A rebuilding process is always better when a timetable is not attached to it. The pressure to win is palatable, especially when a team has sold its fan base a bill of goods about how they are going to be better later rather than sooner.
This is season four of the Braves’ rebuild. The last time they did this, in the late-1980s, they didn’t win until year six. That season started a historic streak of 14 straight division titles from 1991 through 2005, which included a World Series victory in 1995.
So, what did the Braves do in year four of that rebuild? That team went 63-97. That season the Braves had Derek Lilliquist make his debut, Ron Gant get sent down to Low-A and Zane Smith get traded. It was another year the front office told fans, “Be patient. We’re getting there.”
They did two years later. Perhaps that’s the same timetable this Braves team is on. Maybe it will take a little more time to get to that next step. But that next step should simply be to get better, to improve from the 72-90 record from a year ago.
There is no reason for the new front office to come out and demand a certain record, or to even expect this team gets over the .500 mark. If certain areas of this team get better, that 72-win record will improve and get closer to the 81-81 record.
How could we complain if this team, still young and still adding players, had a .500 record?
Think about this. The Braves need nine more wins from last year to get to that record, so let’s say they average 1.5 more wins per month, over the six-month season, to get to the breakeven point.
Is that possible, with a roster that will evolve weekly? Yes, it is. And here are 10 things that must happen for the Braves to get better and have a non-losing record in 2018.
1 – Improvement in the rotation
Last year’s rotation had an ERA of 4.80 – the ninth-worst in baseball. But R.A. Dickey, Jaime Garcia and Bartolo Colon (who combined for a 16-25 record and a 4.94 ERA in 366 innings) are gone. That combined record was nine games under .500, which in itself kept the Braves from being a .500 team last year.
Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz had great springs. Sean Newcomb may have been the biggest surprise. And if Luiz Gohara gets healthy and makes more than the five starts he made last season, and if rookie Mike Soroka comes up and does well, the rotation will be better.
2 – Improvement in the bullpen
There is concern for the middle relief, but the top end of the pen should be better. First, Jim Johnson (5.56 ERA) and Ian Krol (5.33 ERA) are gone. That should help a bullpen ERA that was 4.58 last season, fifth-worst in baseball.
The key here is A.J. Minter. If he can stay healthy, the Braves could have a dominant closer. He could take over for Arodys Vizcaino at some point. Sam Freeman, Jose Ramirez and Peter Moylan could be solid, but it’s the final two or three bullpen spots that could be a worry.
3 – Improvement at the top of the order
Ender Inciarte had 201 hits last season, so the Braves need a repeat of that production. But if Ozzie Albies, who had a great spring, can be a second ignitor in the offense in the two hole, the Braves will set up for the middle of the order to knock in a lot of runs. The Braves love Albies, and they have reason to with his enthusiasm and his Jose Altuve-like talent.
4 – Improvement in left field
Matt Kemp was horrible last year at the plate and in the field. In mid-April, Ronald Acuna will come up and, even at 20 years old, be an instant upgrade. The defensive improvement alone could make a huge difference, particularly for the young pitchers. But what if Acuna also provides power in the lineup?
5 – Need more production from third base
Last year’s third basemen for Atlanta hit a combined .242 with 16 home runs and 75 RBI. Players who started almost half of those games are now gone. The Braves will rely on Johan Camargo, who will miss the first six games with an injury, to put up better numbers. Behind him is 21-year-old Austin Riley, who could be up in midseason and provide an instant power bat.
6 – Dansby Swanson must be better
If Swanson hits .232 again, the Braves could be in trouble. They still believe in Swanson, but with Camargo hanging around the pressure is on Swanson to do well or maybe lose his job.
7 – Keep Freddie Freeman healthy
Freeman is Atlanta’s best player. He missed 45 games last season and it did not help matters. The Braves need him to play 150-plus games, especially with the need for power.
8 – The prospects must have a major impact
Remember the 2005 season, the Baby Braves? That group may have nothing on this year’s youngsters. Acuna will be a favorite to be the Rookie of the Year, and the Braves expect Soroka to be up in June. Soroka may be the first of a few starting pitchers who could make a difference. And what if Riley takes over at third base and shines?
9 – Cohesion between the front office and the manager
New general manager Alex Anthopoulos inherits manager Brian Snitker, and the relationship is off to a good start. But like everyone else, Snitker is being evaluated. He has accepted the new analytics Anthopoulos’ team has provided, and that itself could create a few more wins.
10 – Do better against the division opponents
The Braves were 33-43 last season versus the National League East opponents, including a lousy 6-13 record against the last place Phillies. Flip-flop that record and the Braves will have a winning season.
PREDICTION: 81-81. The Braves will get to the .500 mark. Some weeks we may think they are good, and then they’ll fall back and look like they have the last three seasons. This year might drive us crazy, but the debuts of the kids will make this a fun season at SunTrust Park.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-7 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 email@example.com.