David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
For decades, all the Mets ever wanted to be were the Braves, a pitching-rich perennial division winner.
But here in 2016, the script has flipped, and it’s Atlanta with the slashed payroll, the stocked minor-league system and little chance of winning on a nightly basis.
For many other teams around baseball, in every division, that’s just fine, too. Another year of a high draft pick, and maybe another year closer to contention with a cost-effective, homegrown roster.
Playing in New York, the media capital of the world, the Mets received endless grief for Sandy Alderson’s original five-year plan, which eventually was pushed to six by Matt Harvey’s Tommy John surgery. But elsewhere? As the Braves flood their Twitter feed with construction photos of new SunTrust Park, scheduled to open in 2017, they’re probably looking to divert attention away from the daily happenings at Turner Field, where the play on the field has been about as appealing as the dingy surroundings.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez refuses to make excuses for the team’s 5-18 start, but everyone with a tomahawk across his chest knew this was coming. When Atlanta dealt Andrelton Simmons to the Angels in November and then flipped Shelby Miller for the Diamondbacks’ top prospects — including shortstop Dansby Swanson, the No. 1 overall pick in 2015 — the fan base was put on notice.
See you in Cobb County in 2017. No hard feelings.
“We did this to ourselves, right?” Gonzalez said Thursday before that night’s game at Fenway Park. “You trust the process, you trust your people and this is what the plan is. We’re the Atlanta Braves. We could have dropped a $150-million payroll any time we want. But we didn’t. We felt like we needed to stock the pipeline and get depth, so we did it to ourselves.”
THE WAITING GAME
The Braves didn’t have to look beyond their division for the blueprint. The Nationals rose to prominence with the help of two No. 1 picks in back-to-back years: Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. The Mets chose wisely with a pair of smart first-rounders in Harvey and Michael Conforto, but also greatly benefited from Alderson’s savvy salary-dump trades.
Just as the Mets whittled their payroll down from $142 million in 2011 to $84 million for the start of the 2014 season, the Braves are tightening their belts for a brighter future. They’ve cut close to $30 million in the past two years, a 26 percent reduction from 2014, as they wait for their young prospects to mature.
ESPN’s Keith Law listed the Braves as his top-ranked farm system after the haul for Miller. Baseball Prospectus has them third. Atlanta also has the No. 3 pick in this June’s draft and certainly seems on pace to be the favorite for next year’s No. 1 overall.
In fact, the top six teams in the upcoming draft — the Phillies, Reds, Braves, Rockies, Brewers and A’s — all appear to be thinking beyond 2016. They had a combined .416 winning percentage (57-80) through Friday’s games. Also, the average payroll of these clubs is roughly $90 million for 2016. Only five MLB teams are spending less than that for this year. These teams are betting that losing — or tanking, as the expression goes — eventually will pay off.
“A lot of these teams have seen what these top picks in the draft are doing lately,” said Jeff Francoeur, a former first-rounder himself in 2002 who is back for a second tour with the Braves. “It works. It can change the whole organization. I wouldn’t say teams are just throwing in the towel, but at the same time, they’re putting themselves in good position to get the top guys.
“You look at us — we have the third pick. You’re going to get a stud, and he’s probably going to be on the fast track to get to the big leagues.”
And these basement-dwellers, such as the Braves or Brewers or Reds or Padres, are going to have a profound effect on how the divisional races play out. After the first month, Atlanta was winless (0-9) against the Nationals and Mets, with their first visit to Citi Field coming up tomorrow. Between the NL East’s top two contenders, they get a total of 36 layups vs. the Braves, who had a total of five home runs through Friday — fewer than 21 players and the same as 17 others.
Among half the league, the level of play isn’t all that much better as teams chart the progress of their prospects down below. That can’t be a very comfortable feeling for the on-field staff forced to endure the growing pains, however, and specifically the managers such as Gonzalez, who have to answer for the losing, night after night, with undermanned rosters filled by temporary placeholders.
STICKING WITH COLLINS
“I trust the process because I see the young players getting closer,” Gonzalez said. “You saw them in spring training, you read the minor-league game reports every morning. Look at Terry Collins two years ago with the Mets. I sat across the diamond from him thinking, man, I hope they give him a chance with this team when they get good. The Nationals changed their managers three times during the rebuilding stuff, but the Mets kept their guy, and they went to the World Series last year.”
The Mets did reward Collins, who originally was promoted in 2010 from the role of minor-league field coordinator, to see Alderson’s plan through to completion — or at least to the NL pennant. It doesn’t always go that way, however. The Cubs initially pledged the same thing to Rick Renteria, then fired him after one season when Joe Maddon took advantage of an escape clause in his Rays contract and suddenly became available.
That worked out pretty well as Maddon, the 2015 Manager of the Year, became an instrumental part of the quick turnaround at Wrigley. But even with a bumper crop of young talent, it usually doesn’t happen that fast. And the Mets pushed the limits of their fan base before getting back to the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
Francoeur played on the Mets’ 92-loss team in 2009, the Royals’ 91-loss team in 2011 and the Phillies’ 99-loss team last year, so he’s already experienced what the Braves are going through this season, from the inside-out. But he’s also a good friend of Royals general manager Dayton Moore, from their earlier time together in Atlanta, and Francoeur used Kansas City as the new model franchise of what the Braves used to be and are trying to be again.
“Patience is the toughest thing to explain to a fan base,” Francoeur said. “But it’s all paying off for them now. They’ve had a great two years, won the World Series, and they’re picking up right where they left off.”
Other teams, such as the Yankees, don’t feel they have the luxury of time. Brian Cashman repeatedly has said the organization doesn’t believe in taking years off for a rebuilding process. But trying to do it on the fly, as the Yankees attempt to get younger, presents its own challenges. Despite investing $225 million in this year’s team, the Yankees slipped to 8-13 Friday night.
While that’s also not a trend expected to continue, it can’t be shrugged off with an eye toward future draft picks or salary-dump trades, as practiced elsewhere around the majors. As the Royals, Mets and Cubs have proved lately, however, it may be the surest route to a winning foundation — sacrificing a number of seasons for future success.
By following that plan, it’s going to get ugly this year in outposts such as Atlanta and make for some bad baseball. But these teams are banking on that pain being only temporary.