MLB.com Columnist

Paul Hagen

Braves improving sooner rather than later

Braves improving sooner rather than later

WASHINGTON -- It was hard to know quite what to make of the Braves coming into this season. General manager John Hart hit the reset button, stripping the roster of many familiar names.

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Jason Heyward. Evan Gattis. Both Uptons, Justin and Melvin. And, on the eve of the regular season, almost-automatic closer Craig Kimbrel. Even some of those who work at 755 Hank Aaron Drive weren't quite sure how this would all play out.

"I think we felt that we could fight each night. I think we felt that if we pitch every night and that we could be in games. I don't think there was any kind of expectation that we would be a team that would lose and lose," said assistant general manager John Coppolella. "At the same time, we weren't exactly a pick to win the whole thing, either."

What's happened so far has been one of the better, more underrated stories in baseball. Despite a 2-1, 11-inning loss to the first-place Nationals on Wednesday night at Nationals Park, the Braves still lurk just four games behind the leaders in the National League East.

Which means that even though everyone knows it's silly to talk about crucial games this early in the season, Atlanta is in the early stages of a nine-game stretch that's starting to look pretty doggone important.

One more road game against the Nats after dropping two close decisions.

Then to Pittsburgh to play a Pirates team boasting the league's second-best record.

Then back to Turner Field for a rematch against Washington.

Yes, it's true that wins in April count as much as wins in June count as much as wins in September. And, yes, it's true that when these nine games are entered in the ledger there will still be more than half a season left to play. Still, it's hard not to get the sense that what happens during this midseason mini-gauntlet could go a long way toward determining how Hart & Co. play their hand leading up to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.

"We're trying to walk a parallel walk to what we've walked all season," Coppolella said. "One is that we're going to try to build a team that can compete this year. And then, two, is that we're going to constantly build for the future. I think you saw with the moves we've already made, there's one eye on the present and two eyes on the future."

In the meantime, many of the deals that left may have outsiders dubious in the beginning have already paid dividends.

Look no further than Wednesday night's lineup. The starting pitcher was Shelby Miller, who came from the Cardinals for Heyward. Miller didn't get a decision, but he lowered his ERA to 1.94. He's allowed two or fewer earned runs in 13 of his 15 starts.

Peterson's go-ahead knock in 8th

Second baseman Jace Peterson, who came from the Padres in the Justin Upton deal, has taken over as the regular leadoff hitter. Cameron Maybin has established himself as the two-hole hitter after coming from San Diego in a separate deal, the one that cost Kimbrel and Melvin Upton Jr.

As splendidly as that's all worked out, the hidden beauty of the situation for Atlanta is that Peterson and Maybin weren't even the must-have players in their respective deals.

Top Prospects: Fried, ATL

For Justin Upton, the Braves' priority was getting left-hander Max Fried, considered a future ace even though he's currently recovering from Tommy John surgery. Next was probably speedy Mallex Smith, who was promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett on Wednesday after tearing up the Double-A Southern League, batting .340 for Mississippi in 57 games.

For Kimbrel, the key was getting right-hander Matt Wisler, who made his Major League debut last Friday against the Mets and allowed just one run on six hits in eight innings. The Braves also added payroll flexibility by offloading Melvin Upton's salary.

Which is why manager Fredi Gonzalez smiled Wednesday when asked if he was pleased with the way the flurry of offseason moves had worked out.

"No, not yet, because we've still got a couple guys in the Minor Leagues who are still kind of lingering around -- Fried, Mallex Smith," said Gonzalez. "So there are more guys who are still coming."

The Braves weren't terrible in 2014. They finished second in the division, but they only won 79 games and decided to shake things up. Now, seven of their top 11 prospects, as ranked by MLB.com, weren't in the organization at the end of last season.

The upcoming games against the Nationals and Pirates will help the Braves measure how far they've come so far. What's becoming clear, though, is that they have a legitimate shot at getting a whole lot better a whole lot sooner than many would have suspected even a few months ago.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.