ATLANTA (AP) — This was not unexpected. Not after the Atlanta Braves traded away just about anyone with a major league pulse.
Then again, it’s a bit jarring to see a perennial playoff contender, a team that won the NL East just two years ago, sitting near the bottom of the standings and on pace for its worst season since 1990.
With about five weeks to go in a lost season, the Braves (54-73) have dropped 31 of 43 games and are used to playing before sparse crowds at Turner Field. A three-game series against the last-place Rockies this week failed to attract an announced turnout of even 20,000, though things should pick up this weekend when the New York Yankees visit Atlanta.
“I’ve never been in this situation before,” said outfielder Nick Swisher, recently acquired from Cleveland in what was just the latest in a dizzying array of trades. “But this is kind of where we are as an organization, and everyone knows it.”
The Braves made that clear last winter when they began dealing away their most valuable assets, all with an eye toward building another contending team by the time they move into a new suburban stadium in 2017.
Jason Heyward went to St. Louis. Evan Gattis was traded to Houston. Justin Upton wound up in San Diego. About 24 hours before opening day, the Braves made another blockbuster deal with the Padres, giving up All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton Jr.
Even with all those moves, which brought in few major leaguers and largely helped re-stock a depleted farm system, the Braves approached the All-Star break with a .500 record and some thoughts of improbably contending for a playoff spot.
Then closer Jason Grilli went down with a season-ending injury at Colorado. The Braves wound up being swept in a four-game series by the lowly Rockies.
With that, general manager John Hart raised the white flag and put everyone with a bit of value on the market. Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson were dealt to the NL East rival New York Mets. Alex Wood, Jim Johnson and Luis Avilan were shipped to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In return, the Braves got nothing but prospects and some financial relief.
“We had a real competitive team,” manager Fredi Gonzales recalled. “We could have gone out and gotten some more pieces and kind of kept it together. But I really commend the front office for keeping the goal in mind. We’ve still got to build. That’s the goal at the end.”
After the deadline for making non-waiver trades, Hart completed his season-long quest to dump third baseman Chris Johnson in a deal that left little doubt the Braves are far more concerned with 2017 than they are this season or next.
Swisher and Michael Bourn were acquired from the Cleveland Indians, along with about $15 million that will help offset the $29 million they are owed next season. Just as important, the Braves rid themselves of Johnson’s unwanted contract, which could pay him up to $26.5 million over the next three seasons. Swisher and Bourn should be off the books after 2016, while Johnson’s deal runs at least through 2017 (with a $10 million team option and $1 million buyout for 2018).
In the meantime, a lot of players are getting on-the-job training.
No one in the starting rotation is older than 24 years old. That includes three rookies — Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz and Williams Perez — who all could’ve used a bit more seasoning in the minor leagues but didn’t have that luxury.
“They’re learning on the fly,” Swisher said. “These guys have the talent to be up here, but they’re going through a little bit of growing pains right now. They’ll figure it out and come out on the other side, for sure.”
The Braves have gone through a staggering amount of turnover this season. Just nine players who were with the team on opening day have been in Atlanta the entire season. The bullpen has gone through two or three total overhauls. In all, 56 players have worn a Braves uniform in 2015.
At least the front office has shown confidence in Gonzalez, whose contract has already been extended through next season along with his entire coaching staff.
Check back again in 2017.
“Once we get everybody in this room going in the right direction,” Swisher vowed, “a lot of great things are going to happen around here.”