Bill Shanks

Pitching remains priority for Braves

Atlanta’s Matt Wisler pitches against the Chicago Cubs on Saturday.
Atlanta’s Matt Wisler pitches against the Chicago Cubs on Saturday. AP

At the end of the last decade, the Chicago Cubs had three straight winning seasons. That was unusual, as the always struggling Cubbies rarely had winning seasons. But then reality hit, and the Cubs fell back into their losing ways.

After the 2011 season, the Cubs hired Theo Epstein, the young whiz kid who had led the Boston Red Sox to two World Series championships as the general manager. Epstein instantly implemented a rebuilding project focusing on position players.

Epstein focused on position players in the draft. He got position players back in trades. He signed top international position players. He did everything possible to build the Cubs’ farm system with hitters.

And then, Epstein signed a few free agent pitchers. He got Jon Lester from Boston and John Lackey from St. Louis. He complemented his position players with a few more additions, like former Braves outfielder Jason Heyward.

Now, after five straight miserable seasons, Chicago is the best team in baseball. The Cubs took a huge step forward last season going from 73 wins in 2014 to 97 wins and a playoff appearance in 2015.

The Cubs stressed position players and added pitchers later. The Houston Astros took the same approach in getting back on track after a tough stretch. Of course, since those teams were bad, they had high draft picks for a number of years to get top talent available in the draft.

The Braves are where the Cubs were a few years ago — at the bottom. They are rebuilding, which is something that needs to be repeated over and over again until everyone clearly understands what is going on with this organization. It took the Cubs several years, and it’ll take the Braves several years, as well.

Since it worked the last time they had to rebuild, the Braves are going with pitching. That’s why they again stressed pitching in the amateur draft that concluded Saturday. Atlanta’s top three picks were pitchers, and six of the top seven picks were pitchers.

There was a panic in the fan base. Sure, the Braves are loaded with pitchers now. They desperately need more position players. The farm system does not have a long list of players ready to help in the next few years.

So why would the Braves again stress pitching? Well, this was not a great draft, and none of the position players were Bryce Harper-type prospects. The Braves were able to get a high school pitcher from New York named Ian Anderson, a 6-foot-3 right-hander Atlanta’s scouts have compared to Mike Mussina and Adam Wainwright.

With their next two picks, the Braves got two 6-5 left-handed high school pitchers — Joey Wentz with the 40th overall pick and Kyle Muller at pick 44. Both were considered first-round talents, practically giving the Braves three first-round pitchers.

That’s hard to pass up, especially when the team already has started down that road of stressing pitchers. And it’s not like the Braves were going to get a bat who would have helped in this weekend’s series against the Cubs. It’s not like they someone available who would have cracked the lineup on opening day in Sun Trust Park in April.

The Braves are going to get more position players. They will sign a bunch in three weeks when the international signing period begins. They’ll get more in trades, and don’t forget they’re likely to have a top draft pick again next June.

But since it worked back in the 1980s, when Stan Kasten, Bobby Cox and Paul Snyder rebuilt the team, it’s hard to blame Atlanta’s current front office for going with pitching. It will be interesting years from now to see which philosophy worked — the Cubs with their emphasis on position players or the Braves with their love of young pitching prospects.

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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