Column: Baby Braves suddenly baseball’s most exciting team
ATLANTA (AP) — For John Schuerholz, this all looks so familiar.
The youth. The exuberance. The enormous talent.
Back in 1991, Schuerholz took over as general manager of an Atlanta Braves team that was on the cusp of greatness. Hall of Famers-to-be Tom Glavine and John Smoltz had worked through their growing pains. Chipper Jones was beginning his climb through the minors, a first overall pick just getting started out on his road to Cooperstown.
Now semi-retired but still a prominent figure around the ballpark (and a Hall of Famer, too), Schuerholz sees another group of youngsters poised for something special.
The Baby Braves.
“It’s very similar,” Schuerholz said. “Same kind of players, same kind of attitude, same kind of buy-in from the fans, who love this energetic, dynamic, exciting kind of baseball.”
Indeed, after going through a painful but necessary rebuild that has become the model for baseball success (see: World Series champion Houston Astros ) and a still-fresh-in-everyone’s-mind signing scandal that led for a lifetime ban for ex-GM John Coppolella , the Braves have suddenly emerged as baseball’s most intriguing team.
Check out Ozzie Albies, barely old enough to drink legally and generously listed at 160 pounds, but already a five-tool threat at second base.
Marvel at Ronald Acuna Jr., just a few months removed from his 20th birthday and the youngest player in the major leagues, hitting mammoth home runs and on a path to what seems like certain stardom.
And don’t forget Mike Soroka, a tall, lanky Canadian who wisely passed on hockey for the chance to lead Atlanta’s next wave of young pitching guns and is, like Acuna, still only 20 years old.
The Braves went into the second weekend in May holding a slender lead in the NL East, a once-familiar position that had become downright foreign as they struggled through four straight losing seasons, the last three with 90 or more defeats.
While it’s a bit too soon to declare this team a lock for the playoffs, those days are not too far off.
“I’ve been waiting for the uptick, and it’s here, the light at the end of the tunnel,” slugging first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “I think we’re done with the tunnel. We’re in the light now.”
Remember, these Braves have 12 more players in the big leagues who are 28 and younger, including Freeman and former No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson. There is also another wave of top prospects in the minors, including pitchers Kolby Allard and Kyle Wright and third baseman Austin Riley, all of whom figure prominently in the team’s future plans.
A check of 25-man rosters this week showed only seven players — out of 750 overall — who are under 22 years of age. The Braves have the four of them, including the three youngest players in the major leagues: Acuna, Soroka and Albies, who turned 21 in January. Another 21-year-old, lefty pitcher Luiz Gohara, joined the team this week and picked up a three-inning save in his first appearance.
None of these Braves’ kids seem out of place in the Show.
Albies came to up to Braves for 57 games last season and was an immediate hit. Now, in his first full season in the bigs, he’s putting up All-Star-worthy numbers, leading the team in homers (11) and RBIs (29) after hitting his first career grand slam Thursday night against the Marlins .
Soroka was called up recently from Triple A less and dazzled in his first career start, pitching six strong innings to beat the Mets in New York . While second appearance was more rookie-like — a loss to the Giants and uncharacteristic control issues — his poise and command leave little doubt that he’ll soon be a mainstay in the rotation.
But Acuna is the player who really has everyone in Atlanta buzzing.
As a 19-year-old, he surged through three levels of the minor leagues. He dominated the Arizona Fall League and kept right on going through spring training, hitting .432 with four homers, 11 RBIs and four stolen bases.
Acuna began the season at Triple-A only because of a silly baseball rule (which needs to be addressed in the next collective bargaining talks) governing when a player can become eligible for free agency. To ensure an extra year of control over Acuna down the road, the Braves kept him in the minors for a couple of unnecessary weeks, the same bit of manipulation that the Chicago Cubs pulled on Kris Bryant a few years ago.
Since finally getting his much-deserved promotion, Acuna has been making up for that brief bit of lost time.
In his second game, he jacked a tape-measure shot into the second deck at Cincinnati . Through 14 games, he was hitting .293 with three homers. While his outfield defense has looked a bit shaky at time, he’s also made a couple of spectacular catches.
There’s nothing this kid can’t do, but his impact on the Braves goes beyond that. Like Albies, he plays with the reckless abandon of youth that rubs off on his teammates. For the first time at least since Jones was in his prime, the Braves have a player that makes everyone stop and take notice.
Comparing these Braves to the perennial powerhouse that was ready to break loose in 1991 is certainly natural, but one big question remains.
Back in those days, the franchise was owned by Ted Turner, who was always willing to fork over whatever money was necessary to fill in the gaps around his bountiful farm system. Those teams would not have stayed on top if not for free-agent signings such as Greg Maddux and trades that brought in key players like Fred McGriff.
The current owners, faceless corporate behemoth Liberty Media, have not yet shown they care about anything other than enhancing their bottom line, most notably by moving the Braves to a new suburban stadium, SunTrust Park . They abandoned their downtown home at Turner Field after only 20 years in a still-jarring deal that was largely sealed by an adjacent mixed-use development.
While the suits have shown great enthusiasm for their mallpark, which includes a hotel, office tower, restaurants, retail shops and apartments, it remains to be seen if they’ll loosen up the purse strings beyond their version of Braves, Bath & Beyond.
That’s the big issue looming down the road, likely determining if the Baby Braves realize their full potential.
It would be a shame if they didn’t.
Without a doubt, they’re building something special — again — in the A-T-L.
“You come out ready to win every single day,” Soroka said. “I have no doubt we can ride that out, for sure.”
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