Hot take: The Braves should be fine. Yes, even after losing more than a dozen prospects as punishment for front-office shenanigans, they should be fine.
The reasons should be obvious: 1.) These guys are prospects, with no guarantees of MLB success — or even MLB appearances; 2.) Atlanta still has a stacked farm system; 3) The big-league roster already has solid talent from which a contender can be built. So, in that respect, fans have good reasons not to panic about the team’s future.
Now a second, perhaps contradictory, hot take: The Braves really need a good offseason from here, lest apathy creep into the fan base ahead of the 2018 season. And don’t think that’s not a possibility, especially with fans who were promised a return to postseason prominence, oh, right about now.
Tuesday was the worst day in Braves history. They lost 13 prospects, and former general manager John Coppolella was banned for life for brazenly violating international signing rules. Those punishments followed a third straight season of 90 or more losses — the first time that’s happened since 1988-90, and two years after the front office told fans the team would never again allow itself to approach 100 losses. And all of that follows an unpleasant streak of 16 straight seasons without a playoff series win. So, yes, the rest of the offseason just took on added importance for the Braves.
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It would be unwise to downplay the combined effect of those things on the Atlanta fan base. It would be equally unwise to assume the Braves are somehow immune to a fan exodus simply because the ’90s happened. That ’90s success was a loooong time ago, perhaps longer ago than some in the Braves organization realize or care to admit. In fact, a large number of Braves fans missed out on a big chunk of that unprecedented 14-season run of excellence because they hadn’t been born yet. So, banking on nostalgia to put butts in the seats and eyes on the TV is probably short-sighted.
That’s why new Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos faces a unique challenge ahead of 2018. By all accounts, he’s the right man to take the Braves to their preferred destination. He’s known as a creative and aggressive executive who won’t shy away from making a splash to better the team. And the Braves are definitely a team in need of a positive splash.
This isn’t to suggest Anthopoulos should make a rash move for the sake of appearances, but fans will want to see evidence that his regime is ready to win. Anthopoulos has said he’ll take some time to get to know the team before he makes significant moves. That’s obviously smart, but it might be prudent to accelerate the timetable after Tuesday’s ruling from MLB.
No, the Braves won’t make serious overtures for Giancarlo Stanton or Shohei Ohtani, but they need to make some significant noise on the hot stove — perhaps going hard after a starter such as Chris Archer or a bat such as Josh Donaldson. Just something that tells fans, hey, we’re sick of losing — on and off the field — just as much as you.
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The Braves finished 13th in MLB attendance in 2017, averaging just below 31,000 per game. Most of that was thanks to a shiny new stadium. But the novelty and luster of SunTrust Park are wearing fast, so that attendance number is unlikely to rise without more Ws. The Braves can hold all the promotions they want to try to lure fans in 2018, but winning will always be the best promotion.
Even with potential superstar Ronald Acuna set to debut in 2018, and even with existing stars such as Freddie Freeman and Ender Inciarte, the exciting Ozzie Albies, and promising young pitching, the Braves need to make significant progress in the standings. Potential and process only go so far. Eventually, a team has to make good on its promises.
A repeat of 2017, or even a 2018 that produces only a few more wins, would be ill-timed and damaging. Nobody expects a World Series run in 2018, but that doesn’t mean fans will settle for another 72-90 season under the guise of trusting the process. In other words, “wild card or bust” might be a healthy mindset in Atlanta this spring.
In fairness, the Braves could probably do relatively little this offseason and end up in a good place at the end of 2018. But that’s almost beside the point. The fans want reason to hope, or perhaps reason to care, and they want it now.
Long term, the Braves and their fans should still be optimistic, despite Tuesday’s extreme unpleasantness. But to keep that long-term potential within reach, a short-term win or two would certainly help a lot.