The Atlanta Braves front office has had some unquestioned wins in 2016. Coppolella and company did such a great job stockpiling talent, particularly highly-rated arms, that many rankings have them presently as the #1 minor league system in all of baseball, a far cry from where they were at the beginning of 2015. It certainly didn't hurt things to add prized international free agent SS Kevin Maitan to the organization. They were also able to obtain value from Bud Norris, Jhoulys Chacin, Lucas Harrell, Kelly Johnson, and Jason Grilli, players who had no future in Atlanta in exchange for some who might.
Unfortunately, those off-the-field victories haven't translated for the current on-the-field Braves, who presently sit at 41-70. They never really recovered from losing a franchise record 18 games in April and continue to suffer today from a severe lack of power up and down the lineup alongside a shaky starting rotation.
It has long been the stated goal of Atlanta's front office to have a competitive club in place by the time Sun Trust ballpark, the Braves' shiny new stadium, opens up in 2017. To do that, the Braves' brain trust is counting on two things: A couple of their impressive crop of young pitchers to break through, and plumbing the free agent market to plug perceived holes at third base, catcher, and potentially in the outfield. With 50 million dollars in expiring contracts coming off the books after this season and only Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis signed past 2017, the stage is set for the Braves to be big spenders this winter. The money is not the issue here; rather, it's the quality of the free agents-to-be.
The barren middle infield free agency class will almost certainly force the Braves' hand in bringing up one of Ozzie Albies or Dansby Swanson with a heavy dose (again) of Jace Peterson at the other position. After tearing up A and AA pitching, Albies hit an uninspiring .248/.307/.351 through 222 at bats at AAA Gwinnett. Albies is still quite young at 19, so there is no reason to think that he won't break through, but it might be a lot to ask of a kid who will have just turned 20 in 2017 to become the Braves' lead-off man.
More likely, they'll turn to Swanson, the #1 pick in the 2015 draft with whom the Diamondbacks parted in the Shelby Miller trade. Swanson is the (slightly) older of the two and has a more polished skillset as a result of his college experience. It's always got to be a little nail biting for a GM to hand over a starting job to a rookie no matter how touted they are, much like a nervous parent handing over car keys to their straight A student for the first time. You believe they have all the tools to succeed but you just don't know what's going to happen until they get behind the wheel. Of course, they could surprise us all and go with recently-acquired Travis Demeritte if they decide to ignore his contact issues in favor of his power.
If they've grown tired of Adonis Garcia at third base (which seems likely), they will probably turn to the free agent market where Martin Prado and Justin Turner are the top options. It should be noted that the Braves do have a couple of interesting third base prospects in Rio Ruiz and Austin Riley, but it is hard to envision the Braves putting all of these rookies in the infield at one time.
Do they opt for an opted-out Yoenis Cespedes or Mark Trumbo to play in right field, forcing Markakis to ride the pine as a semi-expensive fourth outfielder? It would certainly help bolster their middle of the lineup, but with Matt Kemp in the other corner, would the Braves be comfortable banking on Inciarte or Mallex Smith to cover all of the inevitable space between?
It is all but certain they will be springing for a catcher, with Wilson Ramos and Matt Wieters being the most tantalizing choices that we know will be available at the moment.
Armed with an idea of what they need, let's take a wildly speculative stab at a 2017 Braves lineup to open Sun Trust Park:
1. Nick Markakis RF
2. Ender Inciarte CF
3. Freddie Freeman 1B
4. Brian McCann C*
5. Matt Kemp LF
6. Martin Prado 3B**
7. Dansby Swanson SS
8. Jace Peterson 2B
9. Pitcher du jour
* via trade
** via free agency
I can see the Braves opting to go on ye olde nostalgia tour with a couple of familiar faces in Prado and McCann, but nostalgia lasts only so long when the wins aren't there alongside it. That's not a particularly good lineup, but then, it's not a particularly good free agent crop in 2017, is it?
Counting on the rotation to be good proffers its own unsavory blend of wishful thinking and luck of the draw. You have Julio Teherán as an effective anchor, true, but things have been choppy after him for those who have been given a chance.
Matt Wisler put up a 5.16 ERA/4.97 FIP in 122 innings before his demotion. Tyrell Jenkins, called up in the wake of Wisler being sent down, has a 4.33 ERA/6.50 FIP with an unsightly 6.11 BB/9 through nine starts. Aaron Blair has looked good in AAA, but it hasn't translated yet to the majors, where he owns a ghastly 7.99 ERA/5.99 FIP over 11 starts. Mike Foltynewicz was beset by illness in late 2015 and spent some time earlier this season on the DL with bone spurs in his elbow but has perhaps been the most effective of the group, pitching to a 4.37 ERA/4.68 FIP thus far.
Some of the other pitchers waiting in the wings include this year's third overall pick Ian Anderson, Touki Toussaint, and a couple arms featured in BP's top 101 prospects of 2016, Sean Newcomb (No. 32) and Kolby Allard (No. 82), all looming in the minors eager to show what they've got. Chances are good that one or two of them will hit but the rest will not, so it would be wise of the Braves to part with a couple of the kids in exchange for an impact bat. Who is available on that front remains to be seen.
The future seems bright given the large amount of talent that the Braves have amassed over the course of the last couple years, but I think it's more than fair to doubt that most of it will be ready at the beginning of next season to be meaningful contributors to the next good Atlanta squad. With 2017 looking more and more like a pipe dream, Braves fans may begin to start looking beyond to 2018 for hope of a glorious rebirth.
Thomas Bennett is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. He also is an Editor at Fish Stripes and co-host of the Fish Bites podcast. You can follow him on twitter @ThomasManyNames.