As the 2015 season approached both the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies decided it was officially time to start their rebuilding efforts.
For the Phils, they were coming off a magical five-year playoff run from 2007-2011 that featured two World Series appearances and the franchise’s second title in team history. It was a fun ride that produced a number of stars — Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels among others — but like all runs of glory, it had to end. And by the start of the 2015 season, it had long been clear that a rebuild needed to begin.
The Braves didn’t enjoy that kind of success in the years leading up to ‘15, but from 2009-2014, Atlanta made the postseason three times, although they never made it past the divisional round. In ‘14 they went 79-83 and finished in 2nd place behind the Washington Nationals, 17 games out of first.
It was easier to see the Phillies rebuild coming. They had an aging core and the team needed an infusion of youth. The Braves, on the other hand, had made the playoffs just two seasons before and seemed to have a roster capable of making more postseason appearances.
Evan Gattis was a 27-year-old catcher who had no position and had to be moved to the American League. Freddie Freeman was a lock to stay. Tommy La Stella, Andrelton Simmons and Chris Johnson all had an OPS of .653 or lower, but they had Justin Upton and Jason Heyward in the outfield.
In the rotation, there was 23-year-old Julio Teheran, 31-year-old Ervin Santana, and a couple young guys with promise, 23-year-old Alex Wood and 26-year-old Mike Minor. They also had the best closer in baseball, 26-year-old Craig Kimbrel.
This is a team that, if they had added some pieces, is a playoff contender in 2015. Instead, Atlanta decided to tear it all down.
In the 2014-15 off-season, they traded Upton to the Padres for Jace Peterson, Max Fried, Dustin Peterson and Mallex Smith. They traded Gattis to the Astros for Mike Foltynewicz and two other players. And just as Opening Day arrived, they made another deal with San Diego and traded Kimbrel and B.J. Upton to the Padres for Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin, Jordan Paroubeck and Matt Wisler.
Foltynewicz has stumbled this year but was one of the best pitchers in the National League last season, and Fried looks like he’s going to be a solid, mid-rotation left-hander for years to come. The Kimbrel deal didn’t yield them all that much, as it turned out.
In the middle of the season, the Braves made an August deal in which they sent third baseman Chris Johnson, who was having a career year, to the Indians for Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and cash. In November of 2015, they dealt Simmons to the Angels for Erick Aybar, Sean Newcomb and another pitcher (that’s probably one they would like back). They dealt Shelby Miller to the Diamondbacks and got Ender Inciarte and Dansby Swanson back, an absolute fleecing.
Despite some decent moves and a lot of players walking out the door, the core of this Braves team did not come through trades. It came through signing and developing international players and draft picks.
Ronald Acuna Jr. was signed out of Venezuela on July 2, 2014 as a 16-year-old. Ozzie Albies was signed the season before when he was also 16. Freeman was a second round draft pick. Austin Riley, their young 22-year-old power hitter, was taken in the first round (41st overall) in the 2015 Draft. One of their young pitching studs, Mike Soroka, was also taken in the first round of the ‘15 Draft, 28th overall.
(It should be noted that former general manager John Coppolella was banned from MLB for life for circumventing international signing rules from 2015-17, although many teams also engage in trickery in the murky world of international signings).
They’ve also gotten great production out of their recent free agent signings, with Brian McCann owning an .807 OPS and Josh Donaldson with 23 homers and an OPS of .886. Nick Markakis was one of the best hitters in baseball last year, and is on the IL this season, but was hitting .284/.358/.429 in 104 games.
Atlanta isn’t perfect, but they’ve done well.
When the Phils began their rebuild, they had a 35-year-old catcher in Carlos Ruiz. They had a 34-year-old first baseman in Ryan Howard. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins were both 35. Ben Revere was 26 but also had an OPS of .686. Their rotation consisted of 30-year-old Cole Hamels and a collection of retreads and undewhelming starters like A.J. Burnett, Kyle Kendrick, Roberto Hernandez and David Buchanan. Cliff Lee could have been a decent trade chip, but a career-ending injury after 13 starts that season ended things for the 35-year-old.
Unlike the Braves, the Phillies had one marquee name to deal, and that was Hamels. For Hamels (and Jake Diekman), they got Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, Jake Thompson, Alec Asher, Jerad Eickhoff and Matt Harrison. Alfaro helped them land J.T. Realmuto, but he was obviously not the headliner in that deal. Williams is still hanging around but has not proven to be a consistent Major League player. Thompson proved to be a bust, as did Asher, and Eickhoff gave them about 45 solid starts but has lost his stuff and is still recovering from an injury.
Was that deal a success? Probably not, but it was the best deal they could have made at the time, it appears.
The Phils did trade Jonathan Papelbon for Nick Pivetta, a move that still can turn out to be a net positive for Philadelphia. Pivetta’s future with the Phillies appears to be in the bullpen, where he has looked like a closer-in-the-making. The Phils got Zach Eflin for Jimmy Rollins, got Darnell Sweeney and John Richy for Utley, moved Marlon Byrd for Ben Lively and got A.J. Ellis and a Class A pitcher named Tommy Bergjans for Ruiz.
Not exactly a haul. But where the Braves have really outclassed the Phils in terms of star power is in the draft.
Starting in 2004, here are the Phillies’ first round picks: Greg Golson, Adrian Cardenas, Kyle Drabek, Travis d’Arnaud, Joe Savery, Zach Collier, Anthony Hewitt, Jesse Biddle, Larry Greene, Mitch Gueller, Shane Watson, J.P. Crawford, Aaron Nola, Cornelius Randolph, Mickey Moniak, Adam Haseley, Alec Bohm and Bryson Stott.
Crawford helped them land Jean Segura, but with Crawford playing better for Seattle and Carlos Santana tearing it up in Cleveland, it’s hard to know yet if the Segura deal is a net-positive for the Phillies. Nola is obviously awesome, but Randolph was a huge miss in a draft where Riley and Soroka went after him, Moniak is probably just a complimentary big league piece, Haseley is intriguing and is just now getting his first taste in the big leagues, and the book is not yet written on Bohm and Stott, although both look good.
The Phils did make a solid second round selection of Scott Kingery, and Roman Quinn might one day be a solid player. But Freeman was also a second round pick (2007), and he might be the best hitter in the National League.
While the Phillies have had some success in the international pool, it’s true they haven’t developed a superstar player like Acuna, nor a player as good as Albies. Jhailyn Ortiz was signed for $4 million a few seasons ago and, while still young, hasn’t been able to put his tools together. The Phils’ success in Latin America has yielded them Maikel Franco and Cesar Hernandez, two players who might not be long for this team, as well as a collection of intriguing bullpen arms down the road.
So yes, the Braves are ahead of the Phillies. There’s no question about that. Bryce Harper was signed to be the young superstar the team has needed, and so far, he’s been solid but not spectacular. Realmuto has been excellent defensively, but disappointing at the plate. Jean Segura has hit .300 or better each of the last three seasons, but is currently at .285 with an OPS+ below 100.
The Phils have also been decimated with injuries. Andrew McCutchen, David Robertson, Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek and Jake Arrieta are all high-priced veterans who are either out for the season, out for a long time, or battling an injury that probably should put them on the shelf. Young bullpen arm Seranthony Dominguez may be back soon but has had a very disappointing sophomore season. Few of the young relievers/starters from AAA have impressed.
Sometimes, you just get unlucky.
Building a baseball team is not linear. Two teams can start at the same time and the timelines can look very different. But it’s clear Atlanta started from a stronger position, had better players to trade, and frankly, did a better job identifying and developing international signings and draft picks.
But if Haseley can be a 20-25 homer guy, that changes things. If Bohm comes up and hits in the big leagues like he has in the minors, there’s another potential 25-30 homer player. Bryson Stott is just beginning pro ball, but if he hits, the Phils could add another young talent.
Altanta has more young pitching prospects than the Phillies, and moving some of these young bats may be how the Phils catch up in the arms race. It’s clear Klentak and the front office plan to use their financial might to make up the rest of the gap between the two teams (it’s what they tried to do with the Harper signing and the rest of their moves this off-season).
Clearly, as this weekend’s series showed us, the Phillies have lots of work to do.
On Episode 306 of Hittin’ Season, I discussed this with Justin Klugh and Liz Roscher, so make sure to subscribe, download and listen!