They have a shiny new ball park built to infuse revenue into a franchise that was falling further and further behind the competition and the highest rated farm system in baseball. And that dreadful TV contract that was by far the worst deal in franchise history – the Upton brothers and Dan Uggla put together don’t even come close – will expire in 10 years.
So, yeah, the Atlanta Braves’ future looks promising.
But what about 2017? For all of the optimistic talk about the future, what will it be like this summer as fans sit for hours in traffic to go watch a team whose best-scenario seems is scraping together a record that’s just north of .500?
I’m not quite sure myself. Granted, the Opening Day roster will be significantly improved compared to last year’s. But how could it not be?
Trivia question: Can you recall who the No. 2 starting pitcher was last season? Hint: It wasn’t Mike Foltynewicz, who was on injury rehab after offseason surgery, or even Matt Wisler. It was Bud Norris, signed as a free agent after going 3-11 with a 6.72 earned run average with Baltimore and San Diego. The fourth and fifth starters, behind Wisler, were rookie Williams Perez and Jhoulys Chacin, another reclamation project.
So comparatively, the new-look rotation at least resembles something of big league quality. Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey were signed as free agents. Jaime Garcia was obtained in a trade from St. Louis.
The Braves know all three veterans are merely a bridge to the future. But if they can make 80 starts among them, that would provide some much-needed stability to a rotation that saw 14 pitchers make a combined 109 starts. Only two of those 14, Joel De La Cruz and Josh Collmenter, made this year’s Opening Day roster, and both are in the bullpen. Wisler was sent back the minors to try to figure things out.
The everyday lineup will hardly remind anyone of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. But again, it’s substantially better than it was this time last year. A year ago, the double play combination was Erick Aybar and Jace Peterson. Now it’s Dansby Swanson and Brandon Phillips. Left field was manned by a platoon of Hector Olivera, Jeff Franceour and Kelly Johnson. Now it’s Matt Kemp.
Phillips and Kemp aren’t the All-Stars they once were, but both still are productive players.
Ender Inciarte was injured in the opening series last season. Now he’s emerged as one of the better center fielders and leadoff hitters in baseball.
Freddie Freeman has his confidence back, and Nick Markakis has regained the stroke he had in Baltimore, when he was a doubles machine with occasional home run power.
So while it’s unrealistic to think they pick up where they left off last season, when then won 20 of their last 30 games, it’s almost certain they won’t start off anywhere near as bad as last season, when they were 18-46.
This is a decent team that could be fun to watch.
Just how much of a lure SunTrust Park will be, though, remains to be seen. I suspect there will be a slight attendance bump just out of curiosity. The Braves ranked in the top three in the National League in attendance eight consecutive seasons in the ’90s. Then they slipped toward the middle of the pack three of the next four years. They’ve ranked in the bottom half of the league for 13 consecutive seasons, including the bottom five each of the past three seasons.
While some fans are excited, or at least curious, about seeing the new ballpark, there’s an untold number of fans still angry about the team abandoning Turner Field for Cobb County. Many have avowed publicly to never set foot in SunTrust Park.
It doesn’t help matters that the organization still had the audacity to tick off fans by announcing that they will not be allowed to bring food and snacks through the gates. Never mind that some of that food could have been purchased just outside the ball park at restaurants paying rent to the Braves. They’ve since back-tracked on that stance, which shows not only how idiotic it was to begin with but also how clueless the franchise appears to be when it comes to public relations.
Contending for championships will go a long way toward winning over those on the fence. But that’s going to take more time for the young prospects to develop.