MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Braves rebuilding faster than expected

Stockpile of elite prospects should soon begin arriving in Atlanta

Braves rebuilding faster than expected

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Atlanta Braves have seen everything they hoped to see this Spring Training. To sum up: the kids can play.

"Our optimism is about as high as it can be," general manager John Coppolella said. "I've been here 10 years, and this is the best caliber of talent we've had."

Here's the money quote:

"A lot of these guys aren't that far away -- great makeup, great tools. They're going to be part of our next World Series team."

Yes, that. In the second half of the 2014 season, Braves president John Schuerholz did about the toughest thing a competitive person can do.

Spring: Tickets | Ballpark | 40-man roster | NRIs

Schuerholz took a tough-love look at his organization and saw too much payroll and too little Minor League talent. He believed the Braves had to take a step back before they could move forward again.

This was a watershed moment for one of the most successful sports franchises of the past quarter century, one that made 17 playoff appearances in 23 seasons between 1991-2013. Schuerholz overhauled his baseball operations department, making John Hart president and Coppolella general manager.

In 18 months since, Atlanta's organization has been remade amid a whirlwind string of trades designed to replenish the farm system.

Braves' Top 30 Prospects

"The job these guys have done has been nothing short of remarkable," Schuerholz said. "I never expected it to happen this fast."

This spring was the first chance to see the next generation of Braves in uniform. And they're impressive. Among the names to remember: shortstops Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies, pitchers Sean Newcomb, Aaron Blair and Kolby Allard, outfielder Mallex Smith, third baseman Austin Riley. Atlanta landed five prospects on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list, beginning with Swanson at No. 8, along with Newcomb (21), Albies (29), Blair (56) and Allard (89).

MLB Tonight: Braves prospects

The Braves believe the kids will begin arriving in the big leagues this season, and that by the time they open SunTrust Park next year, the lineup will be dotted with youth.

"I think it's exciting for our fans in this final season at Turner Field," Coppolella said. "As we build this great team and we head to the World Series, you can say you were there when Dansby Swanson made his big league debut. Or Ozzie Albies or Aaron Blair or Mallex Smith or [pitcher] Tyrell Jenkins. That's what's fun."

As for a timetable, Coppolella said, "We aren't going to play service-time games. We aren't going to hold guys back for an extra year, this or that. We're going to let the players tell us when it's time. It wouldn't be fair to our fans to hold players back.

"In 2010, Jason Heyward made our team out of Spring Training as a 20-year-old. He had two game-winning hits the first month of the season, and we won [an NL] Wild Card [berth] by one game [over the Padres]. If we don't have Jason Heyward, maybe we don't make the playoffs. It's going to be about the players. Whenever the player's ready, that's when we're going to make the call."

Swanson is the cornerstone to the process, arriving in a deal with Arizona for pitcher Shelby Miller this past offseason. Beyond being the overall No. 1 pick of the 2015 Draft, he is a local kid, having grown up in Marietta, Ga., and played at Vanderbilt. To say the Braves have been impressed is an understatement.

"He's just tremendous," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "Off-the-charts makeup. Great makeup. Great character. Great work ethic. Solid baseball mind."

Gonzalez said his coaches had a nearly daily debate about which player -- Swanson or Albies -- would play shortstop longterm and which one would move to another position.

"We'd watched one of them play and say, 'That's definitely the guy,'" Gonzalez said. "Then the next day, we'd watch the other and say, 'No, that's the guy.' It has been so much fun to watch them run around out there. It has energized all of us, because we're so excited about what's ahead."

Swanson, Newcomb on rebuild

During one of those coaching-room debates, Hall of Famer Bobby Cox threw in his two cents.

"Bobby said that if we had a different team -- if we had Tommy Glavine and Chipper Jones and John Smoltz and those guys -- he'd let one of the young guys play shortstop right now," Gonzalez said.

Cox's name comes up a lot around the Braves these days. In 1986, he took over as general manager for four years and installed the blueprint that served the franchise so well. Schuerholz came in as general manager when Cox became the manager in 1990, and the foundation for a great run was in place.

In 1994, Schuerholz hired a young scout named Dayton Moore, who rose through the ranks, and in 2006, was hired to be general manager of the Kansas City Royals. He built an Atlanta model there, the one that has gotten the Royals to the World Series the past two seasons.

Now, the Braves are hoping to copy what the Royals did. That is, they're hoping to copy the Royals the way Kansas City once copied Atlanta.

"We got away from the Braves Way," Coppolella said. "That's what we're getting back to. The Royals, all those guys played together in the Minors. They got to know each other and count on each other. That's part of what we're trying to build here.

"You look at the Royals last season, when they were six outs from being knocked out of the playoffs by the Astros. They had unselfish at-bats. They weren't playing for themselves. They were playing for each other. These are the guys you've played with forever. There's such trust there. We're trying to build something like that."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.