Entering 2014, the Atlanta Braves had reason to be hopeful for World Series contention. Though the 2013 season ended in an NLDS loss to the Dodgers, it did bring 96 wins for a core that looked like it could stay intact for some time.
As the 2014 season approached, the Braves had plenty of all-star caliber talent, including Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Jason Heyward, Julio Teheran, and Andrelton Simmons. In what was expected to keep the core together long-term, Freeman, Kimbrel, Simmons, and Teheran were all signed to affordable extensions in February of 2014.
Those Braves were cruising along well in 2014, getting as far as twelve games over .500 in July, before a sudden, brutal collapse. Atlanta lost 18 of its final 25 games, finishing 79-83 and seeing general manager Frank Wren fired before the season even ended.
At that point, even with the late-season struggles, not many would've blamed new Braves leadership for avoiding wholesale changes. However, team president John Hart made the decision to go forward with a full-fledged rebuild. Such a decision was particularly risky given that the fans of the Braves had only seen a total of two losing seasons over a 23-year stretch from 1991 to 2013. Still, there was no holding back in this attempt to overhaul the entire franchise.
That "all-in" approach to rebuilding has proven to be the right one, though only after the Braves made the decision to take that route. The Cubs and Astros both suffered through 100+ loss seasons during their respective rebuilds, but it's paid off greatly for each. Rarely does a half-hearted attempt at a rebuild succeed - just ask Ruben Amaro Jr. Atlanta dove right into the future, rather than hold out hope for one more successful season with its core group of players.
The moves came fast and furious over two offseasons for the the Braves. Atlanta made a splash in November of 2014 with the trade of Jason Heyward to St. Louis. A month later, Justin Upton was shipped off to the Padres. In January of 2015, Evan Gattis was traded to the Astros. That April, Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton Jr. were sent to San Diego.
Following the 2015 season, which saw the Braves win 67 games, the moves didn't stop. Andrelton Simmons was traded to the Angels, Cameron Maybin was sent to Detroit, and Shelby Miller, acquired in the Jason Heyward trade a year earlier, was dealt to Arizona for a big return. Ultimately, the Braves ended up with a major haul of young players from these moves, namely Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson, Sean Newcomb, and Max Fried.
No rebuild can be executed successfully without excellent drafting. For the Braves, that has not been an issue. Atlanta has done a seemingly masterful job with its many high draft picks over the last three years, landing four high-potential pitchers in Ian Anderson, Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard, and Kyle Wright. Allard and Soroka, the 14th and 28th picks in the 2015 Draft, respectively, have become two of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. Soroka was selected with a compensatory selection the Braves landed for letting Ervin Santana walk in free agency.
Through all of this, the Braves have continued to develop prized shortstop prospect Ozzie Albies and might have struck gold with 19-year old outfield prospect Ronald Acuna. Both Albies and Acuna figure to be major pieces of the next era of baseball in Atlanta.
Despite much of Atlanta's young talent lingering in the minors, the major-league team has exceeded expectations in 2017. The Braves are 45-48, second in the NL East, and have a better-than-expected record of 104-112 since Brian Snitker took over as manager in May of 2016.
Much of this surge has to do with the Braves' front office knowing which pieces to keep throughout the rebuilding process. Freddie Freeman survived the tear down and is the franchise's longest-tenured player, and he's rewarded the team with MVP numbers over the last calendar year. Atlanta also kept Julio Teheran, who has been a consistent top-of-the-rotation starter for some time now.
Both Freeman and Teheran can and likely will be pieces that can remain with the Braves well into the results phase of the rebuilding process.
The front office also knew which pieces not to keep. Shelby Miller, traded after one very impressive season in Atlanta, imploded with the Diamondbacks and has since undergone Tommy John Surgery. Jason Heyward, traded in the deal that sent Miller to Atlanta, would have undoubtedly left as a free agent had the Braves held onto him.
Miller, through Heyward, landed the franchise a big piece for the future in Dansby Swanson and a dynamic major-league outfielder in Ender Inciarte.
The Braves, in all likelihood, won't be making a run at the postseason this year, but they likely didn't expect to be in this position already - especially considering the organization's young talent has contributed next to nothing to the major league team. Sean Newcomb is just starting to make an impact, while Dansby Swanson has yet to show his full potential. The Braves' other big-time prospects - Albies, Acuna, Soroka, Wright, Allard, Anderson, and more - remain in the minor leagues.
When the young talent starts to surface in Atlanta, it's looking increasingly likely that a new era of sustained Braves success will begin. The Cubs and Astros have seen the same strategy pay dividends -- are the Braves next?