Bill Shanks

Can the Braves follow the Cubs’ path to success?

Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein holds the Commissioner's Trophy while his son, Jack, right, and Chicago Cubs vice president of baseball operations and general manager Jed Hoyer, left, look on during a parade outside Wrigley Field honoring the World Series champions.
Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein holds the Commissioner's Trophy while his son, Jack, right, and Chicago Cubs vice president of baseball operations and general manager Jed Hoyer, left, look on during a parade outside Wrigley Field honoring the World Series champions. AP

The Chicago Cubs hired Theo Epstein on Oct. 25, 2011. He had won two World Series as general manager for the Boston Red Sox, ending decades of angst for a proud franchise.

Epstein told fans to be patient, that he was rebuilding. Cubs fans had heard it before, like for decades, like for a lifetime.

It took Epstein five years to deliver something Cubs fans likely thought they’d never see. They had been programmed to believe it might happen, but then resigned to be disappointed in the end. It was part of their bloodstream in a way, for their team to be the lovable losers of baseball.

The team Epstein inherited after the 2011 season was demolished over the five-year period. He had Starlin Castro as a young player, but that was about it. Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and Marlon Byrd were the core players of the lineup, and they were all in their 30s. The rotation included Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Carlos Zambrano, Randy Wells and Rodrigo Lopez – five pitchers who averaged 30.8 years of age.

Epstein’s approach was clear. He wanted to target position players and build up a strong farm system stocked with players who would either make it to Chicago or be used in traded to bolster the Cubs pitching staff. And every year, Epstein and his general manager Jed Hoyer made significant moves.

On paper, it might look like a balanced approach, but position players were stressed. Here are the position players added after Epstein/Hoyer took over:

2012 – Traded for first baseman Anthony Rizzo – Signed Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler - Drafted outfielder Albert Almora

2013 – Drafted third baseman Kris Bryant – Signed Venezuelan shortstop Gleyber Torres

2014 – Drafted catcher Kyle Schwarber – Traded for shortstop Addison Russell

2015 – Traded for catcher Miguel Montero and outfielder Dexter Fowler - Drafted infielder Ian Happ

2016 – Signed free agents Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward

Javier Baez is the only significant position player added before Epstein took over. He was a first-round pick in 2011, the summer before Epstein arrived. The first-round pick in each year from 2012 through 2015 was a position player.

Now here are is the timeline for how the Cubs’ front office added the pitchers to the roster:

2012 – Traded for Kyle Hendricks and Travis Wood – Drafted Hector Rondon in the Rule V

2013 – Traded for Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards and Justin Grimm

2014 – Signed Jason Hammel

2015 – Signed Jon Lester and Trevor Cahill

2016 – Signed John Lackey – Traded for Mike Montgomery and Aroldis Chapman

Epstein’s approach worked. There is no disputing that at all. He made some brilliant moves, some that may seem like a no-brainer (like signing Lester) and had some gambles (like trading for Arrieta) pay off.

There is no doubt Epstein had the financial resources of owner Tom Ricketts and the Cubs’ lucrative TV deal behind him. That helped tremendously.

The Atlanta Braves have been in their rebuilding process for two years. John Hart and John Coppolella took over an underachieving roster and a barren farm system. The Braves were rated as one of the five-worst minor league systems in the game, so rebuilding it became a priority.

Of course, if you’re going to do that, patience is required. Instead of stressing position players, as the Cubs did, the Braves prioritized pitching. They wanted pitchers to be at the forefront of every trade and to have pitching lead each draft.

The results in the last 24 months have been positive. Atlanta’s farm system is now regarded as one of the top five in the game. But the criticism some levied against the Braves’ approach that it wasn’t a balanced approach now seems to be unwarranted.

Position players were acquired to create the core of the team for the next several years. Only Freddie Freeman remains from the ‘old’ Braves team inherited by Coppolella. Atlanta’s new general manager has signed Nick Markakis, Adonis Garcia, Tyler Flowers and traded for Jace Peterson, Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte and Matt Kemp.

The Braves need help at catcher, which is a priority this winter. They have Ozzie Albies scheduled to take over at second base soon. He is almost like the Cubs’ Baez for the Braves, as Albies was signed before the rebuilding process began.

A year ago many believed the Braves didn’t have enough position players for the future. The trade that brought over Swanson and Inciarte helped tremendously, as it gave Atlanta a potential face of the franchise (Swanson) and a solid young player (Inciarte).

Then the trade of Kemp in late-July changed everything. The one thing missing was power. There were not a lot of power hitting prospects in Atlanta’s system, but Kemp came in and changed the lineup. Then when Swanson joined Atlanta a few weeks later, the lineup was drastically changed.

Replacing a quarter of the starting lineup made a difference, as the Braves took off. After August 17, when Swanson joined Kemp, the team went 24-17 the rest of the way and 20-10 in their last 30 games.

Now the Braves must wait on the pitching they have accumulated to join the core of position players that could be in place for the next two years. But like the lineup took shape in late-2016, the rotation is getting close.

Julio Teheran is the ‘veteran’ ace. He’ll turn 26 in January. Mike Foltynewicz (25 years old), Matt Wisler (24) and Aaron Blair (24) need to be three others in the 2017 rotation. They must sign a few veterans to bridge the gap until the young pitching stars are ready, but it won’t take long for the first wave to arrive.

Chris Ellis, Sean Newcomb, Patrick Weigel, Lucas Sims and Max Fried are five young starting pitchers who could make their debut in 2017. Who knows what contribution any of these kids can make, but they are all close.

Then there is another group after that one, and then another. The plan is simple: accumulate as many starting pitchers as possible. Some will be kept. Some will not make it. Some will get hurt. And some will be traded.

It’s smart to stockpile pitchers for potential trades. There’s no better currency than pitchers, so when the Braves need to make additional moves, they’ll have plenty to offer in trades.

Let’s say the Braves take five years in the process to be a true contender for a World Series title. That would mean there are two years left before they can be taken seriously as a potential favorite to win it all.

Chances are the 2019 will be a bit different than even the 2017 roster, and the main thing will be experience. Players like Swanson and Albies and some of the young pitchers will no longer be kids, but instead young players with a few years under their belts. That matters.

The 2019 team should include Freeman at first, Albies at second, Swanson at short and Kemp should be at one of the corner outfield spots. We can assume either Inciarte or Mallex Smith will be in center field. So who will be the catcher, the third baseman and the other corner outfielder?

There does not look to be a catcher who will be ready in a few years. There are several long-term catching prospects, but 2019 might be asking too much for them to make it by then. So this is one position that the pitching excess could be used to improve.

Will Austin Riley be ready in two years to take over third base? He had a great season in Rome, but Riley turns 20 on April 2, so he’d only be 22 in 2019. Riley is a potential power hitter, so he’ll be developed carefully so he can be part of a future lineup.

Count me as one who believes Dustin Peterson might be a corner outfielder. He just finished a fine season in Double-A Mississippi and is now in the Arizona Fall League. Peterson could be ready sometime next season and push for playing time.

Other prospects could emerge in the next two years, and there may be a draft pick that makes an instant impact. But here’s the point: if there are positions that need improvement, the pitching can be used to bring in players from other organizations.

Plus, the Braves do have significant financial flexibility moving forward. We don’t know how much of an increase in payroll can be expected due to Sun Trust Park. But not having the team burdened with unreasonable contracts helps this process dramatically.

However, it’s the ability of these young pitching prospects to emerge that will be the key to Atlanta’s rebuild. If some of these young arms are special, then this rotation will be the core of the team.

If Foltynewicz becomes the 30-start, 200-inning pitcher the Braves expect, he could be a great compliment to Teheran. Then the hope is that either Wisler or Blair take that next step and become a reliable member of the Atlanta rotation. That’s three.

The group needs a lefty, and that’s where southpaws Newcomb and Fried come into the story. Both are close. Both could make their Atlanta debut in 2017. Both have very high ceilings. Newcomb has been compared to Lester, while Fried gets Cole Hamels comps with his stuff and build.

If these pitching prospects turn out to be as special as some project, Atlanta’s rotation could be very good. But the key is even if, in this scenario, Newcomb and Fried were to join the rotation, there would still be plenty of pitching prospects, legit pitching prospects, behind them.

Weigel is interesting. He was a college pitcher, and he got better as he was promoted from Rome to Mississippi this summer. Sims has been highly-regarded for a while, and the Braves are ready for him to emerge.

But where will some of the other Braves prospects be in two years? What about Max Povse, Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint, Kolby Allard, Ricardo Sanchez and the main four pitchers drafted this past June – Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz, Kyle Muller and Bryse Wilson? How heralded will they be in the 2018-2019 offeseason?

And if the rotation already is to include Teheran, Foltynewicz, Blair, Newcomb and Fried – as an example – then having those top pitching prospects behind them will be a tremendous luxury.

It is expected that Atlanta will add a veteran starting pitcher to compliment these young arms. It may happen this offseason, as the Braves need innings-eaters to fill the gap until the kids are ready. But at some point, a significant veteran starter will only help make this rotation stronger.

The quantity here equals the quality, and that’s what is important. If the Braves get a few of these kids to stick, then the others can be used in deals to help the team in other areas. That is what accumulation of prospects can create.

While the Braves’ strategy in the rebuilding process is different from the Cub’s plan, the desired end result is the same. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and the Braves seem to be on track to hopefully be in the conversation to do exactly what the Cubs did this past week.

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