Bill Shanks

Braves are already getting better

Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman, right, talks things over with Matt Kemp during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday.
Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman, right, talks things over with Matt Kemp during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday. AP

A couple of times a week, an Atlanta Braves fan will ask me, “When are the Braves going to get better?”

Or the other question that may complement that is, “How long is this rebuilding going to take?”

To put a timetable on a rebuilding plan is always dangerous. It’s best to be conservative and say a longer time period compared to something quicker. There is little doubt a team doing what the Braves have done wants to be better as soon as possible, but it usually takes longer than expected.

Here’s a newsflash: The Braves are better right now. They are getting better by the day. It’s the first step in the process of going from avoiding a historic losing season to becoming more respectable at the big league level.

The Braves have gotten so much better since early in this season. Remember how bad the first 37 games of the season were? Manager Fredi Gonzalez’s team was 9-28 before he was fired. The Braves were on pace for 120 losses.

Gonzalez’s replacement, Brian Snitker, has won 45 of his first 100 games as the Atlanta manager. That .450 winning percentage would translate into a 73-89 record during the course of a 162-game schedule, which would have been a decent improvement over the 67-95 record from the 2015 season.

Snitker deserves tremendous credit. He helped changed the atmosphere of the clubhouse with his laid-back approach and business-like manner. It’s ironic that there may be more Bobby Cox in Snitker than in Gonzalez, who was hired to replace the legendary manager after Cox’s retirement in 2010.

Snitker has juggled a pitching staff that has had a revolving door in the rotation and the bullpen. At times, both have done well, but it has been unpredictable. You never really know if a starter is going to do the job, or if the bullpen will hold a lead.

The offense has been the key recently. The Braves have been scoring runs aplenty, particularly since the arrival of Matt Kemp in the late-July trade from San Diego.

Here is what the Braves scored per month — runs per game:

April — 3.26

May — 3.07

June — 3.68

July — 3.69

Aug — 5.00

Sept — 6.25

And check this out:

Before Matt Kemp — 105 games — 360 runs — 3.43 runs per game — 37-68 record

After Matt Kemp — 32 games — 165 runs — 5.16 runs per game — 17-15 record

Kemp himself is hitting .270 (34-126) with 5 home runs and 24 RBI in the 32 games. But the players around him have flourished with Kemp’s arrival.

Freddie Freeman — .330 (36 hits in 109 at bats) with 11 home runs, 29 RBI and a .486 OBP

Ender Inciarte — .381 (51 hits in 134 at bats) with 2 home runs, 15 RBI and a .439 OBP

Adonis Garcia — .274 (34 hits in 124 at bats) with 5 home runs, 17 RBI and a .333 OBP

Nick Markakis — .260 (32 hits in 123 at bats) with 4 home runs, 23 RBI and a .317 OBP

The presence of a power hitter is important. Kemp is not a perfect player. As the Braves have said, he needs to get in better shape. But he’s a power threat. For the season, Kemp now has 28 home runs in 535 at bats, along with 93 RBI. So Kemp is on pace for a 30-home run, 100-RBI season.

General manager John Coppolella deserves tremendous credit. He knew his team needed more power. He likely looked at the pending free agent list and cringed at the thought of having to overspend for a player that may not have been a slam dunk. Instead, he got rid of a headache (Hector Olivera) and got Kemp at a reduced price for only three more years.

Think about it. Coppolella could have targeted players like Jay Bruce, Mark Trumbo, Jose Batista or Ian Desmond, free agents this winter. A contract for one of those players might have had to be in the five or six-year range for over $100 million. And with the Braves being non-contenders, at least right now, they may have had to overpay for a free agent of that caliber. But the Kemp acquisition was a much better option. They have him for the next three seasons at a total of around $54 million.

The ability for the Braves to build the lineup around Kemp and Freeman, two hitters who can hit 30-plus home runs and drive in 100 or so runs a year, is important in the rebuilding process. To have the power hitters taken care of is a big advantage.

Inciarte seems to be a solid leadoff man. Hitting first in the lineup, Inciarte is batting .317 with a .385 on base percentage, two home runs, 17 RBI and five stolen bases. And Inciarte has been off the charts since the All-Star Break, hitting .368 with a .423 on base percentage.

Garcia has settled in as the number two hitter in the lineup. He’s hit .288 there with a .339 on base percentage, five home runs and 14 RBI in 104 at bats. Garcia has hit .300 since the All-Star Break. Maybe the Braves don’t need to get a new third baseman next season, as once believed.

Perhaps Garcia could platoon next year with Rio Ruiz, a young left-handed hitting third baseman who is hitting .273 for Gwinnett this season. Ruiz has 10 home runs and has driven in 61, with a .357 batting average. Ruiz, who is just 22 years old, has hit .297 against right-handed pitchers this season.

It’s likely the Braves will have a new second baseman next season, as young Ozzie Albies is on track for a promotion – maybe as early as next week. Don’t forget about Mallex Smith, who is coming back from a broken left thumb. He makes it a crowded outfield.

We know the Braves will go after a catcher, and hometown hero Brian McCann is a likely candidate. McCann could come back and platoon with Tyler Flowers, who is having his best offensive season and is under contract for next season.

The improvement in the lineup will allow the organization to allow younger prospects to fully develop. The Braves do, in fact, have more position player prospects that could be in the mix in the next 2-3 years.

We’ve already seen Dansby Swanson make it to Atlanta. Albies is next. But there are more. Left fielder Dustin Peterson (.282, 12 HR, 87 RBI) has been tremendous in Double-A Mississippi. Third baseman Austin Riley (.270, 20 HR, 78 RBI) is having a great season in Rome. Those two are at the top of the list.

But there are others. Ronald Acuna (.313, 4 HR, 18 RBI, 14 SB) has been out most of the season with injury, but the Braves think he could come quickly. Braxton Davidson (.224, 10 HR, 63 RBI, .344 OBP) has done well as a 20-year-old in High-A Carolina.

Then there are the position players acquired in trades this season (Dylan Moore, Travis DeMerritte, Kade Scivicque, Anfernee Seymour), along with the young international players signed this past July.

The purpose of this article, this exercise… it’s not all about pitching in this rebuilding process. There has been tremendous improvement in the position players for the Braves this year, both at the major league level and in the minor leagues.

And if this development, this improvement continues, the wait for Braves fans asking the questions of how long it will take will be shorter than expected. The Braves are already better, and if the positives continue, they’ll be even better moving forward.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on “Middle Georgia’s ESPN” – 93.1 FM in Macon and 99.5 FM in Warner Robins. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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