The Atlanta Braves won their first two games of 2015, which is two more than you might have expected, and scored 12 runs Tuesday, which is 12 more than might be expected from a lineup that leads off Eric Young and bats rookie Christian Bethancourt fifth.
Opening Day might be a time for optimism, but even a 2-0 start and a half-game lead in the NL East can’t mask the reality. Opening Day might as well have been Closing Day for the Braves.
The Braves traded reliever Craig Kimbrel less than 24 hours before the first game, the last in a series of moves designed to help the Braves win at a date to be named later.
There hasn’t been a pep talk so poorly received since whatever it was General Pickett told his troops the night before the third day at the battle of Gettysburg (“Don’t worry about the rest of your equipment, boys. You won’t be needing it after tomorrow.”)
A year after the Braves started two Uptons and Jason Heyward in the outfield on Opening Day, they rolled out Kelly Johnson in left, Young in center and Nick Markakis in right. Does that sound like 90 wins?
(For the record, Young has a career .652 OPS, despite spending a good part of it in Colorado; Johnson’s 2014 was Around the AL East in 180 days — he played for three teams in the division and didn’t hit for any of them; Markakis, the token attempt to upgrade for 2015, signed for $11 million per year, or about a million for every home run he’s likely to hit. Last year he hit 14 in a friendlier environment, 10 the year before. The good news is he’s still cheaper and better than the lesser Upton.)
It’s not that the Braves are so blatant in their disregard for 2015. It’s that they’re so transparent. Theo Epstein took over the Cubs and they lost 95.3 games per season over the last three while accumulating talent; the Astros lost 106 games or more from 2011-13 and drafted No. 1 for three straight seasons.
The embrace of losing and promise of tomorrow is the new fad in pro sports, where imitation is the sincerest form of a lack of thinking. The difference between the Braves and the Cubs and Astros is the latter two were bad to begin with when they planned ahead.
The Braves won 96 games in 2013, 94 in 2012, and though they slipped to 79 last year, they had the nucleus for 2015 of a 90-win team — if they had strived to do so. Instead they performed a self-immolation for this year, trading 62 home runs — more than half of their 123 last year — in Justin Upton, Heyward and Evan Gattis (63 if you count the one Tommy La Stella hit) and the best part of their bullpen in Kimbrel, Jordan Walden and David Carpenter (they designated for assignment Anthony Varvaro, who had a 2.63 ERA and .632 OPS against, and chose to protect outfielder Jose Constanza, whose .639 OPS for was barely greater than Varvaro’s against. Constanza didn’t make it to Opening Day; he was released last Friday.)
You have to wonder how first baseman Freddie Freeman and shortstop Andrelton Simmons feel now about the long-term contracts they signed last year, given the Braves’ commitment — or lack thereof — to winning. Who wants to play for an organization whose focus is on its Class A affiliate?
It’s true the Braves were a flawed team, even in 2013, but so were the Giants and the Royals last year, and they did pretty well, in spite of their flaws. Braves’ batters were fourth in MLB in strikeouts in 2014, but that’s better than 2013, when they were third, and they won 96 games and a division title with all those whiffs.
It could be that the Braves’ front office’s plan may work — Justin Upton and Heyward had expiring contracts, Gattis was defensively mediocre, they’re free of Melvin Upton’s salary, Kimbrel may hurt his arm someday. The Braves rebuilt their farm system, added first-round picks and promised their fans some unknown team will be better than this one could have been.
But is it fair to imply to your fan base you’re not trying to win this year and then ask for their trust? Philadelphia 76ers GM Sam Hinkie has done so, and so far has only earned the confidence he can lose 60 games with whatever roster he compiles.
Not quite 40 years ago, Oakland owner Charlie Finley tried to do what the Braves think they’ve done, and maximize his return on players he was going to lose to free agency. He sold outfielder Joe Rudi and closer Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox for $1 million apiece and Vida Blue to the Yankees for $1.5 million — shipping included — but commissioner Bowie Kuhn voided the sales as not in “the best interest of baseball.”
If teams have learned anything over the last 40 years, it’s subtlety.
And the Braves, so eager to accept the possible 90-loss season that awaits, would do well to remember: sometimes bad teams remain bad.