THE BRAVES are trying to do something unusual for a team in the middle of reconstruction. They're trying not to tank. "For us to go through any sort of a rebuild was beyond painful," says GM John Coppolella, citing the franchise's 14 straight division titles from 1991 to 2005. "It kills the spirit of your players. They get used to the culture of losing."
Atlanta made the playoffs in 2013, but after the highest payroll in franchise history yielded just 79 wins in '14, the front office decided to reboot. That meant the veterans spent two years looking around a clubhouse full of kids and journeymen as the losses mounted. But the moves made by the Braves' front office have laid the groundwork for what it hopes is another run of greatness in Atlanta. Most notably, Atlanta traded outfielder Jason Heyward to the Cardinals in '14 for righthander Shelby Miller, whom they flipped last off-season to the Diamondbacks for centerfielder Ender Inciarte, pitcher Aaron Blair and shortstop Dansby Swanson, the top pick in the '15 draft. That helped lift the Braves' minor league system from No. 29 to No. 1 in Baseball America's '17 rankings. "I'm very thankful [the other teams] said yes," says first baseman Freddie Freeman. "It's a lot more exciting to come to camp."
Unlike the Cubs and the Astros—who constructed their rosters to assure failure and gain higher draft picks—the Braves hope to win with old stars on short-term deals. Matt Kemp was acquired last season, the first sign that the team wasn't out to be a loss leader, and second baseman Brandon Phillips arrived from the Reds last month. Quadragenarians R.A. Dickey (far left) and Bartolo Colón (left) were signed to one-year contracts.
This season the Braves move into SunTrust Park, and they hope the anticipated bump in ticket sales will help them take advantage of the loaded 2019 free-agent class. Until then, they'll rely on the veterans to show the kids what it's like to be on a winner, and that a team can rebuild and win at the same time.