Prior to the 2015 season, the Braves traded the likes of Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Craig Kimbrel, committing to their first major rebuild since the late 80s. The unfamiliarity of the situation has made this process seem like decades for Braves fans. While it is still way too early to really gauge just how good this Braves team can be, their performance thus far along with the astonishing amount of talent on the cusp of the majors has produced a shining light at the end of the tunnel.
The Braves vastly improved from 2016 to 2017 and their second half offensive explosion is what became noticeably relevant. Guys like Ender Inciarte, Johan Camargo and a catching duo of Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki provided just enough backup to Freddie Freeman turning this offense into one of the best in the national league during the latter part of 2017. Finally, one of the three parts of the puzzle seemed to be falling into place, and it was clear this was just the beginning. With Dansby Swanson yet to have found his footing with the Braves, and young studs like Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna near or at the major league level, there was reason to believe this offensive group could be much scarier in 2018.
That belief has come to fruition over the first fifteen games of this season. Ozzie Albies has already become one of the most reliable bats in the lineup as a rookie, hitting .328 and showcasing his power with five home runs already. Swanson has left his rookie woes in the past, mashing his way to a .357 average along with a home run. Not to mention, the much-anticipated arrival of Ronald Acuna has yet to even happen and Johan Camargo has yet to make his 2018 debut due to injury. This Atlanta lineup has already proved to be legitimate by ranking second in the national league in runs scored behind the Pittsburgh Pirates and will be receiving a shot in the arm in the not too distant future.
As for the other two pieces to the puzzle, they will decide how far this Atlanta team can go this season. The starting pitching staff is still filled with Julio Teheran, a few talented youngsters and a couple aging vets who have bounced around the league. That is not typically what you see out of a playoff team, but there is going to be a time where some of these youngsters turn out to be studs, and that time could be coming very soon.
Mike Foltynewicz looks to be evolving into a reliable option at the top of the rotation. The fireballer has strayed away from trying to overpower major league lineups in his first three starts this season and has started to develop into a pitcher, setting up batters with his array of off-speed options. Sean Newcomb is looking to build off of the ups and downs of his first season in the majors and establish himself in the middle of the rotation. He recently had his best major league start against Colorado, going six innings while striking out nine and walking none. Newcomb has the stuff of a mini Jon Lester and could be an X-factor in this starting rotation going forward.
Then comes the unknowns in the rotation. Sure, Anibal Sanchez and Brandon McCarthy have been more than suitable to begin this season, but they are not of the talent level of Luiz Gohara, Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka. Gohara sniffed his first bit of the majors last season, starting in five games for the Braves going 1-3 with a 4.91 ERA. Far from impressive numbers but all three of these players are top prospects that could be the key to whether Braves can really compete this season. It is not necessary for all of them to bust out as superstars right away, which is highly unlikely, but if one or two of them can develop reliable options it could dictate how the Braves approach the rest of the year.
The third and final piece was the most atrocious last season. Atlanta ranked 27th in bullpen WAR in 2017 according to Fangraphs. However, this group should take a huge leap forward in 2018. Despite just giving up ten earned runs in an inning to the Cubs on Saturday, the pen had only allowed eight earned runs in the previous thirteen games and shut down the Phillies for three more innings last night. The arrival of A.J Minter has given the Braves a legitimate set-up man for years to come, while arms like Sam Freeman, Jose Ramirez and Peter Moylan have proved reliable in the past. This bullpen should be light years better than the one a season ago and give the Braves a chance to win every time they are called upon.
Is 2018 the year the Braves win their first playoff series since 2001? Maybe not, but it will most certainly be the year we see some of the results of this rebuild finally pay off. There will be high points, there will be low points, but the light at the end of the tunnel is near and the future is bright for this young Braves team.