Atlanta Braves: Was Their Strong 2016 Finish For Real?

The Atlanta Braves were one of baseball’s hottest teams over the final month, but does that portend a winning 2017 to come?

The Atlanta Braves woke up on the morning of Sunday, August 21 with a big headache. Perhaps for some, it came from a lot of Saturday night partying.

But for the majority of the Braves players, management, and their fan base that headache came from the team’s record on the field.

As of that Sunday morning the Braves had lost their last seven straight games, nine of their previous 10, and were sitting with a 44-79 record that was baseball’s worst.

To make matters somewhat worse, the Braves were trying to celebrate their final year at Turner Field after 20 seasons.

“The Ted” was closing down at the end of the year, with the club on schedule to move into new Sun Trust Park in the Atlanta suburbs for the 2017 season.

The Braves were 0-5 as they closed a homestand that day with a game against the NL East rival Washington Nationals.

With two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the 10th inning of a 6-6 tie, second baseman Jace Peterson worked the count full against always tough Nats reliever Shawn Kelley.

Peterson then blasted a solo home run, his seventh of the season, deep into the right field stands. The walkoff homer put an end to the losing streak, but what it would prove to have started could have never been seen at that point.

The Braves would somehow turn their entire season around from that point onwards, finishing with a 24-14 kick beginning with that Sunday afternoon walkoff.

Was the strong finish simply a team with nothing to lose playing more relaxed baseball and taking advantage of some others who might have packed it in early?

Or was that last month or so of winning baseball a portent of things to come?

Can Braves fans expect that the first season at Sun Trust Park will also be the beginning of a new era of winning baseball in Atlanta?

There is evidence to suggest that this could very well be the beginning of a very real turnaround in fortunes for the franchise.

Perhaps the single biggest factor in the club’s improvement came with the August 17th promotion from the minors of shortstop Dansby Swanson.

Swanson was the 1st overall pick in the 2015 MLB Amateur Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, coming to Atlanta in a December trade.

He was sent to Atlanta along with pitcher Aaron Blair and outfielder Ender Inciarte in exchange for starting pitcher Shelby Miller and a lower level minor leaguer.

It could turn out to be a franchise-altering deal. Miller struggled mightily in Arizona. Meanwhile, Swanson helped turn the Braves around almost immediately.

From his call-up to the end of the season, Swanson hit for a .302/.361/.442 slash line with 17 RBI and 20 runs scored in 145 plate appearances over 38 games.

A second major factor in the turnaround was the trade deadline deal with the San Diego Padres that brought in veteran outfielder Matt Kemp.

The former All-Star and Gold Glover hit for a .280/.336/.519 slash with 12 homers, 39 RBI, and 35 runs scored in 241 plate appearances over the final 56 games.

The addition of both Kemp and Swanson to the Braves lineup was fundamental. It completely changed their dynamic from a weak, shorthanded bunch to a far more versatile, productive, and professional attack.

Another factor in the end of season success was the personal turnaround of third baseman Adonis Garcia. The Cuban import hit for a .303/.342/.466 slash line with nine homers, 43 RBI, and 45 runs scored after the 4th of July.

First baseman Freddie Freeman is a legitimate NL MVP candidate going forward. He just turned 27 years old in September.

Signed through the 2021 season, Freeman will the be the team leader in Atlanta as the club advances, both in the lineup and in the clubhouse.

The leader of the pitching rotation at this point is Julio Teheran, who will only turn 26 years old in January.

Over 30 starts, Teheran allowed just 157 hits over 188 innings with a 167/41 K:BB ratio.

Reliever Mauricio Cabrera maintains rookie eligibility for next season, and could find himself in the 2017 NL Rookie of the Year conversation.

Having turned just 23 years old at the end of September, Cabrera was called up in late June. Over 41 games he allowed just 31 hits in 38.1 innings with 32 strikeouts, recording a half-dozen Saves.

A big key for the team improving in the standings next year could be a pair of righty starting pitchers, Blair and Matt Wisler.

The two are each 24 years old, and received a combined 41 starts in 2016. Both were extremely inconsistent, but remain young and talented.

There should be more help coming next season from the minor leagues. The club’s top pitching prospect, lefty Sean Newcomb, is a big 6’5″, 250 pound, 23-year old.

Newcomb was the Los Angeles Angels first rounder in the 2014 MLB Amateur Draft. He came to Atlanta along with pitcher Chris Ellis in a deal for defensive whiz shortstop Andrelton Simmons and has received Jon Lester comparisons.

Further down the pipeline the Braves have lefty Kolby Allard and righty Ian Anderson as high-ceiling pitching prospects.

Shortstop Ozzie Albies is a legit infield prospect. He and the two pitchers, all still teens, are probably another 2-3 years away from the big leagues.

The Braves have a little more than $70 million in contract commitments for next season. This means that, if management wishes, they could move on a free agent or two to add more veteran depth.

As the Atlanta Braves and their fans prepare to move into their new home in 2017, it does indeed appear that the winning ways of the final six weeks of the 2016 season could well carry over.

I would expect that club management will look to move Kemp at next year’s trade deadline if they are not contending. The same could happen with Nick Markakis as well.

Atlanta hopes are much higher entering this off-season than they were a year ago. A new ballpark, a new star in Swanson, a stud pen arm in Cabrera, and the proven bat of Kemp could help make it a fun first summer at sparkling new Sun Trust Park.

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