Guerry Clegg

Braves’ rebuild keeps going and going with no end in sight

When the Atlanta Braves traded Jason Heyward 18 months ago to begin this massive rebuilding plan, they sold the public on two promises.

One was that they would remain competitive in the short-term. Here’s what John Hart said after being named Vice President for Baseball Operations, referring to his tenure in Cleveland, when the Indians suffered three losing seasons before breaking through.

“We’re not going to do that here. There’s just too much at stake and no guarantee that, if we did that, it would be a slam dunk going into the new park.”

That comment related to the other promise, that the team would be a contender by 2017, when the Braves move to the new SunTrust Field in Cobb County.

Well, we know how the first promise turned out. The Braves lost 97 games last season and were 18-42 entering Saturday’s game against the Chicago Cubs. Since an unlikely 42-42 start last season, the Braves are 43-95.

In the last two weeks, the Braves have traded two veterans — Jason Grilli and Kelly Johnson — for minor leaguers. No heartburn there. Neither one was playing very well, and they don’t fit into the future plans, not even short term.

The question now is, who will be the next to go?

That depends on whether they intend to try to win next season, or if that was just another promise to justify the rebuild. As bad as their record is, I still think they are capable of fielding a competitive team next season — if they’re going to use the payroll flexibility in the offseason to pursue some bats. They don’t need to stockpile more minor league pitching.

The old baseball adage “you can’t have enough pitching” is true, and we’re reminded of that when someone like Williams Perez leaves a start early and winds up on the disabled list. Then Mike Foltynewicz wound up on the DL with a sore elbow.

Even so, there’s another timeless adage about baseball that’s even more irrefutable. You can’t win if you don’t score. The Braves just added another crop of arms, taking pitchers with six of their first seven picks in the amateur draft. The shocker is they broke form with their fourth pick and took a catcher, Brett Cumberland from Cal-Berkley. Last year, 13 of the first 16 players drafted were pitchers. This doesn’t include any international free agents they signed.

To say you can’t have too much pitching isn’t quite true. The Braves have seven minor league teams — four from Single-A to Triple-A plus three rookie league teams. As a Saturday, they had 106 pitchers assigned to those rosters — 94 active, eight on the disabled list, three on the restricted list and one on military leave. Stephen Moore of the Naval Academy is fulfilling his military obligation.

That’s not a lot of roster spots when you consider how many new prospects they sign every year.

At some point, they have to acquire some hitters. The farm system, for all of its accolades about being infused with talent, has no one who appears to be ready to step into the lineup and produce by next season.

The lineup is three or four hitters away from being adequate. That sounds like a lot until you consider that two of those hitters are already on the roster. Freddie Freeman and Ender Inciarte have performed far below their abilities this season.

Freeman might not ever regain All-Star form. But at the very least, he should be a .280 or so hitter with occasional power and run production. Inciarte is finally starting to resemble the player he was with Arizona, when he hit .292 and stole 40 bases over two seasons.

Mallex Smith adds some offense to the bottom of the order. Jeff Francouer is a very capable fourth outfielder, especially with Inciarte and Smith both being left-handed hitters.

So that makes Nick Markakis expendable. Despite his horrible May, there’s reason to believe Markakis will finish with respectable numbers. But his home run power is virtually gone. Some contender looking for a veteran bat might be willing to overpay for Markakis after the All-Star break.

Ditto for AJ Pierzynski. Some contender will need a catcher.

They need to keep Tyler Flowers, Chase d’Arnaud and Gordon Beckham. Adonis Garcia might have some trade value, especially now that he’s playing better at third base. Maybe trade Jim Johnson again if the offer is good.

But that’s it. Julio Teheran? Forget it. If they trade Teheran for anything other than an All-Star hitter, then you can forget contending anytime soon.

Guerry Clegg: sports@ledger-enquirer.com, @guerryclegg

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