Braves’ future looks a lot brighter than present

Braves general manager John Coppolella and I were discussing the team’s brutal start and Fredi Gonzalez’s job status and other matters Friday when the GM reiterated that, as disappointed and upset as everyone is over the major league team’s performance, it doesn’t change the front-office view of the big picture.

Entering Tuesday's game against the Phillies, Matt Wisler has a 2.70 ERA and .198 opponents’ average in his past 12 games including 10 starts. (Getty Images)

Entering Tuesday’s game against the Phillies, Matt Wisler has a 2.70 ERA and .198 opponents’ average in his past 12 games including 10 starts. (Getty Images)

That is, the Braves believe their rebuild was necessary to build a long-term sustainable contender, rather than continuing to try to plug holes each winter and try to field a competitive team.

(He didn’t say this, but it’s pretty obvious: You can’t be a serious contender doing it that way when the purse strings are as tight as Liberty ownership has made them for the Braves in recent years. When Ted Turner was the sugar-daddy owner and the Braves were a top-five payroll team, yes, they could buy a couple of free agents and trade for a couple high-priced players, add them to a solid farm system and, voila, annual division titles. But not when your team has sunk to bottom-five payroll level, where the Braves are at least until they move into the new ballpark, at which point they say the payroll will rise significantly.)

But getting back to our discussion. The Braves (7-23 overall and 1-15 at home entering Tuesday) are worse than almost anyone could have imagined, but most industry insiders agree no manager could have been expected to have much success with the Braves roster in the first month, against what was statistically the toughest schedule in the major leagues and against some of the toughest starting pitchers in the majors.

The front office didn’t want this start, and they certainly weren’t “tanking” in hopes of getting the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft, not when the Braves are trying to draw respectable crowds in the final season at Turner Field while pushing season tickets – many at significantly higher prices – for the first season in their new ballpark.

“Tanking” a season in order to get the No. 1 pick in the baseball draft would be a really bad business model, but that doesn’t stop many fans and some media members from insisting or speculating that was the Braves’ objective. I can only assume those folks haven’t thought this thing through.

Besides, losing at a record pace is hardly what Coppolella envisioned in his first season as general manager. He told president John Schuerholz and others that the Braves would be better, and he believed it.

They’re not, at least not so far. Not even close. But that doesn’t change the big picture, and on that Coppolella and the Braves do have reason to keep the faith. Of the inventory of trades they made, most did nothing to help the present team coming out of the gate, but many brought back prospects who could help the Braves for most of the first decade in the new ballpark.

And several could even help this season, as Mallex Smith and pitchers Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair are doing already.

“We’ve been honest with the fans about everything that we’ve tried to do,” said Coppolella, who, along with his boss, president of baseball operations John Hart, have become polarizing figures among Braves fans, some of whom fully understand and approve of the rebuild, others who believe they were misled about how long it would take for the Braves to become good again.

“We said we’d try to put a better team on the field (in 2016); that remains to be seen. We said we’re going to build around young players. We’ve already brought up Blair, (Mike) Foltynewicz and Mallex. We’ve got Ozzie Albies, Rio Ruiz, Dansby Swanson, Lucas Sims, Tyrell Jenkins on approach. They’re all real close. They could be called up at any point this season.”

We were talking Friday some seven hours before the Braves faced Arizona and Shelby Miller, who had his best start of the season that night, but is still just 1-3 with a 7.36 ERA in seven starts, with a league-high 21 walks to 20 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings.

In return for Miller and minor league lefty Gabe Speier, the Braves got a bounty that might make the deal go down as the most one-sided trade of the decade: outfielder Ender Inciarte, top shortstop prospect Dansby Swanson (the No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 draft), and pitching prospect Aaron Blair, who has a 3.31 ERA in his first three major league starts for the Braves.

Miller had a career-best 3.02 ERA in his only season for the Braves in 2015, with 171 strikeouts in 205 1/3 innings. They got him along with starting-pitcher prospect Tyrell Jenkins from the Cardinals in a November 2014 trade for Jason Heyard, who was one year away from free agency, and reliever Jordan Walden.

Heyward played one season for the Cardinals before landing an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs. So far this season, he’s hit .212 with no homers and a .576 OPS in 27 games for the Cubs.

That trade might’ve brought the most big-time, long-term talent, but there were a couple of other trades that Coppolella and Hart made a year earlier, both with San Diego, that are also looking better by the day.

“What about the Justin Upton trade? How’s he doing?,” Coppolella said, referring to the December 2014 deal that sent Upton and minor league pitcher Aaron Northcraft to the Padres in exchange for the speedy Mallex Smith, top pitching prospect Max Fried, infield prospect Jace Peterson, who was the Braves’ primary second baseman in 2015, and third base/outfield prospect Dustin Peterson.

Fried, a 22-year-old lefty, missed most of the past two seasons recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery, and has a 5.93 ERA through six starts at low-A Rome, with 25 strikeouts and 15 walks in 27 1/3 innings. Dustin Peterson, 21, has hit .261 with three homers and a .341 OBP in 31 games at Double-A.

Upton became a free agent 11 months after the Braves traded him, and signed a six-year, $132.75 million deal with the Tigers that includes an opt-out clause in 2017 and has an average annual value of $22.125 million. He’s batting .228 with two homers, nine walks, a .592 OPS and a majors-leading 50 strikeouts in 123 at-bats.

“Mallex Smith leads all center fielders in defensive runs saved,” Coppolella said. “He hasn’t even played the whole time, and that’s a stat that builds up by playing a lot. He’s a good player. Max Fried was up to 97 the other day, he’s got a strikeout an inning and 2-to-1 groundballs/flyballs. Dustin Peterson is (21) and playing well at Double-A….

“Dave, we’re going to be really good. My hope, and I don’t know whether or not it’s going to happen, is that Fredi is here to see it. I don’t know that he will be, I don’t know that he won’t be. I want him to succeed. I care about the man personally.”

Coppolella didn’t mention the other trade with San Diego, one that was hurriedly consummated on the eve of 2015 Opening Day after the Padres reconsidered and decided that, yes, they’d take on B.J. Upton’s contract if the Braves would give them closer Craig Kimbrel. Remember, this was after an offseason in which Padres GM A.J. Preller had already traded away a bunch of the organization’s other top prospects in order to go all-in and make a postseason run, so he figured that dealing for a top closer made a lot of sense.

The Braves sent them Kimbrel and Melvin (B.J.) Upton and got back starting-pitcher prospect Matt Wisler, minor league outfielder Jordan Paroubeck, center fielder Cameron Maybin, aging outfielder Carlos Quentin, who ended up retiring, and a competitive balance Round-A pick, which the Braves used to select Austin Riley, who’s now the top power-hitting prospect in their organization.

Maybin hit .267 with a career-high 10 homers and 23 stolen bases in his only season with the Braves in 2015 before being traded to Detroit, a year away from free agency.

Meanwhile, all Wisler has done is become arguably the best pitcher in the Braves rotation, and if not the best then certainly a close second to Julio Teheran.

Wisler, who starts tonight against the Phillies, has a 4.36 ERA in 26 games (24 starts) since breaking in with the Braves last summer. And after enduring a seven-start stretch through Sept. 3 in which he was 0-5 with a 9.49 ERA and a .357 opponents’ average in seven starts,  Wisler has a 2.70 ERA and .198 opponents’ average in his past 12 games (10 starts), including eight shutout innings of one-hit ball last Tuesday against the slugging Mets in New York.

Let’s close with this one from the late, great Keith Whitley. Monday was the 27th anniversary of Whitley’s death.

“I’VE DONE EVERYTHING HANK DID BUT DIE” by Keith Whitley

Keith Whitley

Keith Whitley

I’ve done everything Hank did but die
And it ain’t because I did not try
Sometimes it amazes me
That I got out alive
Cause I’ve done everything Hank did but die

Well Hank was my hero
Since I was a kid
And I grew up reliving
All the crazy things he did
Whiskey drinkin’ honky-tonk singin’
Stayin’ up all night
Livin’ hard and dyin’ young was just a way of life

I’ve done everything Hank did but die
And it ain’t because I did not try
Sometimes it amazes me
That I got out alive
Cause I’ve done everything Hank did but die

I didn’t know how dangerous
That lost highway could be
Til one too many whiskey binges
Brought me to my knees
I saw the light that very night
Old Hank is still the king
But I found out that I don’t have to kill myself to sing

I’ve done everything Hank did but die
And it ain’t because I did not try
Sometimes it amazes me
That I got out alive
Cause I’ve done everything Hank did but die
Sometimes it amazes me
That I got out alive
Cause I’ve done everything Hank did but die