2015 MLB Farewells: Atlanta Braves

It is that part of the year where pennant race positioning becomes the priority for some, while an early look to the next spring is the forced reality for others. It is a chance to book better winter destination vacations for some, emptier seats for most and a chance for reflection for all.

The most recent team to be officially sent packing for the winter are the Atlanta Braves. They follow their division mates in the Philadelphia Phillies towards the land of the postseason disqualified, and it comes at no true surprise. It has been the most substandard season in a quarter century for the ever-steady Atlanta club, which has finished lower than 3rd in the NL East only once during that time span. So with an early focus on next season upon them, where did 2015 go awry for Fredi Gonzalez' club, and where can they find their way backwards their accustomed track?

Where It Started

The Braves told the baseball world that this was a rebuilding season unlike any other. It started long before the first rosin bag was tossed at the mound, as former Texas and Cleveland general manager John Hart left his contented MLB Network seat in Secaucus, New Jersey for some southern comfort. In a bizarre yes/no/maybe so flirtation with the Braves, he initially took an advisory role before he went all in by taking the GM post (or rather the president of baseball operations) from Frank Wren last fall.

From that point on, Hart stripped the roster as bare as he possibly could by moving the moveable, even if it included a blockbuster trade of the game’s best closer, Craig Kimbrel, just one night before the regular season began. Hart made eleven – yes, eleven – separate trades in the off season, notably giving new addresses to Jason Heyward (St. Louis), Jordan Walden (St. Louis), Justin Upton (San Diego), Evan Gattis (Houston), Kimbrel (San Diego) and Melvin (formerly B.J.) Upton, Jr. (San Diego.)

Somehow, despite all of the moves, Georgia’s team stormed out of the gates with a 7-1 start. Sure, they were destined to come down a bit as the new players had to get together, but a week prior to the All-Star break, Atlanta was a .500 ball club at 42-42. There was no doubt that they were the team that played above it collective head at the start of the season, but even with some bumps in the road, maybe they could have made things challenging for some Wild Card contenders.

Cameron Maybin, who came over from San Diego as part of the Kimbrel deal, was having a very good start in his last year before free agency. Andrelton Simmons looked as if he could become a top-of-the-order hitter to go along with his incredible defense, and he finally had a double play partner in Jace Peterson. Even 38 year old A.J. Pierzynski, another free agent signing, was providing some surprising pop despite not being the defensive backstop he once was.

Where It Went Wrong

Yeah, about that week before the All-Star break.

See, this was a team with no power bats outside of Freddie Freeman, no real speed, starting pitching questions outside of Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran, and a makeshift bullpen. They held things together, all things considered, until two days prior to the break when closer Jason Grilli, Kimbrel's replacement who had filled in admirably in stepping in for the game's top closer, tore his Achilles when sprinting to cover first base. 23 saves went on the shelf, and perhaps the team's psyche followed suit.

Oh, and the chronically miscast Nick Markakis (a current owner of a whopping TWO 2015 home runs) wasn't exactly the cleanup hitter Atlanta hoped for. The former Baltimore Oriole signed a four-year pact and despite spraying the ball all over the field, he didn't hit his first home run until July 20th. Well, at least he chose a good day to hit one, it was the birthday of yours truly.

Where It Crashed and Burned

Here’s the thing; it crashed just before the All-Star break, but it completely burned in August where the Braves went 8-20 for the month. They lost 12 straight, their longest losing streak since early April 1988 when Billy Ocean told us to get outta his dreams.

(Just watch the video because that's a better visual than anything from that losing streak. Seriously, it was the #1 song on the radio during the '88 skid. Sit back and enjoy it.)

What Now?

The oft-criticized Gonzalez was already on some shaky ground with Braves observers coming into 2015. With the season nearly over, there's no doubt that the Fredi Watch has more viewers than the games themselves. After the long and prosperous reign of Bobby Cox on the field and John Schuerholz on the phone lines, fans are clamoring for a change, even if one of the things that they once took pride in was such stability. Perhaps that's why Gonzalez and the rest of his coaching staff will remain through next season, but it also means another year of second, third and fourth guessing every move.

Well, unless the report is true and he really did lose the clubhouse.

To be fair, the injuries and trades haven't helped him either, but through last night against the New York Mets, he's written 122 different batting orders in 140 games. 122 in 140. That doesn't even make sense.

Speaking to those lineups, while the Braves have a plethora of questions all over the field, at least they can be assured that some combination will work as long as Freeman returns to full health, Simmons continues to improve as a hitter (the glove is okay, don't you think?), Teheran turns himself around and Miller - MLB's hard luck pitcher for 2015 - gets some run support for his ace performances. Maybe Peterson becomes the second baseman Atlanta's been missing since Mark Lemke's run. Maybe in trading their three (yep, count 'em all) third basemen (Alberto Callaspo, Chris Johnson and Juan Uribe), they finally found their hot corner man in Hector Olivera, whom the Los Angeles Dodgers are footing most of the bill for after they signed the Cuban former free agent to a six-year, $62.5 million pact. Maybe Hart can find grab more money from Cobb County ownership to keep Maybin or at least bring in some extra protection for Freeman.

Regardless, there are too many maybes to contend with the Mets or even the Washington Nationals in 2016.

Something that had been overlooked during the sterling run of the 1990s and 2000s was that the Braves had a couple of pretty good catchers as Javy Lopez eventually made way for Brian McCann. Evan Gattis may have had the pop, but with his poor catching, he was always a designated hitter in the making. Management had very high hopes for Christian Bethancourt, but not only did he lose his starting job two weeks into the season, but he was sent back to the minors for two months before returning to the big league club in August. The fact that Pierzynski has started 91 games this season because Bethancourt couldn't find his bat is a telling sign.

Until all of that comes together, 2016 looks to be another year of trying to find themselves -  before they find themselves moved to the suburbs.

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