Gil in Mechanicsville, VA
The lights have finally been turned off at Turner Field but not before the 2016 Atlanta Braves team put a final exclamation point on their wayward 2016 season. Yes, the Braves lost a total of 93 games this season but it is the trajectory of the team which gives hope for the future.
Perhaps we should take just a bit more stock in spring training games as a precursor as to what can be expected of a team’s fortune for the upcoming season. No, I don’t mean a winning record in the respective Grapefruit and Cactus leagues guarantees a World Series berth but it sure has portended the abysmal seasons for the Braves the last two years.
This year’s version of the team lost game after game in Florida and that same losing attitude prevailed for two months, dooming the team of any chance of having a respectable record. The Braves began the season on a pace to lose 116 games. Of course no one really expected Fredi Gonzalez to win a World Series with the collection of misfits he had been saddle with but the team took on a persona of losing. Everyone expected them to lose so lose they did. Even on TV, this team exuded defeat. They were simply playing out the string and it was only April.
When Fredi was released and Brian Snitker was promoted to take his place, no one really expected a big change, after all, he still had the same bunch of players who were going through the motions. The Braves were still woefully short on pitching, even while trading every retread they had rehabilitated for another young long term minor leaguer. Add the fact that Eric Aybar made fans pine for the since traded Andrelton Simmons with Aybar’s deer in the headlights attitude at both the plate and afield. It made fans wonder what John Coppoletta was smoking when he traded away Simba to the Angles.
But something changed, not all at once but the team played a little harder and with more moxie. Youngsters like Mallex Smith brought a spark and Freddie Freeman snapped out of his funk. Ender Inciarte came back from a stint on the DL and the team started playing teams tough. They were still losing but they were playing better and they were in most games right to the end.
The Braves were still playing mix and match with their starting staff and the bullpen had a shuttle service going between the Ted and Cool Ray. Sixteen different pitchers started games for the Braves this season. The bullpen was a disaster in search of a train wreck.
But things slowly but surely began to change. Matt Kemp was acquired from the Padres in exchange for persona non grata, Hector Olivera. No one in baseball really gave the trade much notice. The Padres were reducing their liability by sending Kemp off to the East coast. The saber-metric crowd gave a huge ho-hum to the deal as Kemp was thought to be an overpaid has been. Funny how one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. With Kemp in the line-up to protect Freeman, Mr Hugs took off. The entire line up started hitting. The defense was making plays, running into walls, diving for balls, throwing players out at the plate and generally playing like their hair was on fire.
The team started playing like they could not lose. A lot of teams 30 games out of first would just pack it in and make plans for October which did not include baseball but the Braves didn’t. If you did not know the Braves record, you would have thought they were the team playing to be in the play-offs and planned to be in the Fall Classic.
So what do we have to look forward to? The Braves are on the precipice of greatness again. Years when only one spot might be available when spring training begins. Back to the Braves way when one rookie was added to the team to break in slowly to the team loaded with talent. Now talent… Maybe this team is not yet blessed with the same level of talent as some other top tier programs but they do have something else, heart. As it stands now, I can hardly wait for spring training to begin.