The Braves are in first place thanks to Mike Foltynewicz and others acquired in trades during rebuild
The Braves made an odd decision to rebuild in 2014, but it looks like it's paying off
The Atlanta Braves entered Wednesday with a 36-25 record, good for a one-game lead in the National League East. With the Washington Nationals pouncing early against the Tampa Bay Rays, the Braves will need to best the San Diego Padres to remain in sole possession of first.
The Braves have the right man on the mound for the assignment. Last time out, Mike Foltynewicz outdueled Stephen Strasburg in fine fashion, providing the latest gem in what's looking like a breakout season. Through 12 starts, Foltynewicz has a 2.22 ERA and a 2.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio. At a time when other starters are seeing their workloads lightened, he's compiled those figures while working a career-best 5.8 innings per start. Should Foltynewicz keep this up for another month, he'll almost certainly be named to the All-Star Game.
Foltynewicz's potential election would be an important symbolic achievement in addition to a merited one -- a recognition that their rebuild, however curious it seemed at its start, has worked out well enough to fuel this rebirth. Consider how a few key contributors, Foltynewicz included, arrived:
The Braves landed Foltynewicz, Rio Ruiz, and Andrew Thurman from the Houston Astros in exchange for Evan Gattis and James Hoyt. Thurman is no longer with the Braves organization, and Ruiz isn't long for it. Still, the Braves probably came out ahead, even if Foltynewicz returns to looking like a mid-rotation arm. Gattis is an average-ish hitter without a real defensive position -- meaning he's a better fit in the AL -- and Hoyt is a 30-something reliever without so much as 100 big-league innings to his credit.
Another one of the Braves' flourishing young arms is Sean Newcomb, . The Braves landed Newcomb, Erick Aybar, and Chris Ellis from the Los Angeles Angels in a deal that sent Andrelton Simmons and Jose Briceno out west. Newcomb is the lone piece remaining with Atlanta, but chalk this one up as a loss due to Simmons's development at the plate making him one of the best players in the game.
The Braves don't miss Simmons as much as they could these days, as Dansby Swanson has recovered from a lost 2017. Swanson, Ender Inciarte, and the recently released Aaron Blair composed the return on Shelby Miller and Gabe Speier, a minor-league lefty yet to progress above Double-A. This one looked like a steal for the Braves then and now.
The Braves made more than three trades, of course, and some of those don't shine as brightly.
The Justin Upton deal has been reduced to Max Fried, Dustin Peterson, and Luiz Gohara (acquired in a subsequent swap for Mallex Smith), of which Gohara seems like the best bet to turn into a real asset. There's a chance that the Braves traded Craig Kimbrel for what amounts to Matt Wisler and salary relief from Melvin Upton Jr.'s contract. "A chance" because the Braves acquired a draft pick in that trade that later turned into Austin Riley, who could be Atlanta's third baseman sooner than later. (The Braves had fortune on their side in other draft-related moves, too: they selected Mike Soroka with the compensatory pick Ervin Santana landed them on his way out, and picked A.J. Minter with a selection dealt to them by the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for Victor Reyes, who is now a Rule 5 pick with the Detroit Tigers. And so on and so forth.)
Rebuilds aren't easy, and they're too often encouraged for teams who don't need them -- like the 2014 Braves, who may well have been competing all along had they kept Simmons, Upton, and Kimbrel in place. Sometimes they work out, though, and right now the Braves are probably happy with their reset.
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