2016 Atlanta Braves: The tanking goes on


Hank Fischer

Hank Fischer went to Seton Hall to play basketball and wound up a major-league pitcher who won 30 games before injuries ended his career. He wasn’t yet 30 when they did. According to his bio at sabr.org, Fischer led Yonkers, N.Y. in scoring in his senior year. His bio also said he pitched three no-hitters. He averaged 18 points a game on the freshman team at Seton Hall, but according to sabr.org, his basketball coach also did some scouting for the Braves and told them they should sign Fischer. They did, and Fischer was in the majors by age 22; it didn’t say how long the scout kept his basketball job. Fischer earned two saves before getting his first win and pitched exclusively out of the bullpen in his first year, 1962, going 2-3 with 4 saves and a 5.30 ERA. He made six starts the next year (4-3, 4.96) and joined the rotation in 1964 when he had his best year, going 11-10 with a 4.01 ERA and hurling five shutouts and nine complete games. Fischer tied for second in the NL with Vern Law, Don Drysdale and Jim Bunning behind Sandy Koufax (11, though he made his last start in August) in shutouts. For his six-year career, they were the only shutouts Fischer threw. He was 8-9 with a 3.89 ERA in ’65, went with the Braves to Atlanta in 1966 but was traded early in the season to the Reds for ’61 pennant hero Joey Jay. Fischer was 0-6 with a 6.63 ERA for the Reds, who traded him to Boston in August. Fischer was on the ’67 Impossible Dream Red Sox team, but was hurt for much of the year, making only two appearances after Memorial Day, pitching in both ends of a doubleheader in August. Fischer was 1-2 with a 2.36 ERA for the ’67 Red Sox and one save, fanning five in three innings to close out Jim Lonborg’s 8-5 win over Denny McLain and the Tigers on May 14. Fischer finished out 1967 in the minors and never pitched in the majors again. Career numbers: 30-39, 4.23 ERA, 168 games, 14 complete games, 5 shutouts, 7 saves, 546.2 innings, 587 hits, 174 walks, 369 strikeouts, 85 ERA+, 3.69 FIP, .741 OPS against, -2.6 WAR.

On deck: The Braves have no problem developing shortstops, only deciding on them. In the last decade the Braves have groomed Yunel Escobar, Elvis Andrus and Andrelton Simmons, all from Latin or South America, all traded. Next may be Ozhaino Albies, whose development prompted the trade of Simmons. Albies hit .310, stole 29 bases and reportedly fielded well at age 18 in a low Class A, and the Braves traded Simmons, who like Albies is from the island of Curacao, for pitching prospect Sean Newcomb. Or next may be Dansby Swanson, the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft, whom the Braves acquired a month after trading Simmons to clear the way for Albies. Swanson had just 99 plate appearances in a short-season league last year but the Braves gave him 31 in this spring training, where he hit .300. Swanson is three years older than Albies but a level behind him, which gives the Braves time to make up their minds.

2015 Stat: Nick Markakis, who hit at least 10 home runs in the first nine seasons of his career in Baltimore, didn’t come close in Atlanta. He hit just three, and it took him almost four months and 347 at-bats to hit his first off Brandon Beachy on July 20. For the season he hit three homers in 612 at-bats (rookie Aaron Nolan and Jose Fernandez were his last two victims), an average of one every 204 at-bats.

What he said: A.J. Pierzynski on the Braves rebuilding: “I just know that last year what we went through was the start of a process, and this year we’re in the second year of that process. I’m sure there are people around who don’t believe we’re any good.” What he meant: “Trust the process. It’s what keeps me employed.”

Outlook: It’s the last year for the Braves in Turner Field, and they’ve built a team fans won’t want to come back to.

The Braves are bad in 2016, rotten, Georgia-swamp-smelling stink of bad. Which is the idea.

Forget everything the Braves said before 2015 about being competitive. John Hart said, “we may not be the prettiest girl at the dance, but we’re going to be a lot of fun to dance with,” and then made sure the team couldn’t tango.

The Braves were at .500 and only four games out of first place as late as July 7 last year, but finished 25-53, helped by deals that sent away useful players Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe, Jim Johnson and Alex Wood.

You can understand the Braves’ reasoning. It might have felt like a tequila-fueled rush to be that close, but there was going to be a morning after, and the Braves wanted to be ready to face the new day of 2017.

But, combined with the moves the Braves made earlier, it was such a complete tank job that 76ers GM Sam Hinkie probably wanted to know how they did it.

Johnson had just 197 at-bats for the Braves and hit nine homers; even after two months with the Mets he finished the season tied for fourth on the Braves in homers. Uribe hit seven and tied for sixth; Wood won seven games and tied for third on the staff with one more than poor Shelby Miller, who endured a 6-17 campaign; Johnson’s nine saves tied for second and his 2.25 ERA was bettered only by Arodys Vizcaino.

The Braves were deprived of the No. 1 pick by the Phillies, who had to lose three straight games in September to the Braves to do that. It was the oddest series in that all three games were 2-1 and it seemed neither was willing or able to score. (Even worse, as the Braves climbed to 67 wins, the Reds dropped to 64 and made off with the No. 2 pick).

The Braves will be No. 3 this June but may well do better next year. They shopped at consignments stores for their pitchers, making Bud Norris, released by the Orioles, their No. 2 starter, and Jhoulys Chacin, released by the Rockies and Indians, their No. 4 or 5. They welcomed back Johnson the reliever, who had a 10.13 ERA and was released by the Dodgers, to the bullpen. Maybe he just pitches better when no one is watching, which means there’s a chance he could do well again with the Braves. And they added Alexi Ogando, who threw 12 homers in 65.1 innings for the Red Sox; he might have a hard time keeping Markakis in the park.

Johnson & Johnson are both back; Kelly returned as a free agent. Sometimes it seems the Braves don’t have a clubhouse but a bus station.

You have to wonder at what point Freddie Freeman, signed for six more years and $118 million, tells management this isn’t what he signed up for.

It’s hard to believe 2016 is just the third season since the Braves won 96 games, the NL East, were third in MLB in wins and had a glamorous young outfield of Upton, Upton and Heyward. Think there’s any chance Kate Upton would want to pose with the Braves this year?

The Braves may get back to that someday, but you can tear something down a lot faster than you can build it.

ESPN.com’s Keith Law says the Braves have the top farm system in baseball, and they should, since they’ve been stockpiling it at the expense of the big-league team for the last 16 months.

The Braves took advantage of other GMs’ eagerness (the Padres’ A.J. Preller) and desperation (the D-backs’ Dave Stewart) and now have, according to Law, seven of the top 100 prospects.

Not all of the Braves’ judgments have been good ones: Hector Olivera was moved to left field because he can’t play third base well enough, but the Braves hope he can still hit; catcher Christhian Bethancourt couldn’t hit enough no matter how good his defense; and it’s too soon to dismiss Touki Toussaint, who’s not yet 20, but so far the Braves paid almost $10 million for a pitcher who can’t throw strikes and gets hit when he does.

There’s no guidebook on how many years of suffering must be endured to enjoy major league success, or how many prospects have to be collected to pay off in the bigs.

But the ascent to the majors is a survival of the fittest, and if you accumulate enough prospects, some good ones will rise.

That’s what will happen for the Braves, probably beginning next year, when they move to the stadium MARTA can’t get to.

Team Song: John Lee Hooker: Serves Me Right To Suffer

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