For some, 2016 Spring Training marks the start of a brand new Major League Baseball season. For others, this time of year marks the height of the presidential primary elections. While many pontificate over who is best suited to lead the country, The Sports Fan Journal fam decided to take a look at which player, manager, or front office member is the best candidate to lead their team to the top of the baseball mountain.
Tanking. It’s a dirty, dirty, dirrrrrrrty word… in basketball. In baseball? Not so much, it seems.
Unlike the Philadelphia 76ers in recent seasons, what the Atlanta Braves are attempting to do is a bit easier to accept. In baseball, because players take years to develop into major leaguers even after they are drafted (with a handful of incredible exceptions), the fruits of a team’s labor are never realized in short order. The understanding is that the payoff comes either as part of the team’s future, or as a tradeable asset when a team is ready to contend. So to borrow from a child of the city, Cam Newton, tanking in baseball is more like slow-cooked grits. (And that undoubtedly means that the Sixers’ losing must taste like the instant variety.)
The Braves had devoted themselves to this path shortly after announcing their move to Cobb County, but it is one that has created champions and contenders in the past. It was “the Oriole Way” of the 1960s that made Baltimore the winningest team in the game from 1968-1985, and that inspired the Braves’ own record-setting string of success through the 90s and 2000s. Yet, even in this era, the teardown model has given rise to several current contenders in Chicago (Cubs), Houston along with the defending champion Kansas City Royals.
What makes this rebuild different from the aforementioned ones is that Atlanta pulled off an unprecedented coup, trading their best pitcher in 2015 (record notwithstanding) in Shelby Miller and minor league arm Gabe Speier for outfielder Ender Inciarte and two minor leaguers. One of those minor leaguers is Aaron Blair, a highly-regarded hurler who could become a workhorse in the starting rotation at some point this year. Yet, what raised eyebrows the furthest was prying Dansby Swanson – the top pick in last June’s MLB Draft and former Vanderbilt Commodore who was the MVP of the 2014 College World Series – out of the desert just months after he had arrived there.
Swanson isn’t expected to come to the major league club until 2017, so why is he such a player of intrigue? Because from most accounts, he has the makeup to be no less than the next Chipper Jones: a highly-touted shortstop whose throwing range and athleticism compelled the team to move him to third base, where the future Hall of Famer entrenched himself as the cornerstone of the franchise for nearly two decades.
Yet, it is incredibly unfair to peg anyone the next coming of the best infielder in franchise history, especially considering Swanson is still shy of 100 plate appearances as professional. However, how Swanson performs in Rome, Mississippi and Gwinnett doesn’t only determine his own trajectory but also is a trigger to how a number of other recent additions to the Braves’ rebuild play out as well.
Hector Olivera was pressed into duty not long after being traded from the Dodgers’ minor league system in the summer and was supposed to have been Freddie Freeman’s protection in the lineup as well as manning third for a couple of seasons. Another July call-up, Adonis Garcia, actually pushed Olivera to left field with his unexpected pop at the hot corner. Though it appears that one or both Cuban nationals are keeping third base warm for Swanson – unless he isn’t switched to another position – they may also help the power-starved Bravos immediately with full seasons in Atlanta under their belts.
Yeah, about that other position. Well, he is a shortstop, but there’s a chance that he could either stay there or be moved to second base. The reason is that the Braves are high on Ozzie Albies, a switch-hitting contact hitter who has a plus-glove and arguably as good athleticism as Swanson. To trade baseball’s best defensive player, Andrelton Simmons, to Anaheim speaks volumes on what Atlanta feels it can get from either prospect. That both men are being tried at shortstop and second base in the minors means that the Braves want to see where both parts of a future double-play duo fit the best. The club also has big plans for their current inhabitant of second base, the slick gloved, 25-year-old Jace Peterson, which further could align Swanson’s push towards the hot corner.
If you’re a Braves fan, as much as you want the major league club to surprise you – and at the start of last season, they surprised the entire league with a fast start and a solid first month – there’s a strong chance that you’ll spend time obsessing over minor league reports like you can will the future to arrive early. Swanson’s acquisition aligns him as being positioned as the future cornerstone/poster boy for the organization; a Joe Mauer-like local presence that can be beloved by his fellow Georgians.
But what’s more, his ascent not only represents not only the new direction for the franchise by on field headed into 2017, but he also represents the futures of multiple players that you’ll see on the field in 2016, as opportunities are dealt out based on his imminently anticipated arrival.
Jason is the editor-in-chief here at TSFJ. In addition to a past life as a research analyst in advertising, television and online media, he spent seven seasons as the New York Beacon’s beat writer for the New York Giants. Jason has written for Yardbarker, Dime Magazine, Decider, Awful Announcing and The Week. He is also a member of his high school’s 4th period gym class floor hockey champions.
He shares more of his perspectives at jasonclinkscales.com.