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Stan the Plan? (Part II)

Back from the dead, or merely mid-May? You make the call. But this series is back with an extremely tardy second installment. Essentially, what I was trying to do was---

---on second thought, it might be easier just to quote from Part I:

We've heard a lot about the kind of team Stan Kasten promises, based on his experience with Atlanta: be patient, build with the ground up, go with youth.

Is that what exactly happened in Atlanta? Is it close to reality? I can't say; at the time (from the mid/late-80s to the early-90s, I followed the Braves . . . but more so the Richmond Braves, my hometown team. I rooted for the R-Braves and saw a lot of their talent, but my inclination was to regard most of their players as something special. I had a bias.

So I'm no expert on the subject---I was young and wore a foam finger for a Triple-A team. Thus, I think it's instructive for my own purposes to review the record of transactions during the various stages the Atlanta organization journeyed in its path from mediocrity, to utter mess, to surprise pennant winner, to league-wide dynasty. What were the substance of the transactions? Were there common patterns?

I do wonder if the premise of the series holds up as well now as it did then; the first post occurred prior to the Kearns/Lopez trade, after all, and Kasten is now referring to the Nats having "a little bit more of a chance here to make a go of it right away" than the Braves did when Kasten signed on with Ted Turner in 1987.

At any rate, this post will serve as a refresher of sorts. In the comments to the first installment, reader VladiHondo helpfully provided the lineups for the Braves from 1984-87, in order for us to see where they were and where they (presumably) were going. I apologize for not acting on his assistance before now.

So this post will act as a review. The next post will pick up where the first one (covering the transactions of 1985, when Bobby Cox rejoined the Braves, to 1987) left off; it will cover 1988-89.

And here's the progression, from 1984 right through Opening Day 1988:

C Benedict, Cerone, Virgil, Virgil, Virgil
1B Chambliss, Horner, Horner, Perry, Perry
2B Hubbard, Hubbard, Hubbard, Hubbard, Garcia
SS Ramirez, Ramirez, Thomas, Thomas, Thomas
3B Johnson, Oberkfell, Oberkfell, Oberkfell, Oberkfell
OF Wsh'ton, Km'insk, Griffey, Griffey, Griffey
OF Murphy, Murphy, Murphy, James, James
OF Perry, Wsh'ton, Moreno, Murphy, Murphy
SUB1 Km'insk, Harper, Ramirez, Hall, N/A
SUB2 Oberkfell, Perry, Harper, Ramirez, N/A
SP1 Mahler, Mahler, Mahler, Smith, Mahler
SP2 McMurtry, Bedrosian, Palmer, Mahler, N/A
SP3 Perez, Perez, Smith, Palmer, N/A
SP4 Camp, Barker, Alexander, Puleo, N/A
SP5 Barker, Smith, Johnson, Alexander, N/A
RP1 Moore, Sutter, Garber, Acker, N/A
RP2 Garber, Garber, Ass'mchr, Garber, N/A
RP3 Bedrosian, Forster, Acker, Ass'mchr, N/A

Let's break this down a bit, hammer-time:

  • Catcher: Ozzie Virgil represented a younger player, but he was already 29 and had compiled over 1,000 big league at-bats when the Braves acquired him.
  • First Base: Gerald Perry was an organizational guy, having been drafted in the 11th round in 1978. His first extensive action was as a 23 year-old in 1984, pre- (well, and post-) Cox and pre-Kasten. Bob Horner missed most of '84 and all of '87, which not coincidentally were the two most active seasons for Perry prior to '88, when Horner moved on (unsuccessfully) to St. Louis. Perry actually challenged for the National League batting title in '88, a down year for offense, finishing fifth at an even .300.
  • Second Base: Glenn Hubbard, the long-time starter, was 30 years-old by Opening Day 1988 and had relocated to Oakland. Hubbard's replacement, Damaso Garcia, was 32 and hadn't played since 1986. He went 3-for-7 on Opening Day and then 4-for-53 thereafter. Garcia his .117 as a Brave. Notably, his departure from the lineup paved the way for Ron Gant to claim the keystone, albeit temporarily, and he responded with a potent if erratic rookie season. It's not overstating things too much to contend that Garcia's failure and Gant's emergence (which was delayed by a major hiccup the following season) was a seminal moment in the creation of what became the Braves (or, just for the sake of shorthand, the Kasten Braves).
  • Shortstop: Starting in 1986, the Braves tried to nudge in 22 year-old Andres Thomas at short, at the expense of longtime shortstop Rafael Ramirez, who was 28 by then. Ramirez played nearly 60 games at third in '86, then was injured much of '87. The Braves dealt Ramirez to Houston in time for the '88 season, and Thomas took over short on a regular basis for the next two seasons. Thomas had some home run power, but he was erratic in the field and with his lack of on-base skills (.228 in '89, .255 for his career, never higher than .278), he would have never gotten a job a decade later. As it was, he was done after the 1990 season, his big league career over at age 26.
  • Third Base: By 1988, Oberkfell had been a big league regular (or semi-regular) for about a decade. The Braves flipped him late in the season to the contending Pirates for 25 year-old lefty hitter Tommy Gregg (who I thought would turn into something at the time; of course, I was a kid back then)---creating room for another important home-grown Brave, Jeff Blauser.
  • Outfield: Dale Murphy was still an elite player as of Opening Day 1988 (or so we thought), having mashed a career high 44 homers in the offense-happy (or so it definitely seemed back then) 1987 season. Dion James was always one of my favorite players, though by all rights he shouldn't have been: James was acquired straight-up for failed mega-prospect Brad Komminsk, a player I idolized growing up in Richmond (where Komminsk was a hot prospect). At any rate, James was a younger, slower, and better alternative to Omar Moreno; in fact, James had a fine 1987 season (OPS+ of 125) before stalling and being swapped in yet another challenge trade, for Oddibe McDowell (which we'll get to next time). Ken Griffey (original version) served the Braves for only another 190 at-bats, then was back to Cincy for a year prior to his month of bliss with Junior-san in Seattle. In Griffey's absence, the Braves tinkered around with lesser-lights like Albert Hall and Terry Blocker before devoting a second shot to Lonnie Smith, who had set about rebuilding his career in Richmond.
And those were the position players. The picture is fairly bleak as of Opening Day, as Garcia, Oberkfell, and Griffey (the last two had served the franchise well) did not figure to be core members of the next contender---much less competent team---and, admittedly through the benefit of hindsight, Thomas seemed more of a desperate attempt at finding a diamond in the rough than a lustrous prospect. Nevertheless, by the end of the season (a 54-106 season, let's not forget), the Braves had---especially in light of the previous Pete Smith and John Smoltz deals---started looking toward the future. Again, hindsight influences our perspective, but by the end of '88, Gant and Blauser both have places to play.

As for the pitching, for convenience's sake, I have listed only the Opening Day starter, Rick Mahler. This listing is tremendously deceptive, as it obscures a vigorous youth movement in the starting rotation. Mahler would spend another season absorbing a heavy workload (39 starts, 249 innings), but Pete Smith, some kid named Tom Glavine, and then John Smoltz would combine for 78 starts. Another kid, wildman Kevin Coffman (54/24 BB/K ratio in '88), would make 11 starts.

At this point, it's hard to say whether there was much of a plan or if kids were being thrown out there just out of desperation (or if Ted Turner had finally tired of big-ticket free agent busts). At any rate, it seems undeniable that by 1988, Kasten's first full season with the organization, the Atlanta Braves had gotten younger. This is not to assert that Kasten had anything in particular to do with that, of course, but we're not necessarily looking for an inate baseball mind---just someone who has observed and immersed model player development.