The Braves: Winning by losing

The Atlanta Braves have the second-most losses in baseball, which makes everyone who associates the tomahawk chop with waves of nausea happy.

Except it shouldn’t, because the Braves, in their worst season in a quarter of a century,  are getting what they want.

They’ve lost 89 games entering play Thursday, more than anyone except the Phillies (91), and more than every Braves team since 1990, with the exception of the 2008 team which lost 90. They’ll get a chance to surpass both this weekend when they host the Phillies in a series only Sam Hinkie culd love.

 “We may not be the prettiest girl at the dance, but we’re going to be a lot of fun to dance with,” new GM John Hart said last January, but every move he’s made since then has guaranteed the Braves would be idle when the music started. Who wants to dance with a team that has two left feet and no bullpen?

The Braves traded Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis before spring training, and when that wasn’t deflating enough, they dealt Craig Kimbrel on the eve of Opening Day. There hasn’t been that powerful a motivator since owner  Rachel Phelps told the Indians they were moving to Miami in the movie Major League.

(Given that Phelps was an exotic dancer before inheriting the team, it’s safe to guess she’d be more fun to dance with than the Braves.) 

When the Braves were still at .500 three months into the season, Hart traded Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe to the Mets and Alex Wood, Jim Johnson, Luis Avilan and one-time top prospect Jose Peraza to the Dodgers for 30-year-old Cuban defector Hector Olivera.

That finished what Hart had started in the offseason, and the team which was 42-42 on July 7, is 15-47 since. Here’s hoping Braves’ fans enjoyed the first half of the season because the second half has been like the ’62  Mets. Only worse. 

That 15-47 is a .241 winning percentage; bad as it is, that’s higher than the .215 average everyday outfielder Nick Swisher lugs to the plate.

Since being 42-42, the Braves have been outscored 357-188, had losing streaks of 12, seven, six and five games, and lost by counts of 20-6, 15-1, 15-4, 12-2 and 1-0. The Yankees outscored them 38-11 in one three-game series.

And those are the highlights.

(They’ve also given their fans the broadcasting quality this team deserves. Exhbit A, from Wednesday: after a great defensive play by the Blue Jays eliminated a potential Braves’ base runner, Chip Caray said it allowed Blue Jays starter David Price to pitch from the windup. Except that Price always pitches from the stretch, even when there’s no one on base, which spurred analyst Joe Simpson to explain why Price’s stretch is his windup. It’s guaranteed that if the Braves don’t make you shake your head, the announcers will.)

The Braves have the worst bullpen in baseball — their 4.80 ERA ranks 30th — which is no surprise, given that they’ve made it an entry-level position. It’s stocked by Andrew McKirahan (5.55 ERA), Sugar Ray Marimom (6.08), Matt Marksberry (5.31), Danny Burawa (5.63, Ryan Kelly (7.47) and Arodys Vizcaino (2.16), most of whom have no previous experience (Vizcaino had 22.1 innings in 2011 and ’14), and won’t have much more. The particpants in the JV Republican debate are better known than the relievers in the Braves’ bullpen.

Asking inexperienced and barely qualified — if that — relievers to pitch the late innings is like asking first-year physics students to explain the theory of relativity. For a veteran presence, the Braves brought in Edwin Jackson, but given his career 4.60 ERA, his influence may not be what’s needed.

You have to wonder if young veterans Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons now see their long-term contract extensions as not security but ankle bracelets.

And yet this is the road the Braves have traveled for a reason: because it worked for the Cubs and Astros. Like the corporate world, in baseball, if a plan is successful, someone copies it.

Theo Epstein took over the Cubs, winked at the fans about trying to win and lost 91, 101, 96 and 89 games. They’re making the playoffs this year. The Astros lost 106 or more for three straight seasons, drafted No. 1 for three straight seasons and are on the verge of the playoffs this year.

The Braves are trying to do likewise, and they’ve gone from the middle of the 2016 draft on July 7, to the top two on Sept. 17, even getting rid of young talent — Wood is 24, Peraza 21 — to do so.

You can’t blame the Braves if they think losing is the way to win, but you have to wonder where the integrity is in doing so. And you have to wonder what MLB’s recourse is, if any, when teams selectively pursue talent. 

The Braves may not have the greatest fans — they’re 24th in attendance this year; just 13th in 2013 when they last won a division — but almost 1.8 million of them have paid to get in this year. What’s the obligation to them to field the best team possible?

The Braves clearly haven’t tried to do that this year, and in fact, have done the opposite. They’ve stripped the team as much as they could and tried to make it as unattractive as possible.
The truth is, the Braves never wanted to dance at all this year, unless it meant falling on their backside and not getting up.

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