With the Braves and Cubs about to square off this weekend in Atlanta, you're undoubtedly going to hear commentators compare the two clubs and their rebuilding processes.
However, there are some stark differences between the two franchises. First off, the Cubs completely remade their entire front office. While Theo Epstein garners most of the attention, the additions of Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod shouldn't go unnoticed. All three worked together in Boston and helped them finally get over the preverbal hump (the New York Yankees.) It also doesn't hurt to have one of the best managers in Major League Baseball in Joe Maddon.
When you compare that to the Braves, they fired a successful General Manager in Frank Wren and replaced him with John Hart and later on, John Coppolella. John Hart, John Schuerholz, and Bobby Cox all still have important roles with the franchise. While these men have all had successful and accomplished careers, shouldn't the front office be rebuilt with the rest of the team? It makes you wonder just how much freedom someone like Coppolella is allowed to have when he has so many old school guys around him.
Getting back to the rebuilding efforts of both clubs, the Cubs have taken a very different route to their successful rebuild. First and foremost, the have an ownership group that allows the front office to spend on international talent as well as allows them to spend on the amateur draft. If you look at their draft philosophy, they very much differ from the Braves. Unlike Atlanta, the Cubs believe in taking college hitters with early first-round picks, and they have done so for three straight Drafts. Those hitters being: Kris Bryant ('13), Kyle Schwarber ('14), and Ian Happ ('15). Bryant and Schwarber have already provided huge value for the Cubs and Happ is rated as the third best second base prospect (by MLB.com). When asked about Draft philosophy, Cubs’ top scouting and player development executive Jason McLeod told Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun Times that, “We certainly don’t walk away from pitching,” McLeod said, stressing the club’s best-player-available philosophy. “We’ve talked also about how the history of the draft will tell you if players are close on evaluations, the college hitter is the way to go. They usually pan out the best.”
When you take a look at the Braves' drafting philosophy, they've totally abandoned taking college bats. Since firing Frank Wren at the end of the 2014 season, Atlanta has drafted seven high school pitchers within the first two rounds during the '15 and '16 drafts. The front office did well in trading Shelby Miller for Dansby Swanson, but that's more about the Diamondbacks being in "win-now" mode and making a desperation move. Atlanta did very well for themselves in getting Swanson, but it feels more like a case of Arizona making a terrible move. The Braves organization is loaded with interesting pitching prospects, but there's only one potential impact bat (Swanson) and he was one of the best college hitters available in the '15 draft.
If you look around Major League Baseball, more and more teams are deciding to go with college bats that can make an immediate impact. Michael Conforto (Mets), Trea Turner (Nats), A.J. Reed (Astros), and Stephen Piscotty (Cards) are all college bats who have already made an immediate impact or are on the cusp of breaking into the majors. (Even Bryce Harper spent a year at a Junior College).
The Braves philosophy seems to be more like teams from the 1990's, in that they take power pitching with "projectable bodies" that are prone to breaking down over time. Much like the book Moneyball mentioned, teams continuously take high school pitchers who "look the part" instead of going with college pitchers who do not require much time to develop. Under Frank Wren, Atlanta successfully took college pitchers like Mike Minor, Sean Gilmartin, Craig Kimbrel, and Alex Wood. Not only were these pitchers able to be major league contributors soon after draft day, but they proved to be solid value picks because they've already completed their college careers and do not have the leverage of using a college commitment to gain more bonus money.
High school players are like the ultimate lottery ticket. Some teams have hit big and been greatly rewarded, but far too often teams take players who just look the part and it can hurt the franchise for years to come. College pitchers, in my opinion, tend to be more projectable and require less time to develop. They've already been pitching in the equivalent of Double-A ball (especially in powerhouse conferences like the ACC, SEC, and PAC-12).
The Cubs' rebuild has been successful due to their willingness to not only take college bats, but also find gems in trades. It's clear that they have a tremendous analytics department that have found things in players that other organizations either don't care about or don't want to work on. The best two examples of this are the trades for Jake Arrieta and Anthony Rizzo. Both were top prospects, but their previous organizations gave them up after waiting on them to reach their potential. Thanks to an ownership that is engaged to the team, they've been able to spend big not only on impact free agents like Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and Jon Lester, but they brought in Joe Maddon to tie all the pieces together.
While the Braves are rebuilding, they haven't followed the same path as the Cubs. The Braves seem set on eating up bad contracts to gain draft picks and instead of taking impact college bats or pitchers, they're taking their chances on high school arms that will take much longer to develop. They've made several trades that just seem like they're spinning their wheels. Giving up cost controlled arms for players like Hector Olivera or signing aging vets like Nick Markakis who give the team no real upside. Fans see this team competing in 2017 or 2018, but unless they spend big in the free agent market, this rebuild looks like it's going to take until 2020 at the earliest. So far, there's just not enough to believe this team will suddenly compete by the window first put in place by the front office. At this point, it's unclear what the goal is for this organization. They have some nice pieces in place, but outside of Dansby Swanson, there's no immediate impact bat. Will this team actually be committed to spending on free agents? As we saw with the previous front office, spending on free agents is what ultimately cost Frank Wren his job. With the players that have been traded away, they made no attempt to sign young players like Jason Heyward or Justin Upton long term.... If those players were deemed too expensive, how can they justify spending tons of money later on for older players down the road? Especially with ownership that refused to allow the previous GM Frank Wren the ability to add salary to improve upon a 96 win team... The free agent market continues to get more and more expensive, especially for younger players with power potential. We're not too far away from seeing players like Bryce Harper potentially ask for $400M+ deal. Can the Braves really afford to play ball in that market? Time will only tell.
There's really no comparing these two franchises. The Cubs have the front office and ownership in place to fuel success for many years down the road. They have a different philosophy and approach to building a team and so far, it's been very successful. The Braves on the other hand have been doing what teams have always done, taking high profile high school arms and praying that one of the dozen or so will actually pan out. In the end, saying these two franchises are following a similar path is just lazy journalism. When you look deeper, it's clear that vastly different ideas are in place for both franchises. Will this old school approach by Atlanta actually work? I guess we will check back in 2020 to see.