Atlanta proving doubters wrong after offseason manipulations
By Mike Bauman
ATLANTA -- The Braves made major roster alterations in the offseason. Some people assumed that this meant the Atlanta club would fall off the face of the earth.
It is too early for a last laugh, but the Braves get at least an interim chuckle at this point. They have been competitive, and then some. After Wednesday night's 4-1 win over the Padres and 59 games into its season, Atlanta is two games out of first place in the National League East.
There is no question that the Braves still have some shortcomings in middle relief. They may have the last two innings covered with veterans Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli, but a rotating cast of characters has not yet nailed down the rest of the relief roles.
Still, here they are, just under .500 with more than two months of the schedule in the books. It may be true that they have been aided by the Mets coming back into our home planet's gravitational pull, and by the recent underachieving play of the Nationals. None of that, though, is the fault of the Braves.
Braves president of baseball operations John Hart made a decision after the 2014 season not to try to wring one more postseason appearance out of Atlanta's roster. The Braves had been a postseason team in 2012 and '13, but in '14, they finished sub-.500. Instead of standing pat, Hart made difficult decisions and restocked the organizational pitching depth in the upper Minor Leagues through trades. In doing so, Atlanta avoided staying with the same roster too long and losing players at the end of their contracts.
"The landscape is littered with train wrecks of clubs that tried to take one more run at the roses before they tried to take one step back to take two steps forward," Hart said.
The Braves had to part with some valued talent, including outfielders Justin Upton and Jason Heyward, and eventually, a dominant closer, Craig Kimbrel. But they added organizational depth and quality. In the Heyward trade, they received a young starter of the first rank, Shelby Miller. And Hart brought in some very useful veterans to help his club compete now.
Hart insisted on calling this process a "reset" rather than a rebuild. Based on the Braves' level of play so far this season, he can call it whatever he wants. It does appear much more competitive than a garden-variety rebuilding process.
This week, the Braves have won two out of the first three of a four-game series with the Padres, contenders in the NL West.
Wednesday night, the Braves received a nifty performance from Williams Perez who has a 1.80 ERA in his five Major League starts, and has yet to take a loss. Perez gave up no earned runs over seven innings, giving the bullpen a break and making possible Atlanta's victory.
"This guy's got some moxie, some composure and he doesn't rattle," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He makes pitches. That's tough to teach."
That's solidly in the tradition of successful Braves pitchers. But almost inevitably, it isn't always this straightforward. Atlanta's bullpen blew a lead Monday night and the Braves lost in extra innings. But they came back after being five runs down against James Shields on Tuesday night.
"Baseball is a funny, funny game," Gonzalez said. "We all know that. On Monday, we should have won that game. [Tuesday night] we had no business winning that game; we were down, 5-0, and we won that one.
"It's the battle of the guys. They just don't quit. They don't give at-bats away, they keep the line moving.
"This division's up for grabs right now. Everybody's really bunched up, at least three teams; us, the Nats and the Mets. It's fun, it really is. I love our club. We talked with John [Hart and assistant general manager John Coppolella], talking about adding pieces that could really help this club. And I'm really happy that they're thinking the same way we are.
"I think that our club is making them think that way. We don't give up. We fight, we battle. You've got to like that attitude. It's all good right now."
Maybe at some point, the talent level of the Nationals will fully assert itself and they will pull away in the NL East. But at the moment, no, the Braves don't look like they're rebuilding. They look like they're competing.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.