s walks have skyrocketed in 2015, which consequently has resulted in his lowest strikeout-to-walk ratio since he became a full-time starter.

Olivera has been dreadful since coming to Atlanta, with just nine hits in 41 at-bats (.220). Bethancourt, who was given the reigns to the catcher’s job when the team moved Gattis, has looked terrible the entire season, and was even sent down to AAA Gwinnett in June.

The once-promising rotation filled with the likes of Mike Minor, Alex Wood, Brandon Beachy, Kris Medlen and Teheran is now dissolved. The Braves have had to rely on inexperienced starters for much of the season. Three of the heralded young arms they received in offseason trades have been disappointing.

24-year-old left-hander Manny Banuelos, acquired from the Yankees for reliever David Carpenter, is 1-4 with 5.13 ERA in six starts. Mike Foltynewicz, a 23-year-old righty who came over in the Gattis deal, is 4-6 with 5.71 ERA in 15 starts.

And then there’s Matt Wisler, the big get for the Braves in the Kimbrel trade. Wisler got off to a good start after being called up in June, but has been knocked around more recently. He now owns a 5-7 record and a 5.60 in 15 starts.

It’s hard to say what the next few seasons will be like for the Braves. While through their many trades they have been able to re-stock a depleted farm system, it isn’t as rich with highly ranked prospects as another rebuilding club right in their division, the Phillies.

In my opinion, John Hart has done more harm than good since he took over as general manager with Atlanta. It would be difficult to say that things will be handled any better moving forward. This isn’t a young guy who may learn on the job. Hart is a longtime baseball man with prior GM experience.

As the Braves and Phillies get set for a three-game series this weekend at Turner Field in Atlanta in a battle of MLB’s two worst teams, there seems to be a lot more promise surrounding the Phillies, given the strides they have made in their farm system and player development.

Unfortunately, for the Braves and their fans, the moves by the front office give the organization no clear path to success. For the Phillies divisional rivals in Atlanta, the 2016 season could be even worse than the miserable 2015 campaign.