For a team that followed up its 95-loss season of 2015 by losing 93 and finishing last in the NL East in 2016, the Braves made a lot of news and managed to stay relevant despite their lowly position in the standings. Perhaps surprising for a team in the process of stringing together its worst back-to-back seasons in more than a quarter of a century, not all of that news was bad in 2016. In fact, it could be argued that more of it was good than bad as summer wore on.
Such is the nature of a major rebuilding project and turning the corner in that painful process, the corner in this case being the point where moves were no longer being made simply to shed payroll and dump bad contracts, but to improve both in the present and, most importantly, the long term.
And so, before we take a look at five key situations facing the Braves as spring training draws nearer – only about five weeks away, folks – let’s first look back at five things that shaped a memorable 2016 season. A season that ended far, far better than it began for the Braves.
Fredi Gonzalez fired after woeful start
On May 17 — actually, late on May 16; more on that in a moment — with the Braves sitting on a major league-worst 9-28 record, manager Fredi Gonzalez became the first Atlanta manager fired since 1990.
“A bad start is not just laid at the feet of Fredi Gonzalez,” Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said. “We all assume a lot of responsibility for how this club has gotten off to this kind of a start. But with that said, we do think we’re certainly better than what we’ve played.”
Gonzalez knew that he would likely get the axe after the Braves stumbled out of the gate to start the season, but when the firing came it still stung, particularly considering the extremely awkward way in which he found out, after an airline email was sent to him by mistake, notifying him of his reservation on a flight home the next day – when the Braves would be playing the second game of a four-game series in Pittsburgh. The Braves had intended to tell him the morning of May 17 that he’d been fired, but by then he’d already gotten the message. Or, rather, the email, the gist of which a team official confirmed to Gonzalez that night before the firing was officially announced the next day.
Snitker picked as interim replacement
With Gonzalez fired, the Braves turned to a 40-year organizational man, Brian Snitker, to serve as interim manager. While players felt bad for Gonzalez, the ones who knew the affable Snitker were thrilled he was promoted from Triple-A as the replacement, even if only on an interim basis. Snitker said “bittersweet” was an apt description for his feelings over getting the job and replacing the fired Gonzalez.
At the time, most in the organization or and those who covered the team thought that Snitker, with no major league experience, stood little chance of keeping the managerial post beyond the 2016 season, not with the likes of Bud Black potentially waiting in the wings.
Freeman goes from cold to hot, then stays that way
After the Braves’ best hitter got off to his worst start, batting just .251 with a .338 OBP and .419 slugging percentage and 15 RBIs in 50 games during April and May, Freeman began a tear that included a .346 average with 18 extra- base hits and a .654 slugging percentage in June. Then he just kept going, with only a few brief lulls interrupting the most impressive four-month stretch of his career.
His sustained surge included a 30-game hitting streak, the longest in the majors since Dan Uggla’s Atlanta franchise-record 33-game streak in 2011. That ended Sept. 30, the same night Freeman snapped a 46-game on-base streak that tied for longest in the majors in 2016. He finished the season with career-highs in homers (34), average (.302), OBP (.400), slugging percentage (.569) and OPS (.968), and Freeman ranked third in the NL in OPS and tied with Nolan Arenado for second in WAR (6.5), behind league MVP Kris Bryant (7.7).
ESPN’s Buster Olney, in his annual positional rankings done with input from major league talent evaluators, ranked Freeman No. 1 among all major league first baseman entering the 2017 season.
Braves trade Hector Olivera for Matt Kemp
When the Braves traded Hector Olivera – a bust on the field and busted off it – to the Padres in exchange for veteran outfielder Matt Kemp at the end of July, they hoped to put behind them one of the few clear mistakes they had made under the new regime of John Hart and John Coppolella. They should have never traded for Olivera, whom the Dodgers were eager to deal only months after lavishing the Cuban defector with a $28 million signing bonus.
Even though it meant paying $18 million of Kemp’s annual salary over the final three years of his contract, I explained here how the deal made sense for the Braves as long as Kemp produced anything of note. Especially since Olivera had been both unproductive and a highly-publicized embarrassment for the organization after his arrest for assault and battery after an alleged domestic-abuse incident at the team hotel outside Washington, D.C., during an April road trip.
The Kemp deal has so far worked out even better than the Braves could have hoped. Kemp fit in seamlessly in the clubhouse – Freeman, particularly, took a liking to the veteran – and had an immediate impact on an offense that had already begun clicking but went to another level with Kemp batting fourth behind the searing-hot Freeman.
Kemp joined the Braves Aug. 2 and hit .280 with 12 homers, 39 RBIs and a .519 slugging percentage in 56 games, and the Braves went 31-25 and hit .278 with 57 homers and 289 runs in 56 games after he joined the lineup.
Braves promote Dansby Swanson, get even hotter
The long-anticipated arrival of top prospect Dansby Swanson came Aug. 18, when the Braves called up the former Marietta High and Vanderbilt star from Double-A and immediately installed him as their regular shortstop. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 draft, who came to the Braves in one of the more one-sided trades in recent memory, didn’t just live up to expectations after getting to the majors, he surpassed them both offensively and defensively.
Swanson, 22, hit .302 with three homers, 17 RBIs, a .361 OBP and .803 OPS in 38 games for the Braves, and did so while winning over teammates with his work ethic and unassuming personality and becoming an instant fan favorite with his slick defense, big hits and solid all-around play, along with that smile and engaging personality.
The surge by Freeman, the emergence of Gold Glove center fielder Ender Inciarte as a legimate strong leadoff man, the return to form by veteran outfielder Nick Markakis, the additions of Kemp and Swanson … these and other factors were big reasons the Braves were able to turn things around after their terrible start.
After batting .230 with 11 homers, a .596 OPS, 114 runs (3.08 average) and a 4.49 ERA during their 9-28 start under Gonzalez, the Braves under Snitker were 59-65 with a .262 BA, , 111 homers, a .737 OPS and 535 runs (4.31 average) in 124 games.
And after going 9-18 in Snitker’s first 27 games as a major league manager, the Braves were 50-47 the rest of the way, including 20-10 with a .294 batting average, 30 homers and nearly 5 ½ runs per game over their final 30.
They won 12 of their final 14 games, and nine days after the season ended the Braves announced that Snitker, 61, would have the interim tag removed and be their full-time manager, albeit on a one-year deal with an option for 2018.
That’s where we’ll start with the next blog, looking forward to the 2017 season.